Posts Tagged Movies

The Biggest Problem with the “Video Games as Art” Argument…

… is the following question: What is art, today?

In February of 2005, Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed and designed over 75 thousand “gates” along a pathway through Central Park, New York. They remained there for only sixteen days before they were removed and dismantled. According to Wikipedia, the showcase was inspired by the Japanese torii gates, which are usually placed along the entrance to Shinto shrines.

The Gates
In 2007, artist Wendu Gu debuted a massive undertaking, whereby she and her assistants gathered over 430 pounds of human hair, cleaned and braided it, and strung it all over the Baker-Barry Library at Dartmouth College. I was attending this school when this event happened. It sounds gross, but it was sanitary, and nifty, if in the oddest sense.

Dartmouth Hair Project
What is art, today? It is global. It is digital. It is not post-Modern (itself a term impossible to define), but post-post-Modern. It is combination of the past/present, East/West, North/South “division”. It is the binaries, redefined. It is art, not-art, and the very manner in which we experience art.

And it has to be. We’re too far along in this decade, too intelligent, too interconnected to no longer discredit or discount the works of other nations, other people, other genres as art – or art of “class” or “wealth”. I’m reminded of the relatively recent 1970s decision to study the diaries, journals, and writings of the common people to study history – social history, they called it. It was supposed to reinforce traditional views of history, the big-man approach to the field, but instead, it forced several historians to rethink the nature of history. (The freed slaves were thought, for example, to be ‘prone’ towards their lot in life, due to their lack of intelligence. It is now fairly well understood that the freed slaves were very smart, but played “dumb” more or less to protect themselves and their families from the violence that would be unleashed upon them if certain radicals discovered their “smarts.”) (After the Fact, Davidson and Lytle)

The Gates connection to traditional Japanese architecture and Gu’s global hair-collection project are manifestations of the contemporary issues of art as we have to understand it today. We can’t constantly compare the Now to the art of the past – not to say they do not have value, for they do; Shakespeare is certainly art; so is Picasso, Beethoven, Contempt. But under this strict definition and narrow lens, it seems impossible to make art today; all potential venues in some format now is parody, is pastiche, is copy, is simulation, is simulacrum. It’s global, universal, multi-natural and multi-faceted. It’s interaction, interactivity, communication, and the methods in which we do all of that. It’s everything.

Roger Ebert, as per his recent blogpost, would be hard pressed to argue with Gu, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Richard Prince that their work is not art. Prince is responsible for “appropriation art,” photographing other people’s photographs. He applied this to the Marlboro Man, which makes for an interesting question: is the Marlboro Man art? If not, is the photograph of it art? If not, why the hell was it hanging in the Guggenheim?

But that is it. Art is more than the aesthetics and the personal, subjective sensation we feel when we experience it (although it is part of it). It is the QUESTIONS that are inevitably derived when we experience art. It expands our thinking, our criticism, our viewpoint of the world around us, from the little, the frivolous, the silly, to the profound, the majestic, the sublime. Is comedy art? Does the fact that Shakespeare’s work may not be attributed to him still make his work artistic? Is the fact that Raphael, being more or less a copycat, mean he is less an artist than Da Vinci? Let’s talk about it. Let’s debate this. Let’s DISCUSS.

The two issues I have with Ebert’s analysis has less to do with his belief and more to do with his methodology and mindset. 1) Not playing a game yet denoting it not art is flawed in the most obvious of ways. 2) Refusing to play a game to judge whether a game is art is every more egregious, especially coming from someone as well-spoken and intelligent as he is. Dr. Seuss taught children this mistake in Green Eggs and Ham.

Green Eggs and Ham

Children even get this.

Had he played a game and denoted it not art – well, that would be something else. That would make for a much more interesting dialogue, one that would be much more coherent and grounded. And that, that would be the beginning of the language of art for video games, of the interactivity and “immersion” of entertainment.

I have, in my hands, TONS of essays about so many elements and facets of film and the media of today that it’s almost sad. (Thanks, Dartmouth!) I have: “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator” by Tom Gunning (an essay showcasing early films as thrill rides than mistaken assaults on the audience); “How Films Mean” by Geoffrey, Nowell-Smith (a dialogue on how to “read” film); “Anal Rope” by D. A. Miller (a queer theorist reading of Hitchcock’s Rope). Linda Williams focuses SOLELY on the audience’s pre-expectation of the film Psycho, on how it reinvented the ad campaign and the visual/visceral reaction of said audience in “Discipline and fun: Psycho and postmodern cinema.” I could go on; in my studies, I’ve read over a hundred different essays that served to deal with, in some format, of film, cinema, television, the “new media,” and post-Modernism (whatever that means). Ebert has a bigger fight, in reality, than the mere fourteen year-old boys that seek mere legitimacy in their past hobby.

Is all of this art? Who knows? That’s why we want to discuss it. Detail and compare, cite and suggest, argue and debate. We like to. We WANT to. It will make the field better, stronger, smarter. WE want to be better, stronger, smarter. Art itself is not art until we not only experience it, but understand and learn about that experience beyond the primary encounter. If the works by Wassily Kandinsky are art, and the animated films by Oskar Fischinger are art, then Rez, the game, has to be art; three different mediums (painting, cinema, video games) seeking to “connect” the elements of sound, shape, color, motion, and how we perceive it all (Cracked made this argument, in comical but cohesive fashion). To deny one form is to inherently deny them all. But beyond that, the real question is: why deny one at all? Why does, let’s say, the interaction of the color/sound/shape aesthetic stop being art within the realm of interactivity? THAT’S what should be discussed, and with people as well-versed as Ebert flat-out denying a medium as even worthy of discussion — well, that is exceedingly disappointing.

Discussing the aesthetics of what art is within the 21th century is worthwhile, mainly because it needs to be discussed. My former professor at Dartmouth (Mark Williams, if you wish to look him up) has always found meaning and value with how we percent the nature of what is real and reality, using films like The Matrix (outside the fighting sequences) and books by William Gibson. The “computerized” aesthetic – green artificiality, vague connections via social/virtual interaction, digitalization and interactivity – has to be something. If not art, then what? What exactly are we experiencing?

If the nature of interactivity itself is the problem, and the “thrills” incited by the player that plays belittles the chance for gaming to be art, I offer one film as an argument to this: Children of Men.

Children of Men

Children of Men is a perfect case study that should push the dialogue towards gaming as art. Clive Owen’s character, especially towards the latter half of the movie, is pushed and driven forward in an insane world of “enemies and chaos” around them. With the camera as a seamless tracking shot, save for the occasional moment for dialogue and plot revelation, that visceral thrill one feels is probably the closest feeling one gets when playing a video game. Perhaps the film, overall, is not art, but there’s a real artistic vibe to how well the camera and cinematography was ingrained within the film and the flow of the story. Quite frankly, the sole difference between game and film is the ability to control Clive’s character. (The introduction to Half-Life 2 reeks of Children of Men sensibilities [or vice versa]).

The “game” metaphor when it comes to the critiques of films is that the movie is very staged and structured, like a level-to-level game, moving from one action set piece to the next. What filmmakers and critics alike fail to realize is that the in-the-moment, immersive thrill is what makes a game truly a game, since most of them place the player against what seems to be an insurmountable number of places, people, or things. Game-based movies certainly don’t count, and while films like Gamer skirt the idea of player interactivity, I doubt they attempt to question it, among the plentiful explosions (an aside: the image of the gamer have become so cliche that it is bordering on frustrating. Gamer’s geeky kid protagonist seems annoying while Roger’s first image on his blogpost is embarrassing, made more so by his constant replies that “it’s cute,” which only serves his overall, diminutive dismissal even more. And I refrain from the pathetic portrayals of the “game” and the “gamer” on screen. But I digress.)

There is no desire to be pretentious here, nor am I seeking to “legitimize” gaming in anyway. Hell, I don’t care, really – I play my games knowing full well the ridiculous scenarios are geared towards explosions, gun fights, and ass-kicking. The issue is that the layers of this interaction – just as the various layers of how we interact with literature, paintings, theater, film, comics, and other art forms – is what is at stake. At the very least, just as the artists above made art of the Now now, we need to debate and discuss what constitute the Art of today, in ALL forms, from all places.

Let criticism thrive in this century at all levels of our representative experiences.

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – FLUPPY DOGS

REVERSE STEREOTYPES. Or something.

REVERSE STEREOTYPES. Or something.

Fluppy Dogs – (1986)

Director: Fred Wolf
Starring: Marshall Efron, Carl Steven, Cloyce Morrow
Screenplay by: Haskell Barkin, Bruce Talkington

WHAT?

Yes, Fluppy Dogs. I know, I know. You’re probably now asking three questions. 1) What the hell is a Fluppy Dog? 2) Why the hell did you choose this as your secret movie? 3) What the hell is this show about? Well, dear readers, I’ll tell you.

Fluppy Dogs was a failed follow-up to 1985’s Gummi Bears. You see, back in the late 80s/early 90s, Disney produce a set of cartoons that ranged from surprisingly mediocre to straight-up excellent for a after-school segment called “The Disney Afternoon”. Gummi Bears, Ducktales, Darkwing Duck, Aladdin, Rescue Rangers, Bonkers, Gargoyles – a ton of animated features aired for this two-hour block, and as a lover of all things animated, I devoured them all. Fluppy Dogs was planned to be one of those shows (along with a short-lived merchandising line of stuffed animals), but they only managed to air the episode’s one-hour pilot. Due to lack of interest and ratings, the show never came to be.

NOSTALGIC LENS: While watching the Care Bears films, primarily to discover that song “Forever Young,” seeing the multi-colored furballs triggered a vague memory of seeing multi-colored canines of some sort. I distinctly recalled them traversing a mountain—but that’s it. So, thanks to the magic that is Google, a few searches connected me to Fluppy Dogs, the movie of which was available on Youtube. So, I decided to surprise myself and you readers by watching this, if primarily to satisfy the most elusive of my childhood memories. One question remains: did we miss out on what could have been an excellent animated series, or did Disney wisely can this into their vault (probably a back corner, next to Oswald the Rabbit?)

DOES IT HOLD UP: The secret to making a “cutesy-girly” product more accessible to boys is to add cool fantasy stuff. Gummi Bears had some pretty epic medieval clashes and even My Little Ponies had a villain of Satanic evil. So, Fluppy Dogs added the somewhat intriguing idea of parallel-world, realm-jumping creatures. Pound Puppies, meet Sliders. (So, if you want your Foo-Foo dolls to appeal to young boys, ladies, add some time travel nonsense.)

The problem that writers can fall into concerning parallel world stories is that it can lead to some really lazy, contrived writing. And Fluffy Dogs, sadly, didn’t pass the test. Now, certainly, I’m not expecting brilliance here, but one of the things the 80s/90s toon-Disney writers were great at was taking bizarre, complex ideas and concepts, and making them nice and straight-forward, an easy to swallow pill for the young audience. This show makes the pill chewable and wholly optional.

Five Fluppy Dogs are jumping gates to try to find their way home. They inevitably land in our world and pretend to be regular dogs. When captured by the pound, a boy named Jamie adopts one. Wackiness happens, and soon Jamie (and older neighbor Claire) are trying to re-unite the Fluppies and get them back home before J. J. Wagstaff (some rich dude with a bad fetish for random animals) captures them.

Part of the problem here is that Fluppy Dogs never passes the contrived-ness of its story. Things happen just cause they can and just to drive the plot forward. For example, why are the colored canines even jumping worlds? It might have been better to say they were escaping some sort of evil – but no, they’re looking for “adventure”. Really? You’re bending the fabric of space and time because your bored?! It gets worse when Wagstaff exposits a history of the Fluppies from a book of legends. Seriously? Why even bother with that? It added nothing to the story. It seemed more apropos to just have Wagstaff chase them because he found out they could talk. No real need to bring in the hard-to-swallow idea that authors have written about them. It’s a knock-off of Gummi Bears; but while that show got away with Gummi Bear legends by taking place in a medieval periods where crazy legends exist all the time, crazy legends in 1980s America concerning parallel-world-traveling canines just seems so random.

This clip contains, essentially, all the shows problems:

For my animator readers: How about those multi-size-changing pajamas on Stanley there? Was this storyboarded? Why are the transitions between scenes so choppy? Fades, people, fades. Also, I totally dug the explanation of the head-scratching-flying ability. Yeah, I’m sure the most amazingly convenient abilities arrive just when you need them on certain worlds, right? Hmm, I wonder if these powers will be used in some fashion at the episodes climax? Oh, who are we kidding – OF COURSE they will be:

Oh yeah. The Heffalump thing is there to crash the party. You know, in case the FLYING thing wasn’t enough for you. And get a load of that ending. The Fluppy Dogs are just gonna take over the world at that rate!

IN A NUTSHELL: You know what? I wanted to like this cartoon – and to be honest, there’s a lot of really nice stuff here. The animation has some quality moments, especially animating the dogs themselves, and the story could create some interesting future episodes. But I get the sense that the entire production was rushed; no fine-tuning of the story or overall animation makes anything clicks, and with that ending, I don’t even know how to make a series based off that – unless it’s some human vs. Fluppies type war disaster. It took all the wrong lessons from Gummi Bears – which itself wasn’t THAT great in the first place, but still managed to make epic adventures without the characters crying out “ADVENTURE!” Even at five years-old, that’s pretty lame.

November 30th: Babe
December 7th: All Dogs Go to Heaven

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – DICK TRACY

INSERT DICK JOKES HERE. HAHA, I SAID INSERT

INSERT DICK JOKES HERE. HAHA, I SAID INSERT

DICK TRACY – (1990)

Director: Warren Beatty
Starring: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Madonna
Screenplay by: Jim Cash, Jack Epp Jr.

It takes a real badass to wear bright colors in public and get away with it. Steve Harvey can do it. Pimps can do it. But the original ass-kicking, gangsta-punching detective, Dick Tracy, rocked the yellow trenchcoat way before it was (ironically) cool. Chester Gould debuted this comic back in 1931, and it’s still referenced to this day. Dick was a symbol of good in a world of corruption and grotesque criminals whose crimes matched, albeit metaphorically, the deformities of their physical appearance.

Dick Tracy also introduced a high level of violence in his comics, among other unique features, such as actual investigations, forensic discoveries, serious dramatic relationships, and a rich backstory of character developments. Still running till this day in certain newspapers, the franchise reached a pinnacle of sorts with the release of this film during the first wave of comic book movies in the earlier 90s—back when campy was considered the only way to produce them (see Batman, Phantasm, The Shadow, The Rocketeer, etc.)

NOSTALGIC LENS: I’m kinda excited. I’m entering the list of films that I hardly remember, so I’m pretty much watching this for the first time. All I remember is Flattop and Itchy (Itchy was my favorite, although I distinctly remember being disappointed that Itchy hardly scratched himself in the film), bright colors, and a sweet shootout in the end, where everyone is killed. Oh, yeah, this movie was pretty hardcore back then.

DOES IT HOLD UP: Somewhere in this movie is a good movie. It wants to be good. It needs to be good. I liked a lot of it truth be told. But there are some parts that are just god-awful and flat-out stupid. Imagine hanging out with some friends, and you’re having a great time, laughing and socializing, and one of them says the most fucked-up thing you’ll ever hear. Everyone stops laughing and the mood is completely killed. But at least you can start up the awesome again.

You can tell the kind of movie this will be in the first ten minutes (apologies to the horrid French over-dubbing—it’s the only version I could find):

After a vicious massacre by Flattop and Itchy, the mood is killed by a bizarre moment when Dick is called into the scene from an opera, glances at the damage, then returns to the opera. What!? And the line readings during Tess (Dick’s girlfriend) and Dick’s walk down the street are ridiculously campy. I mean, the movie is campy overall, but that scene is just way in outer space (which is ironic, since Dick Tracy did have an outer space story arc in the comics.)

Luckily (or strangely), things start to calm down as the movie progresses, and becomes at the very least a normal-campfest. Dick is caught between catching the bad guy (a hilarious Big Boy played by Al Pacino) at all costs, staying within the confines of the law, and his dual attraction between Tess and Breathless (and taking care of The Kid, AKA, Dick Tracy Jr.). The movie is much easier to swallow at this point, but there are still a lot of missteps.

I blame Beatty, clearly an inferior director trying to tackle something so monumental. He’s inconsistent in stylistic choices, and isn’t particularly keen on fixing the mistakes in the screenplay. He lets everything just play out whether it makes sense or not. The back-and-forth edits between Breathless’s singing and Dick’s action scenes aren’t good at all, although the montages with Breathless’s songs overdubbed are much better (the songs themselves are also very good, so that helps). Sound cues are just terribly done, as if they screwed up during shooting, and had to be dubbed in later by an incompetent sound studio (why is Dick and Tess so distinctly heard when the camera is 500 feet away from them? How much does it cost for an echo effect?)

The worse scene for me had to be when Dick saves someone from “the bath” (being covered in cement within a box.) He opens the box to save him. Cut to the bad guys coming after them. Cut back to Tracy—who for some reason put himself in the box. Tracy is now covered in cement and his gun doesn’t work! Well, fuck, you should have thought about that before you jumped to the wet cement. A creepy character called No-Face saves him, though.

So, the movie fails there, but succeeds in others. Big Boy tries to choreograph a Breathless dance number, which is hysterical, since he only slaps her, bumbles around and just gets in the way. Dick and The Kid have some rather poignant scenes together, and after that street scene, Dick and Tess have their moments too. The criminals are sufficiently monstrous, with Flattop stealing the show just by being a sadistic murderer.

Heck, when the plot gets going, it gets going pretty well, with a delightful number of setups and double-crosses, bribes and backstabbing, and even a sweet ass, well-done fame job of Tracy. But for all those great moments, as mentioned, some stuff just makes you cringe. I rolled my eyes pretty hard when Big Boy’s bugged room is exposed by—get this—a spilled cup of coffee. There’s also an odd scene where Dick has to climb down from a building, even though it’s rather unclear how the hell he got up there in the first place. And I don’t even want to discuss the inanity of the see-saw scene.

Hey. Hey. Hey, hey, hey. You know who was surprisingly good though? Madonna. I knooooooooooow. Actually, sarcasm aside, Madonna kind of showed a bit of decent acting chops in this film and A League of Their Own, and here, she’s the only one (aside from the other side characters) to understand the right tone of campiness needed, especially to play a femme fatale such as herself. Warren Beatty, on the other hand, never seems to quite get a grip on Dick. When he’s not just kicking ass and taking names, Dick kind of flounders, stutters around Tess, and pointlessly stares at pictures of cars and No-Face sketches. Although, to be fair, I think it’s mainly done to reflect how terrible Tracy is at desk jobs. I just didn’t think he’d be THAT terrible.

But he kicks crazy ass in the climax:

Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler.

IN A NUTSHELL: This movie is a roller coaster of awesome and fail, a back and forth inconsistent film filled with as many great moments as there are terrible ones. I didn’t like this more, nor did I hate it… I just strung along for the ride. Please, if there is any Dick Tracy fans out there, drop some knowledge on me and the rest of the comment board.

July 27th: FernGully: The Last Rainforest
August 3rd: An American Tail

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