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.


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?


Cool Cats and Dirtchambers

December 22, 2010

Since the 1990s, the boundary between electronic musician, producer and DJ has been a question of pure market distinction:  (supposedly) electronic musicians finely craft soundscapes in their cobbled-together studios, producers provide electronic backing and mixing to “live” artists, and DJs assemble impromptu mixes for parties outside of the studio.  But anyone in the industry could cut these distinctions down as bullshittery in an instant — most people who do one are fully capable of doing all three roles well (or four, if you count the dubious term “remixer”).  In fact, I’d even wager everybody’s an electronic musician of some kind.  Have you ever made a mixtape?  An iTunes music list?  If yes, you’ve engaged in a similar curatorial effort to those employed as DJs or electronic musicians, meticulously selecting/arranging samples.  But doubtlessly some people do have a leg up over the rest of us in terms of quality.

Anyhow, the issue at hand is really the electronic artist-curated mix CD.  Halfway between a DJ set and a personal home playlist, these CDs have more than anything else clued me into the musical origins/influences of my favorite artists.  Every selection becomes a statement, and every mash-up or beat-matched song combo a revelation about musical possibilities.  This is musical education incarnate, live and direct from an artist whom you like and who, like you, was once a kid listening to other artists and so on.  But the rights for an ideal music education are a prized commodity.  Some of those can get expensive, which is why only celebrity DJs/electronic musicians/producers/remixers (okay, awkward neologism time: depremixers!) with deep-pocketed labels can afford to put out their definitive mixes to enlighten and rock out their listening public.  The tension between two mixes in particular intrigues me to no end.

Case 1 – The Dirtchamber Sessions by The Prodigy (1999)

I’m a giant Prodigy fan, from Liam Howlett’s teenage keyboard noodling on the What Evils Lurks EP and The Experience (1991) to the wry samples on Music for the Jilted Generation (1995), from  the aggro-breaks of “Smack My Bitch Up” and “Breathe” on The Fat of the Land (1997) to the laptop mania of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (2004).  Their songs combine rock samples, no-nonsense drum loops and acid synths with MC work by vocalist-dancers Keith Flint and Maxim to form an entirely idiosyncratic and immediately recognizable sound.  There is essentially a “Prodigy style” that they have to live up to on each album, and they continue to do so even with their recent Invaders Must Die (2009). Howlett’s 1999 mixtape The Dirtchamber Sessions thankfully gives us a little insight into the progenitors of his band’s sound.

If you look at the track list, several facts become apparent:

1. No Kraftwerk to be seen.
2. Half the artists are African-American.
3. Nods to fellow big beat artists Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and Propellerheads. The Prodigy *gasp*, too.
4. Mash-ups of hip-hop, punk and funk in equal measure, with some added keyboard action as transitions.
5. Dramaturgy guides the endeavour, with musically scripted highs and lows.

Overall, Howlett appears guided by artists from fairly humble origins who were cutting together pop, jazz and funk tidbits to create an innovative, living sound.  Several successes include his mash-up of Propellerheads’ “Spybreak” with the Beastie Boys’ “Time to Get Ill” or LL Cool J’s “Get Down” with “Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground.  The album actually introduced me to the greatness of Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy in one fell swoop, and got me into the old skool hip-hop sound in general.

In any case, I know of few artists who would have assembled such a mix and put it forth with such confidence.  What’s more, there are definite stylistic breaks from what we would consider the Prodigy sound:  the B-Boys paired with Babe Ruth, for example, or Primal Scream. In any case, the Prodigy successfully conveyed the gems of its generation onto my generation, interesting me in artists leading in divergent directions — but whom I now loosely associate with The Prodigy.

Case 2 – Cool Cats by Justice (2009)

Enter our generation, represented by the French superstar group Justice (who actually only have one major album – † (2007) – to their credit).  The Prodigy actually cited Justice as a major influence on the formation of Invaders Must Die, particularly their glitchy, bass-driven form of French house.  The Ed Banger sound, exemplified by artists such as Busy P, DJ Mehdi, or SebastiAn, reached its apogee under Justice’s watch and is still a major player in the club scene for Europeans in their early-to-mid-20s.

Anyway, they apparently put together a tracklist for the Ed Banger “Cool Cat DJ” crew, which then somebody else mixed for them.  So I don’t actually know who has agency for this thing, but it certainly relates genealogically to the Dirtchamber sessions:  artists publicizing the music that influences them.

Looking at the tracklist, we can make the following observations:

1. Oh, there’s Kraftwerk.
2. Most of the artists are white European electronica artists.
3. Nods to Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, but goes out of its way to prove its edge-y cred: Aphex Twin, Basement Jaxx, and Audion. And Justice, of course.
4. Assorted electronic noise is added to tracks -  in the “Justice” style.
5. Endeavors are made to keep the energy level as high as possible — even older hits are sped up.

Most of the tracks I actually owned as a mainstream electronica fans, meaning that they are as well.  Rather than absolutely identifying with their taste, I am instead sensing a careerist tinge:  they are profiling themselves with their/our favorite artists, rather than paying homage to them.  In effect, I listen to the Cool Cats mix and learn nothing new about myself as an electronica listener, only an affirmation that A) big beat was/is cool and B) this should rub off on Justice and their Ed Banger friends.  This is disappointing in particular because the Ed Banger Rec. series is otherwise so well conceived.  And though Justice’s sound may have raised the bar with regard to hard-edged dancefloor party-mixes, their inspiration comes from a place that cannot inspire me.

Put another way:  Schoedsack and Cooper created the (horribly colonialist) masterpiece King Kong (1933) because they had been “adventurers” and “explorers” which qualified them to project fantasies about places they had, in fact, visited.  Peter Jackson created the 2005 King Kong on the basis of, well, the fact that he had seen and enjoyed King Kong.  I feel this one level of media remove affects the Prodigy / Justice split as well:  the Prodigy drew on the roots of funk and hip-hop, and communicate the enthusiasm about it; Justice drew on those who drew on those roots, and feel sufficiently divorced from the source material to self-aggrandize as artists-who-rock-the-party.

Listening to them back-to-back prompted this rant, and now that it is done, I’m going to put on The Dirtchamber Sessions again…


Annalise: The Vampire RPG You’ve Been Dying to Meet

July 28, 2010

Now that the public thirst for vampires has been gorged in the popular media with works like True Blood, Twilight, and Let the Right One In (all book-to-visual adaptations, I might add), it’s time for tabletop role-playing games to join the proverbial party.

Oh sure, there’s Mark Rein-Hagen’s ol’ workhorse Vampire: The Masquerade (and its not-quite-ambitious-enough sequel).  But playing White Wolf’s mediocre munchkinizer system for decades has left me yearning for a role-playing game that – rather than enabling the play of angst-ridden, pseudo-mysterious, bloodthirsty super-beings – addresses the core issues of vampire fiction, namely the poetically rendered psychology of the vampire’s victims:  what makes one attractive to the vampire? how does the vampire manifest and seduce someone? what does the vampire represent?

The system that addresses these issues and more exists and has a name: Annalise.

The Hard Facts

Before I get analytical and philosophical here, let me summarize the game for your benefit.  Annalise is an independently published role-playing game designed for 2-4 players, in which all involved grapple with the turmoil and discovery of a threatening vampire in the manner of Gothic horror fiction.  It’s a little like a board game (with cards and dice), a little like improv theater (acting out characters in scenes) and a lot like a writer’s workshop on melodramatic overdrive.  As the author himself describes it, Annalise is:

… a noprep, short- to medium-form, setting-less, GM-less
game. It could be considered a “story game” in the
sense that the product of play is intended to resemble
the kind of Gothic horror fiction described above.

“Noprep” means none of the players need to come prepared with any pre-developed story materials (i.e., character sheets, plotlines, etc.) and “short- to medium-form” means it’ll run between one and six sessions of play, each four hours in length.  “Setting-less” means it can take place in any location at any time, and the threat need not even be a vampire.  “GM-less” means all involved are players, and no one possesses any arbitrary authority over any other.  As a “story game,” it suggests Narrativist leanings, or at least the inclusion of conscious, articulated metaplot rules (i.e., how to reiterate a story’s themes) along with ordinary task-resolution rules (i.e., whether or not my character succeeds at something).

It’s a parlor role-playing game you play in a candlelit room with your three closest friends, or (more likely) in a brightly lit convention center with three near-total strangers, as seen below:

Jonathon Walton and Shreyas Sampat play an early version of Annalise in 2008.

As you can see, a lot of tokens and paper are needed to pull introspectively into your character’s relationship with the vampire.  All bargains have a price…

How to Role-play a Novel

It is curious that Nathan D. Paoletta chose to name his game Annalise, an Anglo-European girl’s name with connotations of grace and/or favor.  Yet the odd name of the game is somehow tantamount to the game itself.  Viewed as an analogy to the game’s content, the name conjures up the image of a vulnerable white female (see cover above) who not so much acts as reacts, whose power lies in the granting of permissions, and who is beset with internal conflict.  It works, however, as an analogy to the game system as well: players assume the roles of protagonists somehow affected by the vampire rather than the vampire itself, with key mechanics determining how much sway the vampire has over your character’s emotions and/or how far you permit the vampire to take things.  In effect, Annalise is a game about finding a response to the external demons who threaten you by coming to terms with the internal demons who haunt you.  It is (in this respect) the closest gaming equivalent to the experience of reading proper literature I have ever experienced.

How does a role-playing game accomplish all this?  Well, since the game is built on the premise that system does matter, Annalise deploys solid design with an eye for the necessary functions of literary narrative.  Now it would take me all day to unpack what a “literary narrative” is for all to see, so I’ll limit the definition to: a narrative that gives equal weight to poetic imagery, character interiority and conflict-motivated, chapter-like scenes.

A long digression: most gamers still actually think their role-playing games generate all of the above, such that a game with the right chemistry among the players suddenly produces all the trappings of satisfying fiction. The game “feels” like a book (Amber), movie (Feng Shui), play (most jeepform games), video game (Street Fighter), TV show (Primetime Adventures), comic book (With Great Power), etc.  Yet I associate certain role-playing titles with certain media (like those above) because, in my mind, they somehow capture the distinct internal rhythms of that particular medium better than others.  Feng Shui gets that movie feel from the introduction of metacinematic game mechanisms like “One Bullet Left” (i.e., no matter how many shots you have fired in an action sequence, you always seem to have one bullet still left in your gun… when you really need it… like in a movie). Primetime Adventures does it through metatelevisual mechanisms, like the producers’ limited budget determining actual game length.  Street Fighter even steps it up with its video-game-like combat system, in which you deploy special moves during combat scenes as if you were pounding buttons in an arcade.  To these ends, Feng Shui mechanically organizes itself around the opening fight / plot complications / midway showdown / total disaster / final showdown dramaturgy, Primetime Adventures around the inevitable character twists that drive TV viewer interest, and Street Fighter around a mixture of structured and unstructured martial arts dueling.  That means no extra dangly bits to get in the way.  Most games, however, run into trouble striking a suitable balance with the media of their inspiration: pre-4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons was a hybrid with two leaden feet in war simulation and mid-20th Century fantasy literature whose patent absurdity to outsiders and insiders alike led it to becoming easily parodied medium of its own; Rein-Hagen’s Vampire was busy forming a vampire mythology to parallel Ann Rice without bothering to fix its own debilitating fascination with war simulation (i.e., the game rules still care whether you’re shooting a vampire with a revolver or an Uzi); Steve Jackson’s GURPS deems itself suitable for telling any story in any setting, so long as your story is an adventure story that tests competence.  Not that games not intending to simulate certain specific media are always incoherent, but they tend to consistently whisper to the player: “You are trying to tell a simple story by playing a silly little game.” A whisper that undermines all kinds of creativity and interest.

Back to Annalise, a game which drowns out that silly whisper inside you with the seductive whispers of Faustian bargains carelessly struck and the anguished whimpers of tormented dreamers clinging desperately to their last shreds of humanity.  The game mechanically articulates the finer points of literature without losing sight of the cheap tropes (i.e., blood-red roses, curtains blowing against a closed window, etc.) that continue to raise goosebumps.  Let’s see how it does this:

* Dramaturgical Structure – The structure of a good literary story is practically written into the four phases of the game: Discovering Characters, Laying the Foundations, The Confrontation, and The Aftermath.  Players create and introduce their vulnerable characters in the first, build their relationship to the vampire in the second, confront it in the third and determine the fallout in the fourth.

* Scene Guides – Instead of having a game-master, players take turns as “scene guides,” setting up compromising scenarios for their fellow players’ characters as the vampire’s grip on them tightens.  Authorship is passed around easily and sans power struggle.

* Claims - Players can “claim” non-player characters, props, locations, visual motifs, relationships and events introduced by other players as bits of fiction they control.  Shadowy dogs, bodiless limbs, Frank’s uncle, the oncoming storm, tapping fingernails; the cheap tropes list is nigh inexhaustible. This is the players’ way of telling the others: “That thing you came up with was so awesome, it’s got to come up again!”  These Claims then help you out later in the game, ensuring their recurrence in the story as well as a useful game boost.

* Core/Satellite Traits – Characters are built from the very traits that make them interesting as literature would make them: their Vulnerabilities and Secrets.  The former come from the character’s player, the latter from a group-generated pool of Secrets, guaranteeing that someone likely suspects a character of having “their” Secret and adding a metaplot element of dramatic irony to the game.  My Core Traits could be “I am vulnerable because my parents never denied me my wishes” and “I can never reveal that I only care about myself,” from which my Satellite Traits “Wealthy,” “Ambitious,” “Manipulative,” and “Irresistibly Cute” may develop over the course of play.  Signifiers already point to Signified, with the players knowing what to expect from a character while still in suspense (via the Secreet) about their true motives.

* Moments – To drive each conflicted scene to resolution, Moments determine what Achievement a character gets from a conflict, if any, and what the Consequences are for their actions.  This is, again, an elegant means of depicting the basic flow of literary conflict: how characters get what they want, and how much they need to pay.  In Annalise, winning every fight with your parents and refusing the vampire’s every advance may make you more than ripe for the vampire to take possession of your body later on…

* Confrontation – Do you Give In, or do you Resist?  The game makes your choice about the vampire absolutely explicit.

The New Edition

Though Annalise has been available online as a PDF and in varying print forms since 2008, the Final edition will be made available at GenCon 2010 in Indianapolis next week.  What else can I say, other than this edition reads easily, references itself quickly and looks beautiful?  Annalise exemplifies how RPGs should present themselves and how they should organize the information contained within their highly sculpted pages.  The twenty-four pages of angsty teenage fiction (complete with 30 Days of Night-worthy artwork by Jennifer Rodgers) and six Guided Play scenarios (for fast convention action) feel like added value rather than game publisher’s fluff.  Play examples, summaries and a step-by-step guide to each game phase make the game immediately understandable to the lay and experienced reader alike, as well as recognize the game’s inherent complexity without insulting the intelligence of the reader.

A unified vision of coherent game rules, integrated visual design and clear technical writing may make this vampire game the bridge we’ve all been waiting for between the smallish coterie of story gamers and the vast, geeky gaming world that surrounds them.

Now if only the “Twihards” knew about this…


“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


Pushing Avatar off a Red Cliff

December 20, 2009
Avatar the Film

Zoe Saldana in Avatar

Hype for film technological breakthroughs is apparently still what leads us into the cinema these days… next to word-of-mouth, of course.  Fortunately for Avatar (2009), it has both – its opening weekend has easily smashed all existing box office records for a 3D film, and has its eyes on taking the top spot overall.  A strong opening weekend is perhaps to be expected, however, for a film that reputedly cost half a billion dollars to make and distribute.  Lumbering James Cameron behemoths like Terminator 2 (1991) or Titanic (1997) were also very profitable gambles in this respect – the former was effectively one long chase scene that demonstrated how the latest CGI could be mobilized to tap into white American male emotion, the latter a five-act tragedy that tapped into white American female emotion.  Cameron’s films are the kinds of films people see more than once:  they tug on enough emotional strings to produce occasional vertiginous feelings while keeping the visual effects rolling to catch your heart at the next turn in the plot.  His films are effective because they are affective, his plots predictable but oh-so “classic,” his high concepts putting even Steven Spielberg’s successes with Jaws (1975) and E.T. (1982) to shame.  Avatar is no exception.

So why didn’t this latest film, which was up my alley in terms of its sci-fi premise, colonial struggles and gratuitous deployment of mecha, bowl me over as it did countless cinema-goers?

Because I saw John Woo’s Red Cliff (2009) first.

******THE SPOILER BOUNDARY — YOU’VE BEEN WARNED ******

Chiling Lin in Red Cliff

“What?!” you exclaim. “But Avatar was so awesome!  All the special effects majors (save Pixar) put their heart and soul into it:  Digital Domain, Industrial Light and Magic, and Weta Digital.  It’s in 3D and looks gorgeous.  Sure, the plot is clichéd, but what plot isn’t?  It totally has a subversive message against colonialism and the exploitation of our Earth.  This is the future of filmaking.  You’re living in the past, man.”

Gentle reader, Avatar itself is definitively a construct of the past:  James Cameron actually wrote the treatment back in 1994, but shelved it until 2006 out of film-technological concerns.  This means that those who are making Dances of Wolves (1993), Pocahontas (1995) and *ahem* FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992, see also 20th Century Fox, Avatar’s distributor) comparisons with the film hit the nail on the head:  Avatar has much more to do with those “going native” narratives than, say, the postcolonial violence depicted in District 9 (2009).  It lives and breathes the multiculturalism of the early 90s, rather than the stale air of globalization and colonial legacies of asymmetrical exploitation in places like South Africa, Israel/Palestine or Pakistan.  As an “adult fairytale,” it offers an almost suffocating sense of nostalgia for the days when we audiences were just starting to think about things like the environment and social inequalities of race/class/gender in terms of mainstream action.

Despite the principal emphasis of all reviewers on the film as an “effects achievement,” I find its major successes to be located in its subtext rather than its revolutionary 3D stereoscopic cameras, etc.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as a believably stubborn handicapped marine.  Three strong women characters – Saldana’s Neytiri, Sigourney Weaver’s Grace and Michelle Rodriguez’ Trudy – give the viewers a variety of models of positive femininity.  Neytiri even manages to save our hero protagonist’s life twice at the end, though the other two women have to die in “exchange.”  The map the Colonel (Stephen Lang) puts on the wall of the gathering tribes reminded me of the animated map at the beginning of Fritz Hippler’s Nazi propaganda film Feldzug in Polen (1940), in which the gathering Nav’i armies seem like a bacteria or disease encroaching on the borders of “civilization.”  The implication that the neural network established throughout Pandora was in many ways more advanced than the artificial networks generated by man is a pleasant and original fantasy in our Internet era.

All of this subtlety (which I assume emerged because there were many intelligent people working on this project) proved fragile, however, against the blubber-filled weight of the film’s Hollywood exportable aesthetics and the Campbellian three-act screenplay.  Complex institutions such as colonizing empires are reduced to simplistic, one-dimensional characters: the greedy project organizer (Giovanni Ribisi — capitalism/corporations), the bloodthirsty colonel (military) and the aloof xenologist (science).  The viewers are delivered the biotopia with the exotic landscapes and species without being in the dubious position of conqueror/explorer (since Jake Sully feels bad and changes sides).  And most importantly, the resistance strategies offered by the film are reduced to A) global solidarity among the Nav’i tribes, B) heroic sacrifice by noble savages with their bows and arrows, C) the hero happens to be *sigh* the Chosen One and D) Pandora puts nature itself as a weapon at the heroes’ disposal.  Aptly put, we are given the feeling of resistance to imperialism without being given any of the methods, beyond the magic of Hollywood.

Why Red Cliff is Better

Red Cliff is a better film than Avatar because it is a bountiful wealth of said resistance methods (though – fear not! – John Woo loved Avatar).  Woo’s first directorial effort in China since Hard Boiled (1992) tells the famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms historical epic through the eyes of two of its master strategist heroes – Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) – as they lead a desperate battle against the invading armies of the fearless Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang).  At a fifth of Avatar‘s reported price-tag ($80 million), the film was nevertheless the most expensive Asian film to date and not the least bit short (runtime 238 min., cut down to 148 min. for international release) to boot.  Budget spent in Avatar on obscenely high-tech effects was deployed toward armies of hundreds of extras and several expensive-looking fight sequences.  Nevertheless, Red Cliff‘s visuals in 2D look equally stunning as Avatar‘s in 3D.  This is to say – using Peter Wuss’ PKS model – the films stand toe-to-toe with each other in terms of perception-leading structures, which leave us with narrative-leading and stereotype-leading structures to differentiate the films (Don’t get me started on stereotypes in Avatar).  Whereas Avatar insists on narrative-leading structures that produce affect against the backdrop of unreflected war imagery (i.e., destruction of home-tree, the final air battle sequence, etc.), Red Cliff seeks narrative-leading structures that both engage the intellect and produce affect against war itself.

Yes, Red Cliff is an anti-war movie in a way that Avatar cannot possibly be.  Significant screen-time is spent discussing strategy for many decisive battles, and such discussions lead directly into intellectual engagement with the battle sequences:  how does one beat an overwhelming enemy?  What formations are to be used?  Why will atmospheric conditions shift the conflict one way and not another?  Like Howard Hawks before him, Woo concentrates his films on professionals who are forced into the greatest professional challenge of their lives.  Whereas Avatar persists with visually articulated moralizing discourses about native populations and environmental exploitation, Red Cliff takes discourse of oppressor/oppressed as a given and instead preoccupies itself with the material waging of war.  The anti-war message is imparted by Tony Leung’s beautifully tragic facial expressions as he watches his strategies work.  Rather than reducing all characters to multi-dimensional heroes and one-dimensional villains who are justified in killing each other over their respective moral principles, all of the violence crossing the screen in Red Cliff comes with a moral price tag.  Clashes of civilizations transform into precisely the relationship of symbiotic violence portrayed in the hunting rituals of the Nav’i (that is then abandoned in favor of the action movie/revenge motif).  Resistance is not mythical and leap-of-faith efforts, but intellectual work.

All of this ranting and raving is, of course, intended to get you to see Red Cliff, or at least think about it as you fork over $14 for your 3D ticket.  If you’re seeing Avatar for its fantastic visuals, then by all means go and enjoy the colors.  But if you’re looking for a solid story that offers a moral perspective on current events, China has beaten the USA/UK/New Zealand conglomerate at a fifth the price.


Is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse the Most Intellectually Engaging Series on American Television?

October 10, 2009

Do you believe you have a soul?

Season 2 Promo

Dollhouse Starring Eliza Dushku

Forget for a moment whether that soul continues to exist after you die; I’m not asking what color your religion is. Instead, I’d like to know whether you believe there’s something more to being human than mere material subsistence: consciousness, the capacity for rational thought, the emotional, intellectual, and logical processes that in some important way set us apart from our animal friends.

Do you believe that part of your existence is prospectively separable from your physical existence, intellectually, mechanically, digitally, or spiritually? That’s what I mean when I ask whether you believe you have a soul – is your essence distinct from your substance?

From militantly devout atheists to eagerly martyred Islamic extremists, almost all of us believe in this kind of a soul, an intellectual consciousness somehow divisible from our skin and bones, our axons and dendrites, a soul which is the source of our notion of justice and our capacities for abstract reasoning. We are logical and emotional and not merely biological beings, or so we believe.

But what do these beliefs imply? What if we could literally separate our consciousness from our body while that body continued to live? Would we want to? What is the moral status of our body while we are separated from it? Are we still connected to it, or has it somehow taken on a moral existence of its own?

And what if we could watch a television series that engaged these questions, and each week explored further the questions generated by that scenario? Fox’s Dollhouse, created by Joss Whedon (Firefly, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and starring Eliza Dushku (Bring it On, True Lies) and Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica), does just this, and may be the most intellectually engaging television series in the history of American television.

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Star TrekWarsThulhu

May 11, 2009
Zachary Quinto's Spock turns on the geek sex appeal.

Zachary Quinto's Spock turns on the geek sex appeal.

If you haven’t yet seen the new Star Trek movie, then you obviously weren’t contributing to its staggering $148 million box-office weekend worldwide. Reaching out to old fans and new recruits alike, the film offers not only a fascinating insight into how one resumes control over a powerful franchise on the big screen, but also how saturated with dedicated generic references such franchise films have become. Star Trek (2009) is, according to a close friend of mine who runs a comic book shop, unabashed “geek porn:” an astonishing array of references, insinuations, cool gadgets and eye candy made specifically for geeks to feel, well, awesomely sexy. I am more of the opinion that it’s “geek foreplay” – here’s why:

****SPOILERS ALERT!! SEE THE MOVIE OR BE… UM, SPOILED?***

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Nicholas Kristof, president of the galaxy

January 18, 2009

Almost nobody thinks he or she wields power.

Most people think politicians wield power. But tell this to a politician, and they’ll point you to lobbyists, donors, bureaucrats, journalists or (most of all) some other politician.

There is, however, a tiny class of people in this world who are aware that they wield power. And the knowledge all too often destroys them.

I’m speaking, of course, of the New York Times’s 10 op-ed columnists.

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Watching the Watchmen Trailer Being Watched

August 17, 2008
Watchmen Cover 12

Watching the Bloody Watchmen...

OK, so if you’ve been hanging out in geeky circles and in chat-rooms the past several weeks, you’ve obviously been hearing about the same awesome thing over and over again, with rave reviews and ululations of delight emitting from people’s oral cavities and keyboards.

That thing, of course, is Joss Whedon’s mini-series Dr. Horrible, which hopefully you caught while it was free between July 13th and July 20th.

Seen it? Good. There’s also that other awesome thing you’ve been hearing about over and over again, etc., which is the Watchmen Trailer and the topic of today’s blog.

“Watched” it yet? Great!

Before I get into the content of the trailer itself, a word on the discourse of its reception. “Discourse!?” you yell, arming yourself against the approaching Foucauldian logic of Ivory Tower cultural studies. Fear not! Discourse is merely the socially accepted boundary of what can be said about any given word and/or topic. The word itself is actually derived from the chariot racetrack in Roman arenas which served also as the boundary between spectator and spectacle, demarcating what is to be within the bounds of the games and what is out-of-bounds. It is perfectly OK within the socio-linguistic discourse of “movies,” for example, to say “I like all movies” or “those movies all suck bad” or “I haven’t seen movies in my life” or “You only find that in the movies,” whereas it’s outside the discourse to say “I would like to wear a size 32 movies for pants this summer.”

So, the sensible discourse of the Watchmen trailer among geek circles seems to revolve around two particular positions. These are the following:

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