Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Review :: George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead

Imagine that you are watching George A. Romero' seminal horror flick Dawn of the Dead. Now imagine that after all the delightful mall carnage and beautifully crafted social satire, an utterly redundant narrator comes on and says, "In case you missed it, the film's about consumerism. It's a metaphor. Get it?" Well, that is unfortunately what it's like to watch Romero's latest zombie foray, the miserable Diary of the Dead, a movie so obnoxiously mediocre and insipidly derivative it makes efforts like Cloverfield seem downright brilliant.

There isn't really much of a plot to summarize. Instead of continuing the established universe that every other Dead movie has built upon and expanded, Diary, in a poorly conceived (and an even more poorly executed) act of "revisionism," decides to go back to the beginning. The twist? Diary of the Dead follows a group of student filmmakers who were filming their own cheesy horror movie when the outbreak began and who, armed with the cameras and more "the people need to know" and blogs will save the day sentiment than is easily stomached, decide that they should document the deterioration of civilization. And that's the movie. Every single predictable zombie flick convention is present and accounted for, from the tense interpersonal relationships, to the inevitable and by now entirely procedural killing off of characters, and to the morally suspect militia and/or military groups, everything that you've come to expect is here. And it's just tedious.

It's hard not to think that Romero hasn't pulled a Lucas on us and simply revealed himself to be a bad filmmaker. The original trilogy of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead are three of the most revered horror movies of all time, and rightly so. They were a nearly perfect combination of shock and gore horror, social satire and artistic vision. Land of the Dead, which I still enjoyed, was a disappointing misstep but still managed to carry the torch. But here... it's like Romero simply has no idea what he's doing. From the ghastly narration, which more often than not just makes horribly explicit whatever ghosts of subtext may have awkwardly floated into the previous scenes, to the third-rate special effects and gore sequences that simply look like made-for-cable sloppy seconds, Romero seems incapable of making the right decision on this film.

But the film's biggest problem is that it fails to execute its central conceit, that this is amateur footage shot by film students. The Blair Witch Project may have been more annoying than scary and Cloverfield may have been more hype than substance but at least both of those films obeyed their own rules and gave us films that stayed within the expected parameters. Romero, on the other hand, seems to think that splicing together several different feeds of video, using some awkward and non-traditional camera angles, and having whole lot of people tell the camera man he's insane for filming during a time like this translates as "amateur video." But instead of feeling like something you could stumble across on youtube, Diary not only still feels like an actually shot and edited film, it feels like a badly shot and edited film. Sure, there's a thin pretext for the film's "polish:" one of the students, for some reason, somehow completed, edited, scored and narrated their little apocalyptic documentary during the crisis because, apparently, uploading the movie and "letting the people know" is more important than survival, as if blogging or some tightly grasped notion of journalistic integrity would suddenly de-animate the dead and save the day.

I'm tempted to think that Romero has just run out of steam and is at this time running on name recognition only. Like Lucas, Coppola and Spielberg, perhaps he should just retire and leave the film business to a younger generation. Films like this tempt me to think that older directors should just stop before they make themselves look ridiculous. But last year William Friedkin released Bug, one of the most psychologically taught and ferocious horror thrillers I've ever seen. It was remarkable not only for it's audacity but also because it felt like the creation of an exciting up-and-comer, someone bristling with new ideas and concepts, someone like a smarter (much smarter) Eli Roth. There are plenty of matured filmmakers that still produce amazing works of art: Cronenberg, Herzog, and Scorsese, just to name a few. Romero, sadly, isn't one of them... and Diary of the Dead is the sad proof of that.

experto crede: unless you are a cinematic masochist, or someone who wants to see the mighty fall, avoid Diary of the Dead. It will only ruin your picture of Romero.

Sex and Video Games

Here's an interesting follow-up to my Grand Theft Auto IV article. In the last little while, several video game critics have begun to pop up, critics like the scabrous though quite amusing Yahtzee over at Zero Punctuation. Perhaps the appearance of critics indicates that at least somewhere someone thinks the medium as a whole has, or may one day have, artistic value. While I myself play video games, I'm very wary about the idea that games can be called Art (note the capital) or even artistic.

In my GTA article, I suggested that games could not be called art because they lack irony. In order to make my point, I may have exaggerated a little, however. I don't think that all art must be ironic; I do think that video games, whose fundamental gameplay elements are often based on violence (see, oh I don't know... nearly every RPG or FPS ever made), need a healthy dose of irony before they can legitimately be artistic.

Anyway, today I ran across a video that is actually quite interesting. I disagree, and rather strongly, on some of the things that Mr Daniel Floyd says in it but find that he does have some good points. Despite what he says, think there is a lot more holding back video game from the artistic threshold than only a prurient and juvenile fixation on hyper-sexuality, and so his seeming acceptance of games as an art form bothers me. But if nothing else, however, his video suggests that there exists within academia a growing critical awareness of gaming, which is no doubt healthy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Gold and Silver" by Stavesacre

Sometimes life seems to conspire against you. Sometimes things just seem overwhelming. Sometimes you need to retreat and regroup. Other times you need to pray that much harder. At times like these, almost invariably, I end up listening to this song by Stavesacre. They may not be the most well-known group... they might not be the best band ever... but they have always been my band. Their music has carried me through a lot. Sometimes, a song can say it all.

You slipped from my arms
I knew you had to go
Such a heavy heart
Who could hope to hold
And I know where you're going
And that's the hardest part
No matter where tonight ends
You won't escape you're broken heart

Stay a while

Helpless for the words
And it tightens up the air
It's not what you deserve
It's not for lack of care
Inside of me is screaming out
I'm praying for my prayers
Distracting and unworthy
Of each and every burning tear

Seems insincere

Do I see God in all of this?
Maybe all along?
It's just that we're so small
And simply not as strong
Strong like wings of silver
And feathers made of gold
To carry heavy hearts
To cover all our helpless souls

To cover all of us

Under wings of gold and silver sometimes we have to hide
For shelter from this bitter winter... at least tonight

If it were mine to give
I'd give you your own time
Turn it back or forward
Whatever you decide

Stay a while

I wish I could post an mp3 of the song. I won't. But I can point you to Stavesacre's MySpace page, on which you can listen to to the song. I would recommend that everyone listen to it. It certainly calms my soul. It's David to my Saul.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Slip

If I were to be honest (and I frequently am), I'd say, without much reservation, that Nine Inch Nails is one of my favourites bands. I've always found Trent Reznor's combinations of moral outrage, schizophrenic self-resentment, and borderline apathy compelling, provocative and more than a little identifiable. But lyrics and poetry aside, on a purely musical level Reznor has always been on the bleeding edge of musical technology while still managing to avoid digital excess. Using samples and everything from the sharpest and most memorable hooks to the faintest and still entirely resonant aural echoes, he has been able to dredge sounds out of his soul that are alarming, other-worldly, and yet entirely human. Lately, Trent Reznor has been giving fans quite a lot to be excited about. Year Zero reaffirmed Reznor's artistic integrity after the slight misstep that was With Teeth; the follow-up Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D gave us exactly the kind of delirious self-revision that NIN has become famous for; and Ghosts I-IV, Reznor's first release after his much-publicized break with Universal Music Group (the parent company of Interscope Records), was a haunting, beautifully crafted ambient instrumental album that came out of no where and demanded instant attention. Now, Reznor gives us The Slip, a new full-length album available as a free download at nin.com. I just downloaded it and am listening to it for the first time as I write this. It's 100% Reznor: it's the full on noise-rock Reznor of Pretty Hate Machine and it's the ambient/instrumental Reznor of Ghosts I-IV. While on a first listen I'm not quite sure whether or not it ranks among his most important works, such as The Downward Spiral or The Fragile, I am sure that I love it and that it's worth a listen, especially if you have any interest in Nine Inch Nails. Hey, it's free; it's licensed under Creative Commons; if nothing else, it represents a new, more creatively free way of releasing an album and that in itself is pretty exciting. On the nin.com homepage, Reznor writes, "thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years - this one's on me." Thank you, Trent. It's much appreciated.

Download The Slip for free at http://theslip.nin.com/

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Fall of the House of Usher (excerpt)

Okay, enough ranting. Not only have I been taking flak for Grand Theft Auto, but my beloved digital home away from home, Talking About Games, is experiencing a minor crisis and the emotions are running hot. I need to clear my head and Edgar Allan Poe is one of the best ways to do that. Enjoy.

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was - but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me - upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain - upon the bleak walls - upon the vacant eye-like windows - upon a few rank sedges - and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees - with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium - the bitter lapse into every-day life - the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart - an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it - I paused to think - what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, what while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down - but with a shudder even more thrilling than before - upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Fall of the House of Usher." Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Tales. Ed. Julian Symons. Oxford, 1980. 62-78.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Video Games and Art :: Grand Theft Auto IV

This article was previously entitled Why I'm Not Playing Grand Theft Auto IV. I've changed the name because I have in fact, since writing the article, played the game. And enjoyed it. As far as I'm concerned, my enjoyment of the game does not invalidate what I say below. This article, though about GTA IV, is really a criticism of gaming itself. That said, perhaps I'm just a hypocrite.

In the last little while, I've got myself into a few discussions, some of which were rather heated, about Rockstar's latest release, the controversial and much-hyped Grand Theft Auto IV. Let me be clear about myself: I am a gamer but I am also a critic of the arts and sometimes I think those two are mutually exclusive. I've been playing video games for many, many years now and I think it's generally expected that all gamers, in some ill-defined act of solidarity and affirmation, will always rise up and defend a game like Grand Theft Auto against such critics as the now-famous Jack Thompson on the grounds that it's fun, dammit. However, I don't defend GTA. I do think gaming can be intelligently and critically defended against its many vehement critics but I do not think that Grand Theft Auto is the platform upon which such a defense can be successfully mounted.

These days anyone in the gaming community who challenges the merits of a video game is considered a puritanical, raving fundamentalist. It does not really matter if you are talking about Manhunt or Halo: if you suggest that some violence is too excessive or that some scenarios go too far you are ridiculed, ostracized and ignored. Not even film critics are this blindly devoted to their chosen art form; most will have the honesty to say that not every film is justifiable or healthy regardless of the ideology they embrace. Gamers, on the other hard, perhaps betraying a deep-seated anxiety about their chosen form of entertainment, see every single game as a representative symbol of gaming as a whole. It's as if censoring one game will lead to the censoring of all video games. The mainstream media outlets do not help on this point since as soon as a particularly violent video game is released they use it as an opportunity to attack all of gaming instead of the game in question.

Now, I'm not really a fundamentalist or a radical conservative; at least, I don't think of myself as one. I am not particularly bothered by depictions of either extreme violence or sexuality when both are connected to artistic and metaphoric purposes. I just finished a Takashi Miike marathon, for crying out loud. My shelves are filled with the movies of David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, etc, etc. As I see it, film, along with most of the art forms working with the concepts of narrative or character, is built upon fundamental notions of irony and detachment. It's one of the first things you learn as an English student: don't confuse the narrator with the author; don't mistake the main character's views with the author's. There's a fundamental disconnect between what happens in a poem, a novel, or a film and between what the author or the text actually means. This disconnect is called irony and it is perhaps the most important hermeneutical principle any critic should recognize. Video games, however, lack irony. Actions are not connected to a larger metaphoric scheme; stories, most often lacking real characterization or narrative innovation, are simply pretenses for gameplay. This is true of almost every video game, not just Grand Theft Auto. There is no moral disconnect between a players actions and a game's "artistic" purpose.

What makes Grand Theft Auto such a lightning rod for controversy is that, unlike most games, the gameplay is based upon criminal action. Players, instead of taking on the role of a superhero, cop, soldier, whatever, take on the role of a criminal who, through murder, robbery, arson, etc, rises through the ranks of a particular criminal organization. This sort of gameplay, severed from ironic or metaphoric intentions, becomes extremely hard to justify. It is, perhaps, unjustifiable. In GTA, there's no moral disconnect between the crimes performed by the protagonists and the financial rewards derived with those actions. This is different, much different, from the depiction of crime in cinema. In a crime or gangster movie, the idea that crime destroys lives is built into the very narrative framework. It may be exciting to see Ray Liotta in Goodfellas gain mafia power but we know that it's all going to end badly for him because of it and we know that it's right that it should end badly. It is this moral disconnect, the ability for the audience to recognize the inverse relationship between crime and mental or moral health, that makes films such as Goodfellas and The Godfather justifiable, compelling and important. In video games, however, there is no moral disconnect; there certainly has never been one in and of the GTA games. The player takes on the role of a criminal and never once is encouraged to think reflectively or critically about this.

(I don't agree with everything Glen Beck says in the video above, but I do think that his point about the desensitizing program used by the military and how that relates to video games should be thought about quite seriously.)

I haven't played Grand Theft Auto IV yet so perhaps I'm not qualified to comment on the game like this. I am a gamer, however, and I have played most of the games in the series that came before it, though I never really found any of them to be all that compelling. So I think I'm qualified to say that unless GTA IV is so radical in its narrative presentation that the player, instead of feeling rewarded for his actions, feels like his character should die or spend the rest of his life in jail, then it is once again just another un-ironic glorification of criminal action.

If there is one thing that in my mind could invalidate gaming as a legitimate form of entertainment and that could challenge the notion that games are art it is this lack of irony. Roger Ebert has famously said that video games are not art and, frankly, I'm inclined to agree with him. For every Bioshock that gets released (which is perhaps the closest that a game has ever come to being a work of art) there are a hundred games like Grand Theft Auto released. They may be entertaining, and games like Grand Theft Auto may be entertaining in a very prurient, misogynistic way, but as long as they lack irony, mere entertainment is all that they will remain and it should never enter into our minds to call them art.

And, since I'm not entertained by 30+ hours of mindless and un-ironic crime, I've decided not to play Grand Theft Auto IV.

Friday, May 2, 2008

"Auguries of Innocence" (excerpt) by William Blake

I've quoted William Blake a few times on this site because more than any other poet or philosopher Blake has shaped the way I think about the world, the church and art. The man in the flames to the left of this, the image that I've adopted as my own personal avatar, is one of Blake's many famous images. But it occurred to me that I've never actually posted any Blake on this site. Well, I've fixed that now.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.


He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne'er believe, do what you please.
If the sun and moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out.
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.
The whore and gambler, by the state
Licensed, build that nation's fate.
The harlot's cry from street to street
Shall weave old England's winding sheet.
The winner's shout, the loser's curse,
Dance before dead England's hearse.
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
We are led to believe a lie
When we see not through the eye
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
God appears, and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night,
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.