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by Rob Horning

29 Jan 2009

In the comments to my post about complex TV, McChris pointed me to this essay by Jason Mittel, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” Mittel provides an interesting survey of narrative in TV over the past few decades, even if his account tends toward the telelogical—despite an evenhanded tone, the emphasis seems to be on how TV is necessarily becoming more complex and viewers more sophisticated. I’m not convinced that TV is necessarily evolving toward the good or has any role in improving audiences. TV has done a good job of improving its own reputation, however, as Mittel points out. But the fact that audiences are now expected to be engaged with the form as well as the content of shows, as Mittel amply demonstrates, is simply a change, a way for shows to introduce novelty—not a move to a higher level of aesthetic appreciation. Viewers may need to invest more time in shows and engage with them in a more interactive way, but these developments are not necessarily positive (or negative). That one can spend an entire Saturday watching episode after episode of Mad Men testifies to how compellingly crafted the show is, but it also might leave one empty and exhausted, frustrated with oneself over all the other activities you neglected. (I use “one” as though I’m not talking about myself.)

Toward the end of the essay, Mittel focuses on shows that call attention to their own production:

The viewers of such complex comedies as Seinfeld and Arrested Development not only focus on the diegetic world offered by the sitcoms but also revel in the creative mechanics involved in the producers’ abilities to pull off such complex plot structures, a mode of viewing Sconce labels as “metareflexive” but that warrants more detailed consideration. This set of pleasures suggests an influential concept offered by Neil Harris in his account of P. T. Barnum: Harris suggests that Barnum’s mechanical stunts and hoaxes invited spectators to embrace an “operational aesthetic” in which the pleasure was less about “what will happen?” and more concerning “how did he do that?”20 In watching Seinfeld we expect that each character’s petty goals will be thwarted in a farcical unraveling, but we watch to see how the writers will pull off the narrative mechanics required to bring together the four plotlines into a calibrated comedic Rube Goldberg narrative machine.

He adds that such shows “convert many viewers to amateur narratologists, noting usage and violations of conventions, chronicling chronologies, and highlighting both inconsistencies and continuities across episodes.” It seems that Mittel has in mind scripted shows exclusively, but I feel the spur to amateur narratology most of all when I watch the reality game show Survivor, the script for which must be found after the fact in the editing room. Examining scenes in terms of how contestants are shaped into characters and given story arcs and conflicts can often be as suspenseful as the action depicted in the show, since careful attention to the narrative structuring can clue attentive viewers in on who will ultimately win. In a sense, that is where the action is in each episode, in the editors’ choices. And rather than merely marvel at how they are woven together, as one would with a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, viewers instead have the opportunity to try to calculate out the ultimate purpose of those choices and deduce the denouement that would make them necessary. Referencing scripted shows, Mittel coins the term “narrative special effects”: “moments push the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration and asking us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off.” All of Survivor is one long narrative special effect, except writers aren’t involved.

Since the contestants can’t be judged for their performances, and there are no writers, viewers have only the editors to second-guess. Editors become the auteurs, just as DJs have become in the pop-music world. Like the Bush administration, the show’s editors make “reality,” very usefully directing our attention to the means by which this is accomplished. The ability to see how “truth” is being manipulated in its presentation on TV has never been more important. So perhaps all the complexity on TV serves a laudable political function after all.

by Sarah Zupko

29 Jan 2009

Talk about an interesting backstory… Timothy Showalter the fellow who is Strand of Oaks was an an Indiana Mennonite before becoming a Pennsylvania Hebrew Dayschool teacher. He drives a bus too. Hey, we all gotta make a living in this brutal economy. Especially someone like Showalter, whose house burned down right after a relationship broke up. That’s a serious double whammy. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that Strand of Oak’s music isn’t the perkiest sounding stuff on the planet. Still, all that drama lends Showalter a certain degree of gravity when confronting life’s unpleasantries in music. “End in Flames” is the lead-off song from his album Leave Ruin that released this week on La Société Expéditionnaire.

Strand of Oaks
End in Flames [MP3]

by Bill Gibron

28 Jan 2009

To me, backlash is the most interesting, and unnerving, of commercial responses. When something is popular, there will always be those who think the well-accepted entity is over-praised and unworthy. They will pride themselves on being the only person who ‘hated’ a certain item long before the wave of counterattack occurs, and they’ll smirk in self-satisfied glee when the consensus slowly starts to swing their way. Even when it eventually settles somewhere toward acceptance, the backlasher feels vindicated. As professionals, critics especially like this kind of competitive give and take. Sometimes, we go out on a limb for films (Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Speed Racer) only to see the immediate reaction reject our praise. Oddly enough, months later, these titles get a second chance, gaining a new, often positive perspective with the passing of time.

And so it is with the backlash. There are definitely times when something becomes so much of a social sticking point that the overtly obvious hype and celebration becomes irritating. We might not have actually hated the element in question, but the constant barrage from the media and the marketers of exaggeration keeps pushing us toward dissention. It’s rare when it happens - I can think of only two situations where the deluge of plaudits caused me to reconsider my opinion. The first came with Juno. I really enjoyed the film when it first came out. I thought it saucy and slightly unhinged in its magic realism meets street smarts dialogue. I had no problem with Diablo Cody and her retro-burlesque shtick. Then the Oscar race anointing happened, and everything changed.

It’s a feeling similar to when your favorite band is suddenly “discovered” by the mainstream. Your own private world, the songs and lyrics that mean the most to you are, without warning, unexpectedly streaming out of the mouths of fair-weather fans. They lack the history. They lack the devotion. They lack that personal link. Still, because of the joys of jumping on a bandwagon, or the inherent validity of the item being championed, the object goes from insular to nearly universal. So when Cody was being crowned the new voice of a generation, when Juno was taking nomination slots away from films like Into the Wild, Sweeney Todd, and Gone, Baby Gone, it wasn’t hard to turn on the hate. Now, whenever the film flickers by on my current premium cable channel line-up, I simply continue hitting the remote. I’m not interested in revisiting it - at least, not now.

The other example actually has a link to this year’s Oscars. When Batman Begins was released back in 2005, I was not on the front lines of supporting the film. I wasn’t sure that the Dark Knight needed an update/revamp/reimagining, and I wasn’t sure Christopher Nolan was the man to do it. I had enjoyed his work as a director, but didn’t understand why he (or Darren Aronofsky, or any other current critical cause celeb) would want to dabble in the superhero genre. Convinced that nothing about this movie would speak to me, I purposefully boycotted its theatrical run. Even as praise came pouring in, I avoided the initial release, failing to give the film even the remotest part of my always occupied attention span.

The same thing happened when the DVD was released. I balked at the chance of picking up the two disc special edition, assured it could never live up to my expectations. I shivered as my fellow writers placed the title at or near the top of their year-end Best of lists. As I relished the rapid ascension of cast members like Cillian Murphy, I still maintained an arms length approach (hype can do that to you). Finally, when it was announced that The Dark Knight was finally coming out, and that I probably should see Batman Begins in order to appreciate the two film’s linear connection, I cracked. Seeking out a single disc widescreen copy from a local B&M, I took my perceived dissatisfaction with the film, warmed up the DVD player, and prepared to be disappointed.

Instead, I was proven wrong. The movie was masterful, a unique and often artistic take on the entire hero as everyman mystique. The backlash that I had built up in my mind (though many may now consider it nothing more than an ill-informed dismissal) suddenly didn’t need to be there. In its place was a newfound respect for what Nolan managed to create, and it’s a feeling I carry over to the latest installment in the filmmaker’s fascinating reconfiguration. Along with Oscar front runner, Slumdog Millionaire, The Dark Knight is indeed experiencing a kind of post-party communal rejection. With people pointing out that massive popularity does not necessarily equal across the board appreciation, the argument offered is that, in the case of each film, the overall assessment is out of touch with the true quality present.

Of course, that’s bullshit. Taken individually, both Slumdog and Dark Knight are marvelous achievements. Sure, they may not live up to the overbuilt expectations that have come from a bored press corps pushing each entry beyond their breaking point. When I saw it in theaters back in June, Nolan’s latest Batman movie was 145 minutes of majesty. It was everything you hoped a sequel should be, and much, much more. Slumdog was also a pseudo-shock. While I loved almost everything director Danny Boyle had done up to this point, I wasn’t prepared for such a wondrous, “wow” experience. As every narrative facet unfolded, I was transfixed and transported, moved innately into the world Boyle wanted us to experience.

It comes as no surprise then that 2008’s biggest financial hit and its companion critical accomplishment are receiving so much sanction. With an Internet based almost exclusively on the “look at me” dynamic of dialogue, extreme opinions speak louder than rationality. Being on the other side of the Dark Knight/Slumdog situation means you get to gloat when the Academy snubs the former and finds a way to deny the latter its well-deserved statue. It means standing out from everyone, not based on well-considered reasoning and finely tuned analysis, but just because you’re different. While you are entitled to your opinion, an assertion is not a fact. Let’s face it - if 100 people are standing in a room, and 99 of them love red wine, the one sipping white will become the center of attention. That’s why the backlash is possible - and popular. It doesn’t take much to dissent, and as a result, be different.

I still feel bad about my issues with irrational rejection. I still feel said pangs whenever George Lucas rears his goitered head and starts dishing out more watered down Star Wars product. As one of the teenagers who made this ‘70s idol a fanboy’s dream, I still can’t shake the inevitable sensation of being used - and perhaps, that’s the best way to look at backlash. It’s the feeling that, beyond one’s better judgment, beyond the ability to think individually and stand sensibly away from the rest of the flock, you are mandated to appreciate something that just doesn’t sync up with your sensibilities. There’s no immediate connection, no chance to decide for yourself. Of course, you don’t have to get caught up in the machine. You can simply sit back and enjoy/dislike a movie for what it is and what it means to you. But then that wouldn’t make you special, would it? Ah, the price of ersatz fame.

by Michael Abbott

28 Jan 2009

The Art of the Video Game by Josh Jenisch (Quirk Books, 2008) is a handsome coffee-table book that describes itself as “the first book to celebrate an exciting new visual medium…” While this isn’t strictly true—The Art of Game Worlds (Morris and Hartas, Collins Design Books, 2006) covers similar territory with more extensive artist interviews—Jenisch’s new book is the first to contain such a rich assortment of digital artwork from a wide array of publishers, including EA, Activision, Sega, Sony, and Konami.

Every page of The Art of the Video Game is filled with imagery from games, and Jenisch wisely includes a broad sampling of concept art, development art, and in-game art. As a result, the entire arc of the design process for selected games like Hellgate: London can be traced from early sketches through painted renderings, all the way to final in-game depictions of characters, weapons, and environments.

The writing is generally illuminating, though it sometimes lapses into hyperbolic proclamations: “Not only are the (NBA Live ‘08) players’ likenesses captured to the last sweaty detail, character movement is flawlessly lifelike”; Such claims aren’t always supported by their accompanying images, but overall, the book offers a useful collection of observations by Jenisch and a variety of game artists and producers.

I was disappointed by the general unevenness of the coverage devoted to the games included. Some titles like Hellboy and Hellgate: London receive full developmental treatment and extensive commentary, while others like Tomb Raider Anniversary and The Sims are barely more than a collection of screenshots. Beautiful Katamari fares even worse in this regard, with meager quotes from a Gamasutra interview and some decidedly un-beautiful images from the game.

My biggest complaint is with the book’s introductory chapter. Entitled “A Brief History of Video Game Art,” it functions as a condensed boiler-plate chronology of video games as industry and video games as technology, but says almost nothing about video game art. Reading it, one might logically assume this chapter was written for another purpose and included here as a kind of contextual primer. Small blue breakout text boxes discussing “the role of the artist” appear to have been added later, seeming to confirm the impression that the book’s subject and its opening chapter have little to do with each other.

While I might wish for a more balanced and thorough treatment of the games included in The Art of the Video Game, the book remains a valuable resource for readers interested in the artistic elements of game development. The fact that the book even exists in such a beautiful hardcover form suggests that Jenisch’s main thesis (“I’m here to make the argument that video games should be considered art”) has been proven with copious visual evidence.

by Mike Deane

28 Jan 2009

Chandra Oppenheim’s story is one of the most innocent but interesting stories to come out of post-punk NYC. On the Lower East Side in 1980 it would’ve taken a lot to shock anyone.  After glam moved into punk and punk moved into post-punk/new wave/no wave/noise/outsider disco/mutant disco/art punk/etc/etc, it was a musical free for all.  So it makes sense that, Chandra Oppenheim, a precocious yet unassuming 12-year-old from Brooklyn would enter the scene backed by a post-punk, outsider disco group under the name CHANDRA.

Well, perhaps it doesn’t make complete sense, but it seems like the only time and place where something like this would be able to happen and flourish.

Chandra’s story is not typical in any sense.  Her father was famed American artist, Dennis Oppenheim, who caroused with the artists and musicians of the late ‘70s Lower East Side.  Dennis was friends with Eugenie Diserio and Steven Alexander, who had been playing the NYC post-punk circuit with the Model Citizens. The Model Citizens signed to John Cale’s Spy Label and then broke up to take things in another direction with their new band, The Dance, featuring drummer Fred Maher (who later joined Material) and bassist Louis Watson.  They were interested in starting a band with a kid, and it seems like luck that they were already in contact with the talented Chandra Oppenheim.


Chandra Oppenheim had been writing music and performing for some time, often doing songs and performances at her father’s parties. Having met Chandra when she was 11, Diserio and Alexander formed a band and started to rehearse in a studio in Hell’s Kitchen. The result of these rehearsals was their debut EP, Transportation, on the band’s own record label GOGO/ON; a mix of dissonant weird disco, bass-heavy dance grooves and Chandra’s unmistakable chant-singing.


//Mixed media

'Fire Emblem Heroes' Is a Bad Crossover

// Moving Pixels

"Fire Emblem Heroes desperately and shamelessly wants to monetize our love for these characters, yet it has no idea why we came to love them in the first place.

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