From the archives: January 2007

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Messrs. Oscar and Solid Snake

Tuesday, 23 January 2007 — 8:38pm | Animation, Film, Game music, Music, Oscars, Video games

Before I dispense my informed sentiments on Video Games Live, which I caught at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium on Monday, let’s get through a few brief notes about film.

As longtime readers know, I make a point of catching the Best of OIAF reel every year when they bring it to the Metro, mostly because I can’t justify going to Ottawa for the festival itself, and a digest is typically sufficient. That said, the 2006 selection was a mild disappointment. In the past two years, the touring programme has shown off films in competition in the various categories, but not necessarily the winners, and I think the decision shows. While some of the shorts exhibited some superb technique and story design – Stefan Mueller’s Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Hazen & Mr. Horlocker and Chris Choy’s The Possum being my favourites – they were typically the most conventional of a field that was often almost too avant-garde for me (which is really saying something), or at the very least, heavier than usual on the cruelty dealt to furry little animals.

Oscar nominations are here, and they indicate possibly the most unpredictable race in recent memory. Part of that may be because the Oscars are early enough now that the guilds haven’t reported in yet with their own awards; the picture should be clearer going into awards night. But consider the statistical aberrations. I’m hardly one to mistake correlation for causation, but I do think – judging from this year and the last – that the Academy Awards have become considerably more interesting since they were bumped a month earlier, as the nomination deadline arrives before any consensus congeals on the table.

Glad to see six nominations for Pan’s Labyrinth, my tentative pick for the best film of 2006 (though it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, and I still haven’t seen a few major releases I’ve been meaning to catch, notably Letters from Iwo Jima and Dreamgirls). Nothing at all for The Fountain, which is flat-out ridiculous but not wholly unpredictable, though I would have at least liked to see Clint Mansell show up in the Original Score category. Of the four Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, I would personally give it to Babel. As for who will win, I haven’t the foggiest.

I’m not going to offer any reasoning for the above. No time, no space, no space-time. Just heed my words and go see Pan’s Labyrinth.

Now let’s talk about video game music. It’s been awhile.

Last night’s performance of Video Games Live was the first symphonic video game concert in Alberta. That’s something to be celebrated, because damnit, it’s about time. Live concert performances of video game music have been going on in Japan for a decade and a half; North America didn’t wake up to the phenomenon until two years ago, with the original VGL performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, followed by the 2006 debut of Play! A Video Game Symphony (a programme that, with only a handful of global playdates in cities that matter, isn’t going to be here anytime soon).

A matter of personal background and credentials: I’ve been following video game music for years now, as an avid collector and occasional contributor to the remix and arrangement “scene,” even if I haven’t gone so far as to do a Lancastrian study that one can find online. I’m really curious as to when Summoning of Spirits is going to be released, because I whipped up a track from Tales of Symphonia that has been sitting around for a year and a half. In many cases, I’m much more familiar with the music than the games themselves – including a few selections on the VGL programme, such as Kingdom Hearts and a number of the Final Fantasy games. (Several numbers, in fact.) I found some of the best games of all time, Chrono Trigger among them, out of musical curiosity.

Suffice to say, I’m into this stuff.

So to cut to the chase, did I find VGL enjoyable? Yes, very much so. Was it some sort of revelatory, religious experience? No, I wouldn’t say that.

If there’s one thing that really separates a concert like VGL from the sort that was circulating in Japan in the early ’90s (and I’m thinking very specifically of the Orchestral Game Concert series), it’s that we’re firmly out of the chiptune era. While many games, Nintendo titles in particular, still store their music as MIDI data to be rendered by the console hardware (not so much to save space as to leave open the possibility of dynamic, algorithmic manipulation of the music to correspond with in-game events), the big-budget heavyweights in today’s game industry deliver orchestrated music fully formed.

Usually, the best of the game soundtracks are easily on par with the best of what is occurring in contemporary cinema. Two of the most interesting film composers of the decade, Harry Gregson-Williams and Michael Giacchino, got off the ground with music to games like the Metal Gear Solid sequels and Medal of Honor, respectively – both of which were represented last night. There really is no longer a significant gap in audio fidelity and the quality of the composition.

At the same time, I wager that tunes such as the theme from Super Mario Bros. are burned into our collective consciousness precisely because they operated so effectively within severe technical constraints. Composers such as Koji Kondo were tasked with making something chirpy and repetitive not only bearable, but outright fun to listen to. In an orchestral setting, these melodies are primarily interesting for how they are expanded and arranged, and what kind of ideas emerge in the overhauled instrumentation. In the case of a medley – a format often necessary for giving a classic game due coverage and introducing variety to melodies designed to be played in neverending loops – one of the defining elements is also the fluidity of the transitions, and how the piece as a whole functions as a unified suite.

VGL was heavy on faithful renditions of music that was orchestrated to begin with. The chiptune era, the epoch that inspires nostalgia, had a relatively minor presence: there was the opening medley of classic arcade tracks, beginning with the bleeps and bloops of Pong; The Legend of Zelda; accompaniment underneath guests invited to play Space Invaders and Frogger onstage; Super Mario Bros.; and a solo piano medley consisting of music from Final Fantasy, both before the switch to recorded audio in VII and after.

The music from the orchestral era, I have no complaints about whatsoever. Seeing the ESO and the Kokopelli Choir performing Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV made me a very happy man, even if it did remind me of my, my… my problem. In terms of the audio setup, from where I was sitting off in the Left Terrace, there seemed to be a few balance issues between the choir and orchestra. But I’m being picky. Overall, it was a fine selection of fine music, and it was an especial treat to hear the premiere of the music from Jade Empire as a nod to the local boys over at Bioware.

In terms of video game music, I would characterize the chosen titles as part of the recognizable contemporary mainstream. The curious thing is that what constitutes the mainstream in today’s gaming environment is deeply fractured, given the divisions between the three major console manufacturers and even the PC: we no longer live in conditions that would permit the release of a game everybody knows, short of Grand Theft Auto (where all the music is licensed). You could make a case that in the past few years, World of Warcraft and Halo came about as close as you can get to ubiquity nowadays, but that’s still peanuts next to Super Mario Bros.

So while it was neat to see a cute orchestral translation of the arcade era of game music, where the dominant paradigm was to think more in terms of “sound effects” than “soundtracks” per se, I have to register my profound disappointment with the already scarce representation of the 8-bit and 16-bit generations, which are really the heart of nostalgia as far game music is concerned. And my problem is not with the scarcity: the programme covered the major bases – Koji Kondo (Mario and Zelda), Yuji Naka (Sonic), Nobuo Uematsu (early Final Fantasy). My problem is with the orchestration.

I can’t speak for the Sonic the Hedgehog medley, as I haven’t located its source, but the arrangements of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda were ripped directly from the ones performed in Japan’s Orchestral Game Concert. This is a bad thing for a number of reasons. First, I think these two particular arrangements are becoming standardized as the orchestral suites representing their respective games, and quite frankly, I don’t think they’re good enough for that to happen.

I don’t mind the Mario suite so much – I’ve always liked the inclusion of the woodblock to punctuate the overworld theme, and while I don’t think much of the transitions or the ending, it’s functional. If you’ve ever downloaded an MP3 file of the orchestral Super Mario Bros. misattributed to the Boston Pops, you’ve heard it.

The Zelda arrangement, however, is one that I’ve never liked. I can think of no other series that has delivered such a wealth of great melodies, and yet this arrangement chooses to dote on the familiar overworld theme (and not very well; I find it to be quite cliché and generally stale). And I’ve heard it often enough in various places over the years that I fear it is legitimately and dangerously close to being the “official” interpretation. If anything, concerts such as Video Games Live and Play! should be opportunities to commission new and inventive orchestral renditions of NES/SNES-era themes and motifs. There are so many talented composers in video games nowadays that would leap at the chance to do it, likely including Koji Kondo himself, that the absence of talent should not at all be an impediment.

I’m not a huge fan of Martin Leung’s piano arrangements of Mario and Final Fantasy, which were performed last night by his sister Lee Ann. I admire them for their accessibility, and from his videos I can tell that he has the technical gifts as a performer to conduct his position as one of video game music’s foremost ambassadors (and his sister has every bit of that classical musician’s discipline, even if she exhibited brief flashes of rhythmic sloppiness; as someone completely undisciplined who also indulges in rhythmic sloppiness, I’m one to talk). I don’t think he’s a terrific arranger, though: with the Mario series, he often opts for displacing the MIDI onto the keys, and with properties like Final Fantasy where there’s a little more invention, the hit-and-miss Final Fantasy Piano Collections were there a decade ago.

It’s like whenever I hear lounge pianists take on Henry Mancini or Andrew Lloyd Webber: they demonstrate a predilection for fanciful flourishes and grand arpeggiating cadenzas to make everything sound oh-so-romantic, and they’re all people who have clearly graduated from the rites of passage commonly associated with the name “Franz Liszt.” And that has made them virtuosic performers, but what separates them from bona fide composers in the standard Romantic repertoire is this: a decided absence of depth and interest when it comes to harmony. Amidst all the fireworks and legerdemain, it’s easy to overlook the harmonic complexity of the great European composers. Even we jazz people like to think that our fourth voicings and modal substitutions over Richard Rodgers are so inventive and hip, but for the most part we’re just lifting from Debussy with one hand and the blues with the other. It’s still an improvement on the easy-listenin’ aesthetic of sitting on major and minor triads and leaving it at that.

But these are the back-in-my-day gripes of a grizzled vet, after all, and I’m sure it’s all really cool if you’ve never heard acoustic performances of classic video game music before. It was probably neat for me too, the first time. I can’t quite remember. People seem to tip me better when, after a few drinks, I stop being professional and start treating the piano as a party trick (i.e. play video game music). If you’re not used to it, it might just be novel.

I haven’t commented much on the VGL production itself, with the smoke and coloured lights and onscreen video game footage and what have you. In most cases I don’t think it was particularly necessary, and perhaps it was even a distraction, but where it really shone was in the arcade-era games, where the music really doesn’t stand on its own (when it isn’t outright plagiarized from the Romantics, which it often was back in the day), and is only effective in juxtaposition with the images. Maybe it was the selection of the images themselves: virtually every scrap of footage predating the rise of the PlayStation was inherently in-game footage, whereas afterwards, the focus was on full-motion video introductions. (Let’s face it: Civilization IV may be hard, hard crack, but it’s not exactly stimulating to watch somebody else play.)

As a project to demonstrate to everyone just how much video game music has evolved, and how fertile a ground it is for film-quality scores today, I would call Video Games Live a wild success. And perhaps that’s consistent with their objectives to move game music towards a certain mass appeal, objectives you can read about in the FAQ on the VGL website. It’s an admirable task, and given VGL’s splash in the mainstream press, the producers are well on their way to achieving it. I may sound rather critical, but in general, it was an excellent programme with some great music that can be enjoyed whether you’ve played the games or not. I do think the retro elements, in particular the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, were given short shrift in terms of quality and quantity; again, it might just be a matter of perspective.

I’m not necessarily inclined to see the show again when it hits Calgary next November. (For one thing, what equivalent does Calgary have to the Kokopelli Choir? Cowtown may be the better city, but if anyone were to make a case defending Edmonton, said choir would be one of the chief exhibits.) But I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing it, not by a long shot. Video Games Live is a worthwhile experience, and a positive step towards establishing mainstream recognition of where game music is today. The potential benefits are immense: every musician or budding composer-arranger who develops an interest in game music is a valuable addition to the community. But first, they need to know that the community is there. I could go on and on with analogies to the tremendous impact that Stefan Fatsis’ book Word Freak had on competitive Scrabble, but I’ve tread that ground many a time before. Take my word for it: the principles at work are the same.

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It suffixes to say

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 — 4:18am | Literary theory, Literature

In coining the word différance (and establishing the vocabulary of deconstruction in its immediate, nonpresent orbit), Jacques Derrida presumes that it is phonetically indistinguishable from différence. It’s the keystone of… whatever it was he thought he was saying. As I am no expert on French morphology or phonology: does anyone know if this is actually universally true? Does there exist a French accent somewhere that demarcates a clear distinction between the pronunciations of the suffixes –ence and –ance? Or is it like the English –ible and –able, which are (to my knowledge) functionally equivalent in speech wherever you go, and solely a matter of orthography?

It’s fascinating to me, as someone with more than a passing interest in random, gratuitous acts of paronomasia, that it is entirely possible to construct puns that work in some dialects and accents, but not others. This may seem like a rather simple observation, but I think it has a certain latent power. It could also be disabling. For instance, if your philosophical rhetoric is founded on punning as a substitute for logic (not saying I mind), the puns had better work. Otherwise, you might be caught, and I’ll either see you in court (in Britain) or ignore you and lie on my cot (in America).

Speaking of which: I’ll see you in hell, Pachelbel.

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Think of the Children

Saturday, 6 January 2007 — 12:55am | Capsule reviews, Debate, Film

I’m back from the World Universities Debating Championships in Vancouver. Maria and I finished on 13 points over nine rounds, the minimum of the range I expected (floor: 13; ceiling: 15), based on our performance on the third day and the knowledge that we had 10 points after the sixth round. Live coverage of the Grand Final can be found here and, over multiple posts dated 3 January, here. It appears I was not alone in thinking Oxford D (Closing Government) should have won, upon an initial assessment, though I discovered afterwards that I generally had a much higher opinion of the final round on the whole than most others did, thanks to the clarity of the argumentation, which could have very easily been mired in economic jargon. (The motion: “This house believes that economic growth is the solution to climate change.”) Unfortunately, those who actually have a clue about how economics work subsequently informed me that the participants in the round were evidently not of their tribe, and convinced me that nobody really knew what they were talking about. So let’s concede that I’m unqualified to offer a proper adjudication.

Scores by team here. Scores by speaker here. Scores by round MIA.

Since I’ve obviously been preoccupied this holiday, there hasn’t been much time to catch up on cinema. That said, let’s make another attempt at offering a few capsule impressions of what I’ve seen since the last film post, though I do want to engage in a more thorough discussion of Children of Men, which I saw tonight.

The Fountain: I’m usually reluctant to call something the best film of the year until I’ve seen it twice. So I reluctantly offer that The Fountain is the best film of 2006, noting that I still have a lot of catching up to do. This is Darren Aronofsky’s most digestible film, and probably his finest. Its tripartite structure delivers storytelling of the finest visual intricacy, and its mythic ambitions to be a tale of life and death undisplaced – a mortality play, if you will – elevate its soft, human underbelly to transcendent heights of splendour. While there isn’t anything quite as iconic as its predecessor, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the cosmic imagery (a microbial visual effect) is more emotionally grounded. After reading the online impressions of others, I have to say that I’m quite surprised at their fixation with what’s “real” and what’s not, as if that were central to understanding how the movie fit together. Personally, I don’t see how what the diegetic realities are or aren’t have any effect on the experience as a whole: besides, so much of The Fountain is about writing yourself into a fiction, and living it. I can’t wait to see it again.

The Queen: An admirable production, fuelled by a quintessentially British dignity. I feared it would take the easy way out and simply subvert the relevance of the royal family by humanizing them in the name of populist social critique. Instead, I find myself questioning the state of the Great British Public if their media-driven obsession with the former Princess of Wales empowered them to exert so much pressure on their fragile monarchy. Is this the result of a commanding manoeuvre to show that the Queen is only human for the subtle purpose of sympathizing with her threatened position of isolated privilege? Or is it evidence of an unintended failure to make a bold republican statement? It’s hard to tell. At any rate, historical dramas – good ones – have a way of making a news item, or an entry in a chronicle, a much bigger deal than you remember. To me, it is an interesting experience as a filmgoer to see events from my youth pass into historical subject matter, as they do in The Queen.

The Good Shepherd: I’m not at all surprised that Eric Roth’s screenplay drifted in the flotsam of development hell for over a decade before Robert De Niro picked it up, because this is safe, old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking. I never say that as a pejorative, so don’t take it as one. The Good Shepherd is a film replete with gripping moments that stay with you long after the credits roll; De Niro is a capable visionary, and Matt Damon’s performance carries the day. It does, however, encounter some serious and perhaps crippling problems. The first is the shallowness of its supporting characters, which is not, by all indications, the fault of the cast. As for its complexity, there comes a saturation point when the plot’s capacity to baffle is no longer, I suspect, solely due to the audience’s interpretive inadequacies. Most problematic is the movie’s willingness to reduce history (the failure of the Bay of Pigs, for instance) to a coincidental series of individual happenstances that all conveniently lie within the main character’s personal orbit. It’s fiction, of course, and I’ll buy it if it’s done within reasonable bounds of plausibility. I bought it in Forrest Gump, where it was more of a joke.

Children of Men: I used to go on and on about how Terry Gilliam would be a great choice to direct one of the Harry Potter films. Then Alfonso Cuaron came along and made what is far and away the best of the Potter movies, The Prisoner of Azakaban. In Children of Men, Cuaron enters the realm of dystopia, which is very firmly Gilliam territory (please refer to Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, both of which I cherish). However, he does it quite differently. The film that Children of Men is closest to is, in many respects, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds: there’s the same logistical marvel of extended tracking shots that immerse you in a gritty anarchistic spectacle, and the same backgrounding of man’s destruction, self-destruction and miraculous renewal to a secondary concern that occupies little to no exposition. This movie is sublime in virtually every aspect of filmmaking technique.

But like War of the Worlds, it’s not enough for this movie to be sublimely visceral when it has to present the argument that a few individuals’ struggle for survival is a microcosm for the salvation of all mankind. The former must happen before the end credits, and the latter almost certainly can’t (though we are meant to believe it eventually will). Does anyone remember Reign of Fire, where we were meant to believe a global infestation of fire-breathing dragons would just bugger off and leave us alone as soon as the main characters blew up a particularly important dragon? Children of Men comes dangerously close to doing just that.

Like most dystopic speculative fiction, the science of Children of Men – an unexplained eighteen-year cataclysm of global infertility, redressed by a miraculous and similarly unexplained birth – disappears into a corner and pleads for suspension of disbelief. We’re implicitly told that we are not to concern ourselves with scientific causes, but political effects. That’s okay by me, mostly because everybody else does it. And in many cases, perhaps no explanation is preferable to a bogus one. It’s a concern, yes, but a relatively minor one.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap that the Turkey City Lexicon calls “As You Know, Bob”: since there is no need for the characters to speak to each other at length about the state of the world, which they already know and take for granted, the story’s speculative history has to be presented by other means. Indirectly, we are given a state of affairs in 2027 where widescreen LCD panels are cheap and ubiquitous, but man has made no other discernible progress because everyone is too busy rioting in the streets and making life miserable for everybody else, given how the species is going kaput anyway.

Do we buy this? Can we accept the idea that a two-to-three-generation extinction warning is sufficient cause for the human species to go completely bonkers? Children of Men never attempts to establish a causal connection, but I think it does so implicitly: if there’s no model of cause and effect, there’s no reason to put the infertility problem, the oncoming global apocalypse and the nightmare of a fascist Britain in the same movie instead of three separate ones, one of which is entitled V for Vendetta.

The logic, as far as I can discern it, is that as soon as people realized the human race was doomed, they did one of two things: a) without any long-term obligations to the prolongment of the species, they could act out of immediate self-interest alone, which does not entail happiness, but rather, the seizure and consolidation of power; or b) they turned to the eschatalogical reassurances of religion, which inherently devalues our material existence and therefore condones the collapse of earthly societal order. This is my own interpretation, but Children of Men comes off as a film that is intelligent enough to be conscious of it, if only just.

What about Britain’s sudden turn to fascist isolation and its refusal to accommodate the refugee crisis of the end times? If the Nazis proved anything, it’s that no government is incapable of abruptly becoming unimaginably horrifying. There are no limits to the political plausibility of what a reign of terror will do. However, we are also asked to buy the notion that the far right is so preoccupied with stuffing illegal immigrants into cages that the survival of the species is nothing to them, and a refugee baby is no baby at all. Then again, when the palace guards have traded in their bushy hats for the pointy hoods of the KKK, this isn’t so far-fetched. Autocracies are not known for making plans for long-term sustainability.

I haven’t read the P.D. James book on which the film is based, The Children of Men, but I’m quite interested in what it has to say on the subject. Obviously, Cuaron’s film is equally informed by what I would begrudgingly call post-9/11 politics, and overtly so; the novel, published in 1992, is not.

Since I only saw the film a few hours ago, I can’t guarantee that any opinion I harbour will still be true in the morning. Naturally, I recommend it quite highly; it remains to be seen how much. The scope of imagination in the visual narrative outstrips that of the actual content, and I think this is primarily responsible for my ambivalence. Children of Men dismisses considerable avenues of exposition in favour of confining itself to the perspective of Clive Owen’s character, Theo; I at least appreciate that this is done consistently. Like Theo, we can very easily get too caught up in the frantic action – which is terrific, by the way – to concern ourselves with the details of how and why.

Does it all make sense? And if the movie does just enough to open up a universe of causal possibilities, but too little to explicitly commit to anything, does it matter?

You’ll recall that upstairs in my capsule gushing over The Fountain, I said it didn’t. With respect to Children of Men, I haven’t decided yet.

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