From the archives: Hockey

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Suggested reading, recollected edition

Monday, 8 March 2010 — 12:01pm | Assorted links, Classical, Computing, Harry Potter, Hockey, Literature, Music, Pianism, Science, Video games

Fall away from the Internet for a week or two and the Internet falls on you. Here’s some of what I saw when I succumbed to its gelatinous reach:

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An expatriate’s remembrance of podia distantly owned

Tuesday, 2 March 2010 — 10:46am | Canadiana, Hockey

Time will tell what I remember of the Vancouver Winter Olympics decades from now: not much in the way of specifics, I expect, but a lingering oddness of having missed the biggest national celebration in my country’s recent history on account of being overseas. On face it was an Olympics like any other: foreign, inconveniently scheduled, and mediated by coverage that was indifferent at best and infamously vicious at worst.

I watched that hockey game, of course, and could only have been happier with the Crosby goal if my hometown messiah Jarome Iginla got in on the play—oh wait, he did—but the BBC cut away before the medals were awarded, and I missed almost the entirety of the rest of the games. (CTV had online video feeds but insisted that I install Silverlight—a bizarre choice of technological affiliation on their part, almost as baffling as if they had decided to license exclusive content to a dead-in-the-water device like the Zune. I mean, Silverlight? Who in their web content team thought that was a good idea, and when will they vacate their jobs? I am available for an interview and will supply references upon request.)

Several of my compatriots took to the keyboards, composing paeans to the full bloom of maples metaphorical, declaring the fortnight as a whole (but the men’s gold medal hockey game in particular) a milestone of national pride for a country where the very idea of identity is a bit of a running joke. The statistics back this up: in an age where popular media has splintered and television has declined as a central force, to be the most-watched broadcast in Canadian history is no small feat. To say this will remain a defining moment in the country’s perpetual quest to come to terms with itself is to make a self-fulfilling prophecy: over two-thirds of active Canadian history textbook authors are likely to have watched the game (and probably more, if we suppose this demographic to be of a more patriotic bent than the mean). Comparisons to the Paul Henderson goal of 1972 can hardly avoid cementing themselves as fair, only this time we have victories in thirteen other competitions and a global audience in the mix.

The sheer neatness of the narrative should have us scratching our heads and running background checks on the referees to uncover scandalous past careers as European ice-dancing judges. Come to think of it, I should have known we were in for a Canadafest of unprecedented proportions when I caught the last half-hour of the opening ceremonies, at approximately the mark where the ever-undercapitalized k.d. lang broke the standing moratorium on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.

And yet it is striking to think how little of Canada as we know it now, how few of our quaint clichés of public exhibition, were around for the Calgary Olympics in 1988. The ink hadn’t dried on the Constitution Act, national unity was far from a given, and we hadn’t even reached the point where Céline Dion was considered a good idea, let alone a bad one.

This I do know about the Calgary Olympics: it created the entire sporting infrastructure of the city as I knew it growing up and as we continue to know it today. For citizens of my generation to imagine a Calgary before the Olympics is borderline impossible, and the spirit it injected into the civic culture, all too easy to take for granted in the ahistorical mist of youth, was in retrospect a full-fledged metamorphosis. For all the objections to the Vancouver games and uncertainties over whether it was money well spent, the legacy of its spillover benefits will course through the city for decades to come.

There is value in being world-class. It doesn’t matter if you contrive to suspend Parliament for months to secure yourself a once-in-a-lifetime seat next to Wayne Gretzky or celebrate in your ivory tower over a bottle of ink and a sheaf of parchment addressed to a newspaper that likes you; you can appreciate it all the same—yes, even if you’re in the UK.

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Connecting Four: Optimism and Optimality

Thursday, 10 May 2007 — 6:42pm | Board games, Computing, Hockey, Mathematics, Music, Science, Scrabble

I’m behind enough on my novel that the additional negative harm of dedicating a few words to the blog instead of my little green notebook is negligible. Ergo, let’s talk about board games.

But first, as I have been tending to do with increasing regularity, I am going to precede the main feature with some ancillary featurettes.

I don’t write that much about hockey (proportionate to my other interests) because other, more prolific minds know a lot more about the ins and outs of the subject than I do. But I do know music, and I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to the singing of the national anthems. I remember, with astounding clarity, that the most execrable part of watching Tampa’s home games in the Tampa-Calgary series in 2004 (aside from seeing the Lightning hoist the Cup) was Brooke Hogan’s consistently lamentable butchering of “O Canada” – and I’m sad to report that since then, Hulk’s baby girl hasn’t faded into deserved obscurity, but has instead released an album and graduated to B-list pop-stardom.

So, for all the press about how epic the Buffalo-Ottawa series will be when it comes to the action on the ice, I think it falls to somebody to mention two of the lesser-recognized reasons why it will be (and already is) so fun to watch: Doug Allen and Lyndon Slewidge. I haven’t seen every regular anthem singer currently making the rounds in the NHL, of course, but of the ones I have, these two are the very best. (And being from Calgary, where we get the excellent Heather Liscano, I do have standards.) What does the trick is their clarity, charisma, genuine quality of musicianship, and unflinching respect for what they are singing. Oh, and they stay in time. I’ve lost count of the wannabe divas who trill left and right and demonstrate nothing but a lack of education in the basics of metrical tempo (to say nothing of tone control). We’ll have none of that.

Next: Its run at the Varscona Theatre closes on Sunday, but Shadow Theatre’s production of David Belke’s Dreamland Saturday Nights is an absolute delight. I’m not as well-versed in appreciating the subtleties of the stage as I am with cinema or music, but this was my best experience with live theatre in some time. I do wonder, however, if it plays nearly as well to people who aren’t major cinephiles, as so much of its magic is referential.

And now, as promised, a bit about board games.

Last week, I went out into the wilderness with my new colleagues (pamperedness level: heated cabins), and one of them had the presence of mind to bring along the familiar diversion that we all know as Connect Four. On the last evening of our trip, when I was busy nursing a pot of cheap strawberry tea and making absolutely no progress on my cute little novel-in-progress about space colonies and married women, he challenged me to a friendly match. One friendly match quickly ignited into thirteen. We stopped when I hit ten wins. For those of you in the audience who can’t add, that’s a 10-3 record.

On paper, it looks like I demolished the poor guy; he certainly thought so, and it wasn’t until the next morning (when he beat up on someone else) that he regained some elementary semblance of confidence. To be fair, I started with six straight wins, and finished with a considerably weaker 4-3 thanks to careless errors in observation, unnecessary experimentation, and (in my opinion) noticeable improvement on the part of my opponent.

Now, I hadn’t played Connect Four in an absurdly long time: I only vaguely remember playing round after round on my Macintosh SE back in the black-and-white halcyon days of System 6, and I may have faced the occasional human opponent, though I’ve never owned a physical set myself. But the rules are simple enough that it’s not like you’re liable to forget how to play. The name of the game and the design of the board (i.e. it’s vertical, and pieces dropped in the slots tend to fall) make the mechanics about as self-evident as is possibly conceivable. That said, it would be foolish to understate its strategic complexity.

I can’t say I’ve ever considered myself any more than a casual player, and by purely casual standards, I don’t think my opponent was exceptionally bad. How, then, did I manage to be so dominant? What has really changed since the age of nine? Board game skills aren’t like fine wines: they don’t improve with age alone.

Two things come to mind: 1) serious exposure to other games of strategy, and 2) an education in the little-understood field of computing science.

The first is probably obvious. In the case of Connect Four – elegant, turn-based (but otherwise symmetrical) and fundamentally geometric – it’s easy to see how some half-decent Scrabble skills might help: looking for hotspots, settling into a rhythm of risk and reward, differentiating high-risk offensive positions from conservative and defensive ones. More pertinent would be a deterministic game like chess, where you learn to recognize certain patterns as opportunities for setting up zugzwangs and forced mates. I kind of wonder how well someone with a background in grid-based video games like Tetris Attack would fare.

There’s also the psychological element of the discipline it takes to focus on a game, exercise the patience to find the best move, intuit what your opponent is trying to do, and avoid stupid mistakes, but I don’t have that.

Less obvious to the layman is the value of a computing science education, which a lot of people out there think of as the study of computers, when in many cases it would actually be more accurate to say it is the study of problem-solving. (That’s a crude generalization as well, but still more accurate.) It’s not too hard to see how excellence at games of strategy is so often conceived as the pinnacle of whatever it is computing scientists do.

I am not saying that in a given turn in Connect Four, I’m culling a game tree in my head or performing a systematic limited depth-first search. But just as a basic level of comfort with calculus provides you with a substantially better intuitive grasp of infinities and convergences even if you don’t remember the ins and outs of solving triple integrals by substitution, I wager that an understanding of rational, computational processes provides one with an intuitive basis for pattern recognition and logical reasoning.

On top of that, it provides you with the tools to easily pursue further study. The reason I am writing this post is in part because tonight, I thought about how I might design a Connect Four AI, and I started looking at what had already been done. As a mechanically straightforward (and fully deterministic) game, it did not come as a surprise that Connect Four had already been solved. (The relevant thesis, which you can download as a 91-page PDF, is Victor Allis’s “A Knowledge-Based Approach of Connect-Four,” published in 1987. I’m not through much of it, but so far, it’s a terrific read.)

It turns out that with perfect play, the first player to move (“White” in the standard literature, as I don’t think many people with the standard Milton Bradley set care if red or yellow go first) always wins if the first move is down the centre column, just as how X can’t lose in tic-tac-toe if the first move is in the centre square. It seems intuitive, but there’s no comfort like the warm cushion of a mathematical proof.

Apart from questions of the “how did I win” variety, I think there’s another issue in play: why did I have fun? (This might not occur to those of you on another planet who play games solely for amusement and diversion and not necessarily to win, but I do, on occasion, actually have fun.)

Let’s proceed by example and analogy, shall we?

Anybody who has known me for any period of time probably has at least a cursory knowledge of where I stand when it comes to board games. There are three games in the top tier. I play Scrabble (far and away my favourite game of any sort) seriously enough to compete but not obsessively enough to truly excel; I’m fascinated by Diplomacy, but inexperienced; I adore Settlers of Catan, but I’m not nearly as good as the statement “I finished second at the University of Alberta’s POGOB! tournament in October and I’m playing in the Western Canadian championship next week” might suggest. (With games like Diplomacy and Settlers, a good reputation is a huge liability. People start ganging up on you.)

I have the deepest respect for chess, checkers and Go, but there’s such a gulf between my level of skill and what I would consider an acceptable competitive standard that I view them much like I view movies that are obviously imbued with the finest craftsmanship, but do not stir any passions on a personal level, and cannot be said to be among my favourites.

Among the other popular entertainments: I used to enjoy Risk, but I abandoned it after I found Diplomacy, and I haven’t played it since. Back when I was an only child, my family played Monopoly, but we would fight over the game and inevitably leave it unfinished; later, I discovered that we weren’t following the rules correctly anyway. I’ll play Battleship, but it’s just not the same without the “Sploosh!” and “Kaboom!” sound effects from the version in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Then there’s the whole class of games like Cranium and Trivial Pursuit that I’m not even sure I should count: they suit social settings well, but you can’t “study” the game without feeling like you’re cheating.

I hate the Game of Life. (Not Conway’s cellular automaton, but that thinly-veiled wheel-spinning instrument of social engineering where you drive around in a little car and add pins to it when you get married, have kids, and coast towards your inconsequential demise in the thorny brambles of the American Dream.) Life sucks. No strategic depth whatsoever.

Now, let’s play Spot the Correlates. Is there anything I consistently like or dislike about board games?

If you look at the top tier – Scrabble, Diplomacy, Settlers – all three of them have an element of nondeterminism (stochastic in Scrabble, qualitative in Diplomacy, both in Settlers), but success or failure is primarily and repeatably dependent on conscious strategic decisions on the part of the player. In addition, a significant number (but not all) of these decisions are independent of who the opponent is, because they involve tactical knowledge of the game mechanics. It is possible to get progressively better as a player, but impossible to win all the time.

Connect Four initially falls into the same qualitative category as chess – although Go would be a better comparison, as it is based on placing pieces, not moving them, and there is only one type of piece. Connect Four doesn’t belong to nearly the same order of complexity, of course, but it feels like a faster-paced incarnation of the same deterministic experience. There is at least the persistent illusion of a fair fight, whereas in chess, I will almost always lose to someone who has a library of openings down pat, and almost always beat someone who can’t find his way around basic pins and skewers.

In a casual or novice-level game, you will almost never see a stalemate in chess except by accident, because the players aren’t skilled enough to set one up to avoid a loss, but they are skilled enough to finish off a familiar pattern like having a king and a rook to the opponent’s king. In expert play, draws are virtually the norm, and the result is a phenomenon called draw death: the prevalence of stalemates between players of sufficient skill exposes a serious air of futility that hangs over the game as a whole. A more familiar example of draw death is in tic-tac-toe. It doesn’t take very long for even a small child to figure out how to play every game of tic-tac-toe to a draw, at which point there is no real incentive to play anymore.

To be fair, this also happens in expert-level Diplomacy, where it is possible and not at all uncommon for the last two remaining players to entrench themselves in a stalemate line that cuts across the map, preventing each other from reaching the 18 supply centres required for victory. And a game like chess is sufficiently complex that unlike tic-tac-toe, it’s still possible to hold a championship. Draw death isn’t a reason to not play chess unless you are outstanding, in which case your name is Bobby Fischer and you remedied the problem by inventing a chess variant (Fischerandom/Chess960) where the initial placement of pieces is randomized within certain constraints.

I’m sure that against sufficiently skilled players, draw death presents a huge problem for Connect Four. But the real barrier to enjoying games of strategy is when improvement relies on the memorization of positions instead of principles; I also see it occur in Scrabble, where you need to dedicate a tremendous effort to memorizing words just to have a chance to apply strategic ideas. I like words enough that I don’t mind so much, but that obviously isn’t the case for everybody.

The elegance of Connect Four is how much complexity it manages to preserve in order to remain interesting, while its simplicity entails that it is never an exhausting game to play; it goes by so quickly that one can play round after round with little trouble. It owes at least some of its speed to a certain lack of choice, with only seven or fewer possible moves per turn. It also does not seem as susceptible to massive disparities in skill as many other games of its ilk. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that I just don’t know the game very well yet, and that once I do, the number of players with whom I feel evenly matched (in either direction) will plummet.

And that’s why I’m behind on my novel.

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Go (P/S)ens go

Wednesday, 11 April 2007 — 4:09pm | Hockey

I’ll be brief, as every word I’m writing here is a word that isn’t being written on whatever paper it is I’m currently working on. It has something to do with Gil Anidjar and the ambiguous ontological status of “the enemy” in Western metaphysics, which is fitting, as I’m also watching a playoff series between my second- and third-favourite teams in the NHL, and I’m not sure whom I’d like to see win. I’ll be rooting for whoever comes out of this series to win the East (and realistically, it will probably be Ottawa).

But, as I said, in brief: a) It goes without saying that Disneyland was magnificent, though the Red Hot Chili Peppers tie-in at Space Mountain was perhaps questionable, and I’m glad it will be gone by the end of the month. b) Given how much writing I’m required to do this week, yesterday was a very, very bad time for Super Paper Mario to arrive. I probably could have gotten something (academic) done in the six hours I spent playing it. 3) I somehow suspect that short of advancing to the Western Conference Final, Jim Playfair won’t be coaching my team come October. Nevertheless: go Flames.

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Time flies like a penguin

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 — 9:44pm | Animation, Film, Hockey, Oscars, Video games

I have a number of posts on queue or in mind that are actually of substance, but this is not one of them. In their place, how about a spate of disjointed miscellany, loosely connected by waddling flightless birds:

First, with the addition of Georges Laraque and Gary Roberts to the lineup, the Pittsburgh Penguins are suddenly even more interesting than they were already. I mention them both in connection to something I want to say about Ryan Smyth, which is next. I appreciate seeing someone as entertaining as Laraque on a team I will actually root for of my own volition, and the idea of Roberts on the ice with Sidney Crosby blows my mind. Mind you, to see Laraque in a flaming C would have been downright awesome, but I’m almost inclined to think the citizenry here in Edmonton, which seems to live and die for the Oilers, has taken enough punishment for one day. Or one season.

As for the Oilers? Speaking as someone from Calgary, I like seeing a strong, healthy and respectable Oilers team worthy of a provincial rivalry. Without a heated Battle of Alberta (preferably one that we win), hockey can only be so interesting. I’ve been told from several corners that in terms of tangibles, Edmonton got plenty from the Islanders for Ryan Smyth, and basically came out on top. But in the context of Edmonton’s rotten year in the front office, and Smyth’s intangible value to his team and to the community at large in terms of morale, leadership and institutional memory, I wouldn’t blame a single Oilers fan for quitting on their team. I quit on the Flames, and hockey in general, for a span of about eight years. I can identify, within a reasonable margin of confidence, when the cracks started to show and the Flames started to quit on me: when they traded Al MacInnis to St. Louis.

It’s easy to console oneself with the mentality that such-and-such a superstar who has been with you for over a decade is 31 years old and won’t be improving anyway, but you start eating your words when said player stays on the other team for another decade without too considerable a decline, and they retire his jersey before you do and stick him in management. Meanwhile, back home you develop all these new faces for a couple of years, and the fan base goes, “Who are these guys?” before it makes like a tree and leafs. I don’t know if that will happen with Ryan Smyth, and it almost certainly won’t with the Islanders, but he doesn’t look like a guy on the decline to me. Then again, he’s never been a MacInnis-class player either, though I don’t want to start comparing apples and orangutans.

Not that I expect anybody in this city to really stop caring about their floundering team. Edmonton takes its hockey very, very seriously, even by Canadian standards. We’re talking about a Roch Carrier’s Le Chandail de Hockey magnitude of seriousness. They burn their owners in effigy around here. But in the oil-ridden backwaters of central to northern Alberta, there’s only so much to live for. (That’s what the Prongers found out.)

It’s incredible to me that we’re now over a decade removed from the time when Al MacInnis, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts were, for all intents and purposes, established franchise players for the Flames. When play resumed after the lockout, all three were still on the ice. Remarkably, one of them still is, and it’s the one we practically lost to injury. An eight-year abandonment and a Stanley Cup run later, I got over it. Go Flames go.

Next: Scientists in China have leveraged the wonders of neuroscience to develop remote-controlled pigeons. My thoughts on carrier pigeons aside (I kind of love them), all I’ll say is this: forty years ago, this would have made for a killer episode of The Avengers.

Next: I’ve come to the conclusion that the Wii remote, turned sideways, is a phenomenal NES-style two-button controller. I’ve been using it as an NES and Genesis pad on the Virtual Console, and with emulated Game Boy titles on my Mac with the assistance of DarwiinRemote. At first, it’s a bit strange to hold a controller that wide when the left side is about half the width of the right, but the D-pad is superb and the 1/2 buttons (mapped to A/B, and horizontally arranged like the NES pad and unlike the Game Boy line) contour like a dream. I’ve been told that these are the same kind of buttons as the ones on the DS Lite. If so, I think I’m upgrading. It’s not just about the buttons, though. The form factor of the Wiimote, in all its lightweight, wireless glory, is such that you don’t grip the controller so much as you let it rest on your fingers and let it become a part of you.

As I was never a Sega man, for good reason – let’s face it, Nintendo won that era handily, even though the sales at the time made it look close – I did miss out on some genuinely terrific games for the Genesis. Well, one, anyway: Gunstar Heroes, the side-scrolling shoot-’em-up to end all side-scrolling shoot-’em-ups. It now resides on my Wii thanks to the Virtual Console service. This is all quite encouraging. In two generations, when Nintendo is still alive and kicking and Sony’s games division has gone under, I fully expect to be downloading and playing PS2 games on my Nintendo system. There are a handful I’ve always wanted to try, though I could never justify purchasing a console from that generation that wasn’t a GameCube.

Would it be impossible for Nintendo to somehow update the Wii firmware so a Nintendo DS could be used as an SNES controller? Given that any sort of DS-to-Wii connection would be over local Wi-Fi and not Bluetooth, I wonder if there are any problems in terms of responsiveness and reliability. Battery consumption really isn’t an issue.

Next: I’ve decided I’m not going to comment on the Oscars until I’ve seen The Departed again, primarily because the first time I saw it, my enthusiasm was deflated somewhat because in some very significant ways, Scorsese’s film fails to escape the shadow of Infernal Affairs. It’s a strong film, but not as good as Andy Lau’s, certainly nowhere near Scorsese’s best, and – upon initial impressions – not nearly as engaging as Babel, which was (in turn) a more intelligent film than last year’s winner, the structurally similar Crash. But I have a feeling that The Departed would improve on repeat viewings.

Okay, I’ll comment on one Oscar. Cars was robbed. Happy Feet was fun and ambitious, but Cars was playing in a different league altogether – Pixar’s league. It reminds me of the hysteria over Shrek when it was the first winner of the Animated Film statuette back in 2001, which only really manifested itself in the box-office performance of the sequel. Don’t get me wrong: Shrek is still the best we’ve seen from DreamWorks apart from their work with Aardman, and is undoubtedly the best of the spoof subgenre. But on repeat viewings, it’s become abundantly clear that its opponent that year, Monsters, Inc., is the finer film by almost every critical metric that should be applied to animation, even if it isn’t as immediately gratifying. Between Cars and Happy Feet, it’s not even that close. The care and attention to character and story design aren’t even comparable.

Moreover, I worry about the impact that the Happy Feet award will have on the decisions that are made at the level of the people with money, the ones who are in the position of treating animation like a business and not a craft. Again, Cartoon Brew is on the money: professional animators have something to fear. The success of a film driven by motion-capture techniques means that the kind of studio bosses who invested in Shrek clones to the point of market oversaturation are, at this very moment, gambling their “development” money on mo-cap.

And why not? From a business perspective, motion-capture provides an Oscar-tested avenue for the budget to be spent on post-production technology that already exists, as opposed to investing in animators, who are trained to sort out all the minutiae in the design and storyboarding process – a pre-production phase that spans several years. If you’re going to greenlight films based on economic forces in a high-stakes nine-figure market, you’re naturally going to be impatient. And in case anybody is still under the illusion that the Oscars don’t matter, consider why it is that the standard idiom in mainstream CG is built on pop-culture references and celebrity voices – material that appeals to the here-and-now, and not built to last. It all goes back to Shrek.

I’m not one to knock motion-capture as a legitimate technique: once animators play with the keyframing and refine the results, the wonders start coming, and there’s no better testament than Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Remember that the harbinger of the CG revolution that first reached silver-screen audiences was also a similar live-action proof-of-concept, Jurassic Park. The real danger is when mo-cap is treated as a replacement for animators, which is a problematic strategy born of ignorance. A reliance on mo-cap as a time-saver and cost-saver, as opposed to a highly efficient modelling tool for animators to play with.

Take Happy Feet, for instance. Most of the animation in the film happens at the level of full bodies and, well, feet. When Mumble is confident, he puffs out his chest and struts around on his pair of tappity-tappers. When he’s sad, he hunches over and pitter-patters away. Fair enough. Can you think of a single memorable moment that involved, say, the eyes? Or even the flippers? If you look at a movie like Cars, almost every memorable shot is fundamentally defined by the “eyebrow” lines over the windshield. (I read somewhere that this was precisely why the animators decided to put the eyes in the windshield instead of the established standard of the headlights. It worked.)

Eyes are usually a dead giveaway when it comes to the apparent fluidity or stiffness of an animated character, and in Happy Feet, they’re not even designed to have any expressive power. They’re just there because penguins have eyes. The puppet-like rigidity in that paragon of Uncanny Valley mo-cap films, The Polar Express? It’s in the eyes, which are ostensibly only there because humans have eyes. When motion-capture actually works, like it did with Gollum, you get both natural body movements from your model (in this case, Andy Serkis) and the subtleties of facial expression (in particular, eye movements) from animators using keyframing techniques.

You can still get by without eyes and rely on full-body motion – hopping lamps, anyone? – but not if you have a pair of eyes just sitting on your character’s face waiting to be used.

I would add, on a final note, that motion-capture isn’t nearly as effective for films that are wholly animated as it is for CG elements in live-action movies. The utility of motion-capture, apart from its savings, is to make animated body movements look realistic enough to blend in with live-action ones. In feature animation, it’s not incumbent on anything to look realistic: the first priority is to be expressive, and often, that’s the opposite. (Happy Feet is a strange case in that while it is primarily CG, it does attempt to blend with live-action elements in its enthralling third act.) At the same time, the claim that motion-capture was meant for live-action films is an ironic one: the first major all-CG motion-capture character in live-action features was none other than the infamous Jar Jar Binks. By my account, the primary reason he was so harshly received was his “cartoonish” dynamism and lack of subtlety, which made The Phantom Menace feel like (shock and horror!) an animated film. I get the sense that George Lucas asked Ahmed Best to act like an animated character, and got exactly what he wanted: “Faster, more intense.”

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Flame Wars: The Tampa Menace

Saturday, 29 May 2004 — 8:29pm | Film, Hockey

In honour of tonight’s 3-0 victory over the Lightning, at which the audience was entirely in varying degrees of red, I am going to write some more about the euphoric atmosphere in this here city of Calgary.

From the Yellow Journalism Files comes this little gem I saw in this week’s FFWD Weekly, which, for you Edmontonians reading this, is Calgary’s equivalent of your SEE Magazine: a brief observation by one Jason Lewis that the sports fans leading the charge of Flames fever here in Calgary “are not only a little hypocritical, but also a bit nutty.”

This by itself is not so objectionable, but read on. “You know when the latest Star Wars movie comes out and people line up for five days dressed up as R2-D2 to buy tickets?” asks Lewis. “You folks in the Flames jerseys with the thermoses of soup outside the Saddledome at 5 a.m. to get playoff seats are the sports-world equivalent of those sci-fi geeks.”

Speaking as someone who indeed lined up for five days (okay, three) to buy tickets for one of the Prequels – and let’s not even get into The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Tuesday or the midnight launch of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – it’s easy to take this as a compliment to Flames fans everywhere. But in light of what he says in the first paragraph about hypocrisy, is it just me, or do I detect a bit of negativity? Lewis goes on and makes an entirely anecdotal argument that we “didn’t see [him] walking around in a yellow track suit for the opening weekend of Kill Bill,” which is a rather misguided take on the motivations underlying the dress-up, line-up subcultural phenomena we are seeing more often in this age of tentpole events.

The Kill Bill argument falls flat because as good a film as it is, and as recognized as it has become in the Internet film geek community in particular, Miramax never let it dabble in big licensing deals, which meant the burden of acquiring a yellow track suit (itself an homage to Bruce Lee’s Fist of Death) demanded that you make it yourself. That already eliminates the first pillar beneath a public demonstration of one’s admiration and support for something: the commercial infrastructure.

With the Calgary Flames, you have both the merchandise and a team whose performance makes it fashionable. In the case of films that have yet to establish both a major commercial presence and a fan base willing to spend hard cash on it – a fan base that needs to be earned on merit – this does not happen. This is why the hype machine comes into action primarily for sequels to films that are mainstream cultural phenomena, which Kill Bill, Vol. 1 sadly was not.

For instance, the amount of costuming that happened going into The Fellowship of the Ring on opening night was minimal; without the images from the movie imprinted on society at large, and given that the mass merchandising of Tolkien was just getting off the ground, it was impossible to tell the Aragorns apart from the Boromirs anyway, unless you somehow managed to procure a Horn of Gondor. The openings of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, however, saw a whole lot more in the way of elf fashion and hobbit pageantry. The first Star Wars underwent a similar pattern, and by passing off its growth with every passing film as the development of a geek subculture, it is easy to ignore how this culture was driven by the general public. Tellingly, nobody went to The Passion of the Christ decked out as Jesus despite its record-shattering run at the box office. The exception to the rule was the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but only because the kids already had costumes they wore to the release of The Goblet of Fire or the previous Halloween.

The thing to remember about dressing up for movie openings and sports games is that it only works, and it is only fun, if a lot of people are doing it. Even when you put aside the commercially licensed paraphernalia you are still left with what is, in its own right and on its own terms, a crafts fair. On one hand, you have your tinfoil Stanley Cups and “Cup Belongs in Calgary” signs; on the other, you have the latest handmade Stormtrooper costume projects like the ones coordinated by The 501st Legion. Ultimately it has little to do with the event, and a lot more to do with the sense of community. It may seem obsessive to the layman, but that does not make it a bad thing.

Lewis may contend that the bodypainting of red flaming Cs on game nights is no better than mock fighting in a cinema parking lot with glowing plastic lightsabres, but it would be more accurate to say it is no worse.

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It runs in the family

Friday, 28 May 2004 — 9:31am | Hockey, Music

I will begin by saying that the homegrown Albertan doctrine of “shoot, shovel and shut up” applies not just to mad cows, but also to hockey games like the one last night. No, really – let’s not talk about it. The penalties alone speak for just how poisonous the atmosphere was in the Ice Palace last night – 64 minutes dished out against Calgary and 60 against Tampa – but like I said, let’s not talk about it.

What this means, though, is that there will be at least one more return to Tampa for Game 5 – a bad thing in its own right, even when home-ice advantage is not taken into consideration. I refer not to the thirty-above hockey weather or the unsportsmanlike demeanour of what can be termed a hostile fan base, both factors that run quite contrary to what one can expect of watching hockey here in Calgary, but to a far greater menace to society as a whole. Her name is Brooke Hogan.

Ms. Hogan, a Tampa native who sings the national anthems at their home games with about as much vocal ability as her father Hulk, is – and I mean no disrespect to the Harts, who are good folks with whom I once crossed paths by way of piano lessons, of all things – irrefutable proof that professional wrestlers shouldn’t breed. I say this because the way she stomps all over “O Canada” like a wounded soldier limping across the Somme would be considered grounds for war by any country with an actual military. Here’s a lesson to all the aspiring American Idol contestants out there: singing a cappella does not give you a free pass to disregard the idea of tempo, which is about as fundamental to human civilization as the concept of the number zero. Don’t believe me? Take a wave mechanics course.

Leading an audience in an anthem (keyword: leading) comes with the implication that to some extent, members of said audience will be singing along. The fact that the American arena is primarily full of Americans is irrelevant, when ten percent of all Canada is watching the live telecast. When you lead an audience in song, you never, ever push and pull the tempo to your liking. It’s bad enough that she speeds through the first stanza as if it were the Indy 500, but to pull a ritardando in the next and an accelerando in the one after that – assuming she even has the capacity to understand that this is what she’s doing, which is a leap of faith – should get her at least a ten-minute misconduct.

The bottom line is, regardless of whether or not it is intentional, Hogan’s “performance” of the Canadian anthem is nothing short of cultural mockery. History has shown that such mockery has a very real demoralizing effect – one that Calgary overcame in Game 1 on merit, but you can only stomach something like this for so long. This is no different than the raucous booing and jeering of the visiting team that seems to be such an integral part of Tampa’s sporting culture. Come Game 5, someone get the girl a metronome, or get her off the ice.

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