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by Bill Gibron

15 Sep 2009

As film fans, we expect certain things - even from our cinematic scores. Horror films are going to feature musical backdrops that give away the upcoming scares while supporting a sense of fear and fright. Action films will be packed with perfunctory hard rock and lots of orchestral overkill. Comedies will cobble together a collection of predetermined pop hits accented with some standard sonic “wackiness” while dramas will be dour in their heavy handed musical manipulation. So when convention is thwarted and invention is applied, we tend to sit up and take notice. As a matter of fact, a new or novel approach to the stereotypical soundtrack can really perk up our motion picture pleasure centers. Not every eccentric or oddball attempt works, but when it does, the end results are more than delightful. They literally redefine the aural aspects of film.

In this edition of Surround Sound, we look at three new scores that all add something distinctive and extraordinary to the overall movie music paradigm. Sure, a title like Drag Me to Hell may suggest a certain orchestral type, but the work here is so marvelous in its macabre complements that we don’t really mind the standard sonic operating procedure. The real weirdness, however, comes from old stalwart Marvin “What I Did for Love” Hamlisch and the able ambience of the Robert Williamson/Geoff Zanelli partnership. In tandem with the terrific terror tenants of Christopher Young’s always excellent efforts, we have a trio of titles that suggest one style of soundtrack designing, but that then turn around and deliver a wholly unique aural experience, beginning with:

Gamer: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

When they first came onto the scene, few knew what to make of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. They refused to play by the standard cinematic rules, instead using a single Cher-like nomenclature (Neveldine/Taylor) to label their partnership. Two sensational Crank films and a less than scary fright flick (Pathology) later and the duo are diving into the big time with their sped up, suped up science fiction actioner Gamer. Utilizing the buff bravado of 300 star Gerard Butler and a virtual reality video game premise, the pair hope to give audiences a unique vision of the shape of things to come ala Rollerball and/or The Running Man. Whether they succeeded or not is a question best left to film critics. To their creative credit, they avoid a great many of the standard Hollywood histrionics in bringing their vision to life. Take the score for this hyperactive stunt spectacle. Instead of going with something that accents and amplifies the machismo, the duo ask that their backdrop add depth and design to their often muddle message - and what they get works brilliantly.

After you get past the bookend Billboard mandates of heavy metal (Marilyn Manson’s take on the Eurhythmics “Sweet Dreams (are Made of This)”), white boy hip hop (Bloodhound Gang’s “Bad Touch”) and Rat Pat peculiarity (a Sammy Davis Jr. medley???), the score for Gamer finally settles in, and it’s a stunner. To call what composers Robert Williamson and Geoff Zanelli offer here “music” really pushes the boundaries of said definition. Instead, the pair provides what would better be called “rhythmic atmoshperics” - snatches of Brian Eno on steroids sound that both enhance and amplify the future shock fun Neveldine/Taylor are having. Tracks like “Deathwatch”, “Society”, and “Slayers” set up the storyline expertly, while middle movements such as “Simon’s House”, “Turn Me Loose”, and “Dress Up Doll” illustrate the pair’s preference to avoid the obvious and, instead, design an aural experience that really gets under your skin. By the time we get to “Kable vs. Castle”, we are convinced that Gamer the movie could never live up to Gamer the film score. This may just be the post-post modern trend for film soundtracks, and if it is, it’s fantastic.


The Informant!: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

What happened to Marvin Hamlisch? He was everywhere in the ‘70s, scoring comedies for Woody Allen (Take the Money and Run, Bananas) and Academy Award winners (Save the Tiger, The Sting, The Way We Were). He helped create one of the longest running shows in the history of Broadway (A Chorus Line) and is one of only two people ever to win a Tony, an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Pulitzer Prize (Richard Rodgers is the other). From 1968 and The Swimmer to 1996 and The Mirror Has Two Faces, he was a constant presence in film scoring, taking time out to continue his work for the Great White Way. And then - nothing. No major movie work. A couple of less than successful stage productions. So it’s sort of shocking to see his name on the new Steven Soderbergh comedy, The Informant! The reasoning behind his return would probably be as entertaining, and as captivating, as this unusual bit of retro-motion picture backing. While we may never know about his time in entertainment exile, his work here speaks for itself.

Everything about Hamlisch’s music here is reminiscent of another time and place, plundering the past for what sounds like the equivalent of a lax longue lizard’s sonic resume. Peppered with kazoo and other quirky touches, we are transported to the world of the Midwest circa the early 1990s, a time as lost and ugly as the 1970s, except without Watergate and the leisure suits. Hamlisch instills his sunny magic on such introductory tracks as “Meet Mark:, “The Raid” and “Polygraph”. It’s all upbeat hipster hilarity. Similarly, sections like “Boxes”, “Sellout” and “Golf” frame Soderbergh’s deadpan droll style perfectly. The soundtrack also features two version of the track “Trust Me” - one a smarmy instrumental, the other a bubbly vocal featuring singer Steve Tyrell. Along with a nice little solo piano bookend of the title track, Hamlisch proves that he never really went away. Like the films he used to supplement, he just needed the right project to propel his muse - and The Informant! is clearly it.

Drag Me to Hell: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]

Christopher Young and Sam Raimi have a lot in common. While both have gone on to greater commercial success as part of mainstream moviemaking (even working together on the Spider-man films), both have a history in horror that is hard (if not impossible) to live down. For the composer, his haunted high profile began with Clive Barker’s directorial debut Hellraiser, a mind-bending take on adultery that, to this day, is often cited for its novel narrative, disgusting gore, inventive monsters…and its scintillating, symphonic score. In fact, you can’t think of the Cenobites and not be reminded of Young’s terrifying take on the genre. While his current resume readily moves from the macabre (The Grudge) to the maniacal (Disney’s The Country Bears???), the end results are usually powerful and perfectly suited for the project at hand. So when Mr. Evil Dead asked him to join up for his own return to terror, Young happily played co-conspirator. The results are the brilliant, bravado soundtrack for Raimi’s ridiculously fun Drag Me to Hell. Combining the best of old fashioned fear with softer, more subtle bits, this is one of 2009’s best musical backdrops.

There is a main theme running through the pieces, a lovely bit of Gothic gloom that’s heard in the title track, as well as in “Auto-Da-Fe” and “Concerto to Hell”. It’s like having a Hammer film battle old school Hollywood schmaltz in your head for sonic superiority. Elsewhere, sections like “Ode to Ganush”, “Black Rainbows”, and “Ordeal by Corpse” keep the tension taut and the evil electric. Indeed, Young rarely missteps here, filling every available piece with palpable dread. Even moments like “Lamia” and “Bealing Bells with Trumpet” sell the sense of terror unleashed and the notions of demons around every corner. It proves unequivocally that some composers cotton to certain styles more readily than others. Earlier this year, Young was responsible for the compelling if ultimately underwhelming work on the Bret Ellis Easton adaptation The Informers. Here, collaborating with the man who made Deadites a household world, he’s back to his old smart shock theatrics, and the results are memorable indeed.


by Omar Kholeif

15 Sep 2009

In the UK music scene, the city of Glasgow is the stuff of legend. Considered by many to be a Mecca for discovering new talent, it possesses one of the most vibrant music scenes in the world. Texas, Primal Scream, Snow Patrol, Oasis, Simple Minds, Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai, Young Marble Giants, Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura, and the eponymous, Glasvegas—are all in some way or another indebted to the city for their success.

The reasoning behind its flourishing musical environment is simple. Marred by consistently rainy weather, an industrial past that left deep class divisions, and a cultural regeneration unparalleled in Europe in the 1990s – Glasgow has all of the signature trademarks of a city like Seattle or New York. It is no wonder then that the artists who live, breathe, and play in Glasgow, are propelled by a spirited urgency.

From this very cloth, there comes a new musical outfit called, Paper Planes. Fronted by New-Jersey Girl, Jennifer Paley, along with three Scottish boys, Craig O’ Brien (drums), the boyish Fraser McFadzean (bass), and Christopher Haddow (guitar)—Paper Planes serve as an accessible trans-national link between the two divergent music worlds. Their inspiration comes from the American ilk of the Velvet Underground and The Modern Lovers, but is also interspersed with the whimsical melody of Scottish players such as, Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura.

The band’s first single, ‘Doris Day’, to be released in October, is a catchy Rock-pop tune that mixes the abrasive edge of Kim Gordon, and perhaps even Weezer, along with the lilting charm of Jenny Lewis, and a resounding guitar riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mission Impossible soundtrack. Bolstered by a lyrical simplicity (i.e. the refrain: “How absurd, how obscure”), Paper Planes’ music holds a unique spot between raw Rock and Pop. The B-side to, ‘Doris Day’, ‘Restless’ utilizes a more restrained approach, and finds Jennifer waxing lyrical about the drudgery of the everyday (“Same old, Same old…and this and that”).

Together for just over a year, the group are renowned for keeping their gigs short and spare – to allow them the time to develop their niche, at their own pace. This isn’t to mention of course, the numerous woes that have troubled the lead singer, Jennifer, who has struggled to maintain her UK residency. Luckily though, this laid back approach seems only to have helped the foursome hone in on the kind of music that they want to make. And If they keep it up, this bunch of art school graduates may very well find themselves singing in the clouds.

by Allison Taich

15 Sep 2009

Dhani Harrison, son of Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison, appeared on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien on Tuesday 8 September, to discuss The Beatles: Rock Band video game.  Harrison, a musician and video game designer, helped develop and create the newest sensation for Beatlemania. He was also responsible for getting Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr on board. Wrapping up Tuesday’s show, Conan, along with Tonight Show staff member Aaron Bleyaert, and Tonight Show band member Mark Pender, joined Harrison on Rock Band‘s version of “Birthday”.

The game was officially released on Wednesday, 9 September, along with the complete remastered Beatles catalog. The new digitally remastered albums have been dominating Amazon.com’s best-seller list. The game has been ranking first for Playstation 3, and second in sales for both Wii and XBOX360.

by Jason Gross

15 Sep 2009

He wasn’t at the VMA’s as Lane Brown explains in a recent New York magazine article.  But Brown also latches onto a good point, which is that Kanye had a point when he made an interruption so rude that it made Obama-heckler Joe Wilson look sane.  The VMA’s are kinda B.S. and Taylor Swift really didn’t deserve the award over Beyonce and the fact of the matter is that nowadays, the VMA’s mostly exist for incidents like this (remember Eminem’s stunt on the last show?).  Then again, how many entertainment award shows really pick the best all the time?  And with the advent of YouTube and amateur video, how relevant are the VMA’s otherwise?


by L.B. Jeffries

15 Sep 2009

One of the most interesting questions about video games is, if they are art, how do they communicate a message to a person? How do they cross from what Roger Ebert once described as “sport” into making a plausible statement about the world in a game? A book recommended to me that extensively handles the topic is Alexander Galloway’s Essays on Algorithmic Culture. The text is very short, 126 pages total, and consists of five modified essays Galloway published in various journals. I’m going to focus on his points about political games and player vs machine relationships for this essay. Chapter 2, ‘Origins of the First Person Shooter’, is a comparison of the cinematic techniques of the First Person and how video games build on these. For a variety of reasons, I personally don’t agree with this argument. Intellectual pissing matches where one person cherry picks convenient quotes and attacks another author rarely produces anything useful, so I’m going to just focus on the parts of Galloway’s book I found persuasive. You can read the book and make up your own mind about the rest of it.

From Final Fantasy X

From Final Fantasy X

That said about his heavy reliance on film theory, Galloway is an interesting critic on video games for that same reason: he doesn’t necessarily organize a game by ludic and narrative components. Instead he relies on a series of arbitrary distinctions between types of events in a game. For example, there are machine actions and operator actions. He writes, “The difference is this: machine actions are acts performed by the software and hardware of the game computer, while operator’s act are performed by players. So, winning Metroid Prime is the operator’s act, but losing it is the machine’s.” (5) He acknowledges himself that the distinction is meaningless in most games, falling into the lava in Super Mario is just as much because of the operator as it is the machine’s depiction of a loss scenario. To Galloway though, this cinematic interlude is, “a type of grotesque fetishization of the game itself as machine. The machine is put at the service of cinema.” (11) These moments are our windows into the world of the game, the point at which we are allowed to look at the machine as a whole rather than just plot or identifying something on the screen. This duality of machine depiction as well as narrative depiction are essential. These machine elements are depicting non-diegetic (outside the film’s world) information. He uses Final Fantasy X as an example, the way that you see all the numbers and stats despite the fact that they are never acknowledged in the plot. A game must continually do this in order to make the player aware of the algorithms that govern its world so they can modify their behavior to become better at play. This is where literary theorists like Derrida become relevant to video game theory, there are multiple layers of what is going on in the game and what is specifically ‘real’.

From http://literature.sdsu.edu

From http://literature.sdsu.edu

I’m probably going to bungle this summary of Derrida’s points, the man’s writing is ‘Go F*** Yourself’ hard to understand, but as Galloway puts it there is no central meaning to a video game. It’s not just the plot and it’s not just the ludic elements, it’s both interacting. Derrida, while discussing literary theory, was making the point that the meaning of words and historical events changes over time and from person to person. Little House on the Prairie read today is fairly racist towards Native Americans but in the past was considered a heart-warming story, to give an example. Derrida uses the word ‘play’ to then describe how the meaning of a text is generated; it doesn’t come from one source but rather is bouncing off the person, history, social stigmas, education, etc. The meaning of a word is constantly being adjusted and played with by a reader. Galloway writes, “So while games have linear narrative that may appear in broad arcs from beginning to end, or may appear in cinematic seques and interludes, they also have nonlinear narratives that must unfold in algorithmic form during gameplay. In this sense, video games deliver to the player the power relationship of informatics media firsthand, choreographed into a multivalent cluster of play activities.” (93) In a video game the process of generating meaning through play is made very literal. There is a game’s narrative meaning and then the player constantly playing with those values through the game design, bouncing around these interests.



Galloway goes on to explore the discrepancy between realistic graphics and realistic action in a video game using these ideas. Ordering a pizza in The Sims looks like a cartoon but in terms of action it is more accurate than SOCOM’s storming of an enemy base despite the fact that SOCOM has better graphics. That’s not really how you storm a base but it looks more realistic than The Sims, which features plausible conduct. So the distinction between realism is not really one of visuals, but rather how much you are properly coercing realistic behavior in a player. (73) He writes, “I suggest there must be some kind of congruence, some type of fidelity of context that transliterates itself from the social reality of the gamer, through one’s thumbs, into the game environment and back again. This is what I call the “congruence requirement,” and it is necessary for achieving realism in gaming. Without it there is no true realism.” (78) This is where Galloway draws the distinction between a game depicting a fantasy and one depicting reality, “it boils down to the affect of the gamer and whether the game is a dreamy, fantastical division from that affect, or whether it is a figurative extension of it.” (83) A strong example of this would be Duncan Fyfe’s explanation of why Call of Duty 4 is a fantasy. There are no civilians in the game. There are no complications to any battle except whether or not you’re playing well. Unlike a real war, which requires that you manage all of these complications, the game is just a fantasy war scenario where there are no innocents. It affirms Galloway’s point: the game design is what makes something realistic, not the graphics.

From The Sims

From The Sims

This brings us to Galloway’s ultimate point about how a game communicates a message to the player. Almost every game in existence, whether you’re stabbing dragons or driving cars, presents a depiction of reality. It does this by making its rules transparent in the non-diegetic moments. (93) Rather than the way a film communicates a political message, which is to just have us observe a story and its various characters at work, a game shows us the process and has us go through it ourselves. In this way games often reveal political bias, racism, and other ideologies. Native Americans in Civilization, for example, have a technology handicap that builds on their stereotypes. He adds, “The other great simulation game that has risen above the limitations of the genres is The Sims, but instead of seizing on the totality of informatics control as a theme, this game does the reverse, diving down into the banality of technology, the muted horrors of a life lived as an algorithm.” (103) The game becomes a message about the horrors of suburban life as you engage in meaningless task after meaningless task for a win condition that doesn’t exist. Galloway concludes, “the interpretation of gamic acts is the process of understanding what it means to do something and mean something else. It is a science of the “as if”. The customary definition of allegory as “extended metaphor” should, for games, be changed to “enacted metaphor.”  (118)

The final chapter of the essay explores the opposite approach of delivering a game’s message, rather than focusing on changing the rules you change the visuals. Galloway sees this mostly occurring in the mod and indie scene, something that was just coming into existence when he was writing the book. He notes one quirk about the mod scene, “aesthetic experimentation often trumps interactive gameplay…the three aesthetic realms most often modified in artist game mods are space, visuality, and physics. Modding the flow of gameplay itself is less common.” (118) Galloway cites a few examples like using glitches in the game’s visuals to make you more aware that you’re playing a game or tinkering with the physics so that the visuals become very reflective of your actions. This portion has dated a bit but I think he nails the core force driving the indie scene even today: redefining the concept of play itself for gamers.

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