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by G. Christopher Williams

17 Jun 2009

Last week, I began a blog post by quoting from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man.  I discussed a passage in which Stephen Daedalus argues with his friend Lynch about the appropriate and inappropriate apprehension of art.  I largely focused on Daedalus’ discussion of what he calls, “pornographical or didactic” art, which he associates with art that produces “kinetic” (or moving) rather than static (or sublime) emotions.  These former more viscreal emotional responses, he claims, are what are produced when the arts excite in their viewers the feelings of desire or loathing. 

Since I largely focused on examining video game production of images and behaviors that produce desire in players (largely, I discussed the tendency to enjoy visual stimulation of an erotic or pleasing nature, like buxom bikini babes and piñatas in love), I thought that I would discuss the seemingly strange phenomena of evoking loathing in video game players through similar kinds of visual stimulation and how and why that might be a pleasing “kinetic” experience. 

On the face of it, the notion of producing repellent or ugly images would seem to be a less than sound means of producing visual stimulation that might be appreciated and create pleasure in an audience.  Nevertheless, Daedalus is not crazy when he recognizes that art of a pornographic nature (and I assume by his definition, he means art that arouses a kind of basic and visceral reaction in its audience) has very often been dependent not merely on erotic visuals or even those that are obviously pleasingly “cute.”  Instead, it often celebrates the kind of imagery that produces definitely kinetic experiences, nausea, fear, and dread.

When Daedalus discusses such concepts he brings up what he deems appropriate forms of art that lean towards less than pleasing subject matter, the tragic modes of art and other forms of art that focus on observing suffering.  Certainly, while a play like Hamlet, for instance, has pleasing moments and even funny moments, the arc of the story will end in suffering and, well, tragedy.  Daedalus does not feel that tragedy in of itself is a bad subject matter per se—there may be to him (and Aristotle, on whom rests much of the basis of his thinking on the matter), a clearly cathartic and thus positive purpose in witnessing tragedy—however, witnessing the tragic and its myriad forms of suffering for their own sake may border on the “pornographic” in his estimation.

The loathsomeness of viewing suffering curiously does provoke a kind of appeal in many audiences.  Think of the moment before the knife (or chainsaw) falls in a horror movie. The image is clearly a repellent one; the viewer reacts kinetically to it by raising his hands to cover his eyes.  Yet, despite this physical manifestation of repulsion, you just can’t help peeking through your fingers to see the final blow, to witness the literal enactment of suffering.  While repellent, their may be something magnetic about that which horrifies.

Generating repulsive climactic experiences for players of video games to not only observe but also to enact has a fairly long and storied history, much of which has generated a great deal of hue and cry from social and political activists about the brutal nature of video games.  Despite such outcry, though, the Mortal Kombat series, for instance, seems a brand grounded on the display of gratuitously repellent imagery.  While Street Fighter II and the fighting game genre generated a kind of renaissance in arcade gaming in 1991, it was its more infamous 1992 cousin that attracted additional fans to the genre.  Mortal Kombat had similar qualities to the Street Fighter series, fast-paced, reflex-driven tactical hand-to-hand combat that could be shared with an opponent willing to pony up a quarter to challenge you, but unlike other attempts to cash in on the successfulness of Capcom’s game, Mortal Kombat offered a myriad variety of not just special moves to learn in combat but special moves called “fatalities” that enabled spectacular executions to complete the humiliation of a vanquished opponent.  During this brief period in which players would gather around arcade machines and place quarters along the top edge of a console to mark their desire to challenge an opponent, players of Mortal Kombat prided themselves on their ability to not only win a Mortal Kombat match but to show off their combat prowess by vanquishing their foe with a finishing move.  Since each of the seven original fighters had their own unique way of brutally killing their opponents, the game rewarded experimentation and replaying the game as each of the characters in order to witness these loathsome and yet strangely compelling sequences.  Part of the appeal of the fatality was in seeing some new grotesque method of finishing off a downed opponent.  Scorpion burning Johnny Cage to death was quite a sight but Sub-Zero tearing the head and spine from Sonia was even more astonishing to see and hard to look away from.

Much like the visual rewards of the more desirable images featured in games that, again, I discussed last week, loathsome imagery also seems to frequently be featured as a kind of visual reward to the competent or proficient player of a game.  The reward in seeing the event is even often even more dynamically demonstrated through systems that measure violence in points.

While a game like Tony Hawk might reward a player for visually stunning combinations of tricks, piling up points for the player able to keep up a consistent stream of amazing tricks, the aesthetics of violence in more recent games are often measured in similar ways.  Consider how Tony Hawk‘s trick-based point system is transformed to measure not the beauty of “athleticism” but the beauty of brutality in Devil May Cry.  While Hawk‘s system rewards efficient and elegant visual spectacle, Devil May Cry celebrates the efficiency and elegance of execution.  A player’s achievement is measured in excess violence.

Interestingly, this excess of violence is treated in an overtly pornographic fashion in the Devil May Cry series for as many spectacularly brutal images in a DMC game there are usually as many overtly sexual ones.  In Devil May Cry 4, for instance, the sexual and the brutal find themselves wed at times.  One particular example is found in a scene in which Dante finishes off a foe with a (literally) romantic flourish (he grips a rose in his teeth at the center of a giant heart) and brags about how well he “thrusts” and “penetrates” with his blade.  Devil May Cry seems more than self aware about the similar visceral responses that it evokes through both desirable and loathsome imagery.

Such measures of violent achievement continue to be regarded as a central aesthetic in a host of games but probably most recently in a really obvious and self aware fashion in Mad World.  Like Devil May Cry, MadWorld offers a cartoonish and half serious approach to the subject of violence.  However, the sheer grotesqueness and loathsomeness of its imagery is even more overtly tied to rewarding excess.  Since the premise of MadWorld is the notion that violence is being treated as a spectacle in a near future version of western civilization, the idea that the protagonist must perpetrate ever more hideous displays for the sake of a viewing audience at home makes the reward of gaining more points to advance the plot through more grisly ways of harming others into an aesthetic tied directly to the mechanics of gameplay itself.  It also mirrors a sports culture tied to observing violence with color commentators that react to and gush over the level of violence that you, as the protagonist, are capable of enacting.  Beating someone to death in MadWorld scores few points but impaling them with a street sign before beating them to death scores much more.  Given that advancement is based on high scoring, more varied and grotesque kills are encouraged by the reward system of the game itself.  Of course, given the stylish art and the contrast created by the three colors of the world (red for blood and black and white for everything else), it is clear what the player’s attention is intended to be focused on throughout, the spectacle of the most aesthetically pleasing bloodbath possible.

There seems to me to be a subtle difference between the types of images that video games create for the player to interact with be they motivated by desirability or loathsomeness.  The tendency to make images that are desirable into something collectible (be it the swimsuit collections to dress the beauties of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball or the cards that represent the conquered beauties of The Witcher) whereas the loathsome images of violence tend to become a commodity that demonstrates the player’s talent for violence that can be transferred into measurable achievements like “points.”  This difference might be reduced though to the tendency for visual stimulation to become a way of transforming bodies into commodities, though.  Bodies become commodities to be collected in games that motivate the player through visual desirability while bodies become commodities to be harvested in games that motivate the player through the spectacle of loathsomeness.

Author’s Note: Those interested in these topics of visual stimulation as a reward or motivator in games may want to check out the links to reviews of the games cited in the above essay. Most of those reviews address these topics in greater detail as they relate to those particular games, including the ones about Dead or Alive, Viva Piñata, and Devil May Cry).

by PopMatters Staff

17 Jun 2009

by Bill Gibron

17 Jun 2009

For many, music is about memory. It’s about connecting a specific sound, or a score, to the situations you treasure (or that torment you) most. But there is more to it than that. Melody and its many components create links, undeniable anchors to elements about our life that seem significant and yet could be as mundane as some vague time or place. This is one of the reasons a carefully considered soundtrack is so important for a film. Randomly toss in the greatest hits of an era and you wind up with something dated and derivative. But move beyond the Billboard notion of atmosphere and things get a pick trickier. A composer is commanded to draw out as much mood and ambience as they can from their film work, yet at the same time, they can often undo the narrative or completely change the intent or tone. The careful evocation of location and logistics is a rare skill amongst cinematic tunesmiths, one few can claim as their own.

For this edition of Surround Sound, SE&L will look at five recently released film scores, each one set up to support a specific pragmatic paradigm. One is a prequel to a famous sci-fi series, the standard future shock mixed with a frightening sense of foreboding. Another goes way back in the past - almost prehistoric - before completely forgetting its purpose and turning all Madagascar II on us. From an attempt to recreate the ‘80s without actually dipping into the abundant Time/Life hit tracks of the time to illustrating the journey of one Latin American family to the potential freedoms of America, the music here reminds us that not everything about a circumstance is successfully put across by visuals, dialogue, or directorial flair. Sometimes, the right aural cues can make all the difference, as we will discover with the recently released soundtrack for the Battlestar Galactica set-up:

Caprica: Original Soundtrack from the Sci Fi Channel Television Pilot Episode [rating: 9]

Bear McCreary is slowly becoming the Michael Kamen of giant genre efforts. As the late great composer did for such cinematic luminaries as Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone), the man behind some of TV’s greatest speculative fiction understands how to make the epic understated - and understood. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that McCreary can create the broadest of sonic scopes with the smallest of auditory signatures. For this backstory on how the Cylons were created and the civil unrest on the title planet where it all happened, the man responsible for several stunning soundtracks outdoes himself here.  As a result, Capirca is as much a work of visual invention as it is a stunning ethereal experience.

Like the pilot film itself, McCreary’s score builds. It adds layers and textures, moving from the basics (“The Graystone Family”) to bombast (“Terrorism on the Lev”) with grace and style. Understanding that any good score is built on themes, he uses main characters (“Zoe’s Avatar”) and certain relationships (“Joseph and Daniel”) to set up unseen conflicts and concerns. For those who have had the pleasure of watching the sensational opening salvo in what will surely be another stellar Sci-Fi Channel series, there is a lot of exposition in Caprica, the necessary filler for what can eventually be an ongoing narrative arc. But thanks to McCreary’s routinely excellent work, we can easily ‘bear’ both the action (“Daniel Captures the Code”) and the philosophical underpinnings (“Monotheism at the Athena Academy”) involved.

Year One: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]

Someone needs to get Theodore Shapiro a map…and fast. From all sounds and sonic cues, he is dead convinced that almost all the action in this Harold Ramis comedy takes place in Morocco, or Lebanon, or some other part of the clichéd Middle East. Famed for his work in satires such as Tropic Thunder, Old School, and the recent I Love You, Man, the 38 year old composer is content to convince us of the logistical lunacy of his aural choices. Granted, this is supposedly a “Biblical” comedy, but that doesn’t mean that ever note has to resonate with Arab awkwardness. All throughout the rather derivative and dull soundtrack for the Jack Black/Michael Cera vehicle, Eastern rhythms make a sloppy and often unnecessary intrusion. Sure, the names of the individual tracks (“Meet the Hebrews”, “Welcome to Sodom”) suggest such an Old World way with the backdrop, but there is a big difference between Cecile B. DeMille and aural dullness.

Still, there is some fun to be found here. “The Jackal Dance” makes for a keen bit of mind’s eye merriment (this review is occurring before the film’s official opening), as does “Virgin Sacrifice” and “The Royal Orgy”. And because this is comedy, we can expect the occasional lapses into funny business formula (“Yak Attack”, “Sargon Attacks”). But the biggest problem here is the almost constant repetition of sounds, signatures, and symbolism. It’s almost as if director Ramis instructed Shapiro to watch his film and add aural rim shots to everything he is doing. Comedy scores frequently force the humor, hoping to make you giggle by giving away the jokes within the arrangement. Shapiro is not quite so obvious, but there is a blatant burlesque to his approach. We can easily visualize the half-baked History of the World Part I aspects of the movie from the music presented.

The Informers: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]

Christopher Young is one clever composer. Whether its genre junk (The Grudge, The Uninvited), stellar spook shows (Hellraiser, Drag Me to Hell), or middling mainstream fare (The Country Bears, Swordfish, Beauty Shop), he always seems to find the appropriate dramatics to underscore his cinematic themes. Instead of going for the easy approach, he cleverly compensates for an idea’s inherent flaws by locating the areas where he can provide support and sonically shores up the situation. This is clearly the case in Gregor Jordan’s mishmash mauling of Bret Easton Ellis’ popular novel. The film itself is a dull, loping drive through a Greed decade dimension bereft of anything remotely challenging or cheerful. To his credit, Young avoids all the synth beat silliness of the era and, instead, interjects electronics into his subtle yet stunning score.

From the fascinating title track to amazing moments like “No Wicked Way” and “A Rose is All Things Beautiful”, Young weaves an engaging and elegant aural tapestry. He dots his designs with little nods to the New Wave wonders of the ‘80s, but also recognizes that the film is not built on nostalgia. Indeed, like a sloppier Short Cuts, Gregor is attempting to mix several divergent yet slightly interconnected storylines together. It’s Young’s job to keep the tone in check, to recall the Reagan years without channeling Starship or The Human League. In fact, his score is perhaps the best and most consistent element of the entire motion picture experience, tracks like “Is She Really?” and “Dysfunctional Everything” displaying a convincing complexity the movie itself lacks. While The Informers itself as an exercise in unfulfilled possibilities, Christopher Young’s work in support definitely stands out.

While She Was Out: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

Flying under the radar when it hit theaters a few months back, this curious crime thriller starring none other than Oscar winning actress Kim Basinger has one of those hoary old exploitation premises (abused woman is confronted and chased into the woods by a gang of gratuitous criminals - on Christmas Eve, no less. She seeks revenge.) and this gives Paul Haslinger some significant compositional fits. Peppering the soundtrack with creepy versions of holiday standards (“First Day of Christmas”, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) as well as a few choice poptones (Joy Division’s “Day of the Lords”, “In Every Dream a Heartache” by Roxy Music), the motive here is menace. Like any good ‘woman in danger’ title, the former Tangerine Dream member (from ‘86 to ‘90) takes the concept and attempts to bring his own sense of the sinister to the mix - and for the most part, he succeeds. While perhaps not as potent as his work for Turistas or Vacancy, Haslinger can deliver good shivers.

Much of the material here consists of slowburn suspense, mood music in advance of mayhem. This is especially true of the ominous “Main Titles” and the equally effective “Car Chase”. Later on, Haslinger plays with the parameters of such a story set-up by giving us plotpoints (“Looking for Pictures”, “Thomas is Gone”) painted in odd orchestral strokes. As with most of the music made by his former band, the sounds here are spacey and quite otherworldly. Haslinger is going for an undercurrent of evil, not some outright illustration of terror. This is especially true of Basinger’s take on the old holiday chestnut. Given the narrative situation, there is something quite haunting about having a victim (and eventual perpetrator) of violent crime intone such sentiments. As he has shown time and time again, Haslinger is quite capable of creating music that is both meaningful and menacing. That is especially true with While She Was Out.

Sin Nombre: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 6]

Looks, and listening, can be deceiving when it comes to Marcelo Zarvos backing for this unique immigrant tale. A relative newcomer to the composer game (his first score came for A Soccer Story back in 1999), his choices are usually quirky (Strangers with Candy, You Kill Me) or solidly centered just outside the Hollywood mainstream (The Good Shepherd, What Just Happened). With Cary Fukunaga’s critically acclaimed thriller, however, expectations can be the listeners undoing. When we hear the set-up in the storyline as well as the Latino location where most of the action will occur, we expect a score with lots of Hispanic flavor. Oddly enough, however, Zarvos undermines those stayed stereotypes by delivering a backdrop that’s part local color, party heavenly helpings of Hitckcock.

Indeed, the late great Master of Suspense gets a far number of sonic shout outs all through Sin Nombre‘s crucial musical cues. Zarvos channels such past luminaries as Bernard Herrmann and Franz Waxman with his efforts here, enlivening basic backings like “Ride into the Storm” and “The Attack” with a solid sense of the cinematically sinister. Equally adept at bringing some native flair to the mix, tracks like “The Journey” give us the rhythmic routines such a South of the Border scenario typically provides. But Zarvos never overplays his hand, relying instead on true compositional clarity to make his many points. As we move through “Sayra”, “Guatemala Crossing” and “She Is Gone”, we hear a craftsman completely in tune with his subject’s strengths (and potential weaknesses). Though it grows a bit derivative toward the end, the score for Sin Nombre is solid.

by Kirstie Shanley

17 Jun 2009

At their best, Pink Mountaintops is reminiscent of a more feminine Jesus and Mary Chain with a distorted sense of psych rock in songs like “The Gayest of Sunbeams”, which sounded increasingly raw and energetic live in comparison to the album recording. There was a rougher rasp to Stephen McBean’s vocals tonight, with less added reverb, and backing vocals that complimented him each step of the way. The evening often returned to a distorted melancholic folk style, though, with “Closer to Heaven”, a song full of bittersweet romantic lyrics and a building instrumental part, intensifying as it progressed.

Vancouver’s Stephen McBean is no stranger to the Canadian psychedelic rock scene. He’s a pivotal member of the awe inspiring Black Mountain and, as a special treat, this tour finds him playing with vocalist/violinist Sophie Trudeau, who also plays with Montreal’s Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra La La Band. While McBean is certainly productive—he has put out three full-length albums with Pink Mountaintops and released two full lengths and 3 EPs with Black Mountain—it’s interesting to see how both bands have developed separately with only some similarities. This can be partially attributed to the involvement of different band members in both groups, though Pink Mountaintops’ members seem to differ more. One key element is Amber Webber, who doesn’t join McBean on stage as she does in Black Mountain, allowing her to pursue her own side project, the more feminine and abstract sounding Lightning Dust.

Though it contained moments of catchy rock, the set seemed full of the band’s more sentimental folk songs, with the violin heightening the sentiment in the title track “Outside Love”, for example. They ended the main set appropriately with “And I Thank You”, and during the encore McBean brought out perhaps their most engaging rocker of the night, “Single Life” from the out of print seven inch bearing the same name. “Tourist in Your Town”, an old crowd favorite from their first 2004 self-titled release, did not serve up the same high as “Single Life”, but provided a great ending nonetheless.

by Sarah Zupko

16 Jun 2009

As most of you know, Blur is reuniting and they dropped by Rough Trade Records yesterday in London to play two songs. The sound quality is pretty awful on the fan video, but you can clearly get a sense of the energy from the band and audience.

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