Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review :: Persona 4

Last year, amidst all the blood and sweat, all the claw scratching, biting, and eye gouging of the current gen consoles' battle to emerge amongst consumers as the best gaming option, a battle that took shape as Microsoft launched their New Xbox Experience (NXE) and Sony desperately tried (and failed) to make Home sound interesting, and finding itself thrust into the gore-slicked frontlines against the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Fallout 3, titles that were supposed to redefine gaming and take it to new heights, titles that had gamers the world over blogging furiously and screaming blood-curdling murder against those who might appear indifferent or unconvinced... shrugging off all these corporate plottings and technological wonders and fanboy rantings was a little Playstation 2 game, Persona 4.

Persona 4, or Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 if you want to get all technical and geeky about it, is, as far as I can tell, the Playstation 2's last contented breath. This is the way the console ends... but not with a whimper, no sir... with a bang. A big, bloody fantastic bang. On a console noted for its outstanding JRPGs, Persona 4 is one of the best. Never receiving the same level of attention or coverage as the by-now-bloated Final Fantasy franchise or the phenomenally popular and probably demon-inspired Pokemon species of game, at least not here on North American soil, the Persona series has been quietly building up a niche of faithfully devoted fans or, as I like to call them, the upright heart and pure. Amongst those who know, there is hardly a franchise out there that inspires as much affection and devotion, which either means we are a faithful remnant sown on the rocky soil amongst weeds and serpents... or that we're all bonkers in need of long-term institutional care. I'm an optimist (and an egoist) so I maintain the former.

So, Persona 4. You play as a young teenager recently transferred from the bustling and as your are quickly and often told utterly corrupt big city into a small rural town, a small rural town soon shocked out of its foggy malaise of would-be innocence and naivete by a series of brutal murders. When one of the victims turns out to be a fellow high school student, you and your recently made new friends set out to catch the killer. All is not Nancy Drew here, however, as you discover that, far from being a case of routine homicidal mania (few things ever are in video games), the killer is actually... um, well this is strange... killing people by throwing them into a world that exists inside the TV! These victims soon show up on the ominous Midnight Channel, a Videodrome-style* program that only appears on televisions on rainy nights at, yup, midnight, after which their bodies are soon discovered in bizarre locations. However, mercifully, you almost immediately discover that, for some reason (sometimes things don't need reasons, you know), you possess the ability to enter this television world by climbing into the screen, and you soon make it your mission to save as many of the Midnight Channel victimes as you can. Inside the TV, the true Persona raison d'etre takes hold, and interiors become exterior. You see, everyone, all people, have more than one side, the side they present to their friends and to society, the good and acceptable side, right? and then the dark, creeping, perhaps Freudian but let's not push that idea too far side of them, the side that contains all their unspoken, perhaps unspeakable, desires. In the world inside the TV, these sides become separated, and the dark sides, the Shadow selves, reek havoc. Tamed and defeated, however, these Shadow selves become Personas, powerful manifestations of that characters personality, which are able to perform combat moves and cast spells. It's a surprisingly rubust gameplay system and an even more surprisingly sophisticated theme for a game to tackle. Soo... I guess think Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Silent Hill meets Final Fantasy.

Gameplay is also divided into two types. In the real world, Persona 4 is essentially a social sim. You make friends, attend class, participate in school clubs and activities, take part-time jobs, gather together with your team of friends to solve the case, and, um... date girls (some critics have crudely described the game as a dating sim... bah, I say. Bah!). In the television world, however, Persona 4 is a strong, though let's be honest not the best, JRPG combat game, in which you fight peoples' Shadow selves, often grotesquely themed versions of their hidden desires, and a host of smaller Shadows who are just there because... well, because you need some monsters to fight, dammit! But while the gameplay mechanics are functional and at times addictive, they are not the star of this show. Rather, startlingly unlike almost all other games, Persona's real charm lies in its characterizations, narrative, and themes. Though there are a few cultural hurdles to clear, and though there are some things you just shake your head at and write off as "Japanese," the characters here are some of the most well-defined, best-executed I've ever seen. It approaches cinematic quality (well, surpasses it actually, depending on what you hold up as your cinematic standard). Some of it is quirky, some of it is strange and bizarre, some of it is just a little too precious at points... but it all comes together to form a cohesive whole, one that feels psychologically and emotionally authentic. These aren't caricatures, aren't stock characters, aren't game cliches, but rather are fully formed characters, many of whom I enjoy spending time with, a rarity in games. So often game developers focus almost exclusively on mechanics (which are important, don't get me wrong) and end up ignoring, or simply tacking on, character development. Not Persona 4.

There is also quite a bit to enjoy on the thematic end of things. The Persona series has never pulled punches. It's solidly rated M, and for good reason. I mean, in Persona 3 the characters summoned their Personas with "evokers," gun-shaped tools with which they shot their own heads. You could actually see what I guess is sort of a psychic debris coming out the other side as their Personas appeared. (The teen suicide motif was not lost on critics, nope, no siree.) Persona 4 continues that mature tradition, though unlike many other M-rated games, Persona never feels as if it were exploiting its rating when it comes to things like violence of profanity. It feels more as if they simply made their game and accepted whatever rating they were given, which, given some of the games sexual themes (the Midnight Channel version of the biker gang member's repressed homosexual fantasy comes to mind), is, naturalich, M for Mature. And some of the things here are deftly handled. This isn't a clumsy or ham-handed treatment of repressed personality. In one particular confrontation, a friend's Shadow self, who had already revealed all that person's deepest and most embarassing romantic feelings, confronts her friend, a standoff that dives into the awkward depths of how friends really feel about each other. The sort of thoughts we all have - my friend is better than me, so I hate her; he's holding me back; he's the strong one, I'm the weak one - get played out. It's not as metaphorical as in, say, Silent Hill 2; some of the things are a bit on the nose. But the game gets credit just for going there, for setting up a sort of arena of the interior and allowing characters to battle it out and hopefully find some peace not only with each other but also with themselves. It's horrifying and touching.

(Um... that trailer might be enough to scare off some people... sorry.)

Persona 4 is simply a fantastic game. Its characters and themes are some of the strongest and most fleshed out in the industry, its combat is quick and fun, its storytelling is, even considering everything it's up against with the current gen releases, outstanding, add to all that a compelling art direction, some great anime cutscenes, and a snappy, hip soundtrack and you get not only of the best JRPGs in a long while but one of the best RPGs in a long while. It puts things like Fallout 3 and even Mass Effect to shame (though it's really not all that hard to shame Fallout 3... especially in the character and narrative departments). It's not without a few annoyances: the game does rely on some heavy grinding** in some parts, and it has a frustrating habit of making you click through a number of information screens a hundred times over, but those aspects are negligible. I should probably also point out that I haven't actually finished the game yet. It takes something like 50 to 70 hours to wrap this one up... so at least you're getting your money's worth.

If you like RPGs, and can handle a tolerable dose of some JRPG stylings (oh, sorry... an RPG is a "role-playing game" and a JRPG is a "Japanese role-playing game... and believe me, there is a distinction), Persona 4 is a must-play. I don't really want to get too deep into RPG theory, but Persona 4 breaks nearly every convention and improves, and I mean dramatically improves, on the already established Persona style. After playing it, I've had to rethink my choice for 2008's game of the year. Sorry, Dead Space. But any game that challenges Silent Hill 2 as one of the most psychologically and emotionally compelling games of all time simply must have my recommendation.

*Isn't that just the most bizarre trailer you've ever seen? Seriously, what the hell!?

** Grinding, for all you non-gamers, is a mechanic in which you simply fight battle after battle in order to advance not the plot but your character's level. It can turn some people off.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dr. Manhattan's Penis

At work, as I stand in a billowing cloud of dust, a haze I suspect of being both physical and epistemological and one that I'm trying my damnedest to see through, one of the many things that I have been thinking incompletely about lately (it's hard to follow any single thought to conclusion inside this cloud of dust... hence, epistemological haze) ever since the release of Watchmen at least, a movie that I can't seem to get out of my head, but not for the right reasons, not because I liked it so much, but because for me, being a fan of the Alan Moore graphic novel, that film highlighted for me in ways that I hadn't quite thought of before the limitations of the cinematic medium, and not just the limitations of an uninspiring director, nope, but of the medium itself, but so anyway, one of the things that I've been thinking about lately is that a terrible clarity exists in film. Film, pictures of any sort really, impose a vision - one might say version - of reality upon us that, at least as far as our visual sense is concerned, should be accepted as reality. Pictures make certain demands upon or awareness of reality. Of course, when it comes to films, most of us, instead of being left to the mercies of clogged doors of perception, appeal to an epistemological structure that does not depend solely on sight, allowing us to discriminate without much hesitation or confusion between reality and fantasy. But I am not talking about artistic irony or suspension of disbelief. No, I'm talking about perception and how it relates to artistic interpretation. The clearer the image, the less room we have to negotiate with what we are seeing. I am talking, you see, about Dr. Manhattan's Penis.*

In Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, previously John Osterman, is a sort of atomic super-being. Having been literally atomized in a laboratory accident, he reconstructed himself, particle by particle, into something else entirely, a being capable of manipulating matter and energy with nothing more than thought and will. As his fellow scientist and friend put it after John's post-accident reappearance: God exists, and he is American. But so, John, now far beyond anything recognizably human, finds himself slowly becoming detached from normal, everyday experience, a withdrawal that plays an important part in the Watchmen narrative. One of those detachments, it seems, is clothing. Though he does wear a sort of loincloth, or even sometimes a suit, when appearing in public, these are really more concessions to public morality than attempts at true modesty. Dr. Manhattan, probably because they have no meaning for him, just doesn't normally wear clothes, and in a novel so concerned with costumes and the way they create or conceal identity, this is likely important. So, for a good deal of Watchmen, you have a giant, blue-glowing man who recalls, more than anything, Da Vinci's Vitruvian man,walking around with no pants on. Just, you know, swinging in the breeze. On paper, in the panels of the novel, this works, partly because on the page the whole thing remains largely conceptual but also because of the way that Dave Gibbons chose to draw him (see above linked image), you do not so much get a penis as the suggestion of a penis. 

In Zack Snyder's Watchmen, however, Dr. Manhattan's penis thrusts itself off the page, out of the realm of the conceptual, and into the full monty of visual clarity. There is no negotiating with this penis, no sir. It is there, on the screen. It moves. It possesses a lurid gravity. 

Setting aside - setting far, far aside, so far aside, in fact, that you can't even see them, since they really aren't what I want to get into here - questions about the morality of on-screen nudity, it seems to me that something is lost, something perhaps critical, in this transition from concept to image, something I'm only starting to become aware of. The graphic novel is already a bridge between what is strictly textual and strictly visual, but even on the page, in this gentle blending of mediums, wiggle room can be found. A great deal of imagination is required to bring to life the images, either visual or literary. Readers aren't only consumers, they are participants. In film, or at least in most films, however, this type of imagination - which brings to life the art in the reader's mind, which brings the opportunity for self-evaluation and interpretation, which brings moments of insight - is no longer required. Another type may be, but not this one, not normally. Much of the imaginative, and what's worse, much of the hermeneutical work traditionally performed by the consumer of art is now done by the film itself. This is not an insurmountable hurdle, however, but it does require a deft hand and and a bit of trust in the audience. It requires relocating the conceptual, being aware that, though there are a few, there are not many overlaps between the literary and visual mediums. What is preciously ambiguous in one is crudely, vulgarly made obvious and dull in the full light of the other. A picture may be worth a thousand words but make that same picture move and its worth suddenly plummets. Ten words, maybe. Or fifteen. It is analogous, I think, to language. In the fuzzy passages of abstraction and conceptualization, a thought grows and expands, fills cathedrals worth of psychic pages: the thought is infinite. Spoken aloud or written down, that thought is shackled, chained, shoved roughly through Blake's dirty doors of perception. Limited, probably unintentionally, by our fumbling attempts at language.

Recently, Battlestar Galactica came to a triumphant finish. In poking around the various discussions online, however, I came across an interesting species of thought: some fans were actually disappointed in the series' finale because it left so many things "open." This sort of puzzled me because, other than a few narrative threads that simply didn't get treated (and most of these weren't terribly important), the last episodes wrapped up all the big questions. Wrapped up, that is, in that much was suggested, much was implied, much left in appropriate ways to the viewers imagination. But some viewers seemed angered by the endings provided. They apparently wanted everything spelled out. Perhaps they would have been satisfied if Edward James Olmos had turned to the camera and narrated each characters conclusions in detail, perhaps including such pointless things as what each of them ate for breakfast the next day. Maybe then they would have been satisfied. But this sort of petulent demand for absolute clarity is, I think, a consequence of what I am talking about. having grown accustomed to the cinematic medium's ability to provide absolute visual clarity, the viewer/reader's place in the creative process is lost. It goes beyond want... most viewers need everything spelled out to them, just like in a CSI episode. 

We have lost the ability to negotiate with art. We are no longer adults, conversing like friends. At the feet of art, we are children. Uncomprehending. Dull. Unable to fully engage.

There are ways for the visual medium to be challenging. In the hands of filmmakers like David Cronenberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, the late Stanley Kubrick, people like this, filmmakers who understood the strenghts and weakness of visual communication, movies possess as much power, as much ambiguity, as much "literariness" as literature. There is no reason to settle for dull art.

So, trapped in my dusty haze, I ponder these things. Incompletely. No single medium is without limitation. And I am growing more and more aware of film's limitations. Watchmen isn't a horrible film. But it does highlight the problem of a medium's versitility. Brought to life, Dr. Manhattan's giant blue member is distracting. But Snyder was, I think, trapped: he could either be "faithful" to the text** (whatever that means) or adapt it to the new medium. Neither is entirely preferrable, so I think Watchmen should have stayed exactly what it was. But Watchmen isn't the problem. It only tugged into the open a question that had been slowing gathering force in my mind. As we hurl ourselves headlong into new technological frontiers, with ever expanding entertainment vistas opening up in front of us, as hi-def technology becomes more readily and easily available, I'm wondering if a clearer, sharper image is really what we need. Maybe the older, fuzzier images nurtered healthier imagintions.


UPDATE: As my friend Life of Turner points out - and I can always trust him to point these things out - I may have come across as a bit too iconoclastic here. I'm not dismissing the medium entirely. As anyone who has met me or reads this site already knows, I have invested a great deal of my time and mental activity into film. I'm not about to abandon it. I think great directors, and sometimes even not so great ones, powerfully employ the medium, twisting it, manipulating it, forcing it to play on our emotions and intellects in ways we may not have been prepared for; they throw back into Marshall McLuhan's face his aphoristic assertion: the medium may be the message, but we can manipulate the medium. However, unless you*** are Lynch or Herzog or Cronenberg or (P. T.) Anderson, or some one of the other very few people out there really making films, and I mean really making them, you are more likely the manipulated in this situation and not, as you may think, the manipulator. And for the self-unaware, mediums are tyrannical masters: they will break your back and take from you everything. The cinematic medium is a savagely literal one. It relies, almost exclusively, on sight, and sight, as my master William Blake taught me, is defective. "We are led to believe a lie / when we see not thro the eye." Years of literal conditioning has left audiences far less jaded and sophisticated than they think. They are often imaginative infants, craddled within the medium's dictatorial arms. What we read, what we watch, what we play - these things shape our minds. So this isn't a dismissal of the medium. It's a desire to see the medium used properly. As long as filmmakers rely on their medium's visual clarity (and those who do almost always couple visual clarity with dialogue so utterly banal and dull as to boggle the mind - a double crime against art), as long as, in other words, we as viewers are meant to turn off our minds and simply accept what we are seeing, film and television will continue encouraging us into a downward spiral that ends in the opposite of enlightenment, in mental darkness. 

Too much? Nay, not enough!

*Interesting side-story. The other day I found and uploaded onto this picture of Dr. Manhattan taken from the Watchmen graphic novel. When I logged back into photobucket, however, I was told that the image, I guess because it includes a picture of a penis, had been moderated. Frustrating. I wonder if an uploaded picture of David would receive the same treatment.

** I think that he, by remaining so visually faithful to the text (in this case image), probably thought he was being "edgy" (whatever that means) by so prominently including the Doc's giant dong. Sorry, Snyder... it just adds another layer of tonal schizophrenia to an already confused film.

*** This is perhaps my most inappropriate use of "you" ever. Really, it doesn't make any sense.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Review :: Watchmen

When asked how he would make Watchmen, beloved auteur of the bizarre and all things strange Terry Gilliam, who was once attached to direct the film, said that it should be made as a twelve-part mini-series; when asked how he would make Watchmen, series creator and crazy-looking person Alan Moore, who is famously upset because of several movies poorly adapted from his work (among which is the disastrous The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the not-so-disastrous but still not very good V for Vendetta), said he wouldn't. Watchmen shouldn't be adapted; it's unfilmable; it would be irreparably damaged in translation. However, cutting into some middle ground between Gilliam's hypothetical twelve plus hour epic and Moore's self-important insistence on zero, director Zack Snyder, convinced of his own directorial abilities, which, let's be honest, does include a powerful if somewhat shallow eye for spectacle and visual invention, has brought Watchmen to the big screen in what I am sure he thinks is all its giant, blue-glowing glory. But does Watchmen survive translation? The graphic novel is, if not the greatest, than at least very high on the list of greatest graphic novels of all time; it is one of those works of art that not only uses its medium to the fullest potential possible but which transcends that medium, elevating it beyond what was thought possible. Though the same can't be said for the film, Watchmen is a serviceable adaptation. Which is to say that it is disappointing.

Watchmen is the story of the end, or perhaps the beginning, who knows, of the world, and it is set in an alternate universe, one resembling our own but just ever-so-slightly laterally shifted off centre. It is a 1980's-ish universe in which Richard Nixon is serving his third term, America won the Vietnam war, and in which costumed heroes and masked vigilantes, heroes and villains both, are not the stuff of comics and kids stories but of every day life. Or at least they had been until a government act banned "masks" and outlawed costumed heroes. Now, most of these former heroes and villains live ordinary lives, haunted by the deeds and heroics of their past shadow lives. But when, with the doomsday clock sitting at five minutes to midnight and with the Americans and the Russians staring down the barrel of mutually assured nuclear annihilation, one of these former heroes, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dead Morgan), is murdered, the one costumed hero who has refused to give up his vigilante ways, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), suspects that a plot to kill off "masks" has been hatched and sets off to find answers. What ensues is a sprawling, ambitious super hero epic, one that quickly spirals much deeper then one dead former hero into a plan to change the world, entirely, forever.

Though I love the source material (and I mean really love it, which probably only exacerbates my disappointment), and though there are parts of this film that work, and work really well, Watchmen as a whole doesn't work. I don't know, perhaps no adaptation of it could work. I'm not quite sure how to nail down my criticisms of it, however, since individually all the elements seem to work on their own. The casting, especially Jeffrey Dead Morgan and The Comedian and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, is dead on, and the decision to go with relatively unknown actors (Billy Crudup as Doctor Manhattan and Malin Akerman as Silk Specter II are probably the most recognizable actors here) probably serves the film well since none of the actors bring too much of their filmographic baggage to the show. The effects, and many of the set-pieces, like the prison break scene, also work very well. Zack Snyder, who's last film was the vacuous though visually arresting 300, can obviously direct action and manage CGI. But, though everything looks good on paper, and even looks good on film, and though the film is remarkably faithful to the novel, perhaps even to a fault, something is missing, and I'm not only referring to the cut material. As a fan of the source material, it's impossible for me to separate my expectations for the film from what I already know and love of the novel. And though I can tolerate and even appreciate (when done well) changes or updates when it comes to adaptations, I can't forgive shallowness. Watchmen the film only skims across the surface of Watchmen the novel, never diving deeper into its murkier depths. So while all the important components of the story are present and accounted for, they aren't quite used to their proper effect.

To illustrate all this, especially the film's failings as an adaptation, a comparative digression. As if the darker pages of Marvel or DC had spilled over into reality, allowing costumed heroes to roam about the cities, accepted - even if begrudgingly - as a feature of ordinary life, Alan Moore's Watchmen deconstructed the super hero genre. However, Moore's heroes are not the shiny, wholesome types of heroes we've come to expect from comics.* His heroes, instead, are ones that fight or participate in crime in order to fulfill the needs of some psychological disorder. Costumes don't hide identity; for the characters in Watchmen, they create them. Walter Kovacs is Rorschach's alter-ego; the ordinary man is the vigilante's disguise. So sociopaths, lunatics, and borderline schizophrenics: these are the kinds of people putting on costumes. These are the watchmen guarding society - ethically suspect, viciously violent, teetering on the fine edge between moral certitude and outright insanity. In Zack Snyder's Watchmen, however, these ambiguities and subtleties of character are never explored. They are present, yes, but only in some perfunctory sort of way. An example: a scene, a pivotal one in the Rorschach origin story, is clumsily represented. Instead of letting us feel what Rorschach felt, instead of developing the scene in a way that allows audiences to share in his moral outrage, we are hastily told what Rorschach felt. What should be experience becomes exposition. Another example: the lust and sexuality hidden in both Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson)** that emerges as the two of them resume their long-repressed costumed ways is present on screen (boy is it ever) but isn't given its proper weight. It comes off more as cinematic titillation and as a strong desire to earn that 18A rating than as a psychological imperative driving these characters. Now both of these examples would be fine (though probably not so graphic) if this were just another Spider-Man movie or X-Men movie or just another of any of the major comic book movies plugging up theatres all over the place, but with is Watchmen, dammit. The film has pretensions beyond this. It deserves to have its themes handled by a steady hand and not by someone more concerned with making them look right. And when the film so obviously wants to be taken seriously and considered portentous, it needs to offer more than Snyder seems capable of delivering.

Since Christopher Nolan re-launched Batman and gave us what were essentially arthouse films disguised as summer blockbusters, comic book movies have been trying to outgrow their ordinarily B-grade britches. Now, here is a story ripe for such a treatment - demanding such a treatment, screaming out for it - but which gets, instead, Zack Snyder. While I have no doubt that he loves Watchmen, I do doubt Snyder's ability to direct anything of real emotional or intellectual substance. When the Watchmen teaser debuted a few months ago (conveniently embedded above), I watched it over and over again, reveling in its visual splendor, salivating over its images and the promise that they offered - an adaptation worthy of its source. Now, having seen the final product that Snyder delivered, I know why I liked that trailer so much and why I am so disappointed in the film. Snyder is a surface director. He can make anything look good. But while Watchmen looks good, it never gets past the make-up and the CGI, never dives into those deeper waters. It's like he pain-stakingly recreated the panels of Watchmen without actually understanding what they meant, giving us a pretty forgery instead of a true adaptation. I want to love this movie. I want Watchmen to be brilliant. Even just watching the trailer again, I wonder if I've got this wrong. But I don't think that I have.

Experto Crede: Though visually stunning and lovingly rendered, Watchmen fails to deliver much more than a shallow recreation of the graphic novel. It's a decent film, sure, but it's not the film the novel deserves.

* This worked better, and packed a heavier punch, I imagine, when the graphic novel was initially published, in the late 80's. Now, sociopathic heroes are all too commonplace.

** Um, just ignore the genealogical numbering. It would take too long to explain. Let's just say I'm too much of a purist to leave them off.

UPDATE: Here's a link to an AICN interview between Quint and Zack Snyder. While Quint is polite, and geeks out at the right moments, the whole interview only confirms my suspicions: that Snyder, probably through no fault of his own, I don't know maybe he's too young or something, should not have directed the film.