Too Much Dessert?

August 3, 2010

First on Blogcritics

If you have been following film critic Roger Ebert’s Twitter page and journal over the past few weeks and months, you are probably aware he has sparked an interesting debate concerning the idea of videogames being “art.” In his online journal, Ebert claims, “I remain convinced that in principle, videogames cannot be art.” This, not surprisingly, prompted some (more) outrage from gamers. I found myself being one of the very few that actually agreed with Ebert.

It is true that videogames have become very sophisticated over the past decade and many games contain some impressive narratives. Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto, and the Metal Gear Solid series come to mind in this regard. But, I still maintain that even the best, smartest game can not even come close to rivaling the creative expression and narrative talent of a great novel or film. Consequently, I feel I should throw my hat into the ring, being a gamer myself who sympathized with Ebert’s perspective.

Rather than just trying to explain why he is right or wrong, I want to address the implications the question of videogames as art has brought to the surface, namely: what we value individually and as a culture.

After all the negative feedback he received, Ebert went on to a second journal entry, saying, “I was a fool for mentioning videogames in the first place.” Well, I don’t think he’s a fool, he was just saying something he believed even if it was unpopular. Perhaps his first misstep was trying to define art. What art is exactly and the difference between art and high art — if there is such a distinction — is the subject of much study, debate, and schools of thought. There is no single easy answer and that’s how it should be. The most common thing I read and hear is, “art is subjective.” Well, that’s not wrong, but it’s one of those pre-packaged, easy responses which fail to take into account many factors.

When you get right down to it, everything is subjective. You can only truly view the world from your personal perspective. How then does something come to be accepted as true? The answer is consensus. A colorblind person would never truly know that the sky is blue, but they can accept that it is blue because so many other people have agreed upon that fact and the science behind it.

An individual may think Moby-Dick is trash and not worth reading. That is their subjective experience. However, you have to take into account that Moby-Dick has become a classic of American Literature — it has been studied and analyzed for years by scholars and academics. People have come to a consensus that it is a great book because of its masterful use of language, symbolism, and theme. Not everyone agrees, but that is nothing new. It is also interesting to note that Moby-Dick was critically reviled when it was originally released. Eventually, the best ideas float to the top.

The best analogy I can think of is how the Theory of Evolution came to be regarded as scientific fact. It’s not just because Charles Darwin said it was true; it has been studied, tested, and proven by other scientists using the scientific method. Evolution is in our textbooks now, much the same way high school students are required to read To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984. What if popularity had a say in whether evolution was “true” or not? Well, popularity does get a say and I think we all know how that’s working out.

Videogames are very popular. Why shouldn’t they be? They’re awesome! I’ve been playing videogames all my life. I will be happy to divulge my gamer credentials upon request. Let’s just say I’ve seen my fair share of sunrises after having lost myself in Vice City or finding that last heart container. However, they’re just entertainment, a diversion. I can’t stress that enough. That is what they are designed to be. I don’t require videogames to be more than entertainment. At the same time, I don’t require art to be entertaining.

I think the problem is that the line between art and entertainment has become so blurred that not many seem to be able to tell the difference any more. It’s easy to see why; they often come in the same package.

Take a movie like Pulp Fiction for example. On the surface, it’s an enjoyable movie to watch. It’s funny; it has a lot of action and an intriguing, unique plot. But, at the same time, there is a lot of artistry involved. Don’t believe me, read Ebert’s amazing analysis and writing on the film. I first read that analysis of Pulp Fiction after my initial viewing of the film back when I was in high school. I decided then and there that I was in love with film.

I’m not saying there is no artistry in the development of a videogame. It takes many talented, creative, and artistic people to create a good videogame. They are just not at the same level. Videogames have only been around for a little over 30 years — film, a little over a hundred. The novel has been around somewhere in the neighborhood of a few hundred years and some would argue much longer than that. Simply put, if the videogame truly is an artistic medium, it’s like an infant surrounded by wise, seasoned veterans.

If videogames are to ever be taken seriously as an artistic medium, ‘fun’ and ‘playability’ would have to become ancillary to artistic intent and creative expression. That doesn’t sound very enjoyable now does it? I’d prefer game designers keep the fun factor as top priority. When some art sneaks its way in, as it did in Bioshock or Shadow of the Colossus, you won’t hear me complain, but that is not what should be first and foremost.

As the debate has continued, Ebert posted an online poll asking what people value more: a great videogame or Huck Finn.   My father read Huck Finn to me as a child and I studied the book at length in college. I know why it’s a classic; I know why it has value — it is a book worthy to be read for the purpose of instruction and personal edification. Mark Twain did not write the book for readers to take to the beach or have something fun to do on a Sunday afternoon. Still, many more voted for a videogame over Huck Finn.

The problem with the poll is that it was too specific and people took it too literally. It shouldn’t have been phrased in the way it was.  Nevertheless, the poll elicited responses like, “I read Huck Finn in high school and didn’t care for it,” or “I get much more enjoyment from a game than a book.” That is where my jaw dropped in disbelief. The poll was indicative of a larger problem. People were saying they didn’t like Huck Finn because it wasn’t entertaining.

This is what our culture has come to value — entertainment. Where is the craving for meaning? We are obsessed with Soma and Centrifugal Bumple-Puppy. If more people could be bothered to pry themselves away from Call of Duty and turn off The Real Housewives of New Jersey now and then, maybe the previous sentence would carry more meaning.

I’m sorry if Huck Finn isn’t as gripping as a Harry Potter novel and not as fun as vanquishing Olympians in God of War, but it’s filled to the brim with morality, insight, and wisdom. However, you have to want to read and think about those things in the first place.

Are videogames art? It doesn’t matter so much. The fact is, videogames are designed to be fun and entertaining above all else. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but, they should never be treated as a substitute for the substance present in the literary canon or classic cinema. You have to eat your vegetables before your dessert. So, gamers, put down your controllers for a little while and maybe pick out a Pulitzer Prize winner. It may be a little boring, but it will be good for you. I promise.


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

April 14, 2010

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Michael Chabon. It is a master work in story, scope and technique. Even at more than 600 pages, it is one of those rare gems that I quite simply did not want to end.

The novel begins at the end of the Thirties and the dawn of the era of comic books. Josef Kavalier, after a daring escape from a politically unstable Europe, meets up with his cousin Sammy Klayman. The two get in on the comic book boom, eventually becoming respected artists in the field by creating their own superhero know as The Escapist.
The story deals heavily on the subject of comic books and the popularity of superheroes during the Forties. The idea of the super villain may sound somewhat far fetched today, but during this era, the threat of an evil madman taking over the world was a real concern. The world needed larger than life heroes in order to combat evil in any way it could. The book proposes that the creation and reading of these fantastic, fictional characters was a way for artists, writers and readers to fight back against tyranny in their own small way; it was empowering.

The scope of this book is massive, as it follow the life of these characters behind the comic books for almost three decades. The reader is able to live and grow with Kavalier and Clay through the ups and downs of their lives. Each chapter is more fully realized than the last. By the end you will feel that these are real people; you will feel happy and sad for them at all the right times. To have this effect on any reader is a massive accomplishment.

Chabon’s technique is finely tuned with this novel. His prose is verbose but eloquent, and direct or vivid when he needs to be. There was not one page without a wonderful and uniquely written sentence. He is a writer’s writer.

A truly remarkable book, worthy of its Pulitzer. It takes a considerable investment of time by the reader, but the rewards are well worth it.


It All Happens at the Top

February 22, 2010

Shutter Island is one of those plot twisty genre films that if it were done by any other director, would be a predictable and forgettable movie. But, this is a Scorsese picture. The man is a living legend. When you have one of his films, the question isn’t whether it will be good or not, but how good it will be.

Yes, the movie relies on a plot twist. But to say it is predictable would be missing the point. The entire movie builds up to and around the dramatic reveal at the end. You’re supposed to see it coming. This is how Scorsese’s genius works. What he does, is give you what your expecting, but then completely subverts those expectations. What you believe to be true at the very end is not at all what is true. The mastery of it is, you don’t exactly know that he’s done it. The movie deals heavily with the power of the mind. My warning is, if you’re not prepared to think about the movie, you might not enjoy it. The people sitting behind me and texting said, “well, that was weird.” Right after the amazing closing scene. I know most movies these days don’t require that you pay attention to them, so if you are one of these people who like to make snap, reactionary judgments about a film as soon as the credits roll; I’m sure Valentine’s Day is playing down the hall.

The story is set recently after the end of World War II and deals heavily with the ideas of repression and post traumatic stress. Not only does it do this on a surface level, but deals with it in a larger, more intangible sense. It does not hesitate to show us what human beings are capable of doing to each other and it also shows us how we often repress our own bloody history as a species.

The movie is good on both a surface and sub-textual level. It is also an amazing visual experience. I saw Avatar, OK? I will take the visuals of this movie any day of the week. Some of the most amazing shots in the movie come from dream sequences or flashbacks. In addition, the use of lighting adds a grim tone and actually functions as a narrative device.

The score has these subtle little moments of brilliance. It is able to balance this weird sense of tension that never has a release with smaller parts, usually in the dream sequences, that are genuinely moving.

Many critics are saying that Shutter Island doesn’t stack up with the rest of Scorsese’s oeuvre. I respectfully disagree, while not really comparable, this was instantly one of my favorites up there with The Departed, Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver. Scorsese is a director at the top of his game with hopefully many more great films to come.


It’s Gonna Be A Great Year

January 11, 2010

I finally was able to watch Big Fan, starring my favorite living comedian Patton Oswalt and written and directed by Robert Siegel, who wrote the brilliant screenplay for The Wrestler.

Big Fan concerns a football super fan named Paul. His favorite team is his whole life aside from his job as a tollbooth attendant. He is close to middle aged and lives at home with his mother. According only to him, his life is going just fine. That is until he is beaten almost to death by the star quarterback of his favorite team.

What is refreshing about this movie is the honest portrayal of Paul. He’s the stereotypical loser character. But, the movie is about him and his perspective. The movie doesn’t make fun of him or make the audience laugh at him. You’re there with him and you feel what he does.

The movie comments specifically about our culture’s idolization of athletes, musicians, and other types of celebrities, who are all too often, in reality, amoral criminals. There is a scene in the movie where a six year-old boy is brought a birthday cake with rapper 50 Cent on it. Nobody says anything and you’re just wondering, who is letting this kid listen to 50 Cent? It’s like that terrible movie that came out recently, Notorious, about the life of Biggie Smalls. In reality he was a drug dealer, and possibly a murderer. Yet, at the end, after his funeral, he is thrown a fucking parade as if he was MLK or something. Talk about a backwards sense of values.

I had mixed feelings about the climax and ending of the movie. I can see why it would be hard not to. I don’t have any issue with what happened, but something bothered me about how it was done in the film. I can guarantee you that the ending is not the ending that you want or hope for. Once I realized that the movie did not give me the ending I wanted, rather Paul’s ending and a truthful ending, I came to terms with it.

Overall, with the direction being the weakest link, this was a very good first film from Siegel. I think he is an amazing writer and could possibly become just as good a director. Patton Oswalt showed some good range in a more serious role. A good movie in the vain of darker movies like Taxi Driver, but with a lighter touch.


Strikes and Gutters, Ups and Downs

January 9, 2010

The idea of The Big Lebowski is based on the genre of the classic Raymond Chandler detective story. Except instead of a competent detective on the case, our protagonist is The Dude, a lazy, unemployed, leftover from the hippie era, who has found his little place in life: bowling with his friend Walter, a veteran of the Vietnam War and Donny, the quiet middle stepchild who represents the seventies. The ultimate joke of the film is that all the ins and outs and what-have-yous don’t add up to anything. It turns out that the kidnapped Bunny Lebowski took off for Vegas without telling anyone, rendering the entire plot moot.

Now I have seen this film a lot. I think it’s one of the funniest films ever made largely due to the performances. I know some people don’t see the humor in it and I can respect that. But, what you have to realize is that this is a Coen Bros. film. It’s never always what it seems to be on the surface. It’s not a movie you can watch once and totally understand everything that is going on in the film, what it’s about, and the themes it portrays.

The Big Lebowski is basically a fish out of water tale. The Dude isn’t so much in the wrong place as he is the wrong generation. But, remember what The Stranger says at the beginning of the movie, “Sometime time there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”

What’s true about the characters in The Big Lebowski is that each is a product of their generation. They don’t just grow out of it. It becomes who they are. It is apparent that The Dude was involved in the hippy movement. He has a complete contempt for all authority. This is exemplified when Brandt tells him not to touch the pictures on the wall; he touches it one more time for good measure and tells him in college he “Spent most of my time occupying various administration buildings.” When he is taken to the chief of police in Malibu he is completely uncooperative and calls him a fascist. He doesn’t even go by the name his parents gave him.

My favorite analysis of the film is by Jon Bastian on filmmonthly.com. Bastian says,

“Every single thing in The Big Lebowski is about how one generation (mis)treats and (ab)uses another, particularly the generations of the nineteen fifties through eighties. And when I say everything, I mean everything — there isn’t a character or a relationship or a story element in the film that doesn’t play into this theme.”

The Stranger represents the myth of the old west and the cowboys. He’s our narrator and fully admits that; “A lot about The Dude didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.” How could a cowboy from the old west ever truly understand the sixties generation? Even the big Lebowski sees The Dude as this completely foreign obscurity. He tells him to do what his parents did and get a job. There is a great Wilco song that says, “Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.” This is a theme that Coen Bros. and Cormac McCarthy carried out to perfection in No Country For Old Men. That lyric might as well be the tag line of the movie.

Then there is Walter. All Walter can think or talk about is Vietnam. Can you blame him for this? It was the defining time of his life and generation. People don’t just move on and change who they are with the winds of time. Does anybody else have grandparents that never get rid of anything? Their generation lived through the depression. It’s part of who they are. This is where the conflict of the movie lies.

Walter and The Dude seem to be able to finally rise above it. This is probably because of the loss of their friend Donny. Maybe the Bible verse at the funeral home struck a chord with them.

Psalm 103:15—As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth; for the wind passeth over it and it is gone.

After Walter gives Donny’s eulogy, The Dude says, “What was that shit about Vietnam? What the fuck does anything have to do about Vietnam?” What is so great about the scene between Walter and The Dude is that it’s like seeing a reconciliation not only between how different the two men are and all that they have been through, but the generation they represent: One side fighting in Vietnam and the other protesting and marching in Washington to bring them home. “Fuck it, man, let’s go bowling.”

And bowling is exactly what they go do. There is a long pan on the bowling lane lengthways. We see the ball travelling along to meet its mark and hit then pins. Then we see the inner workings of the bowling alley. The pins are reset through a complex contraption and the ball is returned for another throw. It’s the perfect metaphor for what The Stranger describes in his closing monologue. “I happen to know there is a Little Lebowski on the way. I guess that’s the way the whole durn human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself down through the generations.” Then we see a ball thrown down the freshly cleaned alley and the perfect cut to credits right as it hits a strike.

For a more thorough and detailed analysis, see:

http://www.filmmonthly.com/video_and_dvd/the_big_lebowski.html


2009 Year End List Extravaganza

December 25, 2009

My Ten Favorite Movies of the Year

10. Watchmen

The movie version of Watchmen is a strange beast. The comic is a masterpiece, no doubt about it. The film is flawed, but ultimately capture, I feel, the tone and feel of the graphic novel. The movie also takes some liberties and adds to what is already there and makes certain parts from the comic more resonant. What it gets right makes its imperfections really unimportant.

9. Drag Me to Hell

I am an Evil Dead fan so it’s almost required that I love this movie. It was truly a spiritual successor to the Evil Dead films. I’ve said this before, Sam Raimi just knows how to make a movie fun. It’s also a well crafted screenplay with some subtle digs at some of the banking and financial crises going on recently. A fun horror movie with some brains and likeable characters. Seriously, everyone should be counting their blessing when a movie like this comes along.

8. The Hurt Locker

This was an interesting choice. It’s truly a great movie, but it’s not the kind of movie that I would have any desire to revisit. It’s a character piece first and a war movie second. It has some truly great direction. The sniper scene in the desert was an absolutely gorgeous. It’s really great, I just don’t have a lot to say about it.

7. World’s Greatest Dad

I loved this movie. I like my comedy black, and this was dark as pitch. This one is not for everyone, with some very heavy subject matter. Amazing soundtrack. I’ve never identified with an onscreen character as much as I did Robin Williams in this movie. “I used to think the worst thing in life was being alone. Now I know the worst thing in life is being surrounded by people that make you feel alone.”

6. The Road

Heavy subject matter doesn’t do this film justice. Based one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, this film pulls no punches. It will make you realize just how much in life you take for granted. The most moving film I’ve seen since Requiem for A Dream, this movie will break you down to the level of a child and doesn’t take time to build you back up. I’m serious when I say this, food tastes better after you see The Road.

5. Up

The second most moving film I saw this year and also one of the funniest. It’s story and structure 101, filled with great arcs, symbolism and metaphor. It’s a classicly good movie. If you don’t like this one, you may be missing a chromosome.

4. District 9

I only wish I could rate this higher. It’s a cool sci-fi premise based on apartheid in South Africa, a good human story, non-stop action and amazing visual effects. All I hear from people is how weird this movie is. I don’t understand that. It’s really straight forward. I have to remember that not everybody has read novels by Philip K. Dick, who will show you what weird truly means. Awesome, awesome movie. It beats the pants off Avatar with and with a fraction of the budget.

3. Star Trek

Anybody that knows me even decently well knows that I am a Star Trek nut. No one was more skeptical about this movie than me. They nailed it. This movie made me feel young as if the world was new. It’s also become my prime example of why story and character are more important than plot. And yes, there is a difference between story and plot. Star Trek’s plot made little to no sense, but it was still a great story about my favorite fictional characters ever created.

2. Moon

I was so certain this was going to be number one. Oh, how wrong I was. That said. I loved, loved, loved this movie. I’m a die hard fan of the sci-fi genre and this fits in there with the greats like 2001, Alien, and Blade Runner. Futuristic and far out ideas that deal with human nature in profound ways that is rarely done in non-genre fiction. That’s what sci-fi means to me and Moon is the perfect example.

1. Inglourious Basterds

Best movie of the year. One of the best of the decade. Superb writing and masterful direction. I wish I could easily break down all of the tiny little pieces that make up the whole of a truly great movie. The dialogue, the tension, the cuts, the story, the characters…it just has everything any film fan could ever want. The idea about revisionist historical fiction being a kind of retroactive retribution is beyond fascinating to me. I saw it and instantly recognized it as something special that will go down in film history as one of the greats. I saw it a second time with my thinking cap on and confirmed everything I thought about it.

My Top Five Favorite Albums

I’m a little more picky about music than I am movies. And that’s saying something too, because I have 40gigs worth of MP3s. It’s just harder for me to find new music that I really like.

5. Curse Your Branches – David Bazan

Wonderfully written songs about crisis of faith, pain and addiction. Never has such dark subject matter been so fun to listen to.

4. The Eternal – Sonic Youth

I like to listen to Sonic Youth whenever I hear the balnd, inoffensive tripe of mainstream music. I listen to a lot of Sonic Youth. I didn’t like this record too much at first, but, like all truly great albums, it grows on you a bit. Now I think it’s even better than their last album, but still not quite as good as Sonic Nurse. They still got it though.

3. Swoon – Silversun Pickups.

I just love this album. Every track is good, memorable and original. Even better than Carnavas, they have become one of my most recent favorite bands.

2. Wilco (The Album) – Wilco

It was too much to hope for that their new album be anywhere close to being as good as Sky Blue Sky. That said, after almost an entire summer of listening to it in my car, I love it like I love any of Wilco’s children. I could never really choose. This was cool because it was a bit more old-school for them. It gave off some Being There vibes, which I appreciated.

1. Beggars – Thrice

I’m an old school Thrice fan. The truly great bands never stagnate and are constantly evolving and changing their sound. I’ve been with Thrice from their humble punk beginnings until Beggars. They have taken the Hard Rock genre or whatever you want to call it and–with Beggars–have turned it into a true artful piece of music. It’s poetic, it’s vivid, it’s thoughtful, it’s melodic as it is abrasive, and has some profound things to say about love, spirituality, suffering, and humanity as a whole; that is just the lyrics. The music ranges from the sweetest sounds and melodies to ear-splitting metal and complex rhythms, often in the same song. I recommend it for anyone who likes hard rock music and basically everyone else. I listened to this album what seems like a hundred times this year and it never got old.

Books

I don’t really keep up with new books. I read what I want when I want! Mostly, I like to wait for paperbacks. The only book I read that was released this year was How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely. It was really great and worth mentioning. See the blog I wrote about it sometime back.

I’m very picky and can be a true pain in the ass when it comes to my opinions about Books, Movies, and Music. There is so much released every year and I truly believe that 90% is total trash. I go through great lengths to sift through the crap,  hopefully to find the best of what is available in America’s bloated media empire. I’m truly passionate about these things and believe greatness can be found if you know where to look. It’s just about the only thing in this world I’m not jaded about.

2009 was a good year. 2010 has the potential to be even better. Best wishes to anyone who reads this. Be wonderful to each other, and do all things in love for anybody and everybody who is not yourself.

Best,

Daniel


Pale Rider

December 21, 2009

Good, but not spectacular. This movie has a lot of strong characteristics, mainly the characters and acting. Hul was played really well by Michael Moriarty. Clint Eastwood is impossible not to love. Which brings me to my main point.

What the hell is up with the women in the movie? I understand the young Megan falling in love with the macho, gunslinging Eastwood, but her mother too? She basically says she can never truly love Hul, after calling him the kindest, most decent man she had ever known. But, is not capable of taking on seven men at once, so he can’t possibly be as good a man as Eastwood. And then it’s implied that she and Eastwood sleep together. I don’t buy that Eastwood, The Preacher would do that to his friend Hul. The portrayal of women in this movie is kinda messed up and/or I don’t understand women. I believe both to be true.

Also, there is this huge backstory between The Preacher and The Marshall that we are never let in on. It adds to the mystery of The Preacher, but part of me really wanted to know what was going on.

I also liked all of the alusions to Revalations, The Preacher being death.

Also, Richard Kiel was in the movie. I met him once. True story.

What is interesting is that after watching the movie, my sister informed me Pale Rider has almost the exact plot of Shane.

It was good, but nothing too special.


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