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by Bill Gibron

9 Dec 2008

All across the web this past week, it’s been the subject of much metaphysical ink. As awards season slowly winds down, Hollywood is dragging out the proverbial heavy hitters, and oddly enough, quite a few deal with World War II, Nazi Germany, and in ways both direct and indirect, the Holocaust. Back in 2004, a documentary entitled Imaginary Witness discussed with great clarity and foresight the issue of bringing history’s greatest crime to the entertainment mediums. It’s important to remember that, less than 30 years ago, the amazing TV mini-series Holocaust was criticized for turning the fate of six million Jews into a commercial conceit. One wonders what the pundits in that piece would think about the current trend toward turning the Shoah into show business.

The arguments on both sides seem salient enough. Harvey Weinstein, whose company is pushing The Reader for Oscar gold, has a “more the merrier” attitude. By putting out films with Holocaust themes, he suggests, it keeps the “Never Forget” mandate alive.  On the other hand, journalists like Stuart Klawans suggest that “by continually replaying and reframing and reinventing the past, these movies are starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate.” Since many of the movies being made are not fact based, but instead rely on the Holocaust as a fictional catalyst for plot, character, and or thematic development, the import of the event itself is being shuttled aside for the sake of standard moviemaking formula.

It’s a trend that can be traced back to Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. Love it or loathe it, this serio-comic take on the tragedy proved that not every story about the suffering of Europe’s Jewish populace had to be Schindler’s List. Indeed, while Steven Spielberg set the benchmark with his haunting, horrific epic, no one would argue that it was the last word on the carnage (last year’s Counterfeiter confirms that concept). But sitting through the films being offered as part of 2008’s year end overdrive, one gets the distinct impression that the death, pain, and suffering inflicted by the Nazis has gone from being a monumental human atrocity to a go-to gimmick for an otherwise vacant cinematic statement.

Take the aforementioned Weinstein effort. Without going into detail, the war crimes of one character are debated in court proceedings that do little to illustrate their vile callousness. The only real passion for the crimes comes when, during sentencing, a group of concentration camp survivors scream out anguished epithets. Similarly, a last act element that feels tagged on allows the film’s protagonist, a German man (played by Ralph Fiennes) with a horribly guilty conscience, to make with the mea culpa. As he confesses his teenage affair with the woman who was once an “only following orders” murderer, situational stand-in Lena Olin gets to pass joyless PC judgment.

Or what about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas? This is one of the few films ever that takes the tragedy suffered by millions of families and gives it over to the guys in the swastikas. Throughout the course of the entire film, a young German boy and a frail Jewish prisoner become typical childhood pals. When poor little Schmuel’s father goes missing in the camp, adventurous Teutonic lad Bruno BREAKS INTO the compound, dons the inmate’s garb, and begins the hunt. Eventually, he is rounded up and sent to the gas chamber, along with his newfound friend. Horrifying yes, but where is the emotion actually laid. We don’t get anyone crying for the millions of Jews who died, but Bruno’s Nazi parents are pie-eyed over the loss.

In some instances, the films present the Holocaust as a motive, nothing more. Tom Cruise pays the situation lip service when, in the upcoming Valkyrie his Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg argues for the reasons to assassinate Hitler. Once mentioned, the liberation of the camps is offered as a possible, post-coup agenda item. That’s it. In other cases, the issue is treated with a confusing ‘direct tenuousness’. In Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected, Jeff Goldblum is very good as an ex-circus performer who survived the Holocaust by being a camp commandant’s court jester, so to speak. Years later, he’s in an insane asylum in Israel, reliving his days as the Nazi’s literal ‘dog’.

But Defiance may be the ultimate example of where all this is eventually going. Edward Zwick’s epic tale of the real-life Bieliski Brothers, who escape persecution in Poland and joined up with Russian Resistance fighters to battle the Germans, is like a modern Hollywood action film with the Shoah served up on the side. What these siblings did (within the context of a fictionalized film about same, of course) is astonishing, and it’s an important part of the overall narrative of the War. But is it any more reverent to offer up shoot ‘em up crowd pleasing bullet ballets as part of history rather than slapstick belly laughs? One senses that Zwick sees nothing wrong with offering violence as a viable solution. After all, who would really argue with such a Rambo-like response?

But this goes to the bigger issue of what the Holocaust is supposed to signify, both symbolically and cinematically. In The Reader, it’s a moral dilemma for a young man sexually obsessed with a fragile, enigmatic woman. In Adam Resurrected, it’s the ends to a mental means. Defiance makes it the “eye for an eye” rationale, while Valkyrie does something similar, if a lot more subtle. Only The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seems to have its intentions in the wrong ethnic divide. Certainly there were good Germans (as Cruise and company try to prove over and over), but to make the death of one of the Fatherland’s own more important than the slaughter of six million others seems unconscionable.

Mind you, in all the cases mentioned, the Holocaust is not ridiculed or mocked. No one tries to argue it away, excuse it, or lessen its truly unimaginable hideousness. But we aren’t talking about a specific battle here, or an important but forgotten figure. This is genocide on a massive, premeditated, and unfathomably systematic scale. It’s as if each film here forgets what the overall purpose of Hitler’s Final Solution was - to eradicate the Jew from the face of the Earth. Does such an intention allow for what many might see as superficial treatment of the subject? And is Klawans right? Does the overexposure of the Holocaust threaten to turn it into a narrative device like drug abuse or molestation - one time hot button topics that now seem passé and predictable.

Indeed, the biggest fear here is not “forgetting”, but forgetting what’s important. Before he made Schindler’s List, Spielberg argued that he had to “grow up” as a filmmaker, maturity being the key to handling an issue this massive and important. Nowadays, all one needs is a script (typically based on a well-meaning novel of some sort) and an inferred sense of the serious to make their movie. In each way, the films here have aims that are good to grand, and in the execution no one truly stumbles. But at some point, the Holocaust will misplace its mainstream meaning, and that’s one part of this unbridled tragedy that never should be lost. Ever. 

by L.B. Jeffries

9 Dec 2008

Tom Endo at ‘The Escapist’ wrote an observational piece on weaponry in games a while back. The article explored the culture of mythical weapons in film like Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum or the importance of a gun fight in a Western. Video games, in contrast, have so much gunplay and action that these moments and weapons take on a different meaning. There was an interesting observation in the comment section made by a user named mbvmgb. The mystical element comes from observing someone use the weapon, not to the person using it. A gun becomes a tool once you become accustomed to firing it, so it makes sense that most gamers would not have a sense of personal awe for a weapon. This led to an interesting exchange between a couple of different people , myself included, about what precisely generated the mythical element in a video game since it was no longer an observation. I thought it might be making the characters or roles you inhabit mythical, others argued that there were plenty of weapons that brought out that sense of awe just in different ways. It’s an interesting question: how does one induce the mythic sense of wonder that films can find so easily when it’s the person themselves using the weapon?

A quick search on Digg brings up a 1,000 point dugg piece listing out the top ten weapons in video games. Unlike the typical list where weapon merits tend to devolve into the graphics or ever-unmeasurable ‘cool factor’, the article gives a really interesting ranking method based on how each weapon is earned by the player. How hard the quest to get it was, how expensive the item gets, or just how useful it ends up being in the actual game. The mysticism of a weapon is no longer its use but rather what it takes to attain it and what it can do for you. In many ways it’s like mbvmgb’s observation but there is also the fact that the very world that makes the weapon useful has also been created for it. Half-Life 2’s gravity gun is useful because the developers put together levels that incorporate it, Dark Sector’s glaive weapon is praised with a similar quality. The quality gauge is what kinds of puzzles the game creates for a given tool and how it compares to other weapons in the game. This value is also created by having other weapons in-game to compare it with, how efficient is this tool compared to the others? What makes a weapon better than another in a game is both its function and also the ways it can be used that are appealing to the player. What kind of problems does it allow you to overcome, how does it compare to other weapons, and the amount of time it takes to get it. Even a sword like the ultimate weapon in Disgae is admittedly unnecessary because to get it your party must already be ridiculously strong. But because of the various powers and stat boosts it has, it’s still the most useful weapon in the game compared to all others and it gets on that list as a result.

 

A similar dumpster dive in Digg brought up a top ten list of similar interest except on my own thought about appreciating the characters we play instead of the weapons they use. Double Viking’s ‘Top Ten Most Badass Video Game Characters’ uses a similarly interesting criteria about how the characters are ranked that doesn’t just rely on the nebulous “Badass” ranking. The various abilities and powers of the character are considered their main virtues. Kratos’s fiery blades, the time dagger of the Prince, or Ryu Hayabusa’s ninja skills are how we identify them. Like the gun argument, the setting is thus an inherent part of the appeal of the character. Ninja Gaiden, for example, is often not really appreciated unless you get a chance to really flex Ryu’s full range of abilities. You have to put the game on tougher difficulties or the enemies don’t stay alive long enough for you to really do a powerful combo on them. Like weapons, the interesting things you can do combined with an environment that makes those abilities exciting is the relationship that makes these characters become mythic. Each character’s actual identity or stories are only mentioned in passing, the list emphasizing that our relationship with the character is now secondary to the story. We relate to these people, first and foremost, by how capable they are in their own setting and how interesting they are to play there.

 

The coolest sword I’ve ever seen can be found in the Philadelphia Art Museum in the medieval weapons section. It’s a broadsword that has a line from The Aeneid carved into the blade. The original Latin phrase translated to “To every beginning there must be an end.” That is, without a doubt, the most stone cold shit I can think to have on your sword. I don’t remember much about the previous owners, but whoever swung that thing for a living was not someone I’d want to cross. Not so much because of the book quote, but because the person wielding that thing has made some philosophical decisions about life and the ethics of taking it. Decisions that meant taking my life was an option if the question came up. On some levels playing a character or using a weapon are similar, it’s not the tool or actions they’re capable of but the idea of it. It’s playing a person who has gone utterly berserk with rage after the loss of their wife and kids. It’s a gun that can lift any object in the game and throw it around. It’s being a Brooklyn plumber sucked into a bizarre dimension full of mushroom people and saving a princess. The mythical element of weapons in video games is fundamentally different than in movies or books because we are the ones wielding them. We are the ones pointing a .44 Magnum at a criminal and asking them if they feel lucky. If we are not experiencing awe in those moments, then we are certainly enjoying the pleasure of generating it.

by Kirstie Shanley

9 Dec 2008

You never know quite what to expect at a Dresden Dolls show and the same can be said when seeing Amanda Palmer play live. Palmer—one half of the Dresden Dolls—performs intensely personal songs about everything from abortion to coin operated boys. She’s part burlesque, part cabaret, and wholly melodramatic. Though the talented drumming of Brian Viglione was missing, this was about the only difference as Palmer’s theatrics were no surprise for anyone who has seen the Dresden Dolls.

   
Bringing along a complete entourage of dancers and actors (The Danger Ensemble) from Brisbane, Australia, Amanda Palmer prepped the crowd for her appearance with intermittent performances by this troupe and also a reading by author Neil Gaiman, who she is currently working on a project with.
     
Most notably, a tall gothic member of the troupe kept reminding of us of both the title of Palmer’s solo album and the drama at hand by announcing the sad news: “Amanda Palmer is dead!” Of course, the show must go on and pretty soon Palmer was unearthed looking more alive than ever. 
 
Those that are wondering which part of the Dresden Dolls duo drives the songs in terms of their lyrics need look no further than a solo Amanda Palmer show. The songs from her recent album release, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, demonstrate a similar inner turmoil and conflict to the tunes from her main band. Amanda Palmer is, in a strange way, a feminist punk who sings about subjects very few dare to.

     
In addition to her own material, Palmer played quite a few Dresden Dolls songs including “Bad Habit”, “Coin-Operated Boy”, and “Half Jack”. Though it is standard for Dresden Dolls performances to include many additional performance pieces, Palmer used more of them throughout her set as part of the actual songs instead of just between. Whether it was singing about the violence of Columbine or the unlikely cover of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”, the force was with and all around her. The dancers even carried props for some songs, such as for the cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella”
 
On the few songs where she wasn’t accompanied by choreography, a violinist and also the cellist Zoë Keating filled in the songs rather nicely. Though it’s clear the performance element is a part of Palmer’s songs and helps make the evening an interesting event to remember, it’s Palmer herself that is the central reason to attend.

by Rob Horning

8 Dec 2008

As part of my ongoing preoccupation with Chinese consumer demand, I felt obliged to link to this editorial from today’s FT. The editors raise a claim frequently asserted in evaluating China’s consumer behavior, that “China’s citizens save because they fear nobody will look after them in bad times—and bad times are coming.” You’d think that the People’s Republic would have a more robust safety net in place for the people. It may be that one needs cash on hand to distribute the bribes and make the black-market purchases to get something of a standard that we can find straightforwardly on the market (though affording it is becoming more and more of a problem).

Anyway, the rationale implied here is that in Western countries the state supplies extends much-greater security to its citizens; in effect, it saves for them and covers their emergency needs. This the populace can go out and spend as much as it would like on luxuries much more comfortably. So a good way to stimulate the economy would be to strengthen the social safety net—more unemployment benefits, affordable health insurance, more generous social security benefits, and so on. Under such a regime, we would work to earn the money for the frivolous stuff that we use to define ourselves and shape our identity—the markers of distinction that have preoccupied us throughout the consumerist boom. But the state would assure that our subsistence needs are met.

This seems the implicit promise of consumer capitalism—that society is so prosperous that we can concentrate all our efforts on self-fashioning (even if these ultimately make us insecure and existentially angsty). But of course “we” means “middle class and up”; there remains the strata of lower class workers who have little margin for error with money, for whom identity creation in the hipster mode remains unthinkably. These are the people our society chooses to motivate with blunter incentives—starvation, homelessness, etc. And safety-net improvements will most likely not be made for lower-income people in practice (except incidentally), since in helping them, no extra cash is freed up to buy baubles and prop up demand. Some might even argue that allowing the lower-income people to play at homeownership through subprime mortgages caused the crisis in the first place—a distortion that puts the cart before the horse. Financial engineers needed loans to work with to manufacture more exciting securities; unthinkable loans were then extended to meet this need (not the “need” of poor people to own McMansions).

I wonder whether the degree to which the middle class must rely on the state safety net is the degree to which it must be withdrawn from the lower classes from whom the middle class must remain distinct. They can’t be standing in the same welfare line—that would be a scandal. Better not to extend welfare to the lower classes at all.

by Jason Gross

8 Dec 2008

The Daily Swarm tells of an interesting gimmick that the Asthmatic Kitty label has set up where they base their pricing on the review that they get from Pitchfork.

“The first album subjected to Asthmatic Kitty’s unique experiment is Ropechain by Grampall Jookabox, which will sell for a meager $5.40 during its first 54 hours of sale. The label has determined this figure by consulting Pitchfork’s review of Ropechain, which gave the album a score of 5.4, and adjusting the cost accordingly.”

Like a said, it’s a cute gimmick and bound to get press, like this.  But what does it mean that AK is hoisting their fortunes (or lack thereof) on one source? Do the PF reviewers and their editors now become self-conscious about giving out good or bad scores and then have to be responsible for the pricing?  If an album gets the dreaded 0.0 score, does AK have to give it away for free?  Surely not if it’s a Sufjan Stevens album, right?  And as the Swarm article points out, do we hope that our latest artists on the label get panned so we can pay less?

My editor doesn’t like to hear this but this kind of stunt also helps to cement the reputation of PF too of course (wonder how much they paid off AK to do this…)

Also, this is the kind of model that the labels have been trying to push Apple into accepting- if there’s a hot new release out there, people are willing to and should pay more for it.  If something ain’t as hot (say, an oldie), then they can offer it for less.  Betcha that they’ll be interested to see what happens here.  They’re also probably wondering “why didn’t we think of that first?”

But going back to the original stunt, a 5.4 ain’t a good grade so why would people be excited to buy it, even if it is only five bucks?

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