Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Holy Motors (2012) as a success, even in its failures

After yet another hour-long session surfing NetFlix, trying to decide on an Instant film to watch, I settled on Holy Motors, a big-spectacle plus high-concept art film that showed in an unexpectedly wide range of theaters here in NYC in 2012. Having synthesized a number of write-ups and synopses, I pretty much knew what to expect. I enjoyed it. Also, because this is me, I have thoughts.

I have to give props to this film for its wild abandon and its vibrant vision of the world. First of all, it's a tantrum of artistic release... second, it's a metaphorical universe, built from scratch, where the substructures (the production, the preparation, the paperwork, the assignments, the transportation) are cunning, but banal -- a superfluous reality, stagnating beneath the fantastic world of the imagination. As a call to arms of spectacle, the movie works great.

The whole film's tone and approach is sort of summed up in the crazy light-show in the big studio green-room... it starts off goofy and sarcastic, so self-consciously ridiculous that you can just feel the delighted mocking of the whole production crew behind every oversold ninja flip. But when the latex-suited female enters, it drifts across the line into seriousness, or at least earnestly sexy weirdness, as a way of informing the audience: yes, I mock, but I also genuinely adore the power of this medium to make you feel things. And then, bam, it ends, and we're on to the next thing.

Also, I couldn't have asked for a better interlude than the wild musical romp at the center of the film, a sequence reminiscent of Fellini and Gogo Bordello.

The misgivings I had about Holy Motors were actually similar to the ones I had about another 2012 film, the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas. In short: all those little vignettes, while presenting lovely tributes to the various permutations of cinematic storytelling, had to be reduced to abbreviations and imprints, lo-fi echoes of great ideas. I know this was unavoidable, given the constraints of the feature-film and the mission statements of these omnibus films. Still, seeing (in Holy Motors) an isolated fragment of a Jodorowskiish beauty-and-the-beast, or (in Cloud Atlas) a quick condensation of an hyperkinetic postmodern fable of love and liberation and cloning... it just serves to draw attention to its own incompleteness, to give us a cropped window into a larger, more beautiful film that we'll never get to see.

The problem isn't just because of time available. It's because to really feel the full force of a cinematic vision, we have to inhabit it without distraction. In these two films, we are wandering across time and space and genre, so we never get to engage with a single fictional universe.

I guess, even in its failure to fully evoke any particular universe, both of these films are successful in communicating the meta-message they seem to be aiming for, at least partially. As much as self-contained fictions, they are essays on the irreducible multiplicity of cinema, on the impossibility of turning a great film into a small part of a big ol' omnibus. Both films are somewhat less than the sum of their parts, I think, but that the failure itself contributes to another message: isn't it beautiful, being in control of this medium that's so rich, we can't even get its stories to fit together on a single canvas? If that's what you guys were saying, Leos Carax and the Wachowskis, then okay, cool. I got it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

So I entered the Tumblr ecosystem

So I now have an active Tumblr account (rather than the TWO I was never using, having variously signed up for them and then never signed in again). This means I've started engaging with the Tumblr ecosystem, as prompted by certain interesting Tumblr feeds I've run across (Discover Games and Notational being the ones that jump to mind). It's another step down the road that Digital Media in general are guiding us along: lots of content being created, recycled, passed along, an endless stream of fleeting observations draining into an ocean of obsolescent data.

I have public, cultivated accounts in tons of social networks -- here in Blogger, plus Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr... plus ones I've let slip a bit in Google+, Vimeo, DeviantArt, MUBI, Reddit, and 500px... plus totally outdated ones in the junkyard of social networks: MySpace, OKCupid, and Friendster. Of all these, none makes me feel like the whole world of culture is collapsing, quite so much as Tumblr.

I don't mean collapsing like dying a rotten death (only YouTube comments make me feel like that). I mean collapsing, like, all texts are running together, all boundaries and structures are vanishing. Every opinion immediately elicits its own counter-opinion, arguments evolve past recognition before they even begin, meaning doesn't even pass through a filter of authenticity before it's subsumed by irony. Every person is a consumer, and a curator, and finally a creator, of every form of media, and there are no valuable criteria for categorizing or assessing any cognitive artifact. The whole universe of ideas has become the half-formed subject of one giant text, articulated by an amateur, and read briefly and passed over by the universe.

One aspect of this is that certain privileged processing modules are now at the mercy of the whole world (or at least, the whole world of Western consumers, which is the privileged position I'm allowing myself to inhabit, for the moment). Everybody is a writer, and everybody is a photographer, and everybody is a curator. The "curation" part is kind of understandable, I guess... it was only in the 60's that curators of content started seeing their task as an art in itself. And it's long been the dream of photography to become a completely democratized, ubiquitous technology -- from the very first discussion of the topic, the engineers of the process have talked about the day when every person would have a camera and the ability to print and archive images of their lives.

Writing? Well, writing has always been sort of a democratizing force, literacy being the baseline for a society to reach full participatory capitalist actualization. The democratization of that technology has been going on since Gutenberg.

At any rate, it seems that these technologies are the most fully affected by the collapse of our cultural hierarchy. Accepted cultural standards for judging writing have all but dissolved, leaving an orgy of subjective speculation and unsubstantiated pointing and shouting: the critical hegemony toppling under the stampede of frivolous public recognition. Something similar has happened for photography... anyone with a camera has the chance to be noticed, based on an indecipherable tangle of differentiating factors. There are so many excellent amateurs, so many outlets, so many opportunities for discovery of new work, that the highest rewards seem to be a matter of the lottery of circumstance... the right person noticing the right picture at the right time, and uploading it to the right social network.

Of course, it's possible that this is the fairest way to process all these texts: as long as everyone is a writer and a photographer, it's inevitable that everyone is also a curator and a critic.

It doesn't seem to have touched the older arts, though, the arts that require a deeper intervention of craft. Not everyone is a painter, or sculptor, or dancer, or even musician (although practitioners of popular music are bordering on it). Those statuses are still reserved for people who have put in the sweat to master their physical connection to the medium: their gestures, their ability to see in two dimensions, or to move gracefully in three. It seems like these arts of the eye and body and mind will certainly last.

What's that, me? Are you saying you think the reproducible arts -- the imprinting art of photography, the repeatable, reprintable, abstract art of writing -- may vanish, collapsing into an undifferentiated digital singularity? I hope not, cause I'm not much of a painter or dancer. Still, it sometimes seems like Tumblr, these curatorial white-water rapids that shake and upset our creations as they rush to the ocean, can't help but blur the dignity of these most recent textual forms.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

VIDEOGAMES and the Liberation of Content from Medium

Darius Kazemi published this presentation called FUCK VIDEOGAMES, adapted from a presentation he gave in March. Other commentators, like Ian Bogost, have already summed it up, but I'll try to paraphrase it, too, to show that I understood it. What Darius basically says is: "Do not fetishize video games as an artistic medium. Just because there's a lot of new stuff going on in this domain doesn't always make it the right way to express a certain idea. Furthermore, the presence of a certain indie community of sexiness or support should not dictate your choice of medium, either."

This was followed by a response from Liz Ryerson, which reads as rather conflicted about this whole issue. She is a person who is passionate about gaming, and about critical studies of gaming, but here, she is also critical of colleagues who place video games on a pedestal of artistic expression. She also struggles with the question of authenticity in the art-game universe, which she remains uncertain about, right down to the final passage:
"we say we love Cart Life but we don't actually want to play it. it's just there to make us feel good. we'd much rather sink our teeth into some flashy, mass-marketed sludge by an egomaniacal dilettante."
I think Liz Ryerson is conflicted (I welcome a correction on that, if one is necessary). I am not conflicted. I am not conflicted in my attitudes toward art, or toward videogames as art, or toward people who make a creative decision to express themselves through video games. I am not conflicted about loving BioShock Infinite, nor about loving Howling Dogs, or Digital: A Love Story. I am not conflicted about my comparative indifference toward Super Mario 64, or toward Rat Chaos. I am a hardline pluralist -- I accept anything on its own terms, and that gives me space to articulate criticism, and let my personal favorites float to the top.

I realize there is a difference between good art and bad art, and occasionally, no matter how deep you dig, all you find is shit. However, whereas some public personalities are intensely focused on asserting their autonomy in separating good art from bad art, I am focused much more on my ambivalence about it. I recognize the limits of my own radically subjective POV when it comes to art criticism, and when I discuss artworks -- even in a hostile way -- I always tread lightly, keeping my own limitations at the forefront of my mind.

So anyway, let's talk about that: knowing the difference between good art and bad art, and being hung up on that difference. This is an idea that goes back forever, of course, figuring prominently in the concerns of Aristotle and Kant, and frequently correlated with the definition of "beauty." I think it's a distinction worth making... I'd even go into it myself, except I don't have a university tenureship and 15 years to spare.

Instead, I'd like to advance another idea: that the evaluation and judgment of art has taken over our discourse so completely, it's led many of us -- the very people committed to art as an autonomous domain, like Darius and Liz -- to start treating art as a commodity, at the expense of its own integrity. After all, as soon as you get into this discussion of what's good and what's bad, what's working and what's not, whose criteria is the best, who deserves to be heard, who's doin' it wrong, you're slipping more and more into a mind frame where art is reduced to something valued, a token of exchange and utility.

All this talk of whether videogames are "the most appropriate medium to express your idea" is a symptom of commodification run rampant. Communication is not necessarily art; Art can have a message, and express a point of view, and clarify the world, but when the artistic impulse is secondary to the "communication" impulse, then you have journalism or propaganda.

If you take away the idea (I would call it a "constraint") that every medium has some "ideal purpose," a whole new creative landscape opens up. The fact is, there is a long history of artists stretching the limits of their medium. Painters aspire to photo-realism, photographers aspire to abstraction, poets use words visually, and musicians draw the descriptive meanings out of melodies. The sort of prescriptivism that says, "Do not use games as a means of expression if it doesn't provide the ideal outcome" is itself a mild type of formal fascism. Same, on a broader level, with Darius's prescription: "Don't make art in videogame form if you're frustrated with that process." Who says any good art brings peace to the artist?

Note how natural it was to use those terms: painters and poets, novelists, musicians, composers, sculptors, choreographers, filmmakers. Our common language exposes the anemia of all this talk about "what medium is the best for your idea." When it comes down to it, in almost every single case in history, the artist has chosen their medium based on their own personality, their own background and proclivities, their own skills and sympathies. The medium comes first, so that the idea can be sculpted into shape. Perhaps Mozart had many stories he wanted to write... the fact is, he had to find a way to turn those stories into music, or he had to live with them privately. The medium is not chosen because it fits some abstract, fully-formed idea that needs expression.

One reason for this is that CRAFT IS IMPORTANT. Even if you work in Twine, or in some vague postmodern medium like "multimedia installation," you have to hone your skills through years of experience and in-depth understanding of precedent. Emily Short said of Howling Dogs, "I came away thinking howling dogs should be an assigned text of study for people considering writing link-based fictions." This is an attestation: a medium is not just an empty vessel, it is a process and a commitment... potentially, a whole lifetime of study.

Given the demands of any serious art form, I can't really take seriously Darius's idea that an artist who can't seem to fit their idea into a game should just pick a more suitable medium. You may as well tell them to just think of a new idea. Both prescriptions are valid, but trivial... what you should really do is try to make that bizarre game, watch yourself fail, and move on to the next thing. That's the only way to stumble upon success.

It's worth going back to a passage in Liz's piece, which I think deserves to be highlighted:
"an issue that i see underlying the whole piece that is never really expressed explicitly - it's the case with many "gamers" and techies in general that so many who have constructed their lives and identities through videogames often have a hard time accepting that there are other valid means of expressing or legitimizing their own emotions outside of technology. the world of technology is, after all, what they know. they want to make personal videogames because they understand how videogames work (having played them a lot) and that they can express deep emotions through play, but they don't have the kind corresponding experience with other forms of art to understand how those work. this lack of understanding combined with videogames' newness means they get raised to the top of the pantheon as the all-encompassing, clearly superior, art-form-to-end-all-art-forms."
This parallels Slide 13 in Darius's presentation, where he says, "Some people make games because they grew up with games and always saw themselves as the kind of person who would one day make games. ... I don't think this is a very good reason."

These passages make an important point, but in my opinion, they also overplay it. Liz and Darius both essentially explain how people choose their mediums... they decide to take up a medium that's been an important part of their lives, that they value sentimentally and intuitively, often for totally illogical, circumstantial reasons. Someone who has a true mastery of an art form must have a personal relationship with that art form. Art is personal. The medium chooses its master, not vice versa.

Granted, I don't think you can ever make great art without finding some way to bridge the gap between the personal/anecdotal, and the mythic/universal. Still, I hold to my claim: Art must be personal. There is no art of indifference.

And then, as often happens, both writers get to the point where they start to impugn the motivations of the culture-makers they're criticizing. Darius says, "Some people make games because games are cool, or sexy." I'm sure there are people like this out there, but I doubt there are very many people who would cop to this as their primary motivation (can I see some citations, maybe?), so it's really an assumption about artists' motives on the part of the author. If a game designer DOES say this outright, it probably means they're not serious about games, or about art.

There's a similar line of vague disapproval in Liz's piece, where she says, "making a Twine game does not divorce you from all of the trappings of videogame culture and substitute it with something more pure, and it certainly doesn't absolve you of artistic responsibility as the creator." And earlier in the piece, she says that in the mind of gamers, videogames "get raised to the top of the pantheon as the all-encompassing, clearly superior, art-form-to-end-all-art-forms." Again, who has actually claimed these things? Did they put it in writing? Because imputing these feelings to indie gamers, who usually just love videogames and want to use them as a mode of expression, is kind of unfair. Most game designers I know have not manufactured some theoretical podium and placed video games upon it. I don't think the "art game" crowd is particularly guilty of that, either... even right down to the "egomaniacal dilettante" Ken Levine.

Liz talks briefly about Dys4ia, and that's an almost perfect example of what I'm talking about. Liz gives a vague account of the positive things that Dys4ia has done: "many wonderful things for many people." More precisely, it expressed some ideas about personal experience, identity, and gender in ways that I haven't seen in any other piece of art. However, Liz questions the use of videogames as a medium, saying she thought it needed too much explanation, and asking whether critics are really smart enough to get the big ideas that the game is "about."

Aside: Liz's claim that there are too many captions, but that the audience might not understand the broader message without the captions... put these two things together, and they cancel each other out. Assuming Anna Anthropy wanted to reach some gamers with a clear message about the experience of transition, I'd say that this thing, which Liz might not be sure is "working," is simply what I would call an intentional, effective creative decision.

There are a lot more creative decisions here that we can discuss. You can abstract Dys4ia into a game "about" transitioning and dislocation and frustration, and reduced to that synopsis, there's no particular reason it works better as a game. You might have been able to write a personal essay, or create a series of photographs or illustrations, with almost the same verbal content in the captions, and made something "about" the same thing. But the choice of videogames as a medium has an incredible influence over the whole experience! No matter how much you stretch the limits of personal writing, you never give your audience any agency, aside from reading through to the next word; the ludic Dys4ia gives the player agency, and then when they form a goal, or devise a plan of action, it frustrates them, reducing their agency in the situation to zero in a very immediate (dare I say "phenomenological"?) kind of way.

There's no strict reason it had to be a game. There's also no strict reason it had to be minimalist, or use the musical cues it did, or frame its issues in the intimate biographical way it did. But all these choices are justifiable, if you're the type of pedantic person who demands that... and more importantly, they all work together to create the whole experience, which is unmistakably one of a kind.

Now, in the interest of not being a purely pedantic douche, I'm doing to step back here and revisit Darius's presentation. When I let go of my confrontational impulse, I can see what he was saying, and all the ways I could agree with him. Seeing an echo-chamber of artsy indie game types, all trying to pile into the same creative vehicle... watching the art of game design become a fad, and lose its authenticity and freshness... it makes sense to draw attention to those red flags. If videogames-as-art has become a bandwagon covered in hip hangers-on, it's probably a good idea to shake some of them off.

Still, I think this deserved a response, because it propagates certain negative attitudes that are increasingly infecting all cultural production... for instance, the attitude of pervasive, dismissive judgement and disapproval, and the assertion of arbitrary standards of "taste" that frustrate aspiring artists without really helping them very much. And as I said at the beginning of the piece, I think this hard-assed approach to criticism tends to frame art as value-equation and commodity, and undermine the autonomy of art, its significance as a site of introversion and experimentation.

Maybe FUCK VIDEOGAMES makes sense, but if so, we have to say FUCK ALL MEDIA in equal measure. And this flippant profanity needs to be intoned in the spirit of openness, rather than judgment.