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by Omar Kholeif

24 Jul 2009

In terms of popular discussion, Six Feet Under has been hailed for tackling an unorthodox subject matter, for its filmic production values, its multi-faceted representation of homosexual relationships, and much more. But rarely does one find comment surrounding its use of art photography, and the insight that this offers us into its characters. Yet, as viewers, we are fully aware that the character of Claire in SFU and her story arc are very much driven by her artistic aspirations.

At the beginning of the show, the aimless teenage girl is caught grappling with her father’s death, which she struggles to contextualize alongside her adolescence. But in the second series, her Aunt Sarah pronounces her an artist, and as such, her pursuit of the imaginative form propels her from complacency to a state of self-enquiry. Considering the impact of this event on her character development, I thought it would be fitting to take a look at some of Claire’s portraiture, and to consider their narrative implications.

by Matt Mazur

24 Jul 2009

With her thin, reedy voice, and lackluster dance moves, Holmes simply did not do justice to this classic show-stopping stomper. Somewhere, Judy Garland is likely pissed.

by Bill Gibron

24 Jul 2009

It’s a classic “what if” scenario. You live a troubled life in a small Spanish town. Your mother hounds you over your lack of ambition (and your famed brother’s abundance of same). You spend each day within the haunting memory of a crime that was committed which has left you fragile and afraid of heights. Your menial job as a handyman only fuels your nightly need to drink and disappear into the background of the world -  and then you discover that said sanctuary is about to end. Yes, in three days, a huge meteor is aiming it sites on planet Earth. When it hits, that’s it. There’s very little you can do except sit back and wait.

For Ale, a young man living an aimless existence with his concerned mother, such an announcement leads to one inevitable conclusion - they both must go out to the country immediately and protect his brother Tomas’ children. Apparently, the absentee sibling was instrumental in capturing a notorious child killer several years before and with the sudden breakdown of society, the prison system is in disarray. Ale’s mother is convinced that the murderous maniac will come back to town and seek revenge on the family. When no one offers to help them, however, it is up to her and her ineffectual son to stand their ground.

Before the Fall, otherwise known as Tres dias in its native Spain, is a surreal kind of experience. This is an epic thriller with little or no F/X, a tale of Armageddon and its moral consequences wrapped inside a series of suspense saga homages. F. Javier Gutiérrez, making his feature film debut, melds together so many divergent elements - end of the world, family dysfunction, serial murder, child endangerment - that you’re convinced the cinematic center won’t hold. Indeed, the film plays like a series of references barely capable of coexisting. But thanks to the excellent use of mood and style, along with a couple of memorable turns by the cast, this menagerie of movies past really works.

Imagine Deep Impact combined with Desperate Hours and you get some idea of what’s going on here. The first act of the film follows Ale as he tries to maneuver his way through a reality wrought with bad memories and belittlement from his mother. Enamored of Tomas’ bravery and resulting local legend, she sees nothing wrong with throwing aside her slacker son for a chance to “rescue” the grandchildren. When she arrives at their country house to find no adults in charge, she immediately believes the worst. A late night run-in with a mysterious noise out in the woods seals her fickle, frightened fate.

Part two takes us into the mindset of Ale, reluctant uncle. Left in charge of what are for the most part four strangers, he does his best abusive dad routine, yelling and screaming only to ask for forgiveness later. Clearly he is angry about having to waste his last few hours on Earth playing nursemaid, but it is this intense interaction with the kids, from cooling raging adolescent hormones to reading a bedtime story that sets us up for part three of the narrative. When an injured stranger shows up with a broad face and a believable story, only Ale is anxious. The kids are just glad to have someone to interact with besides their dictatorial relative. Even as the intruder’s antics grow more concerning, the children seem nonplused.

Indeed, one of the most effective things Gutiérrez does is keep Tomas’ celebrated deed a secret until right before the ending. By then, the danger is all too real. Indeed, the last ten minutes play like a standard horror film, murderer making the unwilling hero finally come to the fore and defend his turf. Victor Clavijo gives an interesting performance as Ale. He goes from slacker to straggler to superman in a way that’s casual, believable, and totally without pretense. Sure, there are parts of his personality that rub us the wrong way (he is infernally lazy and relatively unconcerned about most things), but this is supposed to be part of the psychosis he lives with. Similarly, his mother is so single minded in her pursuit of her seemingly noble aims that we are supposed to forgive her rudeness, her pettiness, and her eventual slip into carelessness.

But it’s Eduard Fernández who steals the movie as the stranger. We know he is probably the killer hidden behind a façade of friendliness and fear, but we aren’t ready to buy his potential evil. It’s only later, when the true nature of his motives comes to the fore that we are faced with the same dilemma as Ale and the kids. Granted, Gutiérrez does little to endear the little nippers to our side. Only the youngest ones seem tuned into the way their world has changed in the last two days. By the time all threats become real, Before the Fall has wasted a few opportunities. While not enough to commend it, said failures keep the film from being a classic.

Sure, there are other parts of this story that don’t quite cooperate with the rest of the narrative. Ale’s love of a pregnant girl is unexplained, unexamined, and hastily tossed in toward the end, and budding teen sexuality is never a pleasant topic to undertake, no matter how carefully you circumvent the pubescent passion. With a bigger budget and perhaps an additional F/X shot or two, Before the Fall would feel much larger in scope. But Gutiérrez clearly wanted to tell an epic story in a very small way, similar to how M. Night Shyamalan dealt with an alien invasion in Signs. There is a money shot or two, but perhaps not enough to satisfy those looking for something other than atmosphere and suspense. Go into Before the Fall thinking the typical Day After Tomorrow treatment of the subject and you might walk away disappointed. Tune into how F. Javier Gutiérrez wants to handle the apocalypse however and you’ll definitely enjoy the adventure.

by Tommy Marx

24 Jul 2009

In the beginning, there was Britney Spears, dressed as a Catholic school girl with a bare midriff, short skirt and pouty lips, selling sex and CDs to the tune of “Baby One More Time”. It was easy to predict Britney Spears would become a major force in pop from the moment the school bell rang in her first video and the iconic notes of “One More Time” began to play.

In the music industry, imitation is the sincerest form of profit, so a legion of young girls began flooding radio stations and MTV countdowns.

Although most would argue that Christina Aguilera is far more talented vocally than Britney Spears, it hasn’t helped her much. Even with twice as many number one hits and four Grammy Awards to Britney’s one, Christina seems forever destined to be overshadowed by her former Mickey Mouse Club co-star.

Jessica Simpson had a beautiful voice, but her affected vocal style and lazy annunciation hurt her chances of ever being a major star, so she found success by making ignorance look charming on reality television.

And then there was Mandy.

by Nick Dinicola

24 Jul 2009

“…meaning does not come from playing a game… it comes from playing WITH a game. It is the manipulation not only of the actors in the game that is meaningful, but the manipulation of the game itself.”
-Clint Hocking

Ben Abraham over at SLRC started an experiment with Far Cry 2 that has since been picked up and repeated by other bloggers. The experiment: Play Far Cry 2 on normal difficulty and stop when you die. You only have one life. Death is permanent.

Ben’s posts, and those by others who have taken up the experiment, read like a normal game of Far Cry 2. The introduction and the tutorial always play out the same, and while everyone’s first mission is different, what happens to them isn’t all that different than what happened to me when I played the game: They get in a shootout and kill a lot of people. That’s essentially every mission in Far Cry 2. So what makes this experiment so interesting? Why am I compelled to read each post, and why are others compelled to take up the challenge of Permanent Death? Clint Hocking, in his post about the experiment, suggests that people don’t actually care about the individual narratives being related to them, they don’t really care what happens to Ben Abraham or his avatar, they care about what can happen. “The reason I think people are paying attention is because Ben is playing with the game. He is manipulating the game itself…It is not the combination of Far Cry 2 + authored narrative irreversibility that is making the permadeath experiment meaningful to Ben and to others, it is the fact that he is able to manipulate the game to create this experiment that is bringing meaning.”

The result of the experiment is a new experience, one similar to what it would be otherwise, but given a deeper meaning due to the player’s own conscious manipulation of the game. By adding his own rules to the game, Ben ceases to be just a player. He’s now a director of his experience in addition to being an actor in it, and yet he’s still subservient to the whims of the emergent gameplay. His role as player is changed, but he’s still very much a player. He is, as Clint Hocking said, not just playing the game but playing with the game.

Adding a self-imposed permanent death to the game also gives us a unique look at the game’s themes of violence. Far Cry 2 stacks a lot of odds against the player: We’re up against respawning enemies at nearly every intersection of roads, a sickness that can incapacitate us in the middle of a fight, guns that jam, a limited amount of “health packs,” sparse save points, and a landscape filled with people whose only purpose is to kill us. Death is easy, yet because this is a video game death is also easy to ignore. The sparse save points may force us to replay certain sections of the game, but in the end, no matter what happens, we can always just reload a save. I’d wager that most gamers have come to see death in game as more of an annoyance than as something to be feared. So by making death permanent, it suddenly has relevance.

Ben’s thoughts during his first fight are telling, “I was still stepping out of the car when the first bullets started pinging off the bonnet. I remember thinking ‘this is it – my first firefight’ and the feeling of danger threatened to overwhelm me. Certainly, the mixture of exhilaration and jitters proved to pose more of a threat to my survival than did the enemy soldiers.” The encounters that were once annoying are now frightening. The level of violence in the game (which is actually quite normal for a FPS game) is more apparent than it was before, when we took our infinite live for granted.

But what’s more important thematically than the new found fear of death is that it doesn’t last. In Ben’s fourth post he writes, “I must admit that the fear of dying has more or less completely disappeared by this point. The worry and hesitancy with which I approached the earlier missions has atrophied to the point where I am confident enough to take out an assassination target head on, using explosives. I’m regularly flirting with danger now, and it remains to be seen whether I will get burnt.”

L.B. Jeffries, in an essay on Far Cry 2, explores how the player’s journey is similar to Kurtz’s experience in Africa in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “When Marlow is puzzling over Kurtz’s descent into darkness, he attributes it to what the dangers of the wilderness brought out in him. Kurtz’s European education and refinement are cast aside in the Congo, leading him to discover that he was capable of things he didn’t know beforehand…In other words, by making the game design so brutally hostile, the game is putting you through the same experience as Kurtz.”

What I find so fascinating about the Permanent Death experiment is that it changes how this transformation occurs for anyone who takes up the challenge. Any fan of first-person shooters who starts a game of Far Cry 2 begins the game as The Jackal, the antagonist of the story. Not literally, but The Jackal, as an arms dealer, embodies a cavalier attitude towards death and violence, the same cavalier attitude all gamers feel for death and violence in games. Our journey through Africa is then meant to expose us for who we really are, that we are just as much the enemy as The Jackal is. But for those who take up the experiment, they begin from a different place. The permanence of death snaps them out of that cavalier attitude, and they begin the game as frightened people just struggling to stay alive. Their journey is then meant to change them, to turn them into merciless killers and then expose them for what they’ve become. By changing the rules of the game Ben Abraham hasn’t actually changed the game or its meaning, but how the two are experienced. The journey is different but the end is always the same. We all become The Jackal.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Best of the Moving Pixels Podcast: Further Explorations of the Zero

// Moving Pixels

"We continue our discussion of the early episodes of Kentucky Route Zero by focusing on its third act.

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