Sunday, June 29, 2008

Narrative? We don’t need no stinking Narrative - The Legend of Zelda

Where would we be without the Nintendo Entertainment System? Don't answer that. Unfortunately for many of us, video games are a wonderful time waster and one of the pastimes we associate with leisure. Some youngsters remember Playstation 1 fondly, as an archaic dinosaur. Others remember their paddle version of Pong with it's black and white graphics. I fall in the middle. I had an old Atari system. My dad rented Atari games right up to the video game crash of 1983 (I just found out about that. Boy did it explain a bunch of strange memories I had of that time). But for me, the good ol' days of gaming was for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the mid 80's. Wow did this thing change a kid's world or what?

I used to wake up anticipating my favorite cartoons, and go to bed dreaming up new stories for "Star Wars" and "Transformers". When the NES hit, it was a whole new ballgame. Now I woke up with the theme from Super Mario in my head and went to sleep dreaming up new stories for "Metroid". It was all we talked about at school, and even when the cartoons of our favorite games came out, we lapped them up like tasty whipped topping. Yeah, I'm waxing nostalgic, but humor me for a minute.

This mania was really odd, because I didn't get an NES till nearly 1990 or so. When it first came out I had to play the stupid thing at friend or relative's houses. Maybe that is why my imagination was fueled by these 8 bit marvels a bit more. I never got to see a whole game beaten. I never knew what the hell happened when Mario finally got to the princess. I never saw Link defeat Gannon and save Zelda. I never got past level 1 of Metroid for God sakes. Instead, I wrote these expansive stories going far deeper than the video games could have gone. I ran into a few of these silly stories not to long ago and was amused by the insanity and joy of them. This kid was hooked.

When I finally got the NES and started to play through the games, I remembered feeling a bit disappointed. The biggy was "The Legend of Zelda", to me the kingpin of the NES games of my youth. It was epic in a way I couldn't imagine for a video game. It was a whole crazy world to explore (with the help of cheat maps and friend's clues), but I remember seriously getting wrapped up in the whole feel of the game. The music would often pop into my head and I wondered what it would be like of John Williams took a nice adaptation to the title theme.

The crazy thing is that the game itself (not including the stuff in the instruction manual) didn't really have a story per se. You were a little block with some features that wandered around a very blocky world attacked by blocky monsters and picking up rupees which looked like gold versions of the tiles we had in our pool. It didn't matter. In my mind, the story of Link, Zelda and Gannon was huge and powerful. It was good vs. evil. It was the saga of a boy becoming a hero. It discovery of powerful magic and paying the price for making bad decisions (why did I choose the red potion instead of the heart container?).

So when I got to the end of the game, and was presented with some text and a flashing screen, I was annoyed. That was it? I went through he whole damn game for that? No blocky animation of Link and Zelda riding off into the sunset. No massive explosion on skull mountain. No parade for the hero who finally figured out how to get out of the Lost Hills? It wasn't right. I felt good about completing the game, but decided the ending needed work. I wrote a new ending, even leaving room open for a sequel (a better one than the second game turned out to be). It was cathartic. But looking back I guess playing the game, and having all the fun I did have was what I ended up remembering fondly, not really the disappointment of the ending.

I'm still a gamer, but a casual one at best. I've got my Playstation 2, and I'm looking into getting Playstation 3 for "Final Fantasy XIII" or "God of War III", but the Nintendo Wii holds a powerful allure. I could play "Legend of Zelda" again. I'm afraid to revisit that old memory and find the 8 bit glory sad and outdated. Or will I find some joy making that little square move around the screen. Who knows?

Do you have any fond memories of early video games? Were you a fellow NES kid, or did you actually have a life? Were video games better without a narrative, or do you think that everything needs a story (even Tetris)?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

His Stories - The Histories

I'm a fan of history, even when I was a kid. The more ancient the history the better. I am fascinated with the early civilizations that thrived on our world when the ideas of civilization was new. In particular, I've always been interested in the ancient Greek civilization from it's early Minoan empire and up to the crumbling of Alexander's realm. I stumbled upon Herodotus, a man who is often credited with being the father of history in the western world. Of course there are plenty of people who also call Herodotus the father of lies - so it really depends on who you talk to.

Herodotus decided to tell the story of the Greek world and it's surrounding neighbors (mostly Persia and Egypt) from the birth of these civilizations and up to the final epic battle of the Greeks against the Persians (for those of you who are not history nerds, this includes the battles captured in the film "300") I didn't know what to expect, since Herodotus lived around 490-420 BC or so, and this book was obviously a translation, what would it be like?

It was nothing I ever expected in a history book. It was part travelogue, part history, part folk tale collection, part myth, part political analysis, part patriotic war story. Herodotus weaves all these things together, constantly adding new elements. It starts out as a analysis of why Europe (represented by the Greeks) and Asia (represented by the Persians) are destined to battle, and why it's essentially pointless. This theme seems to carry over in surprising ways throughout the history. Even when he takes a side chapter to explore Egyptian history and folklore, the theme of destiny and war appears time and again.

The basic impression I got was that Herodotus was not obsessed with facts. He wanted to tell a good story, with a theme and base it around true events, people and places. He gets away with this because much of his facts are really stories told to him by another person. He often starts a section with "The Egyptians say that..." and then will follow it up with "But the Greeks think that..." and end with "I lean toward the Egyptian tale, because it makes the most sense." So you get the outlandish stories of gold digging ants with the more mundane stories of vast gold mines in the rocky wastes of northern Asia.

In a way Herodotus was really the father of Historical Fiction. But in his day, a history was more story than fact - and it was acceptable. Each historian would put their own stamp on the history and even the perspective would change things. When Herodotus was writing the Greeks were fighting among themselves in the beginnings of what we would consider a civil war. In "The Histories" Herodotus stresses that the union of the bickering city-states is what helped the Greeks repel the Persians on two separate occasions. Later the Roman writer, Plutarch would write some less than flattering things about Herodotus and contradict much of what the earlier author said.

But things don't change. Perspective still frames history books: as they say, the winners write them. So it's difficult to say what is really true in history - it's all a story after all. However I think more histories should include amazing stories of gold digging ants and dog headed people - it would make things much more interesting.

Do you think History is defined by perspective? Do you think that Herodotus' style of history writing is too bias and crazy to be taken seriously? Do you have a favorite history or author who captures the feel of a time period well? Does all this talk about history make you feel dusty and sleepy?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

My kind of town - Chicago

If you say "Hey let's watch a musical!" I'll roll my eyes and maybe fall over and pretend to be dead. It's not that I hate all musicals - it's just that I've had some bad experiences with them. A few bad apples spoil the cart, you know. For me to tolerate a musical, it's got to be light on the over-enthusiastic, bursting into song for no particular reason with a song that wants to be catchy but is really just annoying. I know, that pretty much covers all musicals known to man, right? Actually there are a few I can deal with "Yanky Doodle Dandy", "Moulin Rouge!" "The King and I" and that one episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".

So my friends, who are fans of musical theater were ready to convince me that 2002's "Chicago" was a good movie and that I'd enjoy it. I already had a three problems with this idea. 1) it was a musical. 2) it had Richard Gere tap-dancing 3) It had Renee Zellwegger attempting that pouty look. But I decided to give it a try. After all, my wife said I'd like "The King and I" and she was right.

Well lo and behold, I did enjoy "Chicago". Almost all the musical moments are either actual performances in the story (characters performing on stage for other characters), or part of the deranged fantasies of one of the characters. This made the whole thing work. It makes sense that everyone was singing in the main characters fantasy land - she's a nut job! The music was jazzy, snappy and not annoying (of course if you hate jazz, you'll probably hate the music). Richard Gere was good, playing a role that wasn't a stretch for him (unlike say "First Knight". GAG!) Only Renee brought the movie down for me. I'm one of the few that finds her more annoying than cute, and here she was doing her full blown "aint I a cute little pouty thing" schtick - except that it fit her character. So in a way it didn't bother me as much.

I think what I liked best about the whole production was the camera work and production design. This is how you do a musical! Much like "Moulin Rouge" (which suffers from some of the over-enthusiastic acting that grates on me like nails on a chalkboard), the camera is not stage bound. It moves and flows like a real movie. The director and production designer went out of their way to make this a full blown movie with songs and not a stage play captured on camera. In addition the use of the fantasy sequences just about screamed for some creative design and you get it in spades here. It's not as dreamlike insane as "Moulin Rouge" but it just as effective to this story. Even people who dislike musicals more than I do should be able to appreciate the talent behind the camera in bringing this story to the screen.

So the final verdict was, I enjoyed the film. I don't know if I'd run out and purchase it or anything, but my knee-jerk reaction to the mention of it's name is gone. Now - as for it's winning of the academy award for best picture... I don't know about that. Of course I already think the academy awards are run by a bunch of loonies, so I don't trust their judgment to begin with. Still, the movie surprised me, and in a good way.

What did you think of Chicago? Have you seen any other musicals that are able to pull off a truly cinematic look and not feel stage bound? Can you explain reasoning behind the over-enthusiastic acting syndrome?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

More Human than Human - Bladerunner

When you ask fans of science fiction films what their favorite 80's sci-fi is, you'll get more than half of them replying with "Bladerunner". The rest will probably say "The Empire Strikes Back", but that's another blog. What makes "Bladerunner" such a popular film for sci-fi junkies?

I got my hands on Ridely Scott's "Final Cut" of this movie. It's been cleaned up, matte lines have vanished, there is more depth to the world, and a general improvement of the visual effects. Nothing drastic like the "Special Edition" version of the Star Wars trilogy. This is more along the lines of the polishing done on the "Indiana Jones" series. In fact, if no one told me they had cleaned up the effects, I probably wouldn't have noticed. This is probably the best version of the movie I've seen (and I've seen three other versions). If you've never seen the movie, go and check it out now, then come back and read this blog.

For the rest of you, I'll reveal something that may be blasphemous, but I think is pretty true. "Bladerunner" isn't a classic sci-fi film because of it's characters. In fact most of the characters in the film are pretty flat. Don't believe me? What do we know about Deckard? Not much, and he doesn't really seem to change or evolve as the film continues. In fact one of the main reasons you can believe he is a replicant, is that he seems to steadfast in his hunt of the fugitives. He seems effected by killing them, but this emotion runs through the entire movie. Deckard is basically your typical film noir detective or hit man. He's burnt out, drinks too much but gets the job done. He falls for the dame and runs off with her at the end. Not much new there.

I think there are two things that make "Bladerunner" such a classic: the incredible and immersive world Ridley Scott creates in the movie and the basic theme of "What does it mean to be human?". Now, even after over two decades of existing, "Bladerunner" has such a distinctive look. Sure it's an 80's vision of the future, but that vision is complete in everything around the characters, from their clothing to the grime in the streets. The detail is so complete that it houses the characters and seems to exist independently from them. You never feel that you are on a soundstage, or in front of the blue screen. You feel like Scott plunked down his camera in Los Angeles 2019 and filmed.

The look of this movie has inspired countless others, but none have really managed to pull it off as completely and realistically as Scott did. The only place I've seen it equaled is in Japanese animation, especially in the cyber-punk films "Ghost in the Shell" and "Akira". If anything many directors who have envisioned a dark, grimy, urban future owe this look to Scott's team one "Bladerunner."

The final element that makes this film so memorable is the question of what it means to be human. It's not the first film to explore this. You can go back to the silent movie "Metropolis" to see one of the earliest examples. You can't forget HAL in "2001" either. Here the idea is presented for the 80's audience. Are the replicants really so bad? They are like children given great power and now , just like anyone else, they are afraid to die. They will do anything to stop it from happening. Is Deckard a hero for hunting them down? And what does it mean if he's a replicant too? This added bit of depth keeps the movie alive for new viewers.

What do you think of "Bladrunner?" Is it a classic or is it over rated? Is it a product of it's time and was topped by the likes of "The Matrix" and "Ghost in the Shell"? Did there need to be a "Final Cut" or was a previous version good enough for you?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Let’s Play Cops and Robbers - Heat

I revisited Michael Mann's crime epic, "Heat" and found it to be a little less enthralling than I remembered it being. It's still a top notch crime film, with great acting and one of the most intense shoot out sequences I've seen. As usual Mann makes the city (Los Angeles in this case) look incredibly cool, both in style and in atmosphere. "Heat" also has a great score and soundtrack that really lends to it's overall aesthetic and mood, something that Mann does really well in all his movies.

What I actually found to be a bit lacking was the basic construction of the story and more important the subplots. The character that Val Kilmer plays gets a solid share of screen time but in the end it doesn't really amount to much more than what we are already seeing in both De Niro's and Pacino's characters. While the subplot does end up affecting the investigation by Pacino's detective team, the emotional thrust of that subplot duplicates De Niro's story arc and not as interesting. Kilmer's scenes are well acted and written but seem to slow down the film a bit too much. This ends up being a problem since "Heat" clocks in at around 140 minutes.

A little research revealed that "Heat" is actually a revamp (or remake if you prefer) of a movie that Michael Mann did for television called "LA Takedown". In the television version the story is streamlined to the main conflict between the criminal mastermind and the detective after him. I think this simplicity would have worked for the theatrical film. Of course, when you hire Val Kilmer, you've got to give him a juicy part, right?

Still, I enjoy the film. So much of it works so well that of all of Mann's recent crime features ("Heat", "Collateral" and "Miami Vice") this is the best. Great cast, good script, excellent direction, great music and superior sound work (half the reason the shootout works so well is the sound used in it). I think "Heat" is one of the best modern crime dramas.

What do you think of "Heat"? Was it too long and too slow? Do you think I'm out of line on this one? Have you seen a better crime drama that works on all levels?