Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Metroid: Other M, and Fear For Samus's Soul

I wish I had an infinite amount of time to play video games. I don't even need an infinite amount of money... there's such a great time-to-money ratio with a good console game, I think I spent a fair, responsible amount of money on video games, affordable on my normal salary, and still be happy, as long as I had infinite time to spend playing them. That's how calculus works, right?

If I had infinite time to spend playing video games, and if, theoretically, I could distribute that time however I saw fit, I definitely would have played through Metroid: Other M by now, and I'd have revisited Prime and Fusion, and maybe gone as far back as the 8- and 16-bit games, just for background. That's just how fascinating I find the whole Other M debate, which clumsily sideswipes some ideas I've expressed about Samus, in a previous post, which I still think is a lot better than most of the stuff I write now.

For a general overview, you can check out a few key texts on the game:

MetaCritic has it at 79%, which sounds respectable until you realize that other Nintendo key properties on major consoles tend to score in the mid-to-high 90% range. Most of the reviews are lukewarm on the concept, cold on the execution and dialogue, and (with some exceptions) reasonably sympathetic to the new control scheme.

However, one of the major dissenting reviews turned out to be the flash point for a debate on this entry's place in the series. This was Abbie Heppe's negative (2/5) review on G4tv.com. Abbie criticized the controls a bit, but this seemed like an afterthought, coming at the end of a long critique of the game's respect for Samus's character and her place in the canon.

This review has been rejoined: the vast majority of commentary I've read is unsympathetic to Abbie's point of view, preferring to defend the game and either excuse the story or minimize its importance. Of these, the response at Dromble is the longest and most vehement; the poster's name appears to be "Fred," but it's not officially attributed to anyone, so I'll just call it the Dromble review. It's an enthusiastic piece, but seems a bit clumsy, mostly concerned with using obscure references in the series' canon to answer vaporous versions of Abbie's argument, which is so generalized in the response that it becomes a Straw Man.

Side-note: there's also this debate on OBJECTION, which does a decent job of recapping the argument from a middle-of-the-road perspective. I LOVE the use of Phoenix Wright animations, especially at 2:35, when Kenshiro breaks into a little bit of an "America needs more maps" stutter.

Anyway, I would write about this debate for a week if I had the time, and didn't feel totally phony about it. As it is, I haven't played the game, and don't have the time to invest in it, and even if I had, I would want to play back through some of the other recent franchise entries, as well... it seems to me that Samus has been changing slowly for a few games now, taking on a more subtle and sensitive inner life, and her space-world has been changing around her. I could spend a whole post discussing the importance of consistency and continuity within video games, and science fiction, and fiction in general; I could spend another chunk of time talking about Samus as a modern-era Samurai, and about her mixed motivations as a bounty-hunter-peace-keeper in a dark intergalactic future. I could use this as a jump-off point to talk about authorial intention, and whether, theoretically, an author (like Metroid's creator, Yokio Sakamoto) can betray their own work (George Lucas being the paradigm case). Unfortunately, I'll only be able to fit so much into this discussion... so I guess I'll start from the key point in all the exchanges, the scene of Samus's encounter with the alien Ridley. Warning: I've spoiled it for myself, and I will probably do so for you, as well.

You can actually see the controversial cut-scene here.

Now, I was initially skeptical of Abbie's criticism, since I tend to give creators a good bit of license with their creations, and I can accept some pretty broad and unpredictable behavior from a key character. But watching the scene on YouTube, my visceral reaction was: who is this woman? Where is my Samus, always so steadfast in the face of Metroids and Space Pirates? And who is this man coming to her aid, barking one-liners at their shared adversary, and making an immediate belittling remark about Ridley "knowing how to treat a lady"? It's hard to work through those emotions. It's hard to see one of your heroes falter.

Now I'm willing to give Abbie's criticism a bit more credit. We've never had a thorough exploration of Samus's past, but make no mistake: we knew her (I find Abbie's own assertion that she has "only the personality that we have bestowed upon her" to be dubious). She was always alone, flying a single-person ship, shaped like her own helmet... this was pride bordering on narcissism. She ventured into all those planets and compounds without any thought of calling in backup. She has always been a loner. And she has always been a professional, first and foremost, entering each game with a target and an objective. Fix your ship and escape, find this exotic artifact, hunt down this scourge and wipe it from the universe. Take whatever steps are necessary: flood part of the planet, destroy its core, spend hours in the tunnels looking for an alien supplement that keeps you alive in molten temperatures. Shoot the enemy with missiles and power-bombs, and just hope that you can get out when the planet starts to implode. Samus Aran was positively cavalier.

Obviously, these aren't feminine traits. Indeed, claiming that Samus has ever been feminine beyond her mere anatomy is (self-)deception. The fact that young men like me found her hot doesn't prove that she's innately feminine... it just proves that we were gullible enough to fall for whatever 8-bit body was put in front of us. And in this regard, Samus is a monad (a symbolic reduction) for her universe as a whole: she lives in a post-human version of outer space, where technology is so dominant, it renders biological sex meaningless. Samus has a sex, but she has no gender, and her opponents are the same: Ridley has been referred to as a female at some point in the past, and now (s)he's accepted as a male. We could never tell the difference between the female and the male Metroids, and when one of them spawned a baby, we barely registered that as a gender signifier. They may reproduce asexually, after all.

In fact, Mother Brain, Samus's original opponent, is perhaps the best illustration of the post-human nature of her world. Mother Brain is considered female, being the "mother" of the Space Pirate legion... but what makes her a mother? She has no determining features at all... no behavioral patterns considered feminine, no physical body to provide signifiers. Mother Brain, the massive and evil and perversely biological counterpart to Samus, is proof that in this universe, gender is nothing but an empty symbolic distinction, unrelated to physical sex, and in fact, divorced from reality in general.

Those who feel some aspect of Samus is betrayed are mostly talking about series continuity... but in this debate, there is a lot of gender subtext. Samus's return to her childhood state, her sudden panic, and her manly rescuer referring to her as "a lady" to her foe -- these are a sudden resurgence of signifiers for femininity and weakness, suddenly wrought upon a character who was always defined outside the male/female binary. This is what motivates Abbie Heppe to frame so much of her review in feminist terms:
The point is to flesh out one of the most iconic (and nonsexualized) female characters in gaming history and yet the outcome is insulting to both Samus and her fans.

When she isn’t submissive and obedient, the flashbacks portray her as bratty and childish and the whole mess smacks of sexism.

The gap between "discontinuity" and "sexism" is an easy one to bridge, and though Abbie doesn't make the argument explicit, the reasoning is all there. Samus's personality seems wholly different in this iteration of the series, despite the fact that it's the first time her history has been explored... so what's to account for this difference? Why does Samus seem to have suddenly dramatically changed her behavioral patterns, from dominant loner to obedient subordinate, and from rock-solid, nerves-of-steel professional to soul-searching drama queen? One sad but logical answer is that the people who wrote this game tried to furnish her with a personal history, but their own gender stereotypes were the only tools they brought to bear. Conventional solutions are the bane of creative accomplishment.

Here I am, responding to the whole situation based on one YouTube clip. I'd like to defend myself against the inevitable criticism of talking out my ass (not wholly unwarranted) by mediating my response a little. First of all, I'm mostly trying to register sympathy with Abbie's point of view, but I don't necessarily agree with her review, because I haven't played the game, and it might just be fun enough that I would stop caring about the story. Alternately, perhaps there's some twist in the narrative flow of Metroid: Other M justifies Samus's uncharacteristic behavior. Perhaps my insufficient experience with the Prime games have left me out of the loop of Samus's personality. For the sake of the series, I hope the former is true; after all, Samus's ungendered, posthuman nature is what I always found so compelling about her.

Or maybe it's a misstep on the part of the writers of a new Metroid game. And maybe that's okay, too, because my Samus will always survive, in my head and at the far end of my controller.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Katy Perry: Kicked off Sesame Street

Katy Perry recorded a segment for Sesame Street, found below:

Maybe you heard about this? If your reaction was anything like mine, your initial response was, "Woah. That seems weird..." But if you're anything like me, you got over that pretty quickly, realizing that Sesame Street has long featured counter-cultural guest stars and musicians whose work is a bit outside the suburban family mainstream. They've done references to Mad Men, and appearances of Danny Devito, Johnny Cash, Kofi Annan, and Queen Latifah. They seem to know how to make all different types of guests work.

But oops! Not everybody got over it as fast as I did. After it aired on YouTube, the network decided not to broadcast Katy Perry's performance on TV. Watching the video, it's clear why this would come about, even if (like me) you don't think it's necessary. Katy Perry is wearing a gold strapless top that shows her shoulders, and some undeniable cleavage. She isn't as fully desexualized as parents in our culture expect celebrities to be. Obviously the wardrobe people at Sesame Street thought this was well within the bounds of reason, but for the YouTube patrol, it was too outrageous.

My own appreciation of Katy Perry is compromised by her homophobic streak and her occasional outbursts of moralization. But I still recognize her as a talented pop act, committed strongly to her aesthetic and capable of delivering catchy-as-hell bubblegum pop, stuff that's smartly directed at my age group (and a little below it, I guess) by combining the energy and charm of teenagehood with the romantic and sexual concerns of the 20-something crowd. Despite the quantity of skin showing, the clip wasn't crass. It wouldn't confront children with inappropriate images of sexual feelings or body parts. It was a perfectly relatable, decent adaptation for kids who constantly hear this song on the radio.

My opinion aside, the clip makes me wonder: how does Katy Perry play for very young children? I don't know my adolescent psychology too well, but she honestly seems right at home. Her energy comes out clearly in her on-screen persona, and she's all about the bright colors and expressive expressions. If there's anybody I could believe has more energy than Elmo, and wants to play even when he gets tired, it's Katy Perry.

It strikes me as weird, sometimes, that one of our most beloved pop princesses seems like she could double as a childrens' performer. Goes to show that infantilization and "cute" have become perfectly valid aesthetic modes, whether via Hello Kitty, or Katy Perry, or Betsy Johnson. People like Jim Windolf of Vanity Fair have expressed concerns that it's drowning out all the other cultural modes, and though I disagree, I see the point there.

I don't think Katy Perry should have to worry about covering up like a Victorian for a musical number on Sesame Street. If anything, I still think we're a little too touchy about the female body in our culture, especially since we're also obsessed with genuinely sexual images. If we stigmatize Katy Perry's innocuous costume design, but can't stop the sexual images from major fashion companies on every urban billboard, we're going to end up with a pretty damn neurotic next-generation.

Yet, there is still something cautionary about this little debate, and we can't throw the other side out completely, either. With a culture that's so immersed in cute, where the aesthetics of childhood seep so deeply into everyday life, we need to be careful not to let sexuality become infantilized and trivialized. That's on the other side of the demilitarized zone of "reasonable tolerance."

My opinion on the Katy Perry video stands, but I know it's a gray area, you know? Let's hope we can find a healthy relationship to sex and maturity somewhere in there.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Age, Identity, and War in Russia: The Last Command (1928) and Ivan's Childhood (1962)

The films I watched this weekend turned out overlap pretty significantly... both were films about the human cost of war in early 20th-century Russia, and both are lesser-appreciated films from great masters of cinema. Also, they were both in black and white. They were Tarkovsky's first feature film, Ivan's Childhood, and Von Sternberg's monumental production The Last Command, chronicling a great Russian general's descent into obscurity after the Bolshevik Revolution. Both are excellent films, and I would recommend them as a double-bill. There is a lot of insight in the space between them, in their similarities and reflections and contradictions; they are mirrors of one another, built on the same framework, reflecting and refracting the Russian legacy of violence in the formative moments of the modern age.

In Tarkovsky's film, Ivan is an orphan of war, and he lives his memories as fantasies, suffused into his grim life as a Russian scout. These visions of the past skirt reality without fully obeying its laws; there is water and flight, descent into a well, and non-linear repetitions of faces and voices. Memory becomes a stage for symbolism and sensation, a lived experience of lost contentment and orderly nature. A shot of a truck loaded with apples, driving along a beach where horses linger and leaving a trail of the fruit, is one of the most beautiful shots I remember seeing in cinema. It's a pure, singular snapshot of harmony and promise.

It says a lot about Ivan's psychological state that his childhood memories are constantly shattered by visions of trauma... he keeps remembering his mother, and then at the height of his fugue, he keeps experiencing her death at the hands of an unseen enemy. War has already subverted his journey, even in its formative moments; yet, in each of these memories -- and especially in the film's final flashback -- we see that Ivan is only whole in these fragments of the past.

Von Sternberg's Russian general, Sergius Alexander, has also left his glory behind... but for him, this is at the height of the war, and with peace, he has found only debasement. During the war, he was proud -- a pride bordering on hubris -- the pride of a showman, tasked with protecting his men and impressing the czar. Whether he's a Hollywood extra or a Grand Duke, Sergius Alexander is always putting on a show. The difference is that during the war, he was a loved, respected performer, and perhaps a soldier to boot (we never actually see him active in combat operations), but after its over and he's exiled, he is merely a ghost, an anonymous symbol of an historical myth.

With all the similarities between these films, there are also extensive inversions between them: where Ivan is a symbol of youth and poverty, the fodder on the front lines, so Sergius Alexander is age and prestige, the ruling class that represents the old social order. The drunken partisans in Von Sternberg's revolution become the gritty soldiers on the front lines, holding back the Nazi advance. The sting of loss and betrayal becomes the bitter victory against the invading force. Pogroms become concentration camps. The complexities of romantic love become the simplicities of familial affection, and both are shattered by the cruelties of conflict.

Coming from a time when the cinematic art was still young, still exploratory and theatrical, one of The Last Command's greatest merits is its carefully-conserved ambivalence: its ambivalence toward heroism and authenticity, its delicate treatment of the rivalry between Sergius Alexander and the revolutionary Andreyev, its mixed feelings about the virtue of the Russian aristocracy. It certainly has no remorse for the revolutionaries, who are basically depicted as a bloodthirsty drunken mob, but in the Russian Czarists, we see a petty, deceptive upper class, questionably redeemed by its desperation as it clings to dignity and tradition. Sergius is often contemptible, and when he takes his position for granted, or humiliates his rivals, he seems deserving of his eventual downfall. However, like any protagonist, he also elicits sympathy... even as we look in from outside and judge him, so we also see out from within, and feel the stumbles and blows of his long fall from grace.

There is a moment in The Last Command that has almost as strong an effect on me as the shot of the truck and the apples in Ivan's Childhood. This is the momentary shot of Sergius stepping out of the train car and facing a mob of revolutionaries, who seem to cringe, just for a moment, before his show of strength. It's a compelling moment, a visualization of the whole geography of the conflict: Sergius stepping forward, a representative of his cause, unwilling to pass quietly into their hands even at the edge of defeat. They are the mob, endless and unyielding, faceless, crude, vicious, the vast proletarian counterpoint to the glory of the aristocracy.

And Sergius's strength at this moment seems to parallel another shot in Ivan's Childhood, when bombs are raining down on the Russian base and one of Ivan's commander-caretakers comes into the bunker where Ivan is staying -- the bunker where he has just confronted his traumas of violence and hate and loss -- and tells Ivan not to be afraid. This cuts to a shot of Ivan, standing on something in the dark, looking as weathered and self-assured as any czarist general. Ivan's response to the soldier is clear and confident: "I'm not afraid."

These lessons in Russian history, accounts of the human costs, bear remarkable resemblances to one another: each is sublime and unflinching, and together, they scan as long-lost twin tales of how war both elevates man and destroys him.

Further reading: here's a pretty great Criterion Current essay on The Last Command.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The American: Clearly a Photographer's Film

Anton Corbijn (website here) is originally a music photographer and a music video director; now, he's a painter of place, a filmmaker who demonstrates, in his new film The American, a truly intimate sense of setting. This setting, a small town in the Italian countryside, provides the uneasy core of his narrative, which is severe and spacious, barely the scraps of a plot draped over the solitude and exposure of his remote locations.

The American (played by Mr. Clooney) is alternately Jack, Edward, Mr. Butterfly, and Clark; in any case, he's a lonely freelancer in the employ of shady European double-talkers. He's stripped of history, his past only peeking through telling details: he's fleeing from a gang of swedes, and he seems fond of open-armed European brunettes, and he's obsessively paranoid. His employer keeps dropping hints that he's outlived his usefulness. He knows a lot about butterflies, and has a tattoo of one on his back.

In light of these dim highlights of characterization, Jack becomes almost a formal construct, rather than a narrative one. He isn't given enough volume or detail that we feel we should try to decode him, or fill in his back-story; rather, like the subject of a photo, he's there to provide a focal point, a center of gravity for a story about a time, a place, and a mindset. It seems like Jack is paranoid, but he's not... the whole world is paranoid as it gravitates around him. It seems like he's stark and empty, but he's not; rather, he lives in an empty Italian countryside, in a vacuous world, where nobody (including his lovers and his associates) knows anything but the echoes of human contact.

This is why this is a photographer's take on the thriller. This paranoid international neo-noir isn't about the intricacies of personal and political intrigue, like the classics... like a spy or a military fantasist would write. There's no sense of confidence, investigation, revelation, or betrayal, and the twists are devoid of explanation. I suspect Jack is not the primary target of the plot being hatched in The American, but ultimately, because of the way the film unravels, there's no way to know; it may have been all about him, or he may have been a wrinkle that his employer needed to smooth out. A photographer doesn't concern himself with these details... for Corbijn, who seems to be cherry-picking archetypes and images and set-pieces from the history of espionage lore, all the meaning resides in the surface, not in the enigmatic but irrelevant histories of these assassins.

And so Corbijn does what a photographer does best: he choreographs a synchronicity between the subject and the setting. Clooney is framed and dwarfed by empty windows, and his car constantly appears as a flicker in the bottom corner of an epic landscape. In his first car-ride, a few minutes into the movie, he seems to disappear completely into a white fog, just as he vanishes from the sight of his pursuers. Jack is ruthlessly paranoid, always struggling to maintain awareness of the hiding places, the far corners, the twists and deformations in the landscape around him, and so, in many of the shots, we have to shift our attention from the foreground to the background, or respond to small visual and aural details. As we sense the tension created by the camera, especially in the back alleys of Jack's small town, so our gaze reacts more rapidly and our expectation heightens.

Corbijn's awareness of the photographic nature of this, his second film, shows through in Jack's choice of photography as a cover story. And Jack sells himself as an architecture and travel photographer, further reinforcing the theme of geography, of the film's profound sense of place. This Italian town has a texture and a shape, a pervasive rhythm and dynamic, that compliments Jack's quiet, tense demeanor. Control, Corbijn's first feature, has a similar sense of time and place... Manchester is a desolate industrial backdrop for Ian Curtis's hopelessness. We get little sense of the social scene surrounding Curtis, but as a tableaux, Manchester seems to embody his state of mind.

These are the virtues that somebody like Corbijn can bring to a film: the experienced lens to capture the space around a protagonist; the unique ability to create a strong main character from surface qualities. If Corbijn continues to use these talents to his advantage, and to refine his approach to narrative complexity, then film will benefit significantly from his contributions.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001): The Best Gothic Horror Novel Ever Screened

Looking at reviews and opinions of Brotherhood of the Wolf (directed by Christophe Gans, 2001), you discover a general consensus that the film is a mess (or, to put it more sympathetically, "eclectic"). David Edelstein expresses this opinion by listing an armament of movies that seem to have inspired it: "The movie is a teeming mixture of The Curse of the Werewolf and Cry of the Banshee and Jaws and Sleepy Hollow and A Fistful of Dollars and Let Joy Reign Supreme and The Name of the Rose and Fists of Fury and Mad Max and Once Upon a Time in China II and The Last of the Mohicans and The Hound of the Baskervilles and maybe a thousand other pictures that rumble around in the collective unconscious of schlock fiends." Scott Hunter, in a slightly less receptive review, puts it thusly: "Certainly the loopiest thing that's come along in many a fair year, 'Wolf' is a mad agglomeration of styles and traditions that ultimately results in nothing so much as a mad agglomeration of styles and traditions. Nothing in it really connects with anything else."

These reviewers see this as something to snark at, indicating a deep-seated confusion within the film. Even Ebert, whose review is notably more positive, seems to see it as a triumph of chaos: "The Brotherhood of the Wolf plays like an explosion at the genre factory. When the smoke clears, a rough beast lurches forth, its parts cobbled together from a dozen movies." The reviews all scream "Entertainment!", urging us to forget the goofy anachronisms and campy dialogue, and to forgive what seems like a total breakdown of coherence, abandoned in favor of the filmmaker's fancy. And yes, on this level, it's already a fun film.

However, forgiveness goes hand in hand with dismissal, and as far as I can tell, all the reviewers have dismissed any search for a unifying principle to Brotherhood's form. But it's there... if you step back a level and consider all the motivating elements of Brotherhood's plot and style, you'll find an undeniable formal reference that justifies the cross-pollination of all these random elements: the swashbuckling, the supernatural horror, the mystery, the court intrigue, the colonial-era exoticism.

Two words: Gothic Horror.

I'm not talking about your local teenager's "gothic," with the black eyeliner and the skateboarding. I'm talking about that genre of dark romance fiction that rose to prominence in the mid-1700's and declined by the mid-1800's, with Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer often considered its apex. The gothic genre morphed into classic horror and "tales of the Weird" during the Victorian era, which is when you started seeing more urban settings: Edgar Allen Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, and old Bram Stoker are the better-known of this later, more familiar gothic literature. Brotherhood of the Wolf bears more resemblance to the proto-Victorian gothic tradition, which was less gritty and more fanciful and romantic: Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, and the aforementioned Charles Maturin are all worthy reference points for a study of this form.

And once you're keyed into this worldly, discovery-era gothic aesthetic, with its grand adventure plotlines and dashing heroes, you'll see that Brotherhood of the Wolf, though adapted for a modern action-movie audience, is actually one of the most faithful adaptations of this style ever put to screen. Honestly, it's a hard style to adapt... it set the stage for horror, with its unspoken spiritual threats and transgressions of conventional norms, but it didn't have a lot of the horror tropes that have become so standard. There were no scrambling pursuits through the mud or tiny, secluded, hermetically-sealed spaces, like basements or back rooms; indeed, in the gothic novel, the world always seemed vast and wild and unexplored, and most of the chases were on horseback, in the shadows of forbidden castles. There were far fewer themes of bodily violation, and more of spiritual and mental perversion. Hopelessness and nihilism weren't pervasive; rather, the horror was interspersed with romance and adventure, and there was a frequent sense of heroism and redemption, all but vanished from modern horror.

Brotherhood of the Wolf is told within a framing narrative, transcribed during an old aristocrat's last moments before his submission to the mercy of a mob of revolutionaries. This, already, is an obvious indicator of the gothic nature of the tale. Melmoth the Wanderer was a baroque construction of nested stories, often told or written in the final hours of the narrator's life or sanity. It's a well-established genre convention that's been kept alive through the history of horror, recognizable even in the 20th-century stories of H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti.

Many more motifs and tropes appear in Brotherhood of the Wolf that we find echoed from the classic adventures. Fronsac, the protagonist, is the epitome of the swashbuckling hero, complete with the explorer avocation "naturalist," an indirect reference to so many adventuring doctors from those classic stories: Bram Stoker's Van Helsing, Sheridan Le Fanu's Dr Hesselius. These guys all seemed to be jacks of all trades, ready to go on adventures and track evil to its source; Fronsac is not unique in his ability to fight off ruffians and do taxidermy, though he may be a little more exaggerated than the Gothic gentlemen of old (with his expert martial-arts swordsmanship and all).

Le Fanu's work is definitely worth comparison, along with Mary Shelley's... these authors, along with many others, were instrumental in rationalizing the occult, treating supernatural phenomenon as natural science and vice versa. Brotherhood of the Wolf certainly inherits from this tradition, being the ostensible "explanation" story of an infamous folk mystery (The Beast of GĂ©vaudan, a classic cryptozoologic case). Superficially, the film seems to side with Fronsac, the skeptic, who demands a reasonable explanation for this supernatural phenomenon; yet, Brotherhood subverts its own lesson, allowing side-kick Mani to use his Native American pantheism as a way of collaborating with wolves and trees and the dead. Gans treats one wolf as a totemic spiritual guide (Three Wolf Moon!), and he allows spirits to speak and prophecize in dreams. As with Fanu, who systematizes the irrational as a way of enshrining its enigmas, Gans sides with rationalism and naturalism, while allowing the inexplicable to come into relief beside it.

What else? How about Mani, the Mohawk Indian blood-brother to Fronsac? He represents a motif that appeared in gothic fiction, as well, though not as consistently as the previous ones: the noble savage. Maturin also had a lengthy episode about an innocent uncivilized character, written to shed light on the moral complications of social and political man. This character, and the Spanish Jew who provides refuge to one of the novel's protagonists, demonstrate Maturin's fascination with the exotic, a role filled by Mani the Native American and Sylvia the Italian prostitute in Brotherhood of the Wolf. These characters give Gans' world a sense of expansion and uncertainty, of vastness and rumor and geographical fluctuation, truly an accomplishment, considering it was filmed at the height of 21st-century globalization.

And let's not forget the antagonist, the closest thing we can get nowadays to a moustache-twirling melodramatic villain. In classic romantic fiction, the villain is always a charismatic lord, transparently evil to the audience but inexplicably opaque to his fellow characters. He tends to wear some badge of villainy, and for Jean-Francois, this is the missing arm, later revealed to be concealed and mutilated into a sort of devil's claw. His alarming combination of political savvy, combat proficiency, and sexual perversion, kept under wraps until late in the story, make Jean-Francois the epitome of an aristocratic devil, even to the point of his leading a cult meeting at a caern in the French countryside.

Of course, Brotherhood of the Wolf reaches at least a bit beyond its genre referent. The martial arts are an absurd anachronism, but they serve a purpose in this elaborate referential structure. They are the credentials of the new global adventurer, shorthand for single combat in the modern world... the martial arts face-off is the new equivalent to the duel of sabers or the barroom brawl. Is this necessary? Not technically, but perhaps thematically. After all, of all the genre cliches, fencing and fisticuffs have become some of the most associated with camp and Disney fairy-tale fantasy. When we're seeing a face-off between martial artists, we're still able to take it seriously and accept it as an actual form of violence, though just barely. It also plays into the "exoticism" motif that feeds so much of Brotherhood's aesthetic and atmosphere. As a modernization of an adventure convention, it's definitely covered under Gans's artistic license.

I've addressed some specific conventions that relate Brotherhood of the Wolf to the classic Gothic horror novel. If I had more experience with the genres, I'd find a deeper way to connect this film's structure to those old stories. It is, after all, a canvas of political history, social and aristocratic conspiracy, and partially-debunked supernatural anecdote. One-hundred forty minutes starts to seem rather short when you consider that Gans wove together messages about aristocratic France, the peasantry, social politics, and the birth of rationalism in the age of exploration. There's also significant subtext about motivated messaging and sensationalism in one of the earlier periods of "mass media" (indicated by an early discussion of the availability of newspapers). But as I said before, this baroque architecture of themes and messages isn't unprecedented: already, a few hundred years ago, those Gothic novels were weaving together complex messages about spiritual wholeness, aristocratic greed, religious and secular politics, and the tension between civilization and human nature.

If I've encouraged any action film watchers to go out and read some of these strange old novels, I'd like to reassert that encouragement. And if (less likely) you're a Gothic horror and romance buff who's looking for a film to go along with your reading of The Mysteries of Udolpho, I'd like to urge you to see Brotherhood of the Wolf. I'd love to hear about your thoughts on this long comparison.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A Short Survey: Microcinema from RSA, Harmony Korine, and Maxence Cyrin

Up until the digital age, the forum for short video and film has been pretty emaciated. MTV provided a market for the very small commercially-viable subgenre of music videos, and there were a couple shows for the experimental animated shorts... MTV's Liquid Television, and Sci-Fi Channel's Exposure... but generally, you could only see shorts at the film festivals, along with independent films and niche cinema. This is comparable to the short story, which could only get an audience through small periodicals and specialized anthologies.

But now, it's the age of Vimeo and YouTube, and there are new gatekeepers: blogs like Motionographer and Shape+Color (Vimeo channel here), funneling traffic into the most interesting and ambitious work. Of course, the music video is still a dominant subgenre, especially now that publicity has cemented the alignment between free entertainment and brand recognition. However, the new media environment is also creating some strange sinews between the worlds of cinema and advertising (Wong Kar Wai's Philips short film), and fashion (Lynch's short for Dior). These films are aesthetic collisions: fragments of these distinctive and studied directors in all their boldness and idiosyncracy, repurposed to reinforce the calculated and focus-tested images of these branded companies.

The short-form film/video space is vast and versatile, covering a lot of ground. Below are a few interesting instances I've discovered in the past week or so, with a little commentary on each of them.

1. RSA's shorts for Agent Provocateur and Quatre

These two shorts are contracted for intimate fashion companies; they're sufficiently erotic and risque to remind us of the fashion spreads we often see in designer magazines, which are famous for focusing heavily on the shape and sleekness of the body, in all its suggestive capacity. What makes them interesting is that they transcend the basic advertising paradigm, which pretty much always focuses the viewer's attention on a gimmick, a catch-phrase, or a pure product image; commercial narratives are always constructed to advance these product punchlines. These two shorts, on the other hand, are structured around opaque and elliptical narratives, skeletons of storylines abstracted into motifs of power and indulgence and objectification. Unlike the common commercial, it's hard to tell exactly what these pieces are trying to say, and for a certain breed of viewer, this is a powerful technique.

The two shorts offer a case study in empowering versus objectifying sexuality. In the Agent Provocateur short, the traditional gender power dynamics are reversed, with the male playing a role as object to the dominant female. He ends up working as a diminished embodiment of male desire: easy to satisfy, easy to manipulate, and often adolescent and self-involved. The film both highlights and critiques the traditional gender roles by reversing the gaze and subjecting male sexuality to its withering power. This is in stark contrast to the short for Wallpaper, which is a case study in male dominance and female submission, by way of the wandering eye and the closed door. It's possible that RSA literally decided to make the most self-consciously sexist erotic film possible: female sexuality overturned and activated purely for the panoptical eye of the male, looking out of a closed door; the eventual possession of the various women by the male Casanova, who is apparently absolutely justified in thinking he's entitled to this sexual indulgence.

And both are beautifully shot, of course... a common effect of having a short duration to fill, and a large budget and a lot of freedom to fill it.

2. Act Da Fool - Harmony Korine's short for Proenza Schouler

Korine is a bastard child of the video age of filmmaking, a reckless skateboarding maverick who's famous for his challenging films about degenerate outsider America. Act Da Fool is a microcosm of Korine's style, focusing on urban environments and filtered through mutilated film effects, with a stream of consciousness voiceover. It sounds disjointed and raw, but as it goes, you'll discover a flow, through defiance and crassness and into subtle, angst-ridden meditation on the cold reassurance of the indifferent universe. The visuals feel like they were shot with an amateur's hand, but they're too consistent and rhythmic to be dismissed as amateurish; it's really a handcrafted dusting of grime and distortion to distance us just enough from the subjects that we have to make an effort to approach them.

This seems even less goal-driven than the previous shorts. Korine's style is infamously off-putting, even to avant-garde viewers, and it's not going to sell any fashion by making it look sleek and sexy. Luckily, we finally live in a time when being challenging and unpredictable can be profitable, which allows Korine's brutal style to be a valid marketing point. All Harmony Korine has to do is be interesting, and use opportunities as they come... as he used this one, a chance to express his uncompromising view on the beauty and frustration of idle urban life.

3. Maxence Cyrin's film/pop remixes

Here is an interesting project: Maxence Cyrin recomposes pop songs on the piano, and then uses them as a score for re-edited film sequences from classic films. My favorite so far is The Cocteau Twins' Ivo cut with scenes from L'Atlante; there's also Where is My Mind (The Pixies) + The Mysterious Lady, Crazy (Beyonce) + Last Year at Marienband, Around the World (Daft Punk) + 1930's synchronized swimming footage, and D.A.N.C.E. (Justice) + Burlesque footage.

If (somewhat like me) you've always found really old, primitive film footage interesting in theory, but not necessarily for watching, these might appeal strongly to you. Maxence's compositions both defamiliarize and refamiliarize the footage, stripping away the camp and the old-fashioned pacing and the bad dialogue and voiceovers, and creating a more melodic and fluid space for these old images to occupy. The songs, which are recognizable, but still adapted enough to evoke a certain state of mind, are able to transform this footage into something hypnotic and hazily enchanting. Within the listless and disconnect aural space of a solo piano playing melancholy pop tunes, the sentimentality reemerges from this outdated footage, converted into video and reborn for modern eyes.