The Beatles is called ‘the White Album’, of course, because of its cover, which is completely devoid of imagery save for the group’s name blind-embossed on its face slightly off-center and askew, and a few discreet bits of type printed in barely visible light gray on the spine and front and back panels. In the shimmering muteness of its glossy blank surface, The Beatles announces the end of the psychedelic era, the obsolescence of floridity and pretension typified ironically enough by the band’s previous opus, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like a Trojan horse virus, the seeming ineffability of The Beatles’ exterior masks the flowers of evil contained in songs that would dissolve the saccharine melodies of the Summer of Love and provide the helter-skelter soundtrack for the Manson murders and Watergate paranoia to come.
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The juxtaposition of instrumental music with actual songs seems almost antithetical to the movie soundtrack dynamic. After all, we view the score as something supporting the film, not focusing in on its themes (or lack thereof) or pimping particular sales lagging label mates. And yet over and over again, directors use individual tracks by known and unknown artists to amplify their own sense of aesthetic, while studios demand their placement for added marketing pizzazz. Of course, rare is the filmmaker who can successfully merge the sentiments of a specific song with the sequence it’s supposed to suggest. More times than not, the commercial tie-in is more viable that the proposed purpose. Luckily, some films use music as it’s meant to be - a celebration of life within a unique aural vista in which vision and sound are supposed to merge.
This time around, SE&L‘s Surround Sound looks at three soundtracks that really can’t make up their minds. One wants to celebrate the sexy soul sounds of old school R&B, but yet can’t shake the exterior elements that make the movie it stands for sadly significant. Another tries to walk the fine line between beatbox and breakneck, and almost succeeds. Finally, we get the weird combination of New Age mood music and slightly underdone indie pop. In all three cases, the parts work better than the sum, and if you don’t mind digging just a bit, you’ll probably find more gems than jokes. Let’s begin with the best, for obvious reasons:
Soul Men - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]
With their deaths within weeks of each other, Bernie Mac and the Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes, left Soul Men with a clouded legacy that no amount of cinematic sunshine could overcome. Even the movie itself, which turned out to be a gloriously raunchy, cliché controlled grab bag had trouble prying laughs out of the pall these tragedies produced. If anything, the sensational soundtrack to the film suffers even more. While Mac and co-star Samuel L. Jackson make a sensationally vulgar and viable ex-R&B act, their singing performances indicate a pair of incredibly talented (and brave) men. Though they only appear on three cuts - the John Legend led “I’m You Puppet”, the sensational Rufus Thomas cover “Boogie Ain’t Nothin’ (But Getting’ Down), and the show stopping finale “Do Your Thing”, their exuberance and professionalism lingers throughout the entire score. It also amplifies the sense of loss.
As a collection of classic tracks, Soul Men sizzles. There are excellent takes on such Stax staples as “Comfort Me”, “Private Number”, “Water”, and “Memphis Train”. We even get such memory lane myths as “You Don’t Know What You Mean (To a Lover Like Me)”, “I Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)” and “Never Can Say Goodbye”. But it’s the collaboration between Mac and Jackson that consistently stands out. Again, the voices sometimes strain to hit the notes, and there is a lack of pure professional polish that comes through, especially when placed side by side with someone like co-star Sharon Leal. Yet it’s the power of personality that wins over - that, and the undeniable perfection that is these old soul standards. Many may see this uneven comedy as an awkward swansong for two very talented me. But Mac and Hayes are the reasons Soul Men works, not the elements that bring it down.
The Guitar - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]
The Guitar gives off the vibe of an incomplete, or even worse, incoherent project. Early reviews of the film, a first time feature by Robert Redford’s daughter Amy, have argued for the maudlin movie as either inspired, or a work of manipulative junk. The half song/half score CD for the project produces a similar kind of disorientation. On the one hand, we get Space Age Bachelor Pad muzak in the form of “Glancing Lovers” by Johnny Saravino. On the other, there’s the subtle folkish fluff of Phoebe Jean Dunne’s “Cold Hands”. Rock is rewarded with an Everyothers reading of David Bowie’s “John, I’m Only Dancing” (good) and the band original “Dive With You” (raging, if kind of flat). By the time we get to the end of the tunes, Alap Momin’s slightly psychedelic “Arch Angel” and Deb Montgomery’s jagged “Fly Free” seem like proper finales.
But there’s more - 30 tracks more. Written by David Mansfield, the moody, ambient tone poems produced to supply The Guitar with atmosphere seem to work, for the most part. “Walking” offers an intriguing introduction to this composer’s concepts, while “Thoughts of Suicide” and “First Flashback” (with its thunderous guitar swirls) broaden the potential canvas. “Shopping” sounds like an ad for a high end PC, while “Nice Dress” is a country-tinged trifle. Things stop about halfway through, oddly enough, for another tune, the lo-fi oddity “Hard Way”. From then on, it’s more amplified angst, carefully strummed psychobabble, and a far amount of sublime sonic invocation (“Leaving” being a prime example). While the verdict may be out on Ms. Redford as a director, her choice in aural accompaniment shows promise - and some problems. As a result, The Guitar soundtrack feels unfulfilled.
Nobel Son - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]
From the opening chug of Nobel Son‘s title track, an electro-fied rave-up with Middle Eastern tints by Spitfire, you get the distinct impression that you are about to enter one of those oh-so-hip self-referential efforts where the director, Randall Miller, is about to channel his inner Guy Ritchie. Reading over the plot synopsis for this darkly comic thriller, one feels the fit will be a little more complicated. The story involves the kidnapping of a Nobel Prize winner by members of his own dysfunctional family. The remix heavy soundtrack, peppered with several instrumental tracks by popular trance DJ and recording artist Paul Oakenfold, is very reminiscent of the man’s contributions to other fast-moving missives like Speed Racer, Shoot ‘Em Up, and The Matrix Reloaded. Oakenfold is definitely the star here, his knob twirling and disc twiddling on such cuts as “Thumb Time”, “Roasted Pig”, and “Screwing Around” showing off his style magnificently.
Unfortunately, this fellow CD space savers consistently let him down. The Bad Apples “Let Me Be Real” is so derivative of flaccid FM rock that it starts to sound dated the moment the lead singer opens his bemoaning craw. Spitfire’s tracks aren’t bad, but they too suffer from a sort of “been there, heard that” recognizability. Emjay and the Atari Babies do their best Sigue Sigue Sputnik meets T. Rex cock stomp with the interesting “So Clear”, while “Hum” from the Groove Armada starts out strong, and then never builds into anything. Only the Chemical Brothers contribute something special, their brilliant “Come Inside” suggesting all the reasons the band was once considered the “next big thing” in music’s ever-changing landscape. If a collection of songs can be indicative of the type of film they complement, the hit and miss redundancy of Nobel Son‘s soundtrack doesn’t bode well for director Miller’s motives.
One of the most prolific themes of modern video games is the idea of creating a roller coaster or theme park ride experience for the player. Just as you would go through an amusement park and jump on the various rides, in video games you go through and try out the various experiences offered. The designer creates a roller coaster path through a series of action-packed events. A prime example of this design is Call of Duty 4’s single-player campaign. Whether it’s operating the turret in a gun ship, dying in a nuclear fallout, or battling in the streets of a Middle-Eastern city, this is the gaming equivalent of an amusement park ride for modern warfare. Three specific moments are particularly impressive in this design because they push the norm for shooter experiences and offer something besides generic victory scenarios. What Call of Duty 4 tackles in three distinct sequences is dying in a war zone.
The first roller coaster sequence takes place in the midst of a Civil War. The developers pull the rug out from the player in this sequence because up until this point the game has been acting like a fairly typical shooter. Suddenly, we are thrust into the body of the President as he is being dragged to his execution. You have no control over movement but can move the camera, a logical game design choice given the linear narrative. What makes it interesting is that players almost never play the victim in an FPS and suddenly, here they are experiencing it. Once it dawns on the player that this is a passive sequence though, there is a risk for things to become boring. In Half-life 2 there are many passive exchanges that are dull. But here, the developers keep it interesting by surrounding the player with activity. Civilians run in terror, firefights are going on, and every atrocity of war one can imagine is going on at all sides. The player still controls the camera and they immediately start trying to see everything going on as the car drives through the city. It is, literally, like going on the Pirates of the Carribean ride except everything has been replaced with modern warfare events. By coercing the player to frantically look all around they are mimicking what a person in that situation would be doing. In this way, the game involves the player into being a willing camera man. A willing participant in making the event be presented the way that it would be for someone actually in that situation. The slow dread the player feels as they see the inevitable gun barrel coming upon them and finally being aimed is also present. The game gives you the experience of being executed and it coerces our involvement through both game design and player input.
The nuke sequence is still probably one of the most incredible experiences a video game has yet provided for its audience. What would the final moments of being at ground zero for a nuclear blast be like? The level opens with the player acting as the character they’ve been playing for several missions and whom we assume is going to be escaping from the blast in yet another frantic battle. Crawling out of the crashed chopper is done at a crippling pace and the player cannot see outside until they get to the exit. It’s an excellent piece of level design that controls the visual flow of the surroundings to the player. Like the passive sequence of being executed, there is a great deal of careful design architecture occurring. Each sight and sound is carefully paced in the level all while the player is still in control. The first thing you see once you get outside the chopper is a dead marine. Any thoughts about escaping begin to fade at that ominous sign. Movement is heavily inhibited and the player falls over several times while they try to move. Your crippld state is heavily emphasized by the sound here as well; each footstep makes a dragging sound and there is heavy breathing in the soundscape. You’re able to make some progress but slowly you start to realize maybe this level is different. Maybe you’re not getting out of here. A glance to the right reveals an incinerated playground and then the moment we were wondering about finally happens. The game design makes you collapse. You look up and finally see the mushroom cloud glowing bright yellow in the background. A crashing sound to your left draws your attention to a sky scraper crumbling to dust. No more walking and the lights dim, with only the strange sound of children playing in the burned out playground going on around you.
The final passive sequence is at the end of the game and it’s just as startling as the others. A lot of people criticized it for coming seemingly from nowhere, but given the almost cliché briefing where the soldiers all talk about buying each other drinks and the fact that you never really know when a mission is doomed in war anyways, it didn’t disrupt my personal experience. Your attempt to escape the Russian Ultra Nationalists goes awry and you end up stranded on a bridge. After two missiles from a helicopter slam your position, you struggle around in shock while everyone in your squad is brutally shot or injured. The camera is controlled somewhat by the player but the game does not hesitate to jerk your head for you, so you can only move it around a small amount. Your fellow soldier is shot while he drags you to safety, the approaching soldiers kill your team-mate, and your captain is struggling with the gun in his belt. In this instance, absolute freedom as in the other levels would cause you to miss the designers intended experience. The final moments of seeing the game’s main villain walking towards you culminate in the player performing the ‘Last Stand’ activity that they have witnessed throughout the game. A downed soldier pulls out their pistol and fires off a few shots before they’re finished off. Only now, it is the player performing the doomed action. Because of the other two cutscenes we are desensitized to our dying and when the gun is slid towards us concerns about staying alive are forgotten. All you want to do is take aim and finish off the person responsible for all of this. Yet the game’s final twist is perhaps its most clever, because just as we are preparing ourselves to die because the game has demonstrated that it has no qualms about killing us, we are miraculously saved. The game explores both elements of combat, dying for no reason as with the nuclear strike and being saved while others die around you.
There are a lot of fundamental elements in these moments of Call of Duty 4 that have little to do with game design or even narrative and instead boil down to aesthetics. When a game puts you into a passive situation where you can only observe one must instead approach it as an architect. How is this room conceived? Where do my eyes go? What is the flow? An excellent essay proposes just such an approach to games by pointing out the possibilities an architecture student would see in a video game. What is the perfect way to design the scenery and landscape of an atomic wasteland? Of the room you intend to be the last thing the player sees? It’s an aesthetic that Call of Duty 4 explores with these passive moments and that is greatly enhanced by the emotion the landscape design brings out. It’s not enough to just stick the player in a car that’s surrounded by people being shot. It’s not enough to have people speak to your character instead of shooting at them. Several other FPS games, such as Quake 4’s horrific Strogg conversion sequence or F.E.A.R.’s blending of cutscene and explosions have all explored the idea of passive sequences. What happens in Call of Duty 4 is a passive sequence that doesn’t take away the excitement of participating in those moments because the roller coaster ride always gives us something to look at.
(Schiller is taking a break this week as his body attempts to recover from a business trip gone loopy. He’ll be back next week with his normal weekly wrap-up.
The Last Remnant
He does want to mention that he doesn’t see what the big deal is with Final Fantasy when Square Enix keeps putting out full-featured, innovative RPGs like The Last Remnant...
He also thinks Lips is going to be a bigger hit than anyone realizes…
He’ll probably end up buying a whole pile of sequels in the form of Raving Rabbids, Cooking Mama, Sonic, and Tomb Raider...
And he really hopes the new DS Tecmo Bowl game actually comes out this week (as opposed to its originally scheduled release last week)...
He left a trailer for The Last Remnant for you, along with that humongous list of releases (among which the PSP’s list looks…well, sort of pitiful), after the jump.)
Following in Jane Austen’s footsteps…
Sometimes after spending my days poring over management texts and improving my understanding of those oh-so-fascinating research methods, at the end of the day I just need a little fluff in my reading.
My easy-on-the-brain fiction of the moment is Linda Berdoll’s Mr Darcy Takes a Wife (2004), a story that picks up where Pride and Prejudice left off. Diving headfirst into the married life of the Darcys, Berdoll uses exaggerated period language to describe decidedly un-Regency-era action. If you ever wished that Elizabeth and Mr Darcy weren’t quite so chaste in their courtship, in Berdoll’s fiction you’ll find that these beloved characters get some private time - as man and wife, naturally - to explore the depths of their mutual passion.
I first encountered Berdoll’s tale when it was published in 1999 under the title, Bar Sinister, now out of print. Apparently this antiquated English phrase for a child born out of wedlock did not sufficiently describe the contents of the novel, and so the book has taken on a re-invented name and is now marketed with a cover more reflective of the contents – an oil painting depicting a dark haired gentleman kissing a brunette in a flowing evening gown. There is even a volume two of Berdoll’s extension of Austen’s beloved novel, entitled Days and Nights at Pemberley (2006). I have yet to come across a copy, but why not let the fun continue? Elizabeth and Mr Darcy seem to have such a perfect marriage, it’s delicious fun to see what obstacles they’ll have to overcome now that they’ve said their vows and start getting to know each other’s little secrets. The perfect antidote to the nonfiction I should be perusing in order to get that term paper properly researched.
Any tasty fiction you would recommend for those times when you don’t have the brain power left for challenging reading?