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by Bill Gibron

19 Jun 2009

There is a big difference between a documentary and a basic news story. The former is the byproduct of the cinematic artform, and as such, must conform to said standards. The latter is a result of regular journalism and needs to be factual and unbiased. While not mutually exclusive, the two forms usually undermine each other. Just ask fans of Michael Moore, or Errol Morris. At the same time, both require a similarly styled hand, capable of being both honest and compelling, truthful without completely taking sides. As you can see, it’s a delicate balance, an equilibrium that few can find in either category. This is also the main problem plaguing the otherwise insightful Humble Beauty: Skid Row Artists. The subject matter explored is inherently compelling. The flat tone taken in the telling, however, subverts its effectiveness.

Los Angeles’ infamous downtown district Central City East, known lovingly as Skid Row, is ground zero for one of the largest homeless populations in the entire United States. Most are mentally ill. Many have continuing and ongoing medical needs. Few are capable, or even wanting of, aide and assistance. And for a very select number, art is a salvation - nay, an absolute social and communal curative. While reflecting their life on the streets, it also comments on and explains the reasons for their outside existence. For filmmakers Letitia Schwartz and Judith Vogelsang, the story of these gifted individuals forms an aura of hope that provides light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness, sense where there is insanity, and dignity where all possibility of same is slowly eroded away.

There are really two ways to look at Humble Beauty, both fair and with a kind of unflinching admiration. The first is as a journey of optimism, of watching people unexpectedly marginalized by society taking the opportunity to express themselves - both as a means of personal quantification and as logistical redemption. We hear their individual stories, watch as they discuss their specific works, and wonder how they’ve managed to make it over the years. Their names read like an overview of modern society - Latino and Native, African American and Caucasian. Their motives are as unique as they are unified, the notion that creativity bridging the gap between normalcy and a life on the fringes staying front and center. Many of the canvases they offer are striking in their outsider originality. Some reflect the collective grief all too well. A few mark focused obsession. Together, they form a portrait of determination and defiance unmistakable in its power.

And then there is the other viewpoint, one that wonders why this material isn’t more magical. After all, we are dealing with a subject that seems to have inherent power, that taps directly into emotional wells of amazement, compassion, and in some cases, outrage that few areas can manage. Yet Schwartz and Vogelsang, by playing cub reporters, seem to leech all the fun out of their sublime substance. We are meant to learn here, and there are several voices that make it very clear that the overall agenda of this project is to protect and foster the muse in people that the rest of the world tends to forget. But there needs to be some manner of flash, some kind of artist imprint from the filmmakers themselves to really elevate this information. Without it, Humble Beauty is still incredibly interesting. But this should be moving, or at the very least, emotionally involving. Sadly, some of the film just sits there, acting like the well-meaning lecture it comes across as.

Still, the very heart and soul of these people makes Humble Beauty worth visiting. Seeing the buoyancy in their eyes as they discuss their craft, watching them describe their skills as the images they create prove out their point peppers this documentary with the kind of illustrative excellence that the directing style avoids. Passivity in your point of view may seem professional, but here it hampers the overall message. One imagines Schwartz and Vogelsang visualizing their film as a means of achieving a kind of eye-opening reaction that leads to appreciation, and then advocacy. Yet the key to such a call is depth. We have to really know these people, learn about their lives - not just their talent - and relish in the “there before the grace of God” ideal that usually accompanies such an expose. Without it, we’re left with grace and good intentions, but that’s about it.

Yet this is not meant to take away from the people presented. Each story here has its own significance, a reason for rejoicing within a circumstance where very little happiness can be found. Kudos then to Letitia Schwartz and Judith Vogelsang for bringing this amazing material to light. Yet they still deserve some criticism for failing to fulfill its unyielding promise. Life on the streets is nothing to romanticize and no one is asking these directors to undermine said fact with cinematic superficiality. But when you think about a subject like homeless artists, the narrative possibilities appear boundless. Unfortunately, Humble Beauty is more book report than striking visual (or emotional) homily. With a little less of the former and more of the latter, we’d have a classic. As it stands, this is an informative and sometimes flat experience.

by PopMatters Staff

19 Jun 2009

St. Vincent recently sat down for an unplugged performance with Lake Fever Productions. She claims to not own an acoustic guitar… scary way to start an unplugged performance, but she carries it off admirably.

by shathley Q

19 Jun 2009

It is the kind of neo-noir that fans of writer Brian Azzarello have come to love. That ‘essential inner darkness’ that Frank Miller speaks of in his introduction to Criminal: Lawless. ‘Not many people really understand what makes a crime story tick. Like they did with the early Batman movies and with nearly every attempt at film noir since movies went color, they dress it up dark, even murky, but the essential inner darkness that a good crime yarn exposes, relishes in, releases never occurs to them’. But Azzarello has that inner darkness in spades, and with Scott Levy he doles it out by the bucketful in the seemingly throwaway tale, ‘The Last Shoot’.

Spider-Man’s Tangled Web, the series in which the Azzarello/ Levy scripted ‘The Last Shoot’ appears, was meant to tell the stories of ordinary New Yorkers, and how their lives were touched by the emergence the superhero. Spider-Man saves lives, but what of those lives he actually saves, the book sought to explore. An ensemble book in the truest sense, Tangled Web saw writers submitting short stories or storyarcs that ran only a few short issues. Each issue of Tangled Web would have at least one backup story. And Spider-Man himself would only be glimpsed at.

Azzarello’s creative genius for neo-noir fiction sets him up for apparently committing Tangled Web’s only cardinal sin; by page 20 of the 22-page lead story, Spider-Man has still failed to appear. But the tale of small-time crime and petty, workaday woes that is wrestler (or ‘shooter’, a wrestler who wrestles for real) Joey Hogan’s life proves so arresting that readers almost forgive Azzarello and Levy for the let-down. Does it really matter that Spidey doesn’t show? Wasn’t this a good story anyhow?

But of course, Spider-Man does show. This is the moment of his birth. When a young, brash, reckless kid endowed with incredible powers uses it to entertain and earn a paycheck. This is the darkest moment in Spider-Man’s history. A moment when he was at his most vulnerable. When he was perhaps most easily seduced by cheap applause. The impoverishment of Crusher Hogan’s world threatens to swallow him whole. How many lives may have gone unsaved? It would eventually take the death of his foster-father to show Spider-Man the path of responsibility he would walk later in life.

But staring across that essential, inner darkness of a whole world poised like a knife-edge to the throat of a hero who can save it, Crusher Hogan’s words speak to the indomitable in each reader. ‘The man that beat me…? Would be a hero’.

by Nick Dinicola

19 Jun 2009

Valkyria Chronicles is a unique game within the genre of turn-based strategy games. It’s a mix of that classic slow paced strategy with the fast action of a third-person shooter. But the most unique feature of the game is its surprisingly well defined supporting cast. Since these characters are not part of the main story, their development must be done outside the narrative of the game. Valkyria Chronicles manages this with a system of menus, descriptive traits, and the slow reveal of each character’s past.

In other turn-based strategy games, players build up their army by recruiting low-level soldiers with no special skills and then train them into something useful. Since these soldiers are not part of the main story they have no personality, no back story, and no individuality. Not so in Valkyria Chronicles.

From the very beginning we’re encouraged to view the supporting cast as real characters and not as cannon fodder needed to fill out our team. When selecting our squad for the first time in the Command Room, we pick from a list of 30 potential candidates. The first thing players will notice is that every character on the list looks different. From their facial features, hair color, hair style, skin color, or age, there’s no mistaking one for another. Each is visually unique and easily identifiable, and certain soldiers are guaranteed to stand out to certain players based solely on appearances.

Next to each picture is a small list of character traits. Some soldiers may be described as a “Hard Worker” or a “Challenge Lover” or “Meadow Bred.” These traits are not just descriptions but have tangible effects on the battlefield. A “Hard Worker” will occasionally get to take an extra action during a turn. A “Challenge Lover” gets a boost in attack power when charging into the fray and being “Meadow Bred” increases one’s defense while in grassy meadows. Since these advantages and disadvantages are worded as actual behaviors and not just statistics, they help solidify the personality of each character. The player quickly learns what soldier has what trait and how to best use those traits to gain an advantage on the front lines. For example, I’ll always send a “Challenge Lover” or “Hard Worker” to mount an attack because those traits make them well suited for direct combat, and I’ll never use someone who’s “Meadow Bred” while in a city. I’m encouraged to use the character in a way that reinforces their personality, and in doing so, those traits written in the Command Room menu become a self-fulfilling depiction of that personality.

Also next to each picture and below the list of traits are three names of people that this character likes. These aren’t random names; they’re other soldiers and potential squad mates. Trying to follow this web of relationships can be daunting if a player tries to map it out, but what’s important is that these characters all know each other. They all live in the same world and have their own set of friends and enemies. When following this web, there’s a sense that we’re stepping into the middle of a world that exists beyond the player, that the story of Valkyria Chronicles is just one story within a larger world. These characters had lives before the official story began and will continue on after the official story ends.

In addition to all the information given to us in the Command Room when selecting squad members, each character has a short biography, but in the beginning of the game, these bios are woefully short and don’t offer any personal information to flesh out the characters beyond what we already know from the Command Room. However, the more we use a character in battle, the longer their bio becomes. Like any relationship, the more time that we spend with someone the more that we learn about them. By requiring the player to use a character in battle before we can learn any of their back story, the game limits the number of potential characters we might come to care about. While this action seems counter-progressive, it’s inevitable that when dealing with a large group of people some of them will remain strangers, and by limiting the number of relationships we can build, those characters we do come to care about are made to stand out from the rest of the squad. These are the people that we have fought alongside over and over again. We grow attached to them just through this repeated use and that attachment is then bolstered by progressive character development. By the time a character’s bio is filled, we’ve fought enough battles with them and learned enough about them that we have developed a real relationship with them. And as we learn more about their history with each battle, they become less stereotypical and more multi-dimensional, becoming teammates who we genuinely mourn for when they die and all of this is accomplished without a single line of dialogue.

by Sarah Zupko

19 Jun 2009

The Defibulators are a New York group that manage to concoct convincing hillbilly music, or maybe it’s better labeled cowpunk. Anyway, the band is great fun and have a bunch of upcoming tour dates. Here’s a video of “DumDum” live at the Brooklyn Country Music Festival in 2008 as well as a player of four of their songs.

The Defibulators
“Ol’ Winchester” [MP3]
     

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