From the archives: December 2005

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The picking of nits is a profession time-honor’d

Monday, 26 December 2005 — 10:09pm

Every day, The Calgary Herald digs up and prints a piece from a century ago in their editorial page. In light of recent flirtations with the matter of art (more matter, less art?) I thought I would share today’s selection, dated 28 December, 1905.

Art in the East and West

When a man can paint a sunset, he gets the notion into his head that all men who can’t paint sunsets, or who can’t paint at all, are of no use on earth. A well known Montreal artist was given an order to do some decorative painting of a pioneer scene for a western town. He did the work in Montreal where there is supposed to be a true artistic atmosphere, and the east went wild over the painting. They said it was as good as anything ever done.

People in the west have learned to scrape away the ideal and demand the real thing, whether in art or cooking. When the canvas was sent west the committee found that the neck yoke in the picture was a new fangled bolted affair, not the curved yoke of the olden days, and that the driver walked on the “off” side of the team.

According to one of the committee, if a right handed driver should walk on the right side of the team he was driving in the picture, his whip would have to pass clean through his body and the body of the “off” ox to reach the ox on the “near” side. Then the committee discovered that the beasts the pioneer was driving were sleek fat shorthorns instead of the angular longhorns. The work was refused.

Evidently, the hyperinflation of society’s premium on réalisme is nothing specific to our own recent times.

I’ve caught up with six theatrical releases in the past three weeks, with more on their way, and I don’t have time to chat about them with the individual specificity they merit. I will say, however, that preliminary verdict comprises two interdependent clauses: that those who think 2005 was a slump year for movies need to tumble off their high horse and smell the poo-poo, and that Steven Spielberg’s Munich is probably the film I will champion for the Best Picture Oscar. It’s a breath of fresh air in a cloud of smoke that already isn’t nearly as thick as a lot of people would have you believe.

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Mandelbrot and Julia

Monday, 19 December 2005 — 3:58pm | Insights, Mathematics

Scenario: A mathematician defines a recurrence relation that, when applied, generates a fractal image. He leaves it up to a user on the front-end – any user, through a web interface, for instance – to define or adjust some minor but nontrivial parameters: colourization, magnification, the number of iterations, et alii.

Problem: Is it art? If so, who is the artist?

(We assert that in all cases, as a direct result of the elegance of the algorithm, the rendered image is measurably beautiful. Although we are not dealing with human subjects, the millihelen scale is one applicable metric.)

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Catching colds and missing trains

Monday, 19 December 2005 — 12:59pm | Music, Video games

I can’t believe I missed the whole hullabaloo over at Roger Ebert’s (here, here and here) about whether the interactivity of video games preclude the medium from being considered an art form until I heard about it via this morning’s Penny Arcade. You probably don’t need me to point this out if you read this space regularly, but this is one of those precious few debates I live for. And yet the readers who had the time to respond dote on nothing but such platitudes as commercial appeal, the emotional involvement of the audience as a subject and the skill of the craftsmanship behind the work’s constituent partitions. Shallow, shallow, shallow.

I didn’t expect Ebert, of all people, to fall back on a correlation between art and the precision of authorial intent. I guess it makes sense, though, since the great advantage that film has over live theatre – and I say “advantage” to mean an objective freedom of control and artistic license, not as a value judgment – is that the frame of a projected image, the focus of the cinematography and the mise-en-scène on the whole make it a highly constrainable format for delivering something intended. The most gifted directors don’t just control what happens on set: they control how the audience perceives the set. (This is where I’d ordinarily say, “Hear that, Chris Columbus?”, but then the guy made Rent and earned himself a “Get Out Of Blog Free” card for his efforts.)

It’s also interesting that the first article linked above cites Steven Spielberg’s views on the matter, when Spielberg overwhelmingly favours the cinematic constraints that he so deftly employs, to the point where it is his rationale for not joining his colleagues Messrs. Cameron and Lucas in the resurgence of interest in 3D filmmaking. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. The other thing to note is that the kind of games Spielberg discusses when speaking of the medium’s limitations is only one segment of what interactive design now offers.

I’m highly critical of the recent trend in video game design and criticism that has favoured a drift towards imitating motion pictures and, in general, movie-envy: from cutscene to task to cutscene. Game-stories are becoming rote and linear, all while filmmakers like Fernando Meirelles and Christopher Nolan are making great strides in freeing cinema of linearity, in the tradition of Orson Welles. This is why I endorse Nintendo, and demonstrate a sense of corporate loyalty to the aging Kyoto powerhouse the likes of which I only offer Pixar: their game design philosophy is still driven by the sort of interactivity that creates a story as you go – within finite constraints that are at once inductive, offering infinite possibilities. It goes back to the story-plot distinction, and too often nowadays the two are conflated.

I’m not saying the cinematic paradigm is invalid. Hideo Kojima, who kickstarted it with Metal Gear Solid, basically got into the business as a second choice after film. But the consequences of establishing movie-envy as the goal of the video game business is an overwhelming focus on production values and presentation, and more to the point, realism – hence why you see celebrity voice acting up the wazoo and the Xbox 360 leveraging high-definition visual output. It’s also why you see the likes of Matt Casamassina knocking Nintendo for its insistence on text over voice work, ignoring that the dialogue-bubble polyphony of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is in fact just as valid as the comic books from which the game borrows its narrative device.

Recently we’ve seen the emergence of the “sandbox” paradigm, its most public and controversial incarnation being the Grand Theft Auto franchise. (For my part, I think Animal Crossing is a better example, because it dispenses with progressive “levels” or “missions” entirely and establishes a complete dependence on a player’s responses to the pseudorandom.) And for all the talk about whether or not the identification of player with character has a residual effect on real-world behaviour, people still talk about the game-player as a freakishly involved and active audience member.

I would contend that the player is a performer. And to dismiss the possibility that a video game can be art based on its interactivity is to simultaneously dismiss as art all that we consider performance. In drama, the fact that a theatre company produces any manner of creative interpretation on William Shakespeare based on the dialogue transcriptions of the First Folio doesn’t invalidate a study of the script itself. Nor does it invalidate a study of Shakespeare as an artist simply because his input is never fully authoritative.

If you look at music, it doesn’t even exist without performance – and the constraints on performance are less and less rigid. I’m going to play the card that everybody who talks incessantly about music loves to play: John Cage, 4’33”. It’s a piece composed entirely of rests, and the sound dwells in the ambient response of the audience: coughing, chatter, confusion. The audience’s contribution, often ignored, comes into the foreground without asking.

Of course, there’s no shortage of people who still insist that aleatory à la Cage is not art. To be perfectly cynical, I think that’s a byproduct of an unconscious layman’s definition of art that has nothing to do with intent, craftsmanship, or anything quantifiable about a work outside of its context. I think most of us privately define art as directly proportional to the difficulty of its creation. We tell ourselves that computers are incapable of art, because art has to be harder than anything merely programmable. We tell ourselves that an abstract splatter painting, beyond its other crime of not representing anything outside itself, is not art by virtue of my-daughter-can-do-that. Vonnegut parodies one extreme in Breakfast of Champions, Rabo Karabekian’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony (two perpendicular strips of neon orange tape on a green canvas).

But if we want to look for an example of improvised performance apart from its originator that we would indisputably consider art, we do not need to look any further than jazz. It doesn’t matter that bebop reduces to a bunch of noodling bound by mechanical laws of tonality and set over Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” or the bridge of “I Got Rhythm”. If you take a look at what bebop does with rhythm changes, there is no more “I Got Rhythm” – the melody’s been surgically airlifted, and the chords have been substituted with functional analogues. But Gershwin still wrote it, and we still think of him as a composer, the composer.

That’s what it means to play a video game: improvising over changes somebody else wrote, using an instrument somebody else made. And you can go nuts with however many choruses you want, but the original composition draws you back home to a destination that may be ordained. The emphasis on the performance does not devalue the foundational construction. Art can still exist within accident.

Few games actually do that, though. Most of them are crap.

While we’re on the subject, for those who are wondering: there is exactly one computer game that I think has unquestionably achieved the inconsistently-awarded honour of Literary Work, and its name is Grim Fandango. As with all the classic LucasArts adventures, of which it was the last of the line, the game is heavily scripted, and for the most part the player engages in sequences of dialogue choices that do end up being deterministic. But that determinism doesn’t detach the actions of the player from the progression of scripted action, and as a drama awaiting private performance on a personal computer, Fandango is unparalleled.

The Citizen Kane of video games? No, I wouldn’t say so, since the influence of Citizen Kane on filmmaking, beyond its killer script, lies primarily in form as an accessory to story; the same goes for Watchmen, the Citizen Kane of comics. The Casablanca of games, maybe, for its achievement as a superbly-written character drama where every line counts for something and contributes to a larger thematic fabric. It’s a noir tragicomedy on par with its non-interactive peers.

Why nobody has matched its storytelling excellence in the seven years hence is anybody’s guess.

This doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I have to say on the matter of video games as art, but I’m sure I’ll return to this again with a lot more depth.

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An old Cyberian proverb

Wednesday, 14 December 2005 — 5:20pm | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews

And lo, the slacker looked upon the face of deadlines. And it stayed its hand from blogging. And from that day, it was as one dead.

There’s been a lot to say lately – busiest movie month of the year, after all, plus a somewhat amusing election campaign and about an hour a day catching imaginary fish, planting imaginary flowers and arranging imaginary furniture in my other, more rustic life. (By the way, if perchance you have the game and your town’s starting fruit is something other than apples, get ahold of me and we’ll discuss a trade.) Only now am I compelled to post, though what I have to say is closer to the shallow end of the trivia-analysis continuum.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a model remake. Never does it entertain pretensions of burying the 1933 original: far from it, Jackson’s film is a loving tribute, in every way made by a cineola for his fellow fans to cherish. It’s not The Lord of the Rings, but then again, he’s working off a story that doesn’t have quite so much meat on the bones, and it shows as soon as the embellished human relationships constructed before we get to Skull Island wear out and fade away. There’s no doubt that the Kong story is one of the Great American Legends and a piece of our cultural history, even speaking as a Canadian – but for all its poignancy, nobody could mistake the story for being materially complex.

But at its core, the new Kong isn’t so much a remake as it is a faithful adaptation of some of the most iconic moments in cinema. Kong rolling the sailors off the log, Kong unhinging the jaws of a tyrannosaur, Kong reeling in the vine that Ann and Jack are descending – it’s all something to behold this day in age when special effects have reached the saturation point where we can take them for granted as reality and direct our attention to how they advance the story. Merian C. Cooper’s original, as dated as the model work looks today, still holds up because of what the animators made the models do. They didn’t just stomp around trampling and devouring – they had mannerisms.

And then there are the overtly tributary moments, as lovably indulgent as Uma Thurman wearing the Bruce Lee track suit in Kill Bill. I don’t want to spoil them all, but at the same time, I can’t let them go unmentioned. When Carl Denham is escaping in the taxicab, he queries his assistant about which actresses are available as an emergency replacement. “Fay is a size four,” he suggests – but alas, he is told Ms. Wray is doing a film over at RKO. Snicker, snicker. Then there’s the scene he films on the ship between Ann and the actor Bruce Baxter (played by Kyle Chandler, who is wholly new to me and at the same time one of the highlights of the movie). It’s note for note the same scene as the one between Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot, down to the way either Bruce turns his head to the right as he mutters, “And I’ve never been on one with a woman before.” And then there’s the Broadway marquee the night Denham opens his show – an exact reproduction.

It’s very much the same approach that Jackson took with his Tolkien adaptation. The source material is not only treated with reverence – it’s taken as historical fact.

There’s no shortage of movies in the past twelve years that have wanted to be the movie that this King Kong is, chief among them The Lost World and Ang Lee’s Hulk, but as recent as bits and pieces of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. A lot of people have likened it to Titanic: a landmark spectacle that obscures a human element that pales in comparison. A fair comparison, sure, but only if we consider on top of it that the Naomi Watts’ take on Ann Darrow and Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as Kong make for what I think is clearly one of the great screen romances. In fact, I prefer the relationship between Ann and Kong here to that of the original film. When you see them skate in Central Park, you’ll know what I mean.

But enough praise for now. What I was most interested in going into the movie was how Jackson’s film would address the primitivist, and perhaps even racialistic assumptions inherent to the the 1933 version’s worldview.

To me, the most curious thing about the ’33 Kong was its morally ambiguous position – indeed, its refusal to comment on what to make of Kong’s ultimate demise. Is it a triumph or a tragedy? We’re never told: the Robert Armstrong Carl Denham enunciates the immortal last line as if it were a proud declaration of his own cleverness, tickled by how conveniently the fall of Kong fit the beauty-and-beast theme he had envisioned all along.

The answer to the triumph-or-tragedy question is left to depend on the attitude of the audience. Is it sympathetic with Denham and company? Or does it plead for an absent mercy when Kong, atop the Empire State Building, cowers in self-defense and wishes the airplanes would just go away so he would be left alone (and alive) with his terrified little Ann? Do we applaud when the monster falls – or is man the monster?

The answer is immeasurably complex, and I’m not going to repeat seventy years of film scholarship to establish my own thesis on the matter – at least, not on this particular December evening. But here’s a primer: it is a distinct possibility that the interpretation of the Kong myth has, since its initial release, been completely turned on its head.

King Kong ’33 presumes a chain of command between all living things, an ordering of the world from the barbaric to the civilized. In a sentence, Kong beats dinosaurs, Kong beats hooting and hollering natives, but the civilized man beats Kong, or does he. The sights to behold on Skull Island are, to quote, things “no white man has ever seen.” Denham treats the island and its inhabitants – first the natives, then the creatures – as subjects of entertainment for developed places where entertainment exists.

You can talk all you want about King Kong as purely escapist spectacle (it is) and heck, even one of the greatest films ever made (it is) – but I can’t fathom how it would be possible for anyone to ignore that its presumptions are inherently colonialist. Being a proud son of the colonies myself, I’m not passing judgment – I’m just telling it as it is. At the extreme, King Kong is spoken of as a metaphor for the black man that steals a blonde beauty, and doesn’t discard her as a human sacrifice like those inadequate native-girl offerings. It’s really not at all a stretch.

The damsel-in-distress archetype is colonial discourse, and is reflected in spades in the pulp adventure fiction of the early twentieth century, most prominent among them the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (It’s also deflected in the anti-adventures of Joseph Conrad, which you’ll notice Jamie Bell’s character reading in the Jackson remake.) Back in March I wrote a post about how this comes to the fore in A Princess of Mars, when John Carter travels to the Red Planet and beats back the brutes with the force of compassionate love, which he is capable of and they are not.

Or, to put it in filmic terms – it was beauty killed the beast.

So Kong’s defeat is a triumph to those who see themselves atop a ladder of civilization (or an Empire State Building, for that matter), a position worth defending against the invasive pretenses of an ascending monster. But as a tragedy, the one we sympathize with is Kong, a creature who consistently acts in defense of himself, and in defense of Ann Darrow. The central question, then, is whether or not he has the right to protect Ann so vigourously; whether it is an act of care, or an act of possession. It is, moreover, comparative: how does Kong’s right to Ann compare to that of Bruce Cabot’s Jack Driscoll, who in his initially misogynistic gung-ho masculinity makes him a microcosm of the same beauty-beast dichotomy?

The movie winds up back in New York with Kong a captive, Driscoll a hero and Ann his fiancée. But the last time we see Jack leaves him defeated in much the same way. Nobody really gets the girl, but the girl sure got the ape.

A civil rights movement, a global postcolonial backlash and a Peter Jackson remake later, I posit the modern audience that watches the 1933 King Kong almost invariably errs on the side of tragedy. When Denham announces to his audience that Kong, once a king, comes to the civilized world a captive, there is something deeply ironic about it. Kong cannot be held captive, and he dies on his feet. (Okay, so he dies on his back. But he is on his feet when they shoot him.) In that sense, King Kong is as useful an exposé of primitivist attitudes as it is a celebration, and the work itself tips the balance neither way.

It is the modern sensitivity to the civilized subduing the savage that dominates Jackson’s version, a sensitivity that puts a limit on whether or not it can be done. Observe how the new film differs.

Now the natives aren’t just a scantily-clad ritualistic tribe that lives in huts – they’re snarling, mace-wielding murderer-folk with bad teeth. Like the orcs in The Lord of the Rings, they demand no sympathy because they do not resemble anything like what we would call a human society – they’re clearly monsters, and the sailors have nothing to feel guilty about when they gun them down.

But not so with King Kong. In this one, his love goes requited. (A good thing, too, because nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter like you-know-what.) Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome – who knows – but the Naomi Watts Ann Darrow is thoroughly sympathetic and thankful for a creature that, by the end of the movie, turns out to be probably the most human character in the story.

Not that it’s an indictment of man, though, because the same change occurs with the new Jack Driscoll as played by Adrien Brody, now no longer such a man’s-man beast-among-men but a meek playwright thrust into romance and adventure quite against his will. And so this film, like its precursor (let’s not even bother acknowledging the 1976 one, which doesn’t fit into this comparative study), refuses to point fingers and say, “He’s a villain.” There are monsters, yes – the now-inhuman native folk, the tyrannosauri, the arachnids from the Legendary Missing Spider Sequence – but no villains to whom we can assign a face.

Denham is still in many ways reprehensible, yes, but he’s far from villainy: as in the original film, he’s more of an architect of circumstantial misfortune. And Jack Black’s delivery of the last line is telling. Unlike Armstrong, he isn’t smug about it. He says it with awe, wonder and perhaps a tinge of regret. It’s like Fortinbras surveying the bloodbath in Elsinore: the observer in the drama, and the audience outside it, are left with a characteristic aftertaste of terror and pity.

Beauty kills the beast, but man doesn’t really rescue the beauty. It’s the hero who dies, simian as he may be.

Great film, and Wellington Santa Claus has delivered a worthy Christmas present once again. I’d feel very comfortable putting the new King Kong next to my generation’s monster classic, Jurassic Park, for reasons that are not solely alphabetical.

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