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by Allison Taich

27 Oct 2009

A few weeks ago Brooklyn based indie rockers The Subjects played an intimate yet compelling set at the Empty Bottle in Chicago.  By intimate I mean there was not a huge crowd at the show, but attendees were appreciative nonetheless.  Perhaps the spurts of freezing drizzle that night prompted people to take a rain check that night.

by Mehan Jayasuriya

27 Oct 2009

Back in June, I saw the Dirty Projectors play to a crowd of a few hundred kids at the Rufustival in Baltimore.  It was the week before the release of Bitte Orca and I remarked at the time that it seemed, “a foregone conclusion that after years spent as an opening act, the band will soon graduate to headliner status,”  What a difference a few months makes.  Last week, I elbowed my way to the front of Washington D.C.‘s renowned Black Cat, to watch the Projectors play to a sold out crowd of 700.  From the first song on, it was clear that it wasn’t just the band’s draw that had changed—rather, the Dirty Projectors had grown along with their audience.

by L.B. Jeffries

27 Oct 2009

Espen J. Aarseth’s Cybertext is one of the first, and arguably strongest, books to outline how games work as their own artistic medium. Written from 1989 to 1997, it details a wide range of textual interactions that attempt to identify the interactive component of electronic media: the act of traversing and controlling a text. He defines a cybertext as “a machine for the production of a variety of expressions” (3). This does not have to be just a computer interaction. The oldest example of a cybertext is the I-Ching: “the Chinese book of oracular wisdom that is used (rather than simply read) in a ritual that involves writing down a question, manipulating coins or yarrow stalks to produce a path (out of 4,096 possible paths) through the text, and consulting certain of the book’s 64 fragments to reach an answer to the question”(66). Interacting with a system in a way that makes the experience unique to the individual is the distinguishing element from a traditional book or film. A user is not just reacting to embedded meaning like they do when they read a book, they are exploring and configuring it based on its interaction model.

Part of the context of the book is that Aarseth is arguing against the post-structuralist conception of video games as meaning play, a group who “tried to show the inner contradictions of concepts such as sign, structure, work, and author in order to foreground the metaphysical nature of these innocent-looking terms” (83). Post-structuralism is the theory that two people can sit down, read the same book, and have two different understandings of its meaning because of their personal backgrounds and varying attention spans. Your desires and personality will dictate your understanding of a book. To the post-structuralist, gameplay is just an extension of that concept. What Aarseth points out is that portions of a cybertext will be cut off and will never be seen depending on your actions. He writes, “A nonlinear text is an object of verbal communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (41).

Accepting that there are connections between literature and games is still important, and Aarseth goes to great lengths to explain that there is a specific type of literature that games overlap with. He borrows research from Penelope Reed Doob to highlight this distinction. There are two models for a book: “the unicursal, where there is only one path, winding and turning, usually towards a center; and the multicursal, where the maze wanderer faces a series of critical choices, or bivia” (6). What happened in literature was that people started to move away from the unicursal idea of a book and started pushing for a multicursal model. It’s the difference between just reading something in a linear progression and having a book that you’re meant to hop around and absorb in a disjointed fashion. For example, Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a long poem with numerous optional footnotes that tell their own independent story while commenting on the poem. You can still read it and understand it without looking at any of these footnotes but reading them enhances and nuances the narrative. The more popular example would be a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, which Aarseth declares is also a cybtertext. He explains, “a cybertext must contain some kind of information feedback loop. In one sense, this holds true for any textual situation, granted that the ‘text’ is something more than just marks upon a surface. A reader peruses a string of words, and depending on the reader’s subsequent actions, the significance of those words may be changed, if only imperceptibly.” (19)

Like myself and other writers discussing video games, one approach to games breaks the gaming experience into a triangle of player, design, and narrative but Aarseth opts instead for operator, verbal sign, and medium (21). Aarseth tears into the concept of analyzing just the narrative of a game by pointing out that the expressive component of a book or picture in terms of the audience is at best trivial. You can read the book aloud and modulate. You can string together a bunch of pictures to create a movie. Yet the transition from source to expression is still minimal; the act of expressing a text or picture can only be minorly adjusted through that expression. Aarseth notes, “To write is not the same as to speak; listening and reading are different activities, with different positions in the communicative topology” (163). Instead, he believes that between player and game “the relationship might be termed arbitrary, because the internal, coded level can of course be fully experienced by way of the external, expressive level.” There are multiple layers of meaning occurring in a game that go far beyond the surface and instead come from the ludic elements that the narrative is built upon.

From Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie

From Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie

To Aarseth, that’s the problem with the post-structuralist stance: “identical signifiers do not guarantee identical meanings.” (83) Being at full health at one point in the game is not the same thing as being at full health in another. Their theories do

provide interesting insights into the more advanced possibilities for meaning in games, but they don’t really address the mechanical issues at work. Using Roland Barthes own argument Aarseth writes, “Tmesis, claims Barthes, is not a figure of the text but a figure (at the time) of reading: the author ‘cannot choose to write what will not be read’ (47). The validity of the assertions that Aarseth makes depends on what type of game you’re talking about as well. Everyone who has played Half-Life 2 went through the game in roughly the same manner so that the missed details are trivial or minor. Where it becomes more interesting is in the more emergent games that have variable outcomes besides “Die or Progress”. He writes, “The important lesson to be learned from discontinuous and forking texts is that when two readers approach a text they do not have to encounter the same words and sentences in order to agree that it probably was the same text” (74).

How then do the relationships between player, designer, and machine pan out? Since you have no control over the final text of a game as the player, can it actually even be said you have written something in the Aristotelian sense? (84). Aarseth argues that the player engages in a contract with the cybertext. Discussing interactive fiction he explains, “The contract between user and text in ‘interactive fiction’ is not merely a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ but a willing suspension of one’s normal capacity for language, physical aptness, and social interaction as well” (117). But if you’re not really authoring anything, what is the player’s role in a game? The book muses, “When I fire a virtual laser gun in a computer game such as Space Invader, where, and what, am ‘I’? Am I the sender or the receiver? I am certainly part of the medium, so perhaps I am the message…just as the game becomes a text for the user at the time of playing, so, it can be argued, does the user become a text for the game, since they exchange and react to each other’s messages according to a set of codes. The game plays the user just as the user plays the game, and there is no message apart from the play” (162).

From http://2.bp.blogspot.com/

From http://2.bp.blogspot.com/

Ultimately, accepting that a video game’s meaning comes from the interplay between user, ludic design, and plot requires abandoning an absolute emphasis on one particular element. Rather than think of narrative as the grand structure of everything, “the story of an event is not necessarily the same as the event itself, and stories can be told about things other than stories” (94). The concept of ergodic design, traversing a space and controlling the narrative instead of absorbing it “must have more than one explicit outcome and cannot, therefore, be successful or unsuccessful; this attribute here depends on the player” (113). Ultimately, the three elements collapse into one another to form a unique whole: “the user assumes the role of the main character and, therefore, will not come to see this person as an other, or as a person at all, but rather as a remote-controlled extension of herself” (113). The three elements are still distinct at key moments though, such as when you die without intending to in a game, so that there is still a distinct player who is learning to play and improve. Aarseth makes the same argument that people still have to make today, “To achieve interesting and worthwhile computer-generated literature, it is necessary to dispose of the poetics of narrative literature and to use the computer’s potential for combination and world simulation in order to develop new genres that can be valued and used on their own terms” (140).

Looking back at the now almost ten year old book, I’m sympathetic to the fact that many of these ideas and principles are now considered self-evident. Aarseth himself admits in the last chapter that the book will probably date rapidly as technology advances, but what’s remarkable about his work is how much of it is still true today. Even if most people are willing to accept that a game emphasizing just plot or design is not as compelling as when the two are merged skillfully, the process of how to do that has hardly been answered. Ian Bogost, Alexander Galloway, and Jesper Juul are all grappling with the techniques of that combination in their own way. Aarseth, struggling to make sense of the medium in the mid-1990s before video games were even totally acceptable amongst my own generation, is mostly concerned about the gap forming between people who are engaging with the technology and people who are not. In the final chapter, he ponders the flaws of a growing group of people who are familiar and engaged with the medium. Doing so, “reduces our possibility to empathize with those who are not using the same technology as we, be they our less well-endowed colleagues or our historical predecessors, the texts’ creators or their contemporary readers” (169). As the generation gap widens and the staggering complexity of things like video games continues to grow, what is probably the most worrisome is that those who continue to dismiss them are ultimately just going to be left behind.

by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2009

When Deep Throat became a media sensation, giving a smidgen of legitimacy to what was otherwise verboten hardcore pornography, the exploitation impresarios were dumbfounded. For decades, they had been delivering the kind of sensationalized pseudo smut that made the raincoat crowd happy. While they pushed the boundaries of permissiveness, they never went “the full monty”, so to speak. But now, a 42nd street phenomenon was looking to supplant their softcore cash cow. Enter various attempts at recapturing the crown, including something called blaxsploitation. It was an attempt to speak to a different demographic than they had before. Heavily marginalized by Hollywood heavy hitters looking to horn in on the profits, the ghetto fabulous filmmaking flared brightly, but like any flash in the pan, petered out before long.

Now, nearly four decades after Melvin Van Peebles put a foot up the Man’s ass with his brilliant Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, indie filmmaker Jonathan Lewis, with the help of some of his more miscreant moviemaking pals, has dreamed up Black Devil Doll. Part homage to the hilarious surrealism of Petey Wheatstraw and, to some, a respectful rip-off of Chester Novell Turner’s Black Devil Doll From Hell, this outrageous example of Joe Bob Briggs’ patented “three Bs - breasts, blood, and beasts” is so insane, so silicon injected and silly that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. In fact, Lewis does try for a bit of social commentary before dragging out the strippers to show off their dirigible-like dirty pillows. From then on, it’s nothing but sex, scatology, and lots and lots of skin.

Heather is a buxom babe who gets bored one night and uses an Ouija board to contact the dead. Unbeknownst to her, an infamous black militant radial serial killer is being fried in the local electric chair. A few incantations later and the spirit of the evil African agitator is transferred to the gal’s goofy ventriloquist doll. With the addition of a Black Panther monster make-over and mandatory jive-ass jargon, the horny horror is born. At first, Heather satisfies all this perverted puppet’s needs. But when one white girl is not enough, the Black Devil Doll demands a humptastic hen’s night. So our heroine invites her friends Natasha, Candi, Buffy, and Bambi over for a little risqué R&R. Little does she know that this trim-seeking terror toy is really out to continue his menacing, murderous ways.

Like a 14 year old suburban rap fans wet dream doused with a heavy helping of skankified sleaze, Black Devil Doll is truly demented. If you’re looking for subtlety, careful characterization, logical plotting, and in-depth political grandstanding, go find Spike Lee and sit him down for nice long chat. Lewis is Hell-bent of being as derogatory, depraved, and disgusting as possible, and he truly does deliver. He finds front-heavy actresses eager to see his wanton vision through, and then has them undress for endless sequences of slut-tastic exposure. These are the kind of chicks that teen boys cream over, who resemble cut-outs from a particularly prurient men’s magazine or workers at a dive bar brothel. There is no denying their flagrant frizzled sex appeal. Black Devil Doll never tries to turn its victims into human beings. Instead, it’s straight up objectification - and these women have the over/under the muscle scars to prove it.

Of course, humor is an integral part of the experience, and Black Devil Doll is very funny indeed. Most of the jokes are aimed below the belt (and sometimes, even lower) and Lewis does go slightly overboard with the race baiting repartee. But for the most part, it’s just mindless burlesque, cheekiness for the sake of satire. While it may have a hard time proving its interest in a high purpose, Lewis does sneak in a bit of ‘70s era earnestness. Whenever the Black Devil Doll “conquers” one of his female victims, a psychedelic montage of Civil Rights symbolism and African American iconography plays in the background. It reminds us that any interracial combo - even one involving a hopped up puppet - creates its own subversive subtext of ethnic controversy.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this film is one not seen on the recently released DVD. When it was making the rounds this last summer, Black Devil Doll received a great deal of bad press for being a horrifically insensitive and morally objectionable work of outright trash. Of course, Lewis embraced said statements, even if many of them were made with the flawed foresight of not actually seeing the film first. Indeed, some even questioned the intent behind the movie, arguing that it was created specifically to instill anger in the African American community. Clearly, anyone seeing the final results will be laughing in the face of those self-ascribed watchdogs. Black Devil Doll is nothing more than a farce, an extended riff on a stereotype taken to ridiculous, raunchy extremes. Besides, it’s hard to see the bigotry with all the breasts flopping into the lens.

In fact, if anyone should be unhappy with Black Devil Doll, it is the current crop of artificially enhanced actress. Reduced to discussing their bowel movements and lesbian tendencies as signs of significant three dimensions, the girls here are nothing more than carnal eye candy for the settled self-abuser. Yet because Lewis never really exploits them, never has them doing things they wouldn’t normally do for a dollar, there’s none of the grimy scumbucket sensation involved.

Black Devil Doll will probably become a must-see member of the direct-to-DVD circuit, something that plays better in the privacy of your own home with a group of like-minded friends than in a packed movie house (though the recently released disc offers a ‘you-are-there’ audience experience that argues for the film’s universal appeal). While the original examples of blaxploitation were hardly this retarded, they would definitely support Lewis’s vagrant vision. The best advice one can give is to simply sit back and let a bedeviled brother work his magic on you. Who knows - you might just enjoy it. 

by Bill Gibron

26 Oct 2009

Before he became the king of disaster porn, manufacturing more and more outlandish ways of destroying the planet and all the people on it, Roland Emmerich was trying to become the master of mediocre sci-fi. He built his still questionable resume on the back of such hack classics as Making Contact, Moon 44, and Universal Soldier and it was on this latter bit of Jean-Claude Van Damme-age that he met future collaborator Dean Devlin. Together, the duo would embark on a solid set of schlock masterworks, including the ridiculously ripe Independence Day, the goofy Godzilla remake, and perhaps the most notorious speculative nonsense of all - Stargate. While many now know the name thanks to its tired TV series retread, Emmerich first hit considered commercial paydirt with this specious interstellar claptrap involving aliens in pyramid shaped spaceships, Chariots of the Gods, Egyptology, and a US military team doing a bit of manufactured worm hole spelunking.

You see, several centuries ago, aggressive ETs landed on Earth and absorbed as much ancient culture as possible, including the physical image of comely caveboy Jaye “The Crying Game” Davidson. Fast forward to present day and James Spader is a Erich von Däniken wannabe who believes the pyramids were built by visiting space travelers. Just as he is being booed offstage at a science seminar, he is given a chance to work for Uncle Sam and decipher the symbols on an unusual object found in the Middle Eastern desert. It turns out he opens up a ‘stargate’, a way to travel between far off cosmic worlds. With Kurt Russell in tow as a military man recently reinstated after a personal tragedy, a reconnaissance team travels through the portal and ends up on a backward planet where everyone is a slave, building yet another set of pyramids (that function as starship ports) for the same despotic alien race that traveled to Earth eons before.

No matter how you slice it - original theatrical version or retrofitted director’s cut (complete with nine minutes of additional footage), Stargate is silly. It’s backwards science as up to date falderal, an episode of that ‘70s staple In Search of… dragged out to wholly demented ends. In the commentary track and bonus features offered on the brand new 15th Anniversary Edition DVD and Blu-ray, Emmerich makes it very clear that he wanted to take an unconventional approach to this film - unconventional casting, unconventional plotting, unconventional subtexts. That’s why indie Method man Spader is sparring side by side with Snake Plissken himself, why the interstellar natives speak in a weird foreign tongue that never gets translated, and why we find ourselves shaking our head in rather conventional disbelief. It does make for some inherently goofy charms, especially when both of our leading men fall for emotional substitutes (Spader, the hot chick - Russell, the son he recently lost).

But that doesn’t prepare you for the outright audacity of the movie’s design. Even if you grant that the pyramids seem like the work of extraterrestrials, seeing it actually play out is a lot like looking backstage at a magic show. Once you realize how it’s done, it doesn’t seem quite so amazing any more. Similarly, the minimal CG used to mechanically remove the alien’s elaborate Pharaoh inspired headgear looks incredibly dated. Granted, Emmerich’s attempts at being epic does give Stargate some scope, especially when Spader and Russell investigate the huge triangular structure set against a three satellite sky in a endless sand dune milieu. But its big ideas that make sci-fi sing, and in the case of this blasé boy’s adventure tale, we are dealing with junior high conceits at best.

The notion that highly evolved space travelers would enslave indigenous people’s simply to build their landing stations seems surreal. After, they manufacture these amazing flying ships - why do they need manual labor to construct its dock. Similarly, Russell and the gang sure get the peoples restless in a hurry. One moment, they are talisman wearing gods. The next, they’re Angela Davis in designer fatigues. The last act assault on Jaye Davidson’s stronghold seems unlikely to succeed, and the whole “regeneration” subplot seems stuck in if only to provide a third act out in case one of our leads bites the big one (hmm…I wonder if they do…). While there is a restless sense of fun flowing in between all the UFO sturm and drang, Stargate is really nothing more than the Discovery Channel gone gonzo.

Of course, if you believe the added content stored on the various home video incarnations of the title, there is a lot of “truth” behind the decidedly dumb movie. We get experts popping in and out of the picture-within-a-picture information featurettes, each one explaining concepts that were debunked back when Jimmy Carter was still slinging peanuts. As they sit in their smug superiority, interplanetary backdrop providing a small modicum of ComicCon credibility, we realize that someone might actually think Stargate serious, that buried in Spader’s paycheck cashing casualness, in Russell’s buzzcut bravado, Emmerich and Devlin are actually championing ancient astronauts. It puts a whole new perspective on the film, one that falls far outside the typical big budget blockbuster effort we actually see. Serious support is one thing. Stargate, however, cannot solidify such speculation.

Still, this is a decent little diversion, the kind of pure popcorn fodder that would find a far more ballsy form when Will Smith took on city-sized flying saucers in Independence Day. Indeed, one can see Stargate as a warm-up for all the Day(s) After Tomorrow to come. While its F/X are not as eye-popping as they were 15 years ago, and the premise has been peeled apart and reconfigured to fuel a more or less unnecessary TV take on same, what we have here is a prime example of cinematic cheese - fatty, slightly nutritious, and capable of deep satisfaction if served correctly Roland Emmerich has made an entire career out of such highfalutin fromage - and we, as a gullible, guilty pleasure appreciating audience just can’t get enough.

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