Monday, December 18, 2006

Post Millennial Backwash

Not only am I back. I'm actually going to start a Blog post like Andy Rooney would. God help us all...

Do you remember when movies used to be ABOUT something? Especially political movies. I love political movies. Two of my all time favourite movies are directly political, and they are both about something tangible. The Manchurian Candidate is about McCarthyism and though it deals with subject matter in the abstract, the parallels are fairly clear and fairly undeniable. Bob Roberts is about the branding of Patriotism and a Concept of America by the conservative Right Wing, Explicitly. It was maybe even ahead of its time, but it pulled no punches and went after its prey with a bloodthirsty single-mindedness which is still stunning to watch 14 years after it was made.

It was the Feud between comics writer Alan Moore who had created the source material V for Vendetta and its film makers with DC Comics which got me thinking. One of the things Moore was mad about was how the American Film Makers had changed his dystopic SciFi Future London (a reaction to Thatcher's 80's) into a dystopic SciFi Future American London (presumably a reaction to Bush's 00's)thereby changing it such that he wanted no part of it. I had heard his views before I saw the film, and couldn't help but reflect on them before and after. My overall feeling on actually watching the movie was about how remarkably bland the politicking had gotten. The Evil Establishment essentially boiled down to Nazis who worked for an Evil Corporation. This was SUCH a profound difference from Moore's V, one of the primary themes of which happened to be the banality of evil, that it made me think about other recent depictions of Evil.

A week later I saw that on the TV show Prison Break the mysterious evil entity which framed our beloved heroes was also an Evil Corporation. The same is true in the neutered remake of The Manchurian Candidate. It started to dawn on me that what I was seeing was the convergence of two distinct and disturbing media trends. The first and more obvious is that of the All Knowing All Evil Corporation. This is a well worn theme which comes back from time to time. Helped along by Standard Oil, Microsoft, Meat Packers or Halliburton, its return in American media life is as predictable as the tides.

The second trend is that of adapting politically volatile material composed some time ago into a modern piece which lacks any real political bite. But while on another blog I had something of a revelation. This cultural sanitation through regurgitation isn't exclusive to the political movie, there seems to be an AWFUL lot of media being created by people who have only, ever, been exposed to media. I'm not saying that all Homages/Remixes/what-have-you are worthless. But, rather, that there needs to be more of a point behind such things than mere love and fidelity to the source material. It would have been OK for V to have been about The Bush Administration but to allude to Halliburton (hidden behind Nazi's) is just a cop-out. To Remake the Manchurian Candidate and put yourself in the position to be critical of Oil Wars and in the end just be about... Halliburton (Nazis there somewhere) is a total cop-out. Not only are these cop-outs but they actively dilute (with urine) the originals as public recollection grows into a hazy mixture between the once relevant political statement and the broad-strokes of the remakes.

This is twice removed meta-navel-gazing. Talking about our impressions of watching a war on TV. I guess it's fitting that such things should become the most prominent theme Du Jour in a world where blogs like this exist. I find it vaguely depressing, that in a culture where most people have SO much contact with Filmed Entertainment that it squanders its chances to be half as meaningful as that which it has been SCAN/CUT/PASTED from. I'm thinking that this is just temporary. Call me an optimist but I firmly believe that real meaning (rather than vague allegory, demagogary or partisan shots) will reassert itself. Like Dylan or the Ramones or Nirvana or French New Wave. . . SOMETHING genuine will come along and shove all these empty, though lovingly made and beautiful, whitewashed copies to the side. We will look back at it all, professors will teach it... perhaps it will start with the Beverly Hillbilly's movie, or LA Confidential's Oscar Wins, but we will be able to contextualize these sanitized remakes. When that happens, the period/movement will need a name, I nominate "Post Millennial Backwash."

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Wire as Dogma

Yay, back to back (using the term loosely) posts on roughly the same topic!!! Do I know how to alienate my (mostly imaginary) readership or WHAT?! But, you see, I'm still hung up on HBO's The Wire and the more I think about it the more I like it.
For me the thing which makes the show works is something which I hinted at in my last post, namely that The Wire does characterization better than almost every other work of TV or Film that I can think of. ALL the characters are real and believable, the 'Plot' happens as a result of the characters rather than the characters being used to make the plot work. The result of this is a show which has far more in common with naturalistic film movements like Dogma or French new wave than other examples of of the Police Drama sub-genre.
Films like Gummo and The 400 Blows redefined the focus of film by emphasizing Character above all. Both used improvisation which I don't believe is an element in The Wire, but the idea that PLOT is the result of (and far less important than) the actions of people is essential in all three.
People are people and what motivates them is as different from person to person as it is from moment to moment. In a entertainment universe where it's still rare to get moral shades of gray it's simply staggering to see a show which doesn't moralize at ALL. Bad things happen to be sure, but they are all the logical result of the collective actions of all the players of the game. Each one plays their part to the best of their ability, each choice passed through the moral and empirical values of each character.
What, to me, is most amazing is that all of this takes place within one of the most plot driven of all genres: Police Fiction. Not that there isn't a strong tradition of character driven police fiction, rather that those characters tend to be fairly flat archetypes brought into the mix merely to accomplish the requisite action down the line. In The Wire it is the character's three-dimensionality rather than their blunt flatness which makes the action work, driving the plot.
Cases get assigned on the basis of political back-biting, the personal becomes political, the political becomes the financial... all working together to create a baroque web of inter connectivity. They say 'Shit Happens' and it's true, it does. And when you're living in the shit it's often hard to see why it happened... if you could only view it from the outside you might be able to see the lines and make the connections. Dogma tried to make film relevant again by shifting the focus to naturalism and the individual... The Wire makes the Police Drama relevant again by doing the same thing.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

"Smart" TV

Aaron Sorken has a new show, on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip Sorken uses the same hyper-literate dialogue which he has been known for from Sports Night or The West Wing. Like those shows Studio 60 is a close look at a work environment, this time a late-night sketch comedy show. In addition to commenting on the media and culture the show also comments metatextuality on its creators and its own place in the Network Television firmament. It also tosses off (not so) casual nods to everything from 17th century Italian comedy to the 24hour news cycle. In a recent essay on Troy Patterson correctly states: "Half the point of watching a show like it is to feel smart while talking about it—to reach around and pat oneself on the back for being in on its in-jokes, knowledgeable about its knowingness, and alert to its Preston Sturges-quality banter."
Critics also point to this quality complaining either that the dialogue is "smart sounding for the sake of sounding smart" or that all the 'characters' are just different aspects of the same voice (namely Sorken's.) I think that there is a validity to these criticisms as well as something laudable in the pointedly smart elitist banter.
I was kind of thinking about this lately, off and on... and then I started watching The Wire. The Wire is a profoundly complicated HBO drama also about the workplace, in this case the workplaces looked at are the Baltimore Police department and a Crack/Heroin operation running out of a public housing project.
Adam Smith said "Show me, Don't tell me" and I think that one sentence is the biggest difference between Studio 60 and The Wire. Sorken TELLS us EVERYTHING, it's all laid out in fairly stark terms... in the first show the new Network boss Jordan (played by Amanda Peet) clearly and unambiguously allies herself with THE ARTIST rather than THE SUITS, the schism is profound and absolute, there are only two sides of which only one is right, by meeting with show creator Judd Hersh rather than holding up with the panicking executives she instantly defines herself and the environment in which all the characters exist. Contrast this with a scene in The Wire where the investigative team has been ordered to arrest low level dealers so that the higher ups can close the case and placate the political interests which got the investigation started in the first place. The investigative team is comprised mostly of cast-offs from various departments given to the team because they are unwanted within their own divisions. The two oldest members of the team are the least well liked, both middle-aged and often drunk their only interest is in doing the minimal amount of work and getting the most possible overtime pay. During the arrest one of them (drunkenly) grabs at a suspect who then sucker-punches him. The head Narcotics officer on the scene, Kima Griggs, who has no love for either of her drunken compatriots is on the offender in a heartbeat, and proceeds to royally kick his ass. What is being said here? On the most base level, like the Studio 60 scene, our female protagonist is declaring her loyalty and defining the sides of the conflict. But whereas the landscape in Studio 60 is a simple Art Vs. Commerce duality and the scene helps clarify the landscape and the players; the scene is The Wire is confusing. Despite the Cops Vs Robbers plot, most of the fighting we've seen in The Wire is intramural. Kima HATES her drunk co-worker and probably loved to see him get hit in the face, but she still feels the need to defend him because if nothing else he is a cop, and "you don't hit a cop." The Studio 60 scene is reductive, and puts several (new) characters in conveniently labeled boxes, the Wire scene is expansive, showing us again that loyalty and relationships are hopelessly complex.
Consistently, The Wire never tells, it always shows... Watching Studio 60 tells you about the way Aaron Sorken sees the world, not entirely without merit, but The Wire shows you the world. I like Studio 60, but it's 'Smart" TV for elitists, The Wire is Smart TV.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Best Joker Stories EVER!

I know I was slacking... part of it was vacation and part of it was slacking. Part of it was also that I have a BIG IDEA which is either going to be a Blog Post or a Book... or maybe the latter and then the former, I can't quite wrap my head around it. In any-case, in order to keep from starvation I offer up this, my list of Best Joker Stories EVER. And promises of more attentive posting in future.

1) The Laughing Fish - Detective Comics 475-476: I LOVE the Joker. I love him more than I love anyone else in the batman universe. For me this is the ULTIMATE Joker story, it perfectly combines his genius and his madness in his perfect and logical dedication to an INSANE idea (that he can trademark all Fish products because they look like him after he gassed them with his gas.) Most Joker stories are REALLY bad, but a few, like this one: grasp the essence of the character and play him perfectly. In addition, the way this story fits in to the over-arching Silver St. Cloud plot is wonderful and shows how well stand alone stories can figure into larger arcs without alienating readers who haven't been with the book the whole time (cough x-men)

2) Killing Joke - One Shot: The one problem with this story for me now is the thing which made it great for me when I first read it and for more than a decade following, namely that it tries TOO HARD to become a metaphoric encapsulation of the whole of Batman (esp in his relationship to the joker.) There's a childlike naivete to the idea that something which is big, like the meaning of life, can be wrapped up in something which is small... Maybe not childlike, adolescent. For me, I think a large part of adulthood is grasping the vastness of the universe, so I have a tough time relating to art which tries to wrap up its subject in a perfectly realized package, Killing Joke certainly does that. It's entire focus is on the Batman/Joker relationship, For me it is the ultimate 'deconstructionist comic' as it really does nothing more than pull apart the psychological underpinnings between the central, dysfunctional, co-dependant relationship. Still, it was important to me and important to comics, and has, for my money, the best Batman art EVER.

3) Robin II (Joker's Wild): My second favourite Batman character is Tim Drake. When I first started reading Batman in any real way it was the period AFTER Jason Todd but before Drake. First it was Frank Miller and then it was Tim Burton, but people decided that Robin was stupid. From his first appearance Tim Drake argued that HE WASN'T STUPID, perhaps it was forced, but at 12 I was impressed that this kid had been able to figure out Bruce Wayne was Batman (a nod to what I had always thought was Jim Gordon's stupidity.) But through his first year or two he still felt a little forced. To me he became Robin during the second mini-series. I know this was supposed to be a joker list and while I don't think that Dixon's Joker is as good as some others...this was an important series and it was well done. Drake has to stand up to the man who killed Todd, it had to happen and its executed well in this series.

4) A Black and White World - Batman Black and White #2 (Gaiman/Bisley): If you have never read the first 4 issue mini series of Batman Black and White you should really do so. There are SO many GREAT stories in this anthology (the McKeever one was on this list when it was Batman Stories.) This one features the Joker and Batman as 'Comic Book Actors.' Most of it happens when they're waiting for 'their scene to shoot' ...they banter and then run lines... then they shoot the scene, then as they go to lunch the Joker says:
"...Hey, that Splash Panel where you came through the window, that was just the coolest. I never get Panels like that."
(batman) "So? You get to make speeches. I don't get to make Speeches!"
(Joker) "Yeah, And? Well, you're the strong Silent Type, I'm the Crazed Speech Making Type"
For me the skewed perspective of the characters as working actors plays into the mindset of The Joker, it is more of him than of Batman.

5) Mad Love - One shot: Paul Dini is the other person who 'gets' the Joker. In addition to adding a much needed Foil to him for a TV show (as well as adding a much needed female character) Dini also created the PERFECT foil. One who totally understands The Joker and loves him for it, all of which sickens the Joker who only cares about Batman's opinion of him. This Origin book is great... and I haven't read it in years because my copy is worth a fortune. I should get the TPB huh?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Zen and the Art of Videogames

sorry for the delay. I actually wrote 'this' post yesterday but it vanished into the depths of the poorly designed profile/proxy infrastructure at my work. I must remember to Copy these before posting in future.

I've been thinking a lot about videogames lately. Especially about the nature of "genre." Last week one of my most anticipated games of the year arrived direct from Hong Kong. Actually, I'd been anticipating Every Extend Extra for MORE than a year, ever since I'd played the game it was based on, the PC freeware: Every Extend (do yourself a favour and grab it from HERE) The concept is devilishly simple, basically a modified version of the classic Asteroids, only, instead of SHOOTING the "asteroids" in Every Extend you blow yourself up near them and try to create chain reactions to blow up as many of the buggers as possible. Your limitations are TIME (which runs down from 2minutes and 30seconds) and STOCK (how many ships you have left) You can "extend" STOCK by scoring the right amount of points, and extend time with one of the 3 special power-ups released when certain yellow coloured "asteroids" explode. The other two power-ups are greens which give you exponentially increasing bonus points and the most valuable of them all: The pink Quicken. Quickens increase the speed of ALL of the asteroids in the field of play, thereby gaining the classic videogame Risk/reward axis. Getting Quickens is essential to scoring points because with them come more asteroids flying more quickly, giving you more objects to create bigger chain reactions.

It's a nearly perfect concept for a game. Simple, rewarding requiring just the right combination of skill and luck. Skill to dodge the flying objects and know when and where to blow up, luck in that the patterns of "asteroids" will sometimes give you an easier go of it than others. Many of the things which have been written about Every Extend and Every Extend Extra note the "cross-genre" nature of the game, calling it a "Puzzle-shooter" or "shooting-puzzler." This really got me thinking about the nature of videogames and the idea that, perhaps, the concept of genre in this context is an outdated one. To ME, more important than genre is what I'm going to call: "Modality" based on the idea that HOW we play is more important than WHAT we play.

Taking a step back: Both the Xbox360 game Oblivion and the (now) Playstation Series Final Fantasy are both placed within the RPG genre. Because in both of them you play in a fantasy universe with a character who can "level up" as well as shop and "preform quests" But beyond this they are quite different. Oblivion is a action oriented first person experience while Final Fantasy is a menu driven 3rd person one where you play as multiple characters at the same time. In Modality Final Fantasy has more in common with Major League Baseball games in Franchise or Dynasty mode than with Oblivion. People who write about games have tried to deal with this in much the same way as has been done with genre tags in music: combine existing ones and make up all new ones. But rather then infinitely sub-divide I would rather pull together games of disparate genre into similar modality.

The first two Modalities I've come up with are:
"Zen" or "Pure" videogames
"Grinding" or "Thinking" games

the first category contains games like Every Extend Extra and Tony Hawk where in order to play them well one must enter an almost zen-like state where both conscious and unconscious thought are expressed instantly in physical movement and reaction.

The second contains games like Final Fantasy and Civilization where most of the game is being played in the players head before any action is taken. These kind of games often require a lot of time to be expended.

One isn't better than the other, and some games artfully combine both modalities. Madden for example is a fairly even mix of both but also allows players to tailor their experience so as to wholly reside in one mode or the other. If you JUST play other humans or the computer in scrimmage mode you are existing within the Zen, if you JUST play dynasty and simulate the actual football games in between making management decisions then you are just Grinding.

I think this is a really useful way of thinking about interactive entertainment. And it will only get more useful as technology works to provide more possibilities. Maybe this way we can get away from the argument about if Metroid Prime is a "First Person Shooter" or an "action adventure" and realize that at it's core it is a "Grinding Explorer"

What do you think about the nature and labels of genre? What Modalities do you think there are?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Manifest Eternity

They say there are no new Ideas.

I'm not quite sure who THEY are but if you see them make sure to smack them upside the head from me.

There is a new Comic out, published by Wildstorm, called Manifest Eternity which is not only brilliant, but also beautiful and based on the best new idea I've heard in a good long time:

Fantasy Universe goes to war with Sci-fi Universe.

That's it. How great is that? Mordor launching a sneak attack on the Federation, Oz invades Star Wars, World Of Warcraft Vs Starcraft, whatever, it's in there.
With such a great start I could easily see the material letting down the premise but, thankfully, it doesn't... it props it up more and adds the kind of beauty and intelligence which should probably be making lesser creators cry.

The Art is solely credited to Dustin Nguyen and possesses an unearthly beauty which is perfect for the setting. Colour washes the background while he uses (I think) Computer effects to generate laser blasts and holograms. Most of the art has a dreamlike quality, which makes sense as the combatants each exist on a plane which is neigh unfathomable to the other. Occasionally the ambient looseness of his art begins to compress into some of the tightest action sequences imaginable. Taken as a whole Manifest Eternity looks quite unlike anything else I can think of outside of perhaps the weird fusion of a Chris Bachalo's stylized kineticism and Yoshitaka Amano's ornate beauty.

The writing also pops. In issue #3 the 8 year old captain of the Sci-Fi armada comments that laser blasts have no effect on the enemy's ships (gigantic zombie dragons) so they have learned to jettison booby-trapped raw turkeys in the paths of the beasts, which they will consume and thereby be killed. That kind of bizarre attention to detail is par for the series so far. Also each issue is a stand-alone Done-in-one which not only manages to tell a compelling story but manages to slowly reveal more information about the overall conflict as well as give context for how each issue fits into that whole.

Manifest Eternity is brilliant, beautiful and original. I want to read 500 issues of it. I want to play the computer and Xbox360 games of it. I want to buy the action figure and watch the Saturday Morning Cartoon... but first you all need to get out there and start buying it, if it gets canceled I'm coming after all of you so watch out.

The Origin of Ping33

Wow, I've got a blog!
I'm about 3 years late on that one, if I were cool I would probably be doing this all on Myspace. I guess the main point of this thing is to give myself an outlet so that I can stop hijacking message boards and other Blogs' comment pages and give all you people on the infoweb a handy-dandy central repository for my frenzied ranting.
I'll be surprised if anyone really reads this so I thought the best way to embark on this voyage of self-indulgence would be to start with myself and answer the question: Who or What is Ping33?

Ping33 is an alter-ego which only exists in the Idos, Comic Book fans may recognise my avatar as being Gideon Stargrave from Grant Morrison's Invisibles. To refresh your memory Gideon Stargrave is a fictional character invented by King Mob, the leader (and series protagonist) of the titular secret underground rebellion. His cover is that of a mystery writer who writes the Stargrave books. When he is captured by interdimensional invaders and interrogated for information regarding his Invisibles Cell he can only reveal information from Stargrave's life because he has trained himself to believe his own fiction to the point where it becomes reality.

The name "ping33" itself is a combination of two things:
The Stereolab song Peng!33 which is a riff on Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, specifically how through dreams alone we can make our reality a more magical place.
and the computer command Ping which sends out small packets of information to another machine and demands reciprocal info from the other side.

Taken as a whole: Ping33 becomes the magical point at which idea becomes reality through force of idea alone and is brodcast out for the world to hear and respond to. The Idea is as real as anything else once it's out there, just as Ping33 is as real as if he were a real boy.
I hope I can keep this blog up, I am determined to make a go of it. I also hope that at some point I find some readers, but that is secondary. I see this Blog being about what I am about, a mish-mash of culture both high and low as well as politics, current events, and even sports.
I encourage comments (from all 0 of you) and I pledge that I will be open to reasonable criticism and always will be willing to take a new look at things if my perspective is lacking or flawed.