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A Few More Thoughts on Technology and Realism: Pac-Man and Surrogates Trailer

Posted by Charles Reece, August 9, 2009 10:16pm | Post a Comment
pac-man game  pac-man skeleton death

I gave up playing video games when I encountered the second button. I was alright with jumping, but combination moves and shit like that tended to take me out of the formal (as in Platonic) perfection of a Pac-Man or Space Invaders. If I want gritty (as in non-Platonic) realism, I'll read Bukowski, or watch a Cassavetes film. I've since played a few of these realistic "moving" games where one drives through a simulated real city, running into other cars or over innocent bystanders (other variations of this game type have the player as a superhero, vigilante, soldier, or cute creature on some ostensible quest -- e.g., killing zombies -- but they're more about just moving through a virtual environment). The only thing they add to the endless struggle (at least, ideally) of a little round guy eating dots is more detail -- the ontology remains unchanged. Pac Man already had the truth of its and the player's existence written into its elegant design. That is, it said everything that needed to be said: keep playing, desire can now be quantified by the score; the goal never changes, nor will you ever get closer to it, no matter how fast things start moving.

Speaking of existence being reduced to the score, the reknowned junkie William S. Burroughs once narrated a video game based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe called The Dark Eye. Looks interesting, although I hear it bombed:


But back to the yellow fellow: Speed, color scheme and fruit are pretty much the only differences in its levels. The game's "progression" is a matter of pseudoindividuation: slight variation to keep the player committed to/distracted from/entertained by the standardization. The techno-realism of a Grand Theft Auto only adds more complex layers of novelty to Pac-Man, bogging the player down with data (more places to visit, more visual detail, more complex controls), keeping him or her lost in the details. If Pac Man was sortcronenberg existenz poster of an existential map, the purpose of which was to lead us temporarily away from life's troubles, the more realistic derivations seem to be moving us in the direction of cyberpunk dystopias, where the map (virtual reality) is just as convoluted as the mapped (old-fashioned reality), eventually rendering any distinction seemingly useless, like in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. Most games now have to supply the player with a map, so can the possibility of getting lost "in there" be that far off? And isn't that the fantasy behind realism, to get lost within the simulated reality, to not be able to distinguish the depiction from the depicted? If reality can't be controlled, substitute its image, which (supposedly) can, or, to appropriate Theodor Adorno once again:

Reality becomes its own ideology through the spell cast by its faithful duplication. -- "The Schema of Mass Culture"

I remember a bunch of criticism directed towards the blandness of Cronenberg's design for the gaming environment in his film, that it looked too plain. However, I took his point to be Adorno's: that no matter how much a game (or movie, or any other art) allows us to fantasize about being in control over our surroundings, someone else is doing the programming that sets the rules. The technologically enhanced realism furthers the fantasy, while ultimately decreasing our (the players') control on reality. The endgame of this fantasy -- where reality itself becomes its own simulation for our avatars to play in -- is the conceit of the new Bruce Willis vehicle, Surrogates (adaped from a comic book):


An intriguing idea, even if the execution looks like standard Hollywood sci-fi cheese. I guess what I've been angling for is this: If one of our primary fantasies is being in control, then it would seem that its logical, utlimate, fantastic realm would not look like some weird alien world, or an abstract dimension of colors and shapes (such as Pac-Man or TRON), but exactly like the one we know, only without any of the risks and vicissitudes of the real deal. That's why with all the technological innovations in film production, with a near boundless samuel r delanypotential to create increasingly bizarre (ir)realities, the fantasy genre (in which I'd put science fiction, cartoons and whatever else I've been talking about lately) has been getting more realistic. Barring the occasional fetishist, I suspect most people would have sex with a simulated human on Star Trek's holodeck, not some sentient squid creature. Rather than expanding, or questioning, the predisposed ideas wrapped up in our common conception of reality as a good fantastic yarn can do (e.g., pick one of Samuel R. Delany's books), the realistic capabilities of technology are limiting the possibilities of imagination, of counterfactual situations, to think outside the box, when it makes the fantasy look like reality.

Up & Down: Up (2009) & Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, July 5, 2009 09:50pm | Post a Comment
up poster pixar

The Plot. Two things struck me about the celebrated elliptical opening sequence of UP, where the young version of Carl, the protagonist, is shown to age and fall in love with Ellie, who remains dead for most the picture: (1) Despite Pixar's raison d'etre, overloaded digital spectacle, what the company excels at is character portraiture. This tends to be done in the first third of their stories, after which the plot kicks in, and I get bored. Unlike Wall-E, however, UP is mostly about Carl just hanging out in his floating house, talking to this chubby little cub scout stowaway, and befriending some linguistically enhanced canines. All of which makes it the best Pixar film to date. (2) Seijun Suzuki and Pixar know something about generic expectations that Steven Spielberg doesn't. Like all moviegoers, my emotions are mechanized, habituated responses to the levers, pulleys and cables of traditional storytelling. Thus, in abstracto, I'll feel elation on cue when the hero risks it all to save those more unfortunate than he, even if the particularities involve an Aryan saving some Jews (a lesson that can be had from Star Wars' appropriation of Triumph of The Will). These 2 and 1/2 hour-long movies of Spielberg's could be cut down to a few, brief sequences leading to the big crescendo, and we'd all still have the same reaction. Much like Suzuki tends to jump cut over the dramatic cliches in his films, Carl meets Ellie, they share similar interests, yadda yadda yadda, she's dead, now her absence structures our understanding of Carl for the rest of UP. Less flippantly worded: poetic resonance isn't based on word count, nor are genre pleasures.

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Noir Do Wells 2: Desperate (1947)

Posted by Charles Reece, April 26, 2009 08:34pm | Post a Comment
Anthony Mann's Desperate

anthony mann desperate

I tend to view film noirs as fantasies dealing with realistic themes. As such, they don't have to be versimilitudinous representations of the way people would act in a realworld parallel (for the narratives are rarely plausible), but be symbollically suggestive of our moral situation. If Robert Mitchum or Burt Lancaster falls in love to the point of a sick obsession within 2 minutes of screen time, that's okay; it just adds to the dreamy quality of the film, while still conveying something real. What doesn't work within the oneiric narrative is Desperate's hero, Steve (Steve Brodie), and villain, Walt (Raymond Burr), consistently acting in such a dunderheaded fashion that their actions convey nothing but ill-thought out plot mechanics.

On the eve of his and Anne's (Audrey Long) 6-month anniversary, independent trucker Steve gets a job offer from an old friend, Walt. Tried and true Steve doesn't find out until he gets to the loading dock that the job is transporting stolen merchandise. He, of course, refuses, only to be persuaded at gun point. The cops show up for a shootout, allowing Steve to escape in his truck after punching out the hood who's currently in the driver's seat. Walt's brother, Al (Larry Nunn), isn't so lucky, getting knocked out and arrested. Now on the lam, Steve commits the first in a long line of convenient errors which get him where the scenarists need him to be. He leaves the hood's gun on his lap with the hood unconscious in the passenger seat. The crook wakes up, grabs the gun and forces Steve to take him to Walt's hideout. Although pure nonsense, Mann and his cinematographer, George Diskant, at least aesthetically justify these contrivances with the film's noirish set piece, where Walt and his cronies beat the tar out of Steve in a masterful chiaroscuro rendering:

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Noir Do Wells 1: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Posted by Charles Reece, April 18, 2009 09:56pm | Post a Comment

The most wonderful thing about life seems to be that we hardly tap our potential for self-destruction.
-- John Cheever

Over the past few weeks, I've been attending some of the features being shown at the American Cinematheque's 11th Annual Film Noir Festival. My next few blog entries will be about what I saw. First up, two films by two of my favorite directors that center on the basic stupidity of their protagonists to get all the pieces to fit into their respective jury-rigged plots.

Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt


Independent journalist Tom Garrett (a well-lubricated Dana Andrews) goes along with a harebrained scheme to prove the injustice of the death penalty as devised by his future father-in-law, the liberal newspaper editor Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer). More gonzo than Hunter S. Thompson, Tom will plant enough evidence to get himself convicted for an unsolved, brutal murder. Since women are prone to hysteria, the two men decide it best not to tell Tom's fiance, Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine, the missing link between Grace Kelly and Madame). It's not difficult to see where this one's going: on the way to the courthouse when the jury is to hand in its verdict, Austin gets into a fatal car crash, with all the exculpatory photographic evidence burning up (cars were real fire hazards in those days).

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Watchmen (2009): Some Arguments about Design

Posted by Charles Reece, March 14, 2009 11:32pm | Post a Comment

The Impotent God Snake

I love discussing issues of time in comics and film, so Zack Snyder's Watchmen makes for a good opportunity to reflect on its relation to both media. I'll be returning to this sometime in the future. For now, I'm going to stick to a few problems with Alan Moore's conception of Doc Manhattan that the movie doesn't do much to improve on. There is one improvement, though, namely the Mjölner-sized hammer he has hanging between his legs, befitting a puny scientist resurrected as a god. Dave Gibbons merely gave him the statistical average. The Doc can create anything from anything else -- perhaps ex nihilo, if you believe in miracles -- and exists in all points in time simultaneously. One can't get more virile than absolute mastery of matter. However, even though he can still sexually please his woman, he's ontologically impotent-- everything already existing as it was/is/will be, independent of his will. His control of matter is constrained by the deterministic course of the world. Thus, the fact that we never get to see the hammer of the gods raised on camera is a telling sign of his lot in existence (as well as the failure of our last, best chance to see expensive CGI-porn). While Doc's attending the Comedian's funeral, he's shown to exist in Vietnam, where the latter murders a girl who's pregnant with this child. The girl, like the Comedian, is already dead to Doc, so he stands by flaccidly and "lets" the murder occur. When Doc voices concern, he gets a moral lecture from the most nihilistic of the bunch:

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