Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The List, 2008 Edition

Now that I got all that self-pitying out of the way, I can move on to what the end of the year is really about: lists!  Nothing sums of 365 days like reducing it all to easily digestable snippits of largely decontextualized information.  Ah, bullet point hermeneutics.  This isn't a themed list, however.  This isn't the top ten movies, or games, or albums.  Oh no.  This is The List.  The dcornelius list of top ten... things.  I just don't feel like being comprehensive this time around.  So, with drums rolling and crowds roaring, I present the definitive list of 2008.  Take that, John Cusack!

The Dark Knight.  Between writing my initial and embarassingly glowing review of The Dark Knight and seeing it again this holiday season, a number of criticisms grew in my mind.  The movie was too long; it betrayed subtle story-telling; it was a bit too cartoony in some of its more extreme elements.  The second viewing, however, though it didn't completely erase those criticisms, eclipsed whatever objections I had to the point that they didn't really matter.  It is a great movie.  Runner Up: My Winnipeg. (Due to a variety of factors, I missed a lot this year. Synecdoche, New York, Man on Wire, and Let the Right One In are all movies that I still want to catch up with).

Dexter.  Season three is a wrap and it was brilliant.  Nothing really compares with the first season of this serial killer drama, but season three comes close.  Michael C. Hall can still make anything, any small and mundane activity, seem menacing, ironic, and chilling.  Runner's Up: Battlestar Galactica, The Shield.

L'Armee des Ombres (Army of Shadows).  Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 film about the French resistence during WWII is breathtaking.  It, along with several of Melville's other films, such as Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, completely transformed the way I watch movies and what I expect from the medium.  Runner Up: the films of Mario Bava.

Braid.  I can't so more than I already have about this game.  It still blows my mind. Runner Up: Dead Space.

Gravity's Rainbow.  Okay, I didn't really read the whole thing again in 2008, but I did go back and re-read many, many passages.  It's bizarre, grotesque, hilarious, morbid, ironic, irreverent, terrifying, and obscene.  It's also brilliant.  I don't really know what the term "postmodern" means (and I suspect no one does) but if it means anything than that definition comes alive in Gravity's Rainbow.  

The poetry of William Butler Yeats.  Being a student often means that you end up reading things you don't want to read and not reading things you want to read.  I finally got to spend some time with Yeats, however, and I'm damn happy that I did.  Runner Up: Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Silent Hill 2.  Yeah, it's that good

The Slip and Ghosts I-IV by Nine Inch Nails.  Yes, a tie.  It was a good year for NIN fans. Runner Up: Vida La Vida by Coldplay.  

Sigur Ros.  Icelandic rock, post-rock, alt-rock, emo, whatever.  Their music is beautiful and haunting and for weeks I was transfixed by the song "Milano."  Sometimes, purely by accident, you discover things that you end up really loving.  This is one of those things.  Runner Up: Coheed and Cambria.

So there it is.  The highlights of an entire year's worth of watching, listening, reading, and playing summed up, dissected, and delivered in neat little, bloodless packages.  There is a sort of butchery involved in making lists.  It assumes that anything in life can be decontextualized, anatomized, and isolated.  A list is an autopsy.  How, for instance, can I talk about Sigur Ros without darkening the discussion with how I felt at the time and the emotional affinities it created?  How can I evaluate the sadness that I felt playing Silent Hill 2?  I can't.  I don't want to.  A list is just taking a step back, re-evaluating.  It assumes the largely fictional detached vantage point, which is probably something we need at the end of the year.  

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Good Riddance

It's the end of the year. The end of... something. For me, it's the end of school.

For eight years, I've been an undergrad. Eight years. Hell. However, I've put three degrees in the can and I think I'm better for it. I started at Briercrest College, a small-ish Christian college in southern Saskatchewan, where I hammered out two bachelor's degrees, one in theology and one in the humanities (vague, I know). I spent five years there, and though it didn't really open the doors I'd hoped it would, the training that I received there - academic training, moral training, personal, spiritual, etc - has been invaluable. I am who I am in large part because of that place and so I am grateful. After that, I skipped over to the University of Saskatchewan with every intention of banging out an English Literature degree with as much haste, and posthaste, as possible. However... see above closed doors. The transfer credits didn't amount to squat, so I spent three years (well, two and a half, plus some summers) padding my educational resume and fulfilling the requirements. I am, as of now, and notwithstanding some as-of-yet still unpaid tuition fees, an English graduate. Degree number three, in the bag. Now, on to bigger and better things. Bigger, at least. Greener pastures, right?

So it's been a good year. And it's been shitty. Upon reflection (and what else is the end of the year for besides reflection? Oh right, booze. Well, I'm drinking wine as I write this so I've got that covered), every plan that I made, every hope that I laid, turned brittle, fragile, and pretty much crumbled at my feet. I graduated, but just barely. It was a fight to the finish. (I'm speaking financially, by the way. Academically, I nailed it.) A conspiracy, its tentacles seemingly stretching into all sectors of my life, both public and private, was launched against me. At every turn, and on every front, frustration bit me in the ass. Scholarships were denied. Loans were reduced to rubble. Jobs disappeared. Things that I had assumed were guaranteed turned out to be smoke, vapor. Life is fragile. Dreams are even more fragile. Both can be upset by the smallest decision of another. Both can be set back, darkened, and even snuffed out.

But I'm being dramatic. I'm indulging. I did get that third degree locked down, and I did it with style. I'm proud of the scholarship that I can produce. Academically, I'm no slouch. I may slouch in other areas of life, but not in school. No sir.

So 2008 is done. Good. Get rid of it. It was a stressful year. Highs and lows, ups and downs, cliche here, cliche there, etc, etc. All that proverbial knowledge, all those gnomic sayings and all their sickening banality, their tedious mundanity... they are all true. School is tiring, family is tiring, money is tiring, lack of money is tiring. Life is tiring. What I'm saying is I'm tired. I need a break. I have eight months to kill before I enter graduate school, which seems like a good thing but I honestly have no idea what I'm going to do and it's a bit scary. I thought I had a job lined up but... the conspiracy. Thwarted again, and at the very last minute, at just the moment when the conception becomes reality, where life is most fragile.

I'm not sure what's going to happen in 2009. Actually, I'm quite nervous about it, and that's not good. There are two things I can't deal with like an adult, being bored and being uncertain. Both tend to drive me towards unhealthy trespasses into my past: a renewed interest in the heavy metal music of my adolescence and re-runs of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Both are comfort food to me, and they tend to appear, like not-so-subtle screaming klaxons, right when I'm most depressed.

Yes, lately I've been listening to Tourniquet and crushing on Sarah Michelle Gellar. Again. I'm in a state of emotional regression, I recognize that. Thanks again, 2008.

So here I am, on the raggedy edge. Graduated. Unemployed. Three degrees. Tired. Damn it. I need a new year, maybe one a little less fraught with peril and disappointment. Also, a miracle would be nice. Maybe a finger stretching out from the clouds, pointing the way. Yeah? Yeah? I know, probably not going to happen. It's not that I don't believe in intervention. I do. I just don't expect it, not for myself anyway.

Okay, enough. Like 2008, I'm done. This post is upsetting me now. It was supposed to be ironic catharsis. But now I'm not sure what it is. It's more sincere than I intended. That bit about Buffy... that's revealing more of myself than I'd planned. Of course I could delete all this. I'm considering it. But I won't. Maybe tomorrow I will.

Anyway. To 2009. I'd toast but I'm out of wine. Cheers anyway.


Okay, I'm intrigued.

It's a feature-length adaptation of a short film by the same name, 9, directed by the same guy, one Mr. Shane Acker. Looks to me like he's got more than a little visual prowess, though I wouldn't yet call him a "visionary," an entirely over-used word in the film industry (I mean, come on. I liked 300, but I wouldn't call Zack Snyder a visionary, though the Watchmen trailer sure wants you to think he is). I'm not sure what to make of Russia's Timur Bekmambetov's involvement, though.  I liked the Night Watch and Day Watch movies, or at least I liked their visual style, and I'll confess to looking forward to the forthcoming Twilight Watch, but I kind of hated the obnoxious Wanted.  But since he's only producing here, I won't get too worried.  Also, as a final note, Burton, Acker and company, or at least their publicity department, have good taste. The song playing in the trailer's second half is "Welcome Home" by Coheed and Cambria.  

Here's the original, eleven minute-long short that Acker made, and it alone is enough to secure my anticipation of the feature adaptation. Enjoy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Some Thoughts on Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

In my downtime, while I'm searching for things to do now that I'm no longer entrenched within the mud and blood of academics, I've been catching up on a few "last-gen" games that I missed. I know these games have been out for years but this is my blog, dammit, and I'll write about whatever I want to write about.

I had never played a Metal Gear Solid game before, so when Substance (the Xbox version of Sons of Liberty) arrived in the mail the other day, I was moderately excited, especially now that the semester is over, I'm officially finished my third, count 'em third, undergrad degree, and I have some extra time on my hands, which, I know, could be more profitably used - by, like, reading Joyce's Ulysses (honestly, I'm getting to it) or finally sitting down and writing something meaningful - but I'm tired of all that shit. I need a break. I've read enough and written enough in the last eight years that I really want to just lay about, mentally speaking, for a while. So game on, I say. Where was I? Oh, excited about Metal Gear. I'd say that in terms of anticipatory arousal I was about a 7, 10 being an almost undeniably urge to couple with the game, like with Silent Hill 2, and 1 being the flaccid disinterest I feel every time Square Enix announces yet another excursion into hermaphroditic heroism. There's an aura about the MGS franchise, a tone used when speaking of it usually reserved for religious ceremony. Solid Snake is one of those icons of gaming, one of those god-like figures apotheosized by millions of devoted (and, let's face it, probably sweaty, lonely, and sexually confused) fans. I knew a bit about the franchise. I knew, for instance, that the games are strangely fixated on Snake's ass, which in all the games have been very lovingly and carefully designed (see) so as almost to give players a whiff of Snake's musky greatness. I also, and more importantly, knew that the games have a tendency to be... um, bombastically dramatic. By which I mean incomprehensible. But, I was still excited, ready to feel up this franchise. Only an hour into my Metal Gear dalliance, I already knew two things: one, this game is old and two, it's still pretty fun. The mechanics are ancient. They were ancient, I fear, when they first launched. Just one year after Sons of Liberty's release, for instance, Ubisoft would launch Splinter Cell, which in terms of stealth gameplay absolutely eclipsed Metal Gear Solid. All the stealth aspects of MGS2 just feel like a game, as if mimicking anything approaching reality was the furthest thing from the designers' minds. Stealth in MGS2 is governed by very rigid sets of rules and parameters. You can run, flat out sprint, past a guard and unless his very short and limited field of vision is aimed at you, you are invisible and silent. So it all feels very contrived. But that's not all that wrong here. I'll make a list. The weapon combat is clumsy as all hell, basically requiring you to switch to a fixed first-person view if you want to hit anything. The hand-to-hand and sword combat (yes, a sword... stealthy) is even worse and basically only lets you fumble about in the dark, like a clumsy and desperate teen attempting to unclasp a bra and reach the promised land. But, worst of all, the camera seems to be alligned not with the player but with the terrorists as it continually refuses to show you anything. On top of all of that, the game is a clinic on how not to pace your game. Hideo Kojima, the mind behind Metal Gear, is apparently in love with every last freakin' word he writes and so makes you sit through hour after hour of exposition and talking heads. In the last 45 minutes of the game, I played for about five minutes, the time it took to beat the boss. The rest of the time was spent watching character after character pontificate, reveal plot twists, confess parentage, etc, etc, on and on, until the player is rendered comatose, which I'm taking as a mean-spirited gameplay mechanic: lull the player into torpor and then laugh when he tries to rouse himself to fight. But, despite these archaic limitations, despite gameplay that has been improved upon by almost every other entry into the stealth genre, despite the game's best efforts to leave me unconscious, despite my better judgment, I found myself having fun. There's a lot here that I don't like, and writing it all down I realize that I should not like this game. It's pretentious, over-written, and ludicrous, yet it also has something else, an X-factor if you will, some unquantifiable aspect that keeps all those criticisms from locking the game away forever in limbo somewhere. It's a fun game and, I assume based on this second entry alone, a fun franchise. Not by any stretch of this writer's imagination (and that imagination is stretchy, let me assure you) is this game art, which is what I'm always looking for these days. It didn't even fulfill the expectations I had for it, but it was a decent holiday distraction and I'm glad I finally caught up with this franchise, if for no other reason than that now I know what it's all about.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Flight of the Conchords

Okay, time to champion a little-known television series. Flight of the Conchords, an HBO sitcom just entering its second season, follows two independent (read: failing) New Zealand musicians and their dubiously credentialed manager as they try to launch a career in New York. It's like Once meets Napoleon Dynamite. While the stories are fun and clever, and usually feature more than enough humiliation and self-deprecation to suggest outright derangement on the creators' part, the real meat of the series lies in its songs. I don't know how to describe them without spiraling into meaningless cliche: they are "off-beat" (whatever that means, especially in a musical context), quirky (but not sickeningly so), self-referential (but not sickeningly so), and... well, just fun. I lack the grammar to intelligently talk about music, especially music so obviously odd, so I'll just show you what I mean.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Retrospective :: Silent Hill 2

This trend of reviewing or discussing games here is starting to upset me. Nevertheless...

For the past year, ever since I was made aware of its existence, I've been trying to hunt down a copy of Silent Hill 2 for the Xbox. Not one of the stores here in Saskatoon have stocked it in years, which isn't surprising, and I've been sitting on the Goozex queue for over a year, which is a bit more surprising. People who have it don't want to part with it, it seems. I finally got a used copy of it from After a year of patiently waiting, I finally clutched it in my trembling hands. Reverently, I placed it in my Xbox. I felt like I was about to have a religious experience. I tingled all over. I shivered and quivered. I broke into a sweat. I was terrified that it wouldn't live up to its legendary reputation. I, in other words, was more excited to finally play this seven year old game than I was to play almost anything else released this year, including Gears of War 2 or Fallout 3. I closed my eyes, closed the tray, and played the game.

And it was nearly sublime, as sublime as a game can be I suppose. I thought I'd experienced most of what games have to offer at this time. I thought things like Braid and Bioshock represented the best argument for games as art. I knew that the medium's potential had been hinted at in the past but I had no idea that someone had actually crossed, with bold step and stern gaze, the invisible threshold separating entertainment and art upon which games always stumble. I thought I'd already seen the medium used as effectively as anyone knew how to use it yet. I was wrong. Silent Hill 2 is the single best argument for games as art. Or perhaps it's an argument for how games are not art, since its exceptional nature only casts all other attempts into shadow. I've always known that the series had some serious punch to it. I liked Origins, which was the first Silent Hill game I played (lame, I know), I liked the action-oriented Homecoming probably more than it deserves, and I loved The Room... but those games are nothing - and I mean nothing! - when compared with the genius of Silent Hill 2. (Okay, The Room is still damn brilliant. It is much, much better than either Origins or Homecoming.)

As I was playing it, everything just felt right. The game mechanics, the dreamy sometimes atonal, sometimes discordant music, the ambiguous dialogue scenes, and yes even the dated graphics engine that powers this "last generation" title, all seemed to perfectly coalesce into an experience unlike any other. Silent Hill 2 transports you. You play as James Sunderland, an emotionally damaged man looking for his wife, Mary. Mary's been dead for three years, however, having died of a terminal illness. Yet inexplicably, James receives a letter from her saying that she is waiting for him in Silent Hill. So James sets out to find her, to discover the truth, and in doing so is propelled into a nightmare that is poignant, haunting, horrifying and absolutely beautiful.

The Silent Hill franchise is famed for its horror, and rightly so. Its twisted human shapes, dredged from the depths of eros and thanatos, can be truly disturbing projections of agony and despair. What the series is less famous for, though, is its beauty. The Room hints at this beauty but the American efforts at the series, Origins and Homecoming, basically banish it from town in favour of a constant sense of oppression that developers seem to think horror gamers require. Silent Hill 2 is beautiful, however. Tonally, it's like Braid meets Hellraiser. And shockingly, it retains the intelligence of both (and by Hellraiser I mean the Clive Barker film and not the bastardized sequels that followed in which, like the recent entries into the Silent Hill franchise, the parts that made it special were jettisoned to make room for the more spectacular parts that only made it conventional). Silent Hill 2 isn't just a survival horror game, you see. Like Braid, the game is an exploration of a theme. It is a psychological landscape translated into game mechanics. It is the projection of a troubled psyche. If you just want to be dropped into a town and be able to start blasting away at beasties, stay away from this. Play Resident Evil. Or Homecoming. Silent Hill 2 requires something more from the players, though. It requires human sympathy and a familiarity with the ambiguous. The game won't fill in all the pieces, won't launch into scenes of unnecessary exposition in which what you are seeing and doing is explained. The game doesn't interpret itself for you. It lets you feel the game. The metaphors are never mentioned, they are played. James rarely, if ever, comments on what he is doing. The player directly experiences the horror, the pathos, and the bright shining moments of insight, and the developers leave it up to the player to make of those moments what he can.

This sort of story-telling is rarely found in games. Developers almost always, and I don't know why, feel as if they need to spell out the game so explicitly that every single moron that picks up the game can follow it. Even Dead Space, my choice for Game of the Year, is pretty obvious on the story end of things, though it is admittedly more maturely crafted than most major releases. And I think that is what's missing in most games, maturity. Silent Hill 2 is mature. I don't mean "mature" as in Rated M (though it is); I mean mature as in grown up, sophisticated, self-aware, meta, etc. It feels like a game made for a truly adult audience, not the prurient adult audience that simply looks for blood, breasts and bad language.

2008 is being considered one of the best years for gaming in a long time. Aside from a few notable releases, however, most of the games currently being celebrated are the quivering fascinations of the moment - the shiny, hot, but ultimately shallow ephemera of an always insatiable market. Not one of the major developers show much interest in crafting compelling, introspective, thematically tense games. They are only after the spectacle. We have an entire industry scrambling to foist upon the market nothing more than summer blockbuster-style extravaganzas... and we have an audience gobbling it. Silent Hill 2 demands a higher standard.

A while back, I wrote that gaming grew up with Braid. I was wrong. Gaming grew up a long time ago with Silent Hill 2 but, outside a few of the upright heart and pure, nobody seemed to notice or care. You should care. Silent Hill 2 is a masterpiece, the type of game rarely attempted and even more rarely executed. It has flaws and limitations, but those are mostly matters of technology and software. In vision it is nearly perfect.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

4 November 2008 - It's Time for Change

The new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that there can be
None of that kind, which he is, but he.
-John Donne, "The First Anniversary," lines 205-18.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Zombie Expert

All my years of cinematic splatter and undead carnage are finally beginning to pay off.  My devotion to Romero and Fulci is being noticed. Now, not only am I among the very few who are actually prepared for the inevitable zombie outbreak (and the outbreak is coming, trust me, whether it be caused by voodoo mumbo-jumbo, rage-infected monkeys or alien interference) but other people are starting to recognize my expertise in the field. Yesterday, I, as a credible zombie expert, was interviewed by a reporter from The Sheaf. Sure, it's only a local university newspaper doing a Halloween special but at least the very real and important message of zombie preparedness is starting to be heard by the largely ignorant public. I can only hope that, when the zombie apocalypse does come and the undead begin to feast insatiably on all our juicy, fattened North American flesh, that people, in their darkest hours of horror and despair, will remember my words of wisdom - perhaps, just perhaps, they will save someone's life.  

I'll post a link to the article when it's published.  

UPDATE: Here's the link to the article.  It's on page two.  Enjoy.  And remember... you don't have to outrun the zombies, you just have to outrun your friends.

Friday, October 24, 2008

An Elaborate Excuse

I always wonder how much of myself I should bring to this blog. As people, we are always more then we present ourselves as. Whatever the context, whether it be a university class, a church pew or an internet forum, we pick and chose those aspects of ourselves that we want other people to perceive and so there is always a sense of theatricality embedded deeply within not only our social lives but our written lives as well. This isn't a matter of deception, however, and the at-this-point cliched notion that we all wear a variety of false masks, a piece of important-sounding psycho-vomit which seems to have been designed to suggest that we ritually select whatever personality fiction is most expedient at the moment and alter our actions accordingly, thus foregoing an "authentic" personality, is fundamentally flawed because those masks are not impositions of personality but rather manifestations of a personality too large to be constantly disclosed. We select the ways we represent ourselves not out of some deceptive agenda or because our "authentic" personalities are so stillborn as to receive whatever imprint stronger personalities may impress upon them (though I suppose both could be true in some cases, but not, I think, in most), but rather out of politeness and an unwillingness to burden others with forced intimacy. Full disclosure of a personality can be an awkward experience for everyone involved and so it is often best, and most simple, to present only those parts of yourself that a situation requires.

Anyway, when it comes to Babylon I've deliberately put certain restriction upon myself in an effort of guide my readership's perception of me (this readership is, I fear, largely illusory or at the very best rather small, which means all my efforts to guide others' perception of me has ended in a self-reflective knot in which I'm now discussing how I've deliberately shaped an audience's perceptions of me when I myself am in fact the audience. I am both perceiver and perceived and, I just noticed, both of me have a headache). I've kept gaming, a rather large element of my personality, and of my day, mostly hidden or at least I've relegated it mostly to the background, only letting that portion of myself out every once in a while to express either exasperation or affirmation in what I think are special situations. I've tried to keep the geek impulse in check, in other words, in order vainly to appear both knowledgeable and wise perhaps even charismatic (okay, some elements of self-representation are purely fictive) but also because personalities, despite their usually multiform natures, are so often judged on the basis of only one of their aspects and are thereafter slotted into prefabricated stereotypes. Personally, I'd much rather be sterotyped as an English student or a film critic than as a gamer. And since in the public consciousness one person can rarely occupy more than one stereotypical space, I often work very hard to ensure that some elements of my personality are privileged over others.

But now that I've rambled at length about it I feel it only appropriate to transgress my own self-imposed restrictions regarding personality disclosure, to transcend my self-fashioned self image by incorporating another image, one that might, it's true, damage that first so carefully laboured over image, which I can only hope is at this point strong enough to absorb such a decadent and low-brow disclosure as this (the fact that this post directly follows one on Dante has not gone unnoted). You see, all of this babbling has really been nothing more than an elaborate excuse to say that recently I've been playing Dead Space, an extremely violent and no-doubt violence inducing game, and that I love it so much I want to share this excellent trailer. Seriously, it's one of the best game trailers ever made. So, uh... enjoy. And hopefully whatever image of intelligence I've built up over the last year or so isn't about to be entirely reduced to rubble.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Pictorial :: Michael Mazur

I've been reading Dante's Commedia lately.  During my research, I stumbled upon a gorgeous collection of Inferno etchings, made by painter Michael Mazur.  Enjoy.

Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.  To tell
About those woods is hard - so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
-Inferno, Canto I.1-5
He hurled the sinner down, then turned to rush
Back down the rocky crag; and no mastiff
Was ever more impatient to shake the leash

And run his fastest after a fleeing thief.
The sinner sank below, only to rise
Rump up - but demons under the bridge's shelf

Cried, "Here's no place to show your Sacred Face!
You're not out in the Serchio for a swim!
If you don't want to feel our hooks - like this! -

Then stay beneath the pitch."  They struck at him
With over a hundred hooks, and said, "You'll need
To dance in secret here - so grab what seam

You're able to, in darkness."  They then did
Just as cook have their scullions do to steep
The meat well into the cauldron - with a prod

From their forks keeping it from floating up.
-Inferno, Canto XXI.43-58

We had left him, moving on
When I saw two shades frozen in a single hole -
Packed so close, one head hooded the other one;

The way the starving devour their bread, the soul
Above had clenched the other with his teeth,
Where the brain meets the nape.  And at the skull

And other parts, as Tydeus berserk with wrath
Gnawed at the head of Menalippus, he chewed.
-Inferno, Canto XXXII.124-131

Dante, Inferno.  Translated by Robert Pinsky, The Inferno of Dante.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

The entire collection of Mazur's Inferno etchings can be viewed online here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Matter of Life and Death

Whenever the time comes to write anything about politics I feel sliding sickliness wash over me and a nearly overwhelming sense of apathy and depression opens up around me and plunges me into a dark cloud fraught with dragons and reptiles of the mind.  It's not that I don't understand what is happening in the world, or that I don't recognize the shapes, spirits, and forces that are guiding it and dragging it down dark well-trodden paths, it's that all the things that I see twisting and turning in the winds and over the lands of once great nations, all the white-washed rhetoric, all the thinly veiled deceit, all the posturing and moral dissolution, only seems to confirm and validate within me my desire to step out, kick the dust from my shoes, kick the very world to pieces, and simply walk away.  World be damned, I want no part of you.  And yet I am, reluctantly at times, still a part of this world -- a sort of resident alien -- and so can only ignore it to my own peril, can only detach myself so much before my detachment becomes itself not an act of self-preservation but an act of sabotage and irresponsibility.  So, with both Canada and the United States dancing on the razor's edge, two very different hells to find on either side, I feel compelled to add my own voice to the already over-loaded and terrifying cacophonous roaring din that is North American democracy.  

In all things, there abides either life or death; in every action we perform, we perform either life or death; in the words that we say or write, we validate either life or death; in the ways that we think and in the ideologies to which we cling, we are either struggling up the bright and rough mountain or sliding down into the dark pit, into a centre that cannot hold. I understand that such an absolute conception of the world is outmoded and no longer fashionable and I grant that there may in fact seem to be, in certain cases and under certain circumstances, shades of grey in our perception of the world, times when it is not clear if we are choosing life or death. But the world itself is not grey; it is not nearly as polymorphous, ambivalent and relative as we, grasping for self-satisfying justifications, so often try to convince ourselves that it must be.  Life or death. Good or evil. This is the nature of the world and this is the nature of people.  These are not mere philosophical considerations; they are not abstractions or moral hypotheticals; they are not metaphors or tropes -- you, me, everyone: we are either choosing life of we are choosing death. And recognizing which is which is not nearly as difficult or complicated as it often seems. Life corrects; death permits.  Life builds; death dissolves.  Life searches for truth; death denies its existence.  Life faces reality; death ignores it. Life speaks for the voiceless and abandoned; death consumes them before they can speak. Life recognizes evil and calls it such; death lies and says that evil does not exist. Life, because it does not deny the existence of evil, defines the boundaries of freedom; death, because it fears definition, sets fire to every bounding line and declares that there are no limits.  Life is self-affirming; death is self-immolating.  Life loves; death hates.  Life lives; death dies.  Life is eternal; death, like grass, whithers and vanishes.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In Memorium :: David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace -- novelist, essayist, cultural critic -- died on September 12, 2008 from an apparent suicide.  I've read his first novel, The Broom of the System, and some of his essays; I haven't yet read Infinite Jest but have had every intention of doing so for a while now, and that intention that has only been lent some urgency.  I can't say that I know much about him; I can't say that I'm an expert on his work; but I can say that he offered me some bright, shining insights into the nature of language and culture and so I thank him for that. The highest praise that I can give an author is that he's caused me to think more clearly about myself. Here, then, are two passages from his essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," from his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again; I found these quotes to be especially illuminating and relevant to my own thought.  Enjoy. 

And make no mistake: irony tyrranizes us.  The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down.  All U.S. irony is based on the implicit "I don't really mean what I'm saying."  So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say?  That it's impossible to mean what you say?  That maybe it's too bad it's impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already?  Most likely, I think, today's irony ends up saying: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean."

So then how have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today's avant-garde tried to write about?  One clue's to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years of the dominant mode of hip expression.  It's not a rhetorical mode that wears well.  As [Lewis] Hyde puts it, "Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage."  This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exculsively negative funtion.  It's crtical and destructive, a ground-clearing.  Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it.  But irony's singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome.  It is unmeaty.  Even gifted ironists work best in sound bites.  I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly funny to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I've had several radical surgical procedures.  And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, ot sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing but trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow... opressed.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Reflections on the Revolution in France (excerpt)

It's election time again, both in Canada and the United States, and that has me once again reflecting on the nature of democracy and freedom. Here's  an excerpt from Edmund Burke's famous book.  Enjoy.

I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of that society, be he who he will; and perhaps I have given as good proofs of my attachment to that cause, in the whole course of my public conduct.  I think I envy liberty as little as they do, to any other nation.  But I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to any thing which related to human action, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.  Circumstances (which with some gentleman pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect.  The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.  Abstractly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I, in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government (for she then had a government) without enquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered?  Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom?  Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessing of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty?  Am I to congratulate an highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison, upon the recovery of his natural rights?  This would be to act over again the scene of the criminals condemned to the gallies, and their heroic deliverer, the metaphysic Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance.  
When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it.  The wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we can see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface.  I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one. Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver; and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings.  I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners.  All these (in their way) are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long.  The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned to complaints.  Prudence would dictate this in the case of separate insulated private men; but liberty, when men act in bodies, is power.  Considerate people before they declare themselves will observe the use which is made of power; and particularly of so trying a thing as new power in new persons, of whose principles, tempers, and dispositions, they have little or no experience, and in situations where those who appear the most stirring in the scene may possibly not be the real movers.

Burke, Edmund.  Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Edited by J.C.D. Clark.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.  151-2.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Review :: L'Armée des ombres (1969)

It is only recently, over the last year or so, that I've become familiar with la nouvelle vogue -- the French New Wave -- and specifically with the filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville. My baptism into New Wave films came, fittingly enough, with Godard's whirlwind A bout le souffle (Breathless), but while that film certainly secured a position of extreme importance and excitement for the New Wave in my own mind it was not until I came to the movies of Melville that the movement became for me something more than just an aesthetic innovation. The films of Godard, films such as A bout le souffle or Bande a part, are fascinating and exhilarating but I find that their iconoclasm and almost reckless sense of innovation in a way almost impede their ability to simply tell good stories. In Godard, aesthetics and narrative become fused and yet slightly desynchronized, as if the two, blended as they are, are never quite able to connect in a satisfying way. Take Breathless for example: the jazzy re-invention of noir and gangster sensibilities inside an accelerating and at first rather disorienting editing style almost becomes a story unto itself and threatens to overwhelm, through sheer aesthetic force, any concerns either Godard or we may have for the film's actual narrative. One of the effects of this, at least on me, is the formation of a slight gap between viewer and film. I feel distanced from the screen, from the characters and their emotions, from the immediacy of the story. With Melville, however, though the aesthetic once again becomes an absolutely integral part of the films' substance it never threatens to overwhelm them in the same way. Perhaps it is his more subdued, meticulous and more than a little foreboding aesthetic, or perhaps it is simply his more organized and much less frantic sense of pace, but I find Melville, much more so than Godard, to be in complete command of his own aesthetic and so better suited to simply tell a story.

L'Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows) is Jean-Pierre Melville's film about the French Resistance during World War II. Sombre, pessimistic, and filled with a sense of inescapable and predestined resolution, L'Armée is by turns both heartless and sympathetic, both convinced and morally ambivalent. With blue and gray eyes (the film's dominant colour palette) it looks deeply into the moral ambiguity of both war and resistance -- and into the actions that both seem to demand -- but it seems to always refuse us the opportunity either to disengage entirely or identify completely with its characters and their actions. Though the narrative often picks up the stories of other resistance member's as well, L'Armée primarily follows Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a high-ranking member of the French Resistance.  Unlike the grand war films -- the storm the beach, rescue the prisoners, defeat the enemy type of films -- L'Armée is a very subdued affair, muted in tone and scope, and muted, one might say, in its depiction of the heroic figure.  The film's characters are not the young and the reckless soldiers and freedom fighter idealists that often accompany war films; they are hardened, professional, dedicated and appear both worn out and morally tired. Melville's resistance members have more in common with the type of characters we would normally associate with crime or gangster films -- like Melville's own Le Cercle Rouge (1970) -- rather than with war films: they are cool, aloof and detached; they go about their business in silent resignation, poised for sacrifice. In not glamourizing his subject, Melville humanizes it.

When Steven Spielberg was trying to create a sense of moral fatigue in Saving Private Ryan he was only faintly approximating what Melville is able to accomplish in L'Armée des ombres almost thirty years earlier. But while Spielberg allowed Ryan to slide across the line from moral fatigue to thinly veiled nihilism and into a faint disgust for its subject, Melville never lets L'Armée slump into such a relaxed posture. The resistance may be facing a hopeless battle, and they may know it, but neither they nor the film ever suggest that this is a pointless battle. The moral question that haunts the film is not "should we fight?" but "how should we fight?" which seems to me to be a much more relevant question, both in terms of WWII and present conflicts.  So often war films -- especially those of the high-brow variety -- contemptuously dismiss the necessity of war, as if WWII could have been avoided if we all had developed of more liberal understanding of the world; so often war films -- especially those of low-brow variety -- blindly grope about for an often false binary structure and an easy rhetoric of good versus evil.  L'Armée des ombres, more mature than either of those types of films, navigates between the two without really compromising either.  It's a rather remarkable fusion of pessimism and conviction.  One might call it realism, I suppose.  I call it strong filmmaking.  

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Review :: Brand Upon the Brain!

Navigating the fragility of memory and the potentially deadly traps of reminiscence, saturated with regrets and guilt, twisting together disparate film elements and genres with nearly iconoclastic zeal, haunted and haunting, irreverent, horrific, inspired, wildly funny and more than a little disturbing -- Canadian art house auteur Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) is a seemingly semi-autobiographical meditation upon many things, chiefly familial relationship, love, childhood, and the inescapable and suffocating grip of the past. In the film, Guy Maddin (not played by Guy Maddin) returns to desolate little island in order to repaint the lighthouse, his childhood home and site of the orphanage that his tyrannical mother and mad scientist father had run. Though the lighthouse is falling apart, the good and dutiful son Guy will paint it, twice, in what very quickly becomes an obvious attempt to whitewash the trauma of his childhood. However, as William Faulkner wrote, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past," and soon, despite his best efforts, Guy's past launches itself at both him and the screen in a dreamy and nightmarish whirl of phantasmagoria and Freudian anxiety.

Brand Upon the Brain! is ostensibly a silent film, complete with title cards and narration. It is black and white, frantically shot on rough and grainy super 8, and hypnotically edited. The film was originally designed to be a "cinematic experience," more a piece of performance art than a conventional theatrical film. It debuted at the Toronto Film Festival with live musical accompaniment and several live foley artists; in the festival circuit it has been narrated live by Maddin himself, Eli Wallach, Isabella Rossellini and Crispen Glover, amongst others. For this fantastical and metaphorical trip down memory lane, Maddin harvests nearly every genre imaginable, from melodrama to horror, fantasy to science-fiction, erotic thriller and teen detective story. Vampires, secret teen lesbians, Lord of the Flies-style savages and the re-animated dead become the principal characters on the stage of Guy's memory. And yet, as Maddin continually mashes up genres and themes and as he overlaps motifs and elements, a surprisingly coherent film emerges. The film never feels forced or disjointed; it all makes a type of emotional and resonant sense. In this sense, Maddin is very much a Canadian counterpart to David Lynch; however, unlike the often off-puttingly esoteric nature of the Lynch's narratives, even a casual film goer, were he able to withstand the unabashed art house sensibility of the film's style and storytelling, would easily be able to understand the broad sweeps of Brand Upon the Brain! Its touchstones and themes -- such as first love, maternal attachment, the ambivalence and ambiguity of adolescence -- are broad and universal enough that, though the film appears to be deeply personal it is immediately identifiable.

While it's clear that Brand Upon the Brain! is firmly couched within a metaphoric sensibility, it's difficult and probably deliberately impossible to firmly identify where biography breaks off and where fantastic and perhaps slightly indulgent metaphor takes over. Both metaphor and myth are, I think, a very appropriate vehicle for self-revelation and Maddin deftly uses both here. However, if I were to lodge one protest against the film it would be that it almost feels dishonest. By using his own name as the name of his protagonist, Maddin establishes an autobiographical tone that the film's more outrageous elements almost immediately challenge and call into question and you begin to suspect that autobiography is not on Maddin's agenda after all. The relationship between Guy and his mother, for instance, seems designed to inflame, and perhaps poke fun at, Freudian anxieties rather then legitimately explore deep-seated emotional or psychological issues. In fact, throughout most of the film I think it is more likely that Maddin has his tongue in his cheek rather than his head on the couch. It is perhaps best to think of the film not as an exploration of Maddin's past (of course, for all I know about Maddin's childhood, it may well be just that) but rather an exploration of the past in general, it's impact and import, and its highly subjective nature. Guy becomes not so much a director's surrogate as an audience's and that, when executed as expertly as here, is a thrilling experience of which to be a part.

Every time I think that the limits of film have been bounded and set, I find someone like Maddin who brazenly over-steps the bounds and pushes the medium in directions I hadn't expected. Brand Upon the Brain! isn't a perfect film and it certainly isn't for everyone. In fact, chances are that unless you count yourself amongst the pretentious cinematic elite you probably haven't even heard of the film. It is, however, an exuberant, thrilling and rather marvelous little film full of whimsy, menace, sentimentality and sudden and bright splashes of affection. Brand Upon the Brain! is the first Guy Maddin film that I've seen -- an embarrassing admission for a Canadian critic, I know. After seeing it, however, I can say that I am indeed very eager to catch up on some of his other films such as The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg. Guy Maddin's vision in Brand Upon the Brain! is compelling and unique and worth the time of anyone who loves film.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Other than a ranting, and in retrospect slightly hypocritical, diversion about Grand Theft Auto IV and the media circus that surrounded that game's launch, I've steered clear of any real gaming discussions or reviews on Rivers. Though I'm a rather enthusiastic gamer, I've always thought that gaming doesn't deserve much critical attention or serious thought. For the most part, gaming is diversionary -- it's entertaining but it's hardly what I'd call art. Braid, however, demanded my full attention. It even demanding that I rethink my position on games as art.

Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster.

This happened because Tim made a mistake.
Braid is about the sorrow of lost love, about time travel and bittersweet forgiveness, and it's about the inescapable conclusions towards which most of us hurtle along. Deeply personal, surprisingly metaphysical, steeped in a keen sense of lose, and capable of evoking previously unknown levels of intimacy for a game, independent developer Jonathan Blow's first major release trumps years of big-budget game development in a single, unexpected burst of creativity. Like last year's Portal, Braid proves that the truly important developments in gaming are coming from the small releases, from unexpected places, in unexpected forms. While high-profile studios such as Bungie, Blizzard and Rockstar are constantly looking for ways to milk every last dollar from their respective franchises, Jonathan Blow has released a game with more emotion, more innovation and more genuine artistry than most of last year's releases combined.

Braid is a unassuming little game. In an obvious homage to Super Mario Bros, our protagonist, Tim, is searching for the Princess. However, this Princess is not the helpless damsel in distress and Tim is not the stalwart hero we probably expect him to be. Tim has made mistakes. Big ones. It's his fault that he lost the Princess. He lost her not because he made a deal with the wrong people, not because he had enemies, not because he was involved in some diabolical scheme, and not because it's convenient to the game's plot; in fact, it's not because of any of the usually tropes and narrative conventions that get recycled game after game in an industry even more creatively stagnated than Hollywood. Tim lost the Princess because he walked out at the wrong moment. Braid is the story of Tim, an average man, trying to say sorry to his girlfriend. Or at least, that's what the story appears to be about. The game starts as one thing and ends up as another, however; or rather, the game does end where it starts but picks up and develops several other overlapping narratives that could be the same story from another perspective or could simply be thematically guided excursions into related territory. Braid's themes and plots begins to overlap, conflict and eventually collapse in upon itself in a type of narrative singularity. It's a bit dizzying. You might expect this sort of literary maturity in a novel or a particularly good film but you probably would not expect it from a video game. Braid tells us that we should expect it from now on.

At it's core, Braid is a platform puzzle game. Like any good platform protagonist, Tim can run, jump, drop down on enemies, bounce off them, grab keys, unlock doors, all the platforming usuals we've come to expect. Braid's distinguishing gameplay mechanic, however, is that Tim can manipulate time. If he falls to his death, fails to solve a puzzle, or sets up his strategy poorly, he can simply rewind time, go back to the beginning, and start anew. Different objects in the game's worlds react differently, however; some will obey Tim's temporal dictates, others will not. Knowing what object will do what at a given moment and under a given condition is crucial to solving these puzzles. However, as interesting a gameplay mechanic as this is (and believe me, it's pretty damn interesting... and fun), it is not Braid's true genius. It's true genius is the meta levels upon which it operates. The game is not what it appears to be. Here, in Braid, gaming grows up.

rethinks the medium entirely and manipulates it in ways that are, as far as I can tell, wholly new. It is possible, I suppose, to see it only as a simple platformer and dismiss it as nothing more than an interesting excursion into an almost antiquated gaming formula. It is likewise possible to think of Hamlet only as a play or The Starry Night only as a painting. Braid's deceptively simple appearance overlays a deeply self-aware and reflective game experience. Braid's gameplay itself is, in fact, a metaphor. The entire game is a type of dream, a digital manifestation of Tim's psychic quest to undo the damage he has done. All the game's major elements reflect this interior focus. The tripped and Monet-esque dripping wet-paint art direction as an image of dream quest or of a desire for an altered reality; the platformer puzzles as a representation of an underlying assumption that every problem -- even emotional and relational ones -- is a riddle easily solved by manipulating its elements; the core mechanic, the ability to rewind time to effect a more desirable outcome, as a expression of the fundamental wish of the guilty to go back and do things right: the game is operating on all these levels and it's operating on all of them beautifully, with a subtle hand and a quiet affirmation. Braid is as transcendent a gaming experience as is perhaps possible on the medium.

In the last little while, we've seen glimpses of what gaming could be. Games like Ken Levine's Bioshock, which combined a deeply satisfying FPS experience with a 1940s art deco sensibility and a surprisingly thoughtful philosophical mediation, and Valve's Portal, which is one of the only truly original and innovative games to come out in years, have elevated the medium beyond it's simple escapist heritage to something approaching art. Braid is another of these elevating games. It is as important a game as we're likely to see for a long time. Though the medium, or perhaps the nature of the industry controlling much of the medium, is not normally predisposed to the creation of art -- and by art I generally mean a product of imagination that offers anything from a full interpretation to a small comment on the human condition -- it seems as if truly artistic efforts can succeed on the medium after all.

Braid is available on the Xbox Live Arcade. I believe it is right now exclusive to that platform but as far as I'm concerned this game should be released on every platform possible. It deserves to be played.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On Klaus Kinski

Last night I watched Mein Liebster Feind, Werner Herzog's documentary/tribute to his friend, the explosive, volatile and absolutely mesmerizing German actor Klaus Kinski, whom Herzog had worked with, and fought with, on five of his most famous movies, including Aguirre: The Wrath of God and the now legendary Fitzcarraldo. Perhaps because in Herzog's films he always plays a character who is either teetering on the edge of madness or who has whole-heartedly plunged into it I've always just assumed that Kinski himself was a sort of a madman. A genius, but a thoroughly diabolical one. And apparently, I was right. Kinski was mad: egomaniacal, conflicted and perhaps a shade delusional. Prone to raving fits and explosive, violent outbursts, Kinski was not so much an actor to be directed as one to be wrestled with. He could rant for hours, foaming at the mouth, over the smallest of artistic differences; he could become physically violent, lashing out at actors and extras he thought were performing poorly; he would, as a matter of course, threaten to walk off a project entirely. Herzog apparently had to actually threaten to shoot him in order to keep Kinski from walking out during the filming of Aguirre. But Kinski could also be an extremely courteous and gentle man, capable of moments of truly sublime beauty. Here are some videos of Kinski that I find simply fascinating. Unfortunately, the first two are in German but Kinski's real grandeur is his face and emotional volatility, which translates without subtitles just fine. The first one is a famous clip from Kinski's "Jesus Tour," a one man show in which he interprets Jesus and the Gospels as the ravings of a lunatic. This is perhaps not as blasphemous as it sounds; most of what Kinski is doing is establishment subversion rather than heresy. Still, some members of the audience didn't appreciate Kinski's take on Scripture. The second one is an interview he gave in 1971 that spiraled into him raving at the reporter. It's a long clip. Kinski starts to get extremely agitated at about the 6:00, if you don't want to watch the whole thing. The third is the final scene of Herzog's Mein Liebster Feind and shows the other, more gentle side of Kinski. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Musée des Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forget
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Painting: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Breughel.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Review :: The Dark Knight

Here it is, my altogether too long review of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.

I suppose it remains to be seen whether or not Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight will go down in history as the great piece of cinema that everyone is clearly calling it at the moment. Time, after all, has a funny way of making us all look bad and in serious need of better judgment. But, that being said, as far as I can tell there absolutely is no reason why it should not go down as one of the single greatest superhero movies of all time, if not the greatest. I normally do not trust the hyperbole and media hype surrounding a film, especially when it surrounds a big-budget superhero movie, so I went into a screening of The Dark Knight deliberately skeptical and demanding that Nolan and company work hard to convince. They did not disappoint. Nolan, Bale and Ledger were up to the challenge, it seems, because convince me they did. They fully convinced me. In fact, I haven't been so convinced of a movie's greatness since I stumbled out of my first screening of There Will Be Blood last year. It's that good. Believe the hype, believe the hyperbole: The Dark Knight is not only perhaps the most perfectly conceived and executed comic-book movie of all time but it is also, as far as I'm concerned, a legitimate contender for best picture of the year so far.

In the wake of the events of Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) continues his vigilante crusade against Gotham's criminal element. His determination to bring order out of chaos has led to a safer city and he is now even able to consider retirement: with people like the idealistic Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham's new District Attorney, stepping up and bringing down the mobster element, the Batman can perhaps forever hang up his cape and mask and pursue the more normal, domestic pleasures of life. At just the moment when it seems as if Batman and his loose partnership with the Gotham police force's Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) may have won the war on crime, however, a wild card is thrown into the mix: a disfigured, painted, lip-smacking angel of chaos, the Joker (Heath Ledger). Unlike any of the mobsters or villains Batman has faced before, the Joker does not want anything other than to revel in the complete collapse of order. He does not want power, he does not want money. All he wants, as Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, is to see the world burn. Can a villain such as this - one who represents not so much a type of criminal but a type of metaphysical flaw - even be defeated? If it can, can it be defeated by a rational mind or is this, as the Joker maniacally declares, a battle between freaks?

It is this sort of philosophical pondering that elevates The Dark Knight above its so-called peers. Despite it's own comic-book origins, and despite the Batman franchise's questionable cinematic pedigree (Batman Begins excepted, of course) The Dark Knight is piece of serious filmmaking. Unlike the experience of other superhero efforts - Spider-Man, for instance, or this summer's own over-praised Iron Man - in which you are constantly reminded that, yes indeed, this is a comic-book fantasy, The Dark Knight broods within a simmering pool of plausibility. I'm not saying that it is without its implausible moments but that it does not ever fall back upon the tired and conventional tropes of the genre. If I may make a perhaps slightly blasphemous cinematic comparison, The Dark Knight does for the comic-book movie what Stanley Kubrick's The Shining did for horror: by completely transcending the obvious limitations of the genre, the movie establishes itself as something greater than the genre even permits. The Dark Knight is not only a great comic-book movie, it is a great movie.

Even though it's his show, the Bruce Wayne/Batman character actually takes a step back from centre stage in The Dark Knight and Christian Bale, who proved in Batman Begins that nobody else should ever play Batman, takes a similar step back in his performance, allowing the stories of others to be told. Many of the themes that dominated Batman Begins return in The Dark Knight but are this time located in other characters. It's as if each character, from Gary Oldman's resolute Lt. Gordon to Aaron Eckhart's idealistic Harvey Dent and yes even to Heath Ledger's demonic Joker, have become thematic extensions of Batman himself and seem to represent individual aspects of Bruce Wayne's personality. Bale, who really is given the least glamourous role of the major characters, and whose character doesn't really have as strong an arc as either the Gordon or Dent characters, never once tries to one-up his co-stars but always delivers a perfectly taut and controlled performance, as we've come to expect from him. His co-stars, in turn, rise to the challenge: Oldman is fantastic and Eckhart is, for the most part, quite good, though his performance does get a little cartoony towards the end, which is one of my only criticisms of the film.

And then there is Heath Ledger. Watching Ledger descend into the Joker is like watching Daniel Day-Lewis become Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York; it's like watching Javier Bardem incarnate evil as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men; it's like watching Darth Vader, Freddy Krueger or Jack Torrence leave their mark on cinema; it's as irrefutable and iconic a performance as anything else that has ever come out of Hollywood. With all respect to Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and anyone else who's ever taken a stab at the character over the years, Heath Ledger is the Joker. And yet, as insane as the role is, the Joker himself, as conceived of by Nolan and Ledger, is not merely a homicidal lunatic. He is chaos. Devouring, insatiable chaos. And he is beautiful and terrible to behold

That's all I have to say about The Dark Knight. I could get into a couple of minor criticisms: a few moments, most of which revolve around a particular character in the film's last act, are still a little too comic-booky for my taste and seem almost stylistically incongruous with the rest of the film; not all the performances are great - Maggie Gyllenhaal is straight up boring and Morgan Freeman is... well, he's just Morgan Freeman; and if anything there seems to be almost an over-abundance of plot. But I won't get into those. They hardly matter in the face of everything else that the film is doing. The Dark Knight is a masterpiece. There, I've said it. Hyperbole be damned, it's a masterpiece. If you haven't seen it yet, go; if you aren't planning on seeing it, go anyway; if you've seen it and don't agree with me, stop going to the theatre because you obviously aren't there to watch great movies.

experto crede: best film of the year so far, and this from a guy who on principle hates almost all comic-book movies (except Hellboy).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

There is awesome and there is awesome... and then there is Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. I haven't always been the biggest Joss Whedon fan, not since the Buffy days anyway, but this, I gotta say, is something else. I mean really something else. No more words... go check it out.

UPDATE: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is, sadly, no longer available as free, streaming video. It has vanished into the ethereal night. However, do not panic, gentle reader, for it is still available on iTunes and will be released on DVD shortly.