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by L.B. Jeffries

6 Oct 2008

Fumito Ueda’s Ico is hailed as one of the first mainstream games to really inspire emotion and potent characters. Sometimes to appreciate a video game it’s best to frame it not only using a simple method but also looking at it from a critical angle. In this specific instance, Ico raises a really interesting question because it crosses the disingenuity barrier that Jonathon Blow describes in many games. Specifically, he refers to how a game where I’m waiting for a character to unlock a barrier while I defend them creates a disingenuous relationship. I’m hanging out with them because of circumstances, not because I care. I’m keeping them alive to open the door and keep the plot moving, not because I’m worried about their safety. How does Ico follow a similar game design and yet surpass this issue?

 

Ueda’s two games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, both contain interesting elements of animation that really enhance a sense of fragility in the avatar. Both of the protagonists from his games have gawky, awkward running and walking animations. Contrast this to a game like God of War or Ninja Gaiden, where the characters move like Olympic athletes and are the epitome of physical perfection. This is also highlighted by the fact that a stick is your main weapon for much of the game. When you do make the transition to a sword in Ico, it’s heavy and you can tell it drags down Ico’s arm. This awkwardness of presentation carries over into Yorda as well. When she climbs up stairs or a ladder, she carefully steps on the same leg to get up. When Ico is pulling her across a room at full run, her arms flail and you can tell she isn’t used to moving at this pace. Contrast this to the agile and liquid fast shadows that hunt both of you while you move through the castle. A real sense of fragility, of being inferior to the monsters that hunt you is communicated through the animation. The game begins to bridge the disingenuity gap by animating the characters as fragile and thus getting the player worried about them. Contrast this to a game where you play some ultimate badass who is then handicapped with someone much weaker and you see the dilemma. If the game is making me feel like I’m a scruffy but weak kid, a different set of emotional expectations develop as opposed to being Super Death Guy.

 

The game design takes the relationship established by the animation and further enhances it.

by Bill Gibron

6 Oct 2008

It arrived during the final phases of classic ‘70s horror, an era that had seen The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Halloween reestablish the genre’s credibility as a cinematic art form. John Carpenter’s slasher suspense story specifically reinvigorated a flagging industry interest in scary stuff, and the marketplace was preparing for a flood of finely tuned copycats. But standing out there all alone in the macabre wilderness was independent filmmaker Don Coscarelli. Having had some minor success with more family-oriented fare, the young director noticed that an inconsequential moment of fear during one of his more genial movies really gave audiences a start. Wanting to capitalize on such a crowd reaction, he parlayed a dream he once had, along with a collection of ideas and icons he had collected from years as a drive-in B-movie buff, into an experiment in terror. Labeling his final product Phantasm, he sent his monster movie out into the commercial landscape to see what would happen. The results were unexpected.

Something strange is happening over at the Morningside Cemetery and Funeral Home. People have been disappearing and interned bodies have gone missing. The enigmatic director of the parlor, a strange figure only known as The Tall Man, appears to stalk the small suburban California town, and this makes Jody Pearson, his little brother Michael, and their pal Reggie very uneasy. When a mutual friend is found dead in the local graveyard, all eyes shift to Morningside. A late-night visit inside the mausoleum reveals some stunning supernatural surprises. The paranormal follows the Pearson boys as they try to make sense of what’s going on. It’s not long before young Mike is seeing the Tall Man everywhere he goes. With his older sibling firmly in the madman’s demonic sights, Mike knows something sinister is definitely afoot.

Phantasm was the Scream of its era, an ironic nod and wink to the formulas and familiarities of the creature feature deconstructed by a man who really understood the genre he was jeering. Since the slasher film was still a glowing glimmer in Tinseltown’s tainted eye, director Don Coscarelli relied on the previous two decades of drive-in horror, a catalog of films filled with monsters, graveyards, psychotic killers, and even a smattering of science fiction, to foster his vision. They became the bricks for his new form of fear, the building blocks for a surreal narrative that sacrificed sense in order to keep the shivers alive and electrifying. While some didn’t mind that the plot seemed pointless, a creative clothesline upon which various shock set pieces could be fashioned, others saw beneath the scattered surface to recognize what Coscarelli was really after.

Between the tender familial drama, the clever character turns, and one glorious moment of gore, at its core, Phantasm was and remains a movie about the nature of dread. It’s an experiment in what makes us afraid. It uses any and all terror tenets—suspense, bloodletting, the unknown, the unstoppable—as gears in an ever-churning macabre machine. Perhaps the clearest indication of Coscarelli’s success remains the enigmatic villain he created, the iconic Tall Man. It’s rare when a movie can leave behind such a lasting impression. For Phantasm, this lumbering ghoul remains its legitimate legacy.


But there is more here than just Angus Scrimm in a badly fitting suit. For anyone who grew up with old-school horror, Phantasm felt like and continues to play like a primer. Coscarelli obviously knew what fans expected and what the average person believes to be scary or unsettling, and went with a clear kitchen sink creepy approach. From the opening which mixes sex and slaughter to the sequence where a severed finger turns into a ravenous beastie, there are no set rules in the Phantasm universe, no logic to the way terror becomes part of the real world’s temporal plane. Coscarelli has often said that he was influenced by surrealism, recognizing the inherent power in particular imagery juxtaposed together.

Phantasm is full of such moments: Mike’s vision of the Tall Man in an antique photo; the Lady in Lavender’s subtle shape shifts; the fog encased vision of Reggie’s ice cream truck overturned and motionless; the menacing marble mortuary with its floating metallic “caretaker.” Though they seem to have no link to each other (and let’s not get started on the whole Jawa/space slave issue, okay?), and individually would appear more singular than substantive, Coscarelli manages to make them seem wholly organic to the strange circumstances we are stuck in. As a result, their inherent power to unsettle stays with us long after the final false ending has arrived.

The key to making this all work starts with solid performances from a completely complementary cast. Your performers have to play with, not against you, adding to the overall effectiveness of the terror. In this case, Coscarelli found a good friend (the excellent Reggie Bannister), a well-meaning musician (Bill Thornbury), and a precocious kid he had worked with before (A. Michael Baldwin), and forged a unique and totally authentic bond. Some may wonder about the front porch jam, Reggie and Billy banging away on some self-penned blues stomp, but the truth is, nothing establishes communion better than the sharing of something as personal as music. We immediately understand the connection and recognize the attachment both have for each other.

Similarly, Billy and Michael play siblings with a love of cars (in this case, a completely bad-ass Barracuda) and tinkering, and it’s a mutual experience that helps fuse them together as a family. With other standard ‘70s touches like dead parents, issues of abandonment, and the usual adolescent concerns of growing up and taking responsibility, Coscarelli creates a character dynamic we truly believe and support. Since we accept the relationship of the trio, we have a much easier time of falling into the fear.

Still, Phantasm remains a director’s film, a highlight reel that also manages to be an effective fright flick. Coscarelli, who had made a couple of midlevel mainstream movies before diving into dread, obviously knows his way around a camera. His placement throughout this film is fascinating. He uses low angles and obscure framings to keep things uncomfortable, and applies handheld and other POV techniques to keep the audience directly involved in the action. This is particularly true of a late-night car chase between the Pearson boys and the Tall Man’s driverless hearse. As Jody climbs out of the Cuda’s sunroof to level a shotgun at the vile vehicle, Coscarelli’s lens is right there, standing directly between the trigger and the target.

There’s also a sense of Hardy Boys-like adventure here, a concept of personal ingenuity and everyday invention that keeps viewers curious and connected. When Michael is locked in his room and looking for a way out, his MacGyver-like creativity results in one of the movie’s most memorable stunts. Similarly, when faced with having to outsmart the villainous maniac mortician, the boys rely more on their brains than their brawn to find a shorthanded solution. It’s all part of the queer contrasts at play here. Phantasm has a narrative locked in its own perplexing universe, yet its director constantly strives for some manner of realism and authenticity.

There will be some who complain about the special effects (though the movie’s most memorable bit of brain-draining is still as shocking as it was three decades ago) and the often ambiguous explanation for just what is going on at the Morningside Funeral Parlor. Yet Phantasm remains a viable entity some 28 years after its release because it represents something unique in the post-modern world of horror. By mixing up all the hocus pocus possibilities of the genre into a single supernatural stew, Coscarelli both reinvigorated and set the death knell for the next two decades.  But Phantasm remains his best known effort, a four-film (and growing) franchise that has its basis in one fabulously fascinating movie. At the time, it literally shook the scare fanbase. Today, it’s a testament to one man’s amazing ability.

by Jason Gross

6 Oct 2008

With the economy in such a mess, it’s hard to concentrate on music news but a couple of things to note.  In what has to be the most passed-around link I’ve seen in a while, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley throws his support behind Senator Obama, speaking very plainly and clearing about real issues, rather than the sickening attack ads that another senator is filling the airwaves with.

Also, as a sign of the times, Gawker is cutting staff and cutting back on its program to pay bloggers for page views.  I don’t like to report any publication, online or offline, is cutting staff (except Fox News) but the part about bonuses is noteworthy as that was seen as what might have been an important model for bloggers and companies to use as a guideline.  This pay scheme may still become something of a standard but this setback definitely puts a crimp in the idea and will no doubt send many other pubs scrambling for other solutions about how to stay afloat.

Finally, I wanted to give a shout-out to a brainy site called Music Think Tank which is “where the music industry thinks out loud.”  Not that they have a monopoly on that (even without this blog, PopMatters does that pretty well) but it’s always comforting to find online destinations like this.  I don’t always agree with their prognostications but they get high marks for thinking out loud and tossing out ideas.  Spend some time there and you’ll be glad you did.

by Lara Killian

6 Oct 2008

Currently I’m about halfway through a book that ranks fairly high on the environmentally conscious scale. It’s printed on paper made from 100% recycled paper, and certified chlorine-free. The text was printed using soy-based inks and the book jacket with vegetable-based inks. And that’s not the most important part of the environmental impact of this book.

No, this is not some tree-hugging manual about how to live off the grid and harvest the fleece from your sheep so you can eventually knit sweaters out of handspun yarn. The book is Peter Senge’s The Necessary Revolution (2008) and it’s (gasp!) a management text.

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So far I’ve learned that it takes 200 liters of water to grow the resources to produce one liter of Coke. Read that sentence again if you have to. As for coffee, 140 liters are needed to end up with a single cup. Shock factor aside, the book elaborates on some of the unconventional partnerships that are being forged in the name of innovation with regard to preserving the environment, and cutting back on the human footprint. Coke teamed up with the World Wildlife Federation in 2007 in an effort to better manage their water supply, with a goal of not taking more water out of the system than they replenish.

The managers of the corporations and organizations of tomorrow need to have a thorough understanding of the impact that the growing population of the planet is having on its irreplaceable resources. Not only that, however, they need to think creatively to help establish jobs and industries that work to rebuild the environment and replenish vanishing resources. Because we will never get ourselves out of this mess if we can’t figure out how to make the bottom line worth everyone’s while. Senge and his co-authors have some excellent case studies and strategies for crafting a workable future where the environment benefits and managers can be proud of how they grow their business.

by Rory O'Connor

6 Oct 2008

Leaning heavily on their most recent record—Made in the Dark provided the bulk of the evening’s material save for about four or five songs—Hot Chip wasted little time getting the audience moving on the first date of its two night stand at Chicago’s Metro.

On record, Hot Chip can be a little elusive to pin down, bouncing around from quirky electro to a more serious pop friendly sound. Tracing their development in the studio finds a band perpetually evolving and polishing their sound, but it offers little in the way of clues pointing towards a particular musical direction. The latest album is, of course, no exception. Made in the Dark transitions from a front end filled with electro and—at times almost bombastic—dance music only to give way to a few ballads that close out the album. While this can leave some listeners a little bit confused, the objective at a Hot Chip live show is much more direct and primitive – they are here to entertain. 

Hot Chip’s live show is high energy and almost aggressive in its approach. On stage the band’s instrumentation becomes more pronounced and takes a front seat, both figuratively and literally, as it is guitarist Al Doyle standing stage front for most of the set. Tracks like “Over and Over” and “Ready for the Floor” (during the latter some oversized balloons were released from the ceiling) are already a perfect fit to the flow of the evening, while a slower, more melodic track like “And I was a Boy from School” gets an up-tempo makeover that allows it to blend in seamlessly. As with their latest album, the band did put their foot on the brakes, though, rolling out “In the Privacy of Your Love” towards the latter part of the show. And while it didn’t quite fit in with the up-tempo tracks that preceded it, the meditative track added a little depth to this dance-saturated evening.

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