Movie Review Roulette: selection #7

Here’s the pool of candidates:

Night of the Living Dead
Dark City
Raise the Red Lantern
Ratatouille
Children of Men
Yojimbo
Being John Malkovich
Millennium Actress
La Dolce Vita
Rear Window
Arsenic and Old Lace
Casablanca
Paths of Glory
The Tree of Life
Only Yesterday

Into the random choice machine they go… and we have a winner!

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One of the definitive “love it or hate it” films. My stance is firmly in the former category. I’m going to do my best to convince you that this is not a boring movie. Can’t wait!

Oh, and replacing The Tree of Life in the pool is… The Conformist.

 

 

 

Movie Review Roulette #6: Jaws

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Almost three months past due, here’s Jaws.

39 years later and it’s still arguably the greatest summer movie.

I don’t mean “summer blockbuster”, per se (although there’s an argument for that too). I mean the movie I most indelibly associate with the season of summer.

The most wintry of movies for me, for example, is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s far from the most snow-covered film, but its moodiness, and its willingness to bask in both the gray misery and gentle beauty of winter make it my favorite film to watch in the January cold.

Autumn for me means Halloween, and the ultimate Halloween movie is, well, Halloween. It’s not my favorite horror film, (it ranks behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Suspiria, and 28 Days Later in my personal list) but it is the movie that brings to life the twinge of fear that comes with the chill in the October air.

Spring for me is liveliness and cheer. I will watch The Princess Bride any time of year, but it is best paired with the first warm evenings of April, when the snow has melted and you just want spend some time with a cheerful old friend.

And so it is with Jaws and the summer. Part of it might be regional bias. The film is set in the fictional town of Amity Island, clearly a stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard, where it was filmed. It is the most New England of summer movies. The locales will still feel familiar to anyone from coastal Massachusetts, where kinship to the ocean has never faded from the region’s seafaring days of yore. You can almost smell the salty air in this movie, the rusty musk of boats in harbor, or feel the ever present sand that tracks near any building close enough to the water.

And then there’s Quint. I hail from New Bedford, Massachusetts, the saltiest of New England sailing towns, and let me tell you dear reader, the only problem with Quint in this film is that there is only one of him. I suppose that in a tourist haven like Amity Island, there might be more shark-crazy posers than actual fishers of very big fish. But Robert Shaw’s assuredness, the way you can tell that he knows more about the sea than he does his mother by his gait alone, is one of the crucial details this movie gets right.

I have spoken of Jaws so far as if it is a documentary about life in a coastal Massachusetts town, when you no doubt came here to read a take on a movie about a huge shark eating lots and lots of people. Trust me, I will get there. My dawdling on salt and sand is for a reason: salt and sand and crusty sailors are what separate Jaws from traditional monster fare. A lesser director could have taken this story, followed it beat for beat, and ended up with a forgettable b-movie.

It is well known that the mechanical shark constructed for the movie was a nightmare, so prone to malfunction that director Steven Spielberg made sure the audience saw as little of it as possible. While John Williams’ immortal score has rightly been celebrated for its function as a stand-in for the shark for much of the film, equally important is how Spielberg established a town where this story can to be told, and characters who live there. A monster movie can work just fine with without thinking about its setting as a place needing to be saved, or its characters as people with lives and motivations. But Jaws is a classic because not just because of the shark, but because we actually care about the people chasing it.

Consider Roy Scheider’s performance as Brody, Amity Island’s police chief. Scheider had one of my favorite faces in acting, so easily shifting from quiet weariness to steeled anger, the weight of his burdens always just behind his eyes. He is not just a functional protagonist, serving his purpose in providing us someone to follow so the movie can move from point A to point B. He is a man who hates the water who gradually realizes that he has no choice but to face his fears to keep his town safe. It’s a subtle hero’s journey, conveyed as much through Scheider’s performance as the script.

Consider Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper. Again, this is a functional character in a typical monster movie: the scientist, there to spout exposition and geek out when he sees the shark in person. The film gives him just a bit more depth than that, at it makes all the difference. Hooper is a rebellious kid from a rich family, devoting his life to studying sharks much to the shame of his parents. Dreyfuss’s performance is winning and energetic where so many actors portraying similar characters wilt and die on screen as their purpose is served.

Jaws is an uncommonly quotable thriller. Scheider’s immortal delivery of “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” is a killer line of dialogue. But it also provides a terrific moment of contrast between two characters, as Brody’s sudden terror upon seeing the shark contrasts with  Quint’s unaffected gaze.

And the USS Indianapolis scene, with its hypnotic monologue by Robert Shaw, is an exercise in patience in a genre that so often has none. It’s a masterfully filmed, written, and acted scene, generating tension without a single shot of the water, and elevating Quint from an archetype to a haunted, tragic character.

And yes, that score by John Williams is one of the most important in movie history. Spielberg knew that what we imagine can be far more frightening than what we see. John Williams filled that gap with the simplest but most haunting of scores. Its effect reminds me of John Carpenter’s theme for Halloween, both cases of musical minimalism hinting at terrors in the deep recesses of our imaginations.

Jaws was far from the first blockbuster to succeed by scaring audiences out of their wits. But it’s rare that it does so in broad daylight, in the heat of the summer, out on the water. There’s something primordially frightening about the ocean, something inherently eerie about small coastal towns that try just a bit too hard to be perfect. HP Lovecraft knew this. Spielberg’s take on this very New England brand of scares is less cosmic than Lovecraft’s but the source of the fright is the same, exemplified in the movie’s nightmarish, nighttime opening (where a skinny dipping young woman becomes the shark’s first victim) : there’s something lurking in the water. Have fun swimming.

The sad, tangled world of Holy Motors

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Every movie inhabits its own universe, and we as the viewers can only follow the rules that we are provided. A film like Holy Motors easily lends itself, then, to long treatises devoted to trying to solve it like a puzzle.

And it is impossible not to be at least initially overcome with the film’s startling premise: A man is assigned to go through the day as nine different characters in nine situations, which range from making out with a contortionist in spandex, to eating flowers and kidnapping supermodels, to lying on his deathbed as his niece mourns him.

Is he being filmed? That doesn’t appear to be the case. The man, known only as Monsieur Oscar (Denis Levant) is driven from scenario to scenario by his stoic limo driver, Celine (Édith Scob). She picks him up from his home (which seems to be where he lives with his wife and kids) and gives him a folder. It contains the day’s assignments.

Each scene unfolds with its own sense of frenzied logic. At first, Oscar is dressed as an old beggar woman worrying that she has lost the ability to die. He soon switches into a spandex mo-cap suit and simulating a sex-scene with another actor. He doesn’t question the roles. In between scenes he climbs into his limo (which is decked out with a full changing room, makeup, minibar, and a bucket of guns) changes clothes and puts on his makeup and gets in character.

As I watched Oscar slip in and out of character time and time again, I was aware that this was not a film about an actor in a traditional sense. Holy Motors might best be described as a fantasy, and Oscar is killed at least twice (perhaps three, depending on how you keep count) only to dust himself off and take off his costume once more. Regardless, it was impossible for me to simply regard each assignment as self-contained, with no connection from scene to scene. That was not consistent with the film’s logic, either. Celine expresses mother-hen concern for Oscar, fretting that he hasn’t eaten enough during the day. Oscar runs into other people on assignments, sometimes within assignments. There is a strange logic to the film that it doesn’t care to explain fully, and doesn’t need to. What we see is enough for me to respond to the undercurrent of sadness that, the day after finishing the film, lingers with me.

 

I’m not a fan of parsing films for “meaning”. One of my favorite quotes from Roger Ebert sums up my view nicely: “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t.” So does a movie that consists of Denis Lavant running around eating flowers in one scene and leading an accordion band in another just nine examples of entertaining solipsism?

I don’t think so. Yes, Holy Motors has a lot of fun with the questions about the structure of its universe. Oscar dies multiple times, and murders at least two people, both of whom look suspiciously like him. On two occasions when he should have been dead, Celine runs out to rescue him, but performs no life-saving procedures beyond leading him back to the limo so he can pour himself a glass of whiskey. The basic logic of the film is as “anything goes” as it gets.

But that doesn’t preclude it from having any underlying mystery about the humanity of the characters. There are stories being weaved here that I couldn’t dismiss so easily. Consider the chilling sequence where Oscar plays a man picking his daughter up from a party. Their dialogue is cheerful at first. He asks her if she had a good time. She says she did. She talks about the boys who wanted to talk to her.

Then he gets a phone call from a friend of hers that reveals that she was lying. She was leaving the party early. She hid in the bathroom the whole time. She says she feels unpopular and unattractive. Suddenly he isn’t so sweet. He berates his daughter for not being more outgoing. He drops her off and tells her that she is to be punished by having to live with being herself. In a film that features shootings, neck-stabbings and finger biting, this was the most brutal scene. And it wouldn’t have been so troubling l if it was simply a believable but one-off episode. Is the girl someone else on an assignment?

Maybe. In another scene, Oscar plays out a moving death sequence as a dying old man, being cared for by his niece. They exchange tearful goodbyes as he prepares to pass on. Then Oscar climbs out of bed and asks for her real name. She is also a performer. They bid each other farewell. Was the assignment with the father and his daughter like this one, an elaborately staged dramatic scene? Or was the run-in with another performer an accident? If it’s the latter, than the scene (the father/daughter one) takes on a much heavier, even sinister tone. Even if Oscar plays these parts for minutes at a time, the larger story of that assignment is one of deeply unhappy people. The possibility of that larger story being canon somewhere in this film’s sprawling universe troubled me. And I think that was the desired effect.

Even at its most absurd, Holy Motors, specks of light of the character behind Oscar’s characters pokes through. The film’s most memorable sequence sees him playing a madman running through a Parisian cemetery, eating flowers as he sprints about and scares away visitors. He stumbles into a photoshoot, and the photographer is intrigued (he switches from saying “BEAUTY! BEAUTY! BEAUTY! as he shoots photos of the model to an increasingly ecstatic “Weird! Weird! WEIRD!” when he spots Oscar).

Yes, Oscar proceeds to bite off the photographer’s assistant’s fingers and kidnap the model (played by Eva Mendes), the scene ending with Oscar lying naked on her lap, like a recreation of the Pieta one might find in a grad school living art installment. There’s not much logic to be derived from this scene, other than that Eva Mendes’s model never once breaks out of her photoshoot expression (a real pro) and that there is something kind of haunting about the whole thing. If it wanted to be truly random, it could have been. Making the man reckless and violent and, well, prone to flower and finger eating gives the scene a narrative. And having that narrative conclude by having the man kidnap someone to have someone to lie down on ends up doing the one thing I didn’t expect from the scene: it humanizes this particular, truly strange person.

There are other scenes that are permeated with great sadness. The aforementioned “death scene” between a man and his niece takes on a sweet tone that is still gently bitter. These two people live the same lives by pretending to be others, and can only exchange names briefly before moving on. Theirs is a strange method for people to connect, but no less valid, and there is something wistful about how Oscar asks the woman’s real name before continuing on his journey.

The film’s functional climax is a whirlwind of a sequence that co-stars Kylie Minogue as a person whom Oscar seems to recognize from years before. She says they have twenty minutes to talk, to catch up on twenty years. I won’t spoil how those minutes unfold, beyond saying they are the film’s high point as a narrative and as a tragedy (insofar as the word “tragedy” can apply in this world). Is this scene an assignment for them both? If it is, does it even matter? Where is the line between performance and reality drawn? We don’t know, and that is the point. Even if this is a scene within a scene (within a scene?), the film has so convincingly tangled its many strings of logic into a knot that the ache these characters feel for one another is overwhelming. Like the one empty rifle in a firing squad, not knowing can have a more powerful effect than knowing for sure.

Holy Motors is a story about people whose stories it doesn’t want us to know completely. But there are glimpses of something more, that show that this wasn’t all an exercise in being for the sake of being. This is a movie of possibility, but the consequences of most of those possibilities are stories of great sadness, from wistful goodbyes to tragic deaths, to the simple melancholy that comes with endlessly worrying for an old friend who can’t seem to care for themselves. The movie is less a sketch show than a series of moments of staring out the passenger side window, trying to construct the stories of passersby. One glimpse can be all you need to never stop asking questions.

Review: Snowpiercer

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I have often complained about the lack of momentum in action films. Scenes that consist of incomprehensible movement and clanging metal and explosions that we know pose no risk to the heroes bore me quickly. Give me action that moves forward. Give me heroes who know what they want and where it lies, and give me an array of entertaining obstacles that lie in their path. Good action films are balancing acts within balancing acts, like a knife-juggling tightrope walker. A good action movie needs to be thrilling, which is no easy feat, and then give us a reason to be invested in the thrills.

A film like Snowpiercer, then, is some kind of small miracle. Burdened with telling a story that JJ Abrams might consider too high-concept, Bong Joon-hu moves the film forward with absolute resolution. It contains the single most thrilling action set piece I’ve seen since Clive Owen looked for a baby in the midst of a firefight in Children of Men. It has at least three more fight scenes that put just about anything you’ll see this year to shame. All the while, its curiosities never cease. Like the best sci-fi, its setting is one of the most fascinating characters. The Rattling Ark- a massive train whose route takes it around the globe, completing one revolution per year- provides the setting for a barrage of fight scenes that might be the closest quarters combat in the movies to date. Think Elle Driver battling Beatrix Kiddo in an RV in Kill Bill Vol. 2 only there are thirty of them each and you might get the idea.

I enjoy when films set up their stories with minimal clutter and then set off to play. One of my favorite aspects of Pacific Rim is how neatly it builds its world. In just a few minutes it lays out the rules. Kaiju have arrived. Jaegers fight them. Here’s Raleigh Beckett. Have fun.

Snowpiercer has a different type of efficiency. It lays out the rules via opening credit narration (17 years before the film is set, the world froze; all of humanity now lives on a trans-world train powered by perpetual motion). Its opening scenes show us that this condensed version of humanity retains all the disparity between rich and poor of the pre-Apocalypse world. The poor here eat brown blocks of gel and dream of what the world looked like before it was encased in ice. The rich enjoy steak and sushi and drug-fueled nightclub raves.

In back cars of the train, deadly raids and brutal torture are commonplace. This is the world the film’s protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans), entered as a teenager and came of age in. The teens in the cast, like Jamie Bell’s Edgar and Ah-sung Ko’s Yona, have no memory of any other life.

The oppressed people of the rear of the train have grown beyond weary of their lives. Time has come to fight back, and take control of the train. The revolt is led in spirit by a pseudo-prophetic rail-thin stack of leather named Gilliam, played by John Hurt (who still embodies a lifetime of hardship with a glance better than anyone). In practice, it is lead by Curtis.

Snowpiercer contains more characters of note than most action films bother with. More surprisingly, we actually care about them.

Casting is essential in this genre, more than it gets credit for. The right actor can invest you in their character with a glance, a word, or in the case of Luke Pasqualano, a wordless, utterly cool entrance into a fight scene.

The film is uniformly well-cast. Octavia Spencer can make you cry by reading off an Altoids tin. That she gets to bash bad guys with a lead pipe feels like an embarrassment of riches. Jamie Bell seems like he is always going to be playing teenagers, even as he nears his thirties. But well, he plays good teenagers. He’s at his best when open-faced and earnest. That was true when he was actually 15 and it holds today. He stole the show in Nicholas Nickleby and he nearly does the same here as Edgar, the teenager who hero-worships Curtis.

Chris Evans has had a hell of a year. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the best Marvel superhero film yet. Here he is given material that might overwhelm a typical, stone-faced action hero. He gets a harrowing monologue that explains his perpetual grimace. Curtis’s backstory nips any potential fan-theories that he is actually Steve Rogers in the bud.

He shows amazing versatility, as an actor and an action star. His earnest convictions elevated the Captain America films, and here he is just as convincing at portraying lean, efficient brutality,

Curtis is not the film’s only protagonist. Song Kang-ho, so memorable as a down-on-his-luck dad in The Host, here plays Namgoong Minsoo, a brilliant, drug-addicted engineer who built the doors that divide the cars of the train; the closest thing humanity now has to borders. The rebels need him and his daughter Yona to open the doors to carry out their mission. He initially complies for free drugs but as the film progresses it becomes clear that he has significantly deeper motives. He might be the only character in the film who believes in a future in any meaningful sense.

For the bulk of the film, the closest character to a primary antagonist is Mason, a spokesperson for the train’s government, played by Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays Mason as a sort of religious cultist Maggie Thatcher. She feels relocated from the cast of Brazil, which is never a criticism in a sci-fi film. She howls about the rear-car denizens knowing their place and frets about finishing her speech too early as her bodyguards torture a man by freezing his arm solid. And yet she’s not an utter heel, present to give us someone simply to root against.  Mason is a devotee of a system and is unprepared to see it falling apart around her, failing to keep her at a safe remove from the people she has been keeping in their “preordained place”.

I can’t shake just how good the action in this film is. Yes, you might think: it’s a good movie, and it is an action movie. Therefore it has good action scenes.

But there is something truly giddy about action that is particularly suited to its environment. The entire film takes place in a train, of course, but every car of the train serves its own purpose, from the rear cars that house the poor, to the middle cars that handle utilities, to the very front where the engine (and it engineer, Wilford, who is treated as a mysterious, godlike figure). Setting up the plot by giving the heroes a series of stages to overcome is as old as storytelling itself, of course, but it feels more organic when the stagerepresent the known inhabitable world. Here each stage has a life of its own, with claustrophobia as the only constant.

Bong Joon-hu shows a choreographer’s eye for action. The fights are thrilling without descending into indistinguishable chaos. There is a scene early in the film that stretches a four-second sequence into one of the most astonishingly choreographed action scenes I’ve ever watched. It’s a gleeful exercise in taking the audience’s pulse a few beats faster with every cut, from the sudden chaos of the buildup to an astonishing decision that Curtis makes that instantly makes my list of favorite movie moments.

Snowpiercer’s story eventually does end up being too much to explain in real time, leading to one of my more commonplace cinematic annoyances: the villain’s grand plot explanation. But it works here, for the same reason parlor scenes work in mystery novels: if the story is told right, the audience will be adding up the pieces all along, and the big explanation becomes a moment of interaction with the story. For all of Snowpiercer’s thrills, it’s just as curious about the world it inhabits. By the end of the film, we want answers and resolution, not just a climactic showdown.

Snowpiercer is a film of many pleasures. Movies that elicit as much excitement as they do fascination are rare. This is a film I want to revisit just to gawk at its sights again. Sometimes I watch a film and wonder if the filmmaker gave more than a moment’s thought about the world the movie inhabits. Snowpiercer wants you to pay attention to the action, yes, but don’t forget to look out the train’s window. You never know what you might miss.

Essential moments in video game storytelling: Mass Effect 2

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Mass Effect 2: The Suicide Mission

There are countless narrative moments in the Mass Effect games that make the franchise so beloved. And of course, two players can play through the whole trilogy and see huge differences in the narrative moments they experience. The Mass Effect trilogy does a magnificent job of balancing a full-blooded, linear sci-fi narrative with lots of room for story customization. The plot beats are the same for everyone, but anyone can tailor the story and make it their own.

In other words, many key moments differ dramatically from player to player, which makes picking one for this exercise difficult.

However, one one part of Mass Effect 2 that is unavoidable is also its grandest fireworks show. I’m talking about the Suicide Mission. No matter how you experience Mass Effect 2 leading up to its finale, its last level is as narratively satisfying as it is thrilling.

Each Mass Effect game brings particular strengths to the table. But as a standalone title, Mass Effect 2 is its single strongest chapter. It resides in the meaty, uncertain middle of a space opera trilogy. It’s not an accident that The Empire Strikes Back the strongest Star Wars installment, and the same principle applies here. Unburdened with the first game’s task of building this world or part 3′s task of bringing the story to its end, Mass Effect 2 has a blast.

And like any good space opera, the core element of Mass Effect 2′s plot are simple: You are tasked with assembling a strike force for a mission so dangerous it has been dubbed “The Suicide Mission” before you even attempt it. You go on numerous adventures with your crew, bonding with them. Finally, you go together on one last “impossible” quest to save the galaxy.

This being Mass Effect’s take on the space opera, assembling the crew ends up being the most entertaining aspect of the game. Interacting with the crew, learning their histories, going through the fire with them and bonding with them through hardship- these elements are essential to Mass Effect’s appeal.

And they’re essential elements to the sense of buildup that leads up to the Suicide Mission. The mission looms over the game at every step. The characters who join your crew do so with the knowledge that they might not survive. Every interaction you have with them grows more urgent as the final mission grows closer

Mass Effect is well known for forcing players into making difficult decisions. The first game’s approach was simple and brutal in this regard, at one point literally forcing you to pick one companion to live while the other died, with no recourse.

Mass Effect 2 altered this structure. At no point in the main plot are you forced into a Sophie’s choice scenario regarding the lives of your friends. The moral dilemmas are more subtle. A simple revenge mission involving Garrus (one of the game’s most important and popular side characters) ends up becoming a complex statement of both Shepard’s moral code and their friendship with Garrus. At other points in the game, two characters with opposing moral views might clash and demand that you take a side, but it’s always possible to talk both of them down. You have options beyond a coin flip. It is your story to tell.

The Suicide Mission is aptly named. It’s possible for the entire squad, including Shepard, to die (this is hard to achieve, but possible). More likely is that a major character or two to bites the dust.

But even if everyone survives, the mission doesn’t feel at all cheapened or overly easy. The game does such an effective job developing its tone of finality, of convincing us that the characters have accepted the possibility of their demises, that achieving the perfect ending is immensely satisfying.

The action at the end doesn’t disappoint. The mission begins with a very exciting cutscene, one whose outcome we soon realize has been determined by our decisions throughout the game. This is not a cutscene simply telling us a story, but rather showing us that even the smallest decisions we’ve made in the game matter. In this game, installing some upgrades once in a while actually does save lives.

Combat was always something of a stickler for the Mass Effect games, not a drawback but never the main draw either. But sometimes, the setting is more important than the mechanics. The Suicide Mission is well-paced and appropriately challenging for a final battle. In Mass Effect, firefights can sometimes feel like a means to an end. But the battles in the Suicide Mission are breathless exercises action, with bullets flying and biotic detonations sending hordes of enemies scattering while you try to catch a moment of calm that never comes.

And the aspect that most defines Mass Effect- your choices- are also well-integrated. As you dole out duties to your crew members, it becomes impossible not to consider the entirety of your game. When I played through recently, I reflexively chose Garrus and Thane as my squadmates. I didn’t choose them for any combat advantage reasons; I chose them because in this particular story, I wanted them fighting by Shepard’s side. It’s moments like that; not necessarily related to the plot but that allow the player to customize their personal meta-narrative; that bring Mass Effect to life.

Yes, the final boss is one of those robots who glows where you need to shoot it. But the sense of scale in the final battle is unique in the Mass Effect series. The “Reaper embryo” is a daunting and magnificently designed character. And true boss fights are few and far between in this series, and no others feel quite so cataclysmic.

I wouldn’t call the Suicide Mission the single best mission in the Mass Effect series. The Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC might be the series’ narrative apex (I will need to write about it soon), its “best episode” so to speak. Mass Effect 3‘s Tuchanka and Rannoch missions are terrific as well. There are other standout moments throughout the series that Mass Effect fans know by shorthand: Tali’s trial. Archangel. Ilos. Virmire. If you love Mass Effect, you know what those mean.

But for a series whose appeal is largely derived from its individual threads, the Suicide Mission is an example of those threads weaving together at the end beautifully.

Essential moments in video game storytelling: Half-Life

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Hey all! I’m debuting a new feature here today, where I talk about scenes and moments in  video games have stood out to me over the years.

I’m kicking this off with one of the first games that ever made me think long and hard about the subtle ways game developers could turn a potentially generic story into something thrilling and memorable. I’m talking about Half-Life, and those first few minutes at the beginning that might be gaming’s most definitive example of “less is more”:

Exposition is one of the most essential elements of sci-fi storytelling. You need to explain the world and why things that don’t normally happen are happening. You need to establish the local setting. You need to introduce the protagonist. This can be difficult to achieve in a game in a manner that isn’t clunky, which is what makes the low-key opening to this 16-year-old game so impressive. The protagonist is a scientist. The game even tells us his credentials (a PhD from MIT, almost a proud proclamation that he is about as far from Duke Nukem as a shooter protagonist can get). The setting is the lab where he works. Today his job involves opening portals to space.

Violent hijinks ensue.

Opening the game by having Gordon Freeman simply going through his normal work routine accomplishes two crucial tasks. First, it provides a reason and a place for the events of the game. “Because unexplained science” is perhaps one of the more overused tropes of science fiction, but most tropes can be forgiven if used well. And Half-Life uses this particular trope beautifully, with the laboratory soon being flooded by a veritable monster mash of alien life.

Second, it adds a one of the most significant spices to the unique flavor that makes the Half-Life games so beloved. Before Half-Life, the shooter genre was dripping in even more excess testosterone than it is today. The most famous FPS protagonist of the time was still probably Duke Nukem, purveyor of cheesy one liners and casual sexism. Other FPS protagonists still tended to fill macho action movie hero shoes, from space marines to WWII soldiers to literally James Bond. Gordon Freeman? He’s just guy at work, whose office happens to have been taken over by angry aliens and angrier mercenaries. True, he still has to fight through them, and in doing so Gordon displays remarkable aptitude for mortal combat for a scientist. In other words, we might not buy this as the premise to a movie. But Half-Life wasn’t trying to be a movie. It was figuring out new ways to involve the player in the story through interaction with and absorption in the environment.

Nor was Half-Life imitating its peers. There is no rush to immerse the player in bloodshed right away, lest they stop paying attention. We go through the motions of Freeman’s day at work. Hop on the trolly, mess around with the microwave, chat with the colleagues… or listen to them as they try to make conversation anyway.

Gordon doesn’t say a word. But his lack of verboseness became one of the most essential aspects of his character. We don’t need to know more than we do about Gordon for him to work as a protagonist. Valve recognized how much interactivity can fill in the gaps in a narrative.

For a story that truly unfolds in real time like Half-Life’s (the player and Gordon operate on the same amount of information, and the game offers virtually no plot exposition) something as simple as knowing that the character we’re playing as is not a trained soldier, that he is a civilian and a scientist, adds tremendously to the narrative without doing much at all. I’m all for games exploring complex narratives, but it can be just as satisfying when a game recognizes the right amount of narrative for itself.

Half-Life set a standard for real-time storytelling that Valve games have continued to excel at ever since. In a genre that increasingly relies on telling us the story by imitating films rather than embracing interactive narrative and reducing action to glorified games of whack-a-mole, Valve has prospered by giving players some credit, letting them observe and take in their surroundings. They did it even better in Half-Life 2 and achieved perfection with the format with Portal, but it all started with Half-Life’s creative use of mundanity.

Game of Thrones and the trouble with brutality

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Spoilers for the episode “The Mountain and the Viper” ahead.

Watching Oberyn Martell dance victoriously around a hamstrung Gregor Clegane last night, I had no doubts about the outcome. This is Game of Thrones. I know better than to be optimistic about this. And besides, there are two episodes to go: the finale would have far more juice to work with if Tyrion was facing execution than if he once again was saved via trial by combat.

No, with all of Oberyn’s bluster and demands for full, unmitigated justice, I fully expected the Mountain to spring up and strike him down. I didn’t expect said strike to be perhaps the most gruesome thing I’ve ever witnessed in fictional media.

And when Oberyn’s head had been reduced to salsa in the Mountain’s hands, I did feel sick. I know I wasn’t alone in that, and I know that that was probably the show’s intention. But the sickness was a visceral reaction to something disgusting. There’s nothing mutually exclusive between the grotesque and good drama. I’ve seen more than my share of stomach-churning cinematic violence. The point is, once you down some Pepto and settle your stomach, good drama demands that something else remain behind, lest the scene be little more than an side show act.

That feeling for me wasn’t the surprise at the narrative boldness that I felt when Ned Stark died, or the awe at the sheer audacity of the Red Wedding. It was weariness.

Grantland TV critic Andy Greenwald summed it up nicely in his review of last night’s episode: “I am growing slightly weary of being taught the same merciless lesson again and again.”

That lesson is, of course, that there are no happy endings. Only constant fighting for survival and swift, brutal death for those who lose that fight.

I’m not giving up on Game of Thrones by any means. I’m looking forward to the last two episodes of the season. But I’m also increasingly weary of the idea that nihilism and cynicism are substitutes for good storytelling.

Last night, in my upset haze I posted “At this point, a story that ended with everyone making out on horseback would be the plot twist of the century.” Greenwald said more or less the same thing in his review: “At this point, the most radical thing Game of Thrones could do is to make the audience exhale in relief.”

Game of Thrones needn’t turn down the body count meter to work. Moments of abject misery can make for a dramatically satisfying conclusion to a plot, but you have to work for it. The Red Wedding was a spectacular moment of TV because there was an inevitability to it, a sense all season long that Robb Stark was a prone to fatal foibles as his father. It was, like Ned Starks execution, the culmination of a season’s worth of miscalculations. The death of Oberyn Martell was a misstep the like of which the show has made a few times this season, mistaking wallowing in misery for storytelling nuance. Ramsey Snow’s appearances, rife with torture and misery, have regularly brought the show’s storytelling momentum to a screeching halt. A moment like Karl Tanner’s astonishing explosion of verbal venom (don’t watch that around the kids) was salvaged by the ferocity of Burn Gorman’s performance. The spotlight shone on him so intensely that it almost cauterized the whole sequence, one that risked being a 5-minute detour into a cesspool just to remind us where the sewage goes. And then you have a moment like Jaime’s rape of Cersei, which was horrific, tone deaf and indefensible.

Game of Thrones works best when all the machinations of the story lead to unpredictable but satisfying conclusions. Whether a conclusion is happy or miserable, the key is that the story has to earn it. Misery for the sake of it becomes as predictable as happily-ever-after. And a few too many times now, Game of Thrones has shoved shoved grotesque meals into my face, and they’re starting to taste undercooked.

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