Yes, the New Yorker writer has been given a MacArthur Genius Award and it’s well-deserved. Not only is he one of the finest writers about classical music, he is one of the best music journalists around, period. Check out his blog and his book if you haven’t already and you’ll be glad that you did.
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We barely recognize them. The fringe dwellers, the ones who live life along the edges of the social structure we struggle so mightily to maintain. They clean our offices. They cook our convenience foods. They plow through a mound of monotonous, meaningless tasks so that we can savor our sense of superiority and entitlement. They begin and end in anonymity, and for the most part, we prefer it that way. And yet art loves to drag out these ‘dregs’ turning them into figures of heroic virtue and stretched stoic nobility.
Not the Campbell Brothers, however. Ohio auteurs Luke and Andy have created a masterful look at service-oriented tedium and lowlife illegitimacy called Cordoba Nights, and with this early morning adventure into the dark underbelly of a Midwestern metropolis, we see the boys responsible for such cult classics as Midnight Skater, Demon Summer, and The Red Skulls finally finding their voice as mainstream moviemakers. Though it may sound a little like a certain video store clerk turned Pulp pioneer every now and again, this is a wonderful slice of seedy substrata that suggests, if anyone can overcome the outsider tag to become a patented indie icon, it’s the Campbell boys.
Former drummer Finn doesn’t mind delivering pizzas. He doesn’t care that most of his customers are lousy tippers or that his boss, the prickly Mickey, gives him crap most of the time. Alone in his car, vinyl LP record player spinning tunes from forgotten eras in his ear, he cruises the small town of Bronston and attempts to avoid his ever-present melancholia. When an attractive girl named Allie asks for a ride uptown, Finn agrees. After all, a little company wouldn’t be too bad, especially with the kind of deliveries he has to make. But he soon learns of his passenger’s unspoken motives. Seems she’s trying to escape the clutches of cruel crime boss Darren, and the thug won’t take her absence lightly. As a matter of fact, he will send out his harried henchmen to capture her and kill whoever helped her out - and that puts Finn right in his gun sights.
Like a trippy tone poem embellished with some equally marvelous 16mm specks, the Campbell Brothers bravura Cordoba Nights is undeniably good. As a matter of fact, it more or less borders on the great. With its intricate narrative wrapped around marginal individuals, and characterization that’s both subtle and sophisticated, the boys have seemingly perfected their lurking quirk perspective. Instead of making jokes for the sake of humor, or adding violence to up the geek factor, the Brothers have mellowed. They have found their groove among the various cinematic references that have long fueled their fascinating film work. Again, the cloud of Tarantino seems prevalent here, but the link may be more tenuous than tired. Since they are mining the same material as their far more famous counterpart, we may simply be seeing a shared interest, not an outright rip.
Certainly QT would never champion a hero as dry as Finn. Played with laconic likeability by Raymond Turturro, we can see the actual wear and tear of a pointless existence written all over our pizza guy’s grubby mug. The Campbells give the slouch several interesting idiosyncrasies - the love of unusual songs, the record player boom box, the sudden speed freak frenzy that comes with breaking the law - but Finn is also a classic slacker. He’s directionless and doesn’t care, driven but only because it beats sitting around without the cash to buy some beer. Ragged and retro, our lead is just open enough to keep us interested, and yet the Campbells fill his storyline with so many secrets that we sense we’d never get to know the real deal.
Allie is supposed to be the contrast, the wild child spirit sent to jar Finn out of his malaise. But as played by longtime Campbell company member Ashleigh Holeman, our fascinating free spirit appears cut from the same aimless cloth. It’s clear she is a user - of people, of favors, of circumstance - and there are times when we wish someone would wipe the beaming smile off her smug face. Cordoba Nights never excuses Allie - it may be the movie’s biggest gamble - but since Finn is so far gone into an insular existence built out of unusual obsessions, the pair seem perfectly in tune. Oddly enough, the movie doesn’t try for a romantic or sexual counterpoint. Together, the duo acts as mutual muses, inspiring the other to take risks, if only for one night.
The rest of the cast is expertly employed, the Brothers bringing out the best in such diverse actors as Duane Whitaker (another link to Tarantino) and Joe Estevez. The Sheen sibling is excellent here, delivering a memorable minor moment as a calzone loving mobster with a special place in his heart for hot food. Elsewhere, the standard Campbell crew comes out to support their sponsors, with Chuck Cieslik and Andrew Mercer as standouts. But the real breakout work done here belongs to the boys themselves. Like this past Spring’s Poison Sweethearts which tried to mimic the standard static grindhouse titillation (and did so marvelously), the cinematography stays completely in character. The Ohio nights are loaded with low tech filmmaker flavor, the gray spots of grain embellishing an already atmospheric natural light look.
Even better, the boys keep the camera moving. This isn’t ‘point and shoot’ camcorder-ing, the kind of unprofessional practice we see from most homemade moviemakers. Here, the lens looks inside and around objects, strapped to the hood of Finn’s car to capture the vehicular movements through a dark and depressing cityscape. Handheld sequences complement purposeful tracking shots, and everything feels planned out and primed for ease of editing. Indeed, everything about Cordoba Nights, except the budget, screams out for inclusion in the IFC/Sundance strain of modern indie moviemaking. If you didn’t know about their previous love of all things gory and zombified, you’d swear Luke and Andy were trying to ride on the genre’s contemporary coattails.
Instead, we wind up with an original vision from a pair of filmmakers who should be branching out into even more meaningful Cineplex fare. While they could conceivably emulate their celluloid heroes for the next few years, hoping that someone recognizes their talent among the DVD din, the truth is, their filmic future is now. Here’s hoping some studio gives the guys a shot at doing something within the system. Only then will we know how far they truly have progressed. For those who’ve loved the lunatic lyricism of such unlikely classics as Demon Summer, Cordoba Nights will seem like a million motion picture light years from such a past. In the case of these clever creators, that’s perfectly all right. Sometimes, it takes a risk to really prove one’s mantle. Thanks to their most recent output, the Campbell Brothers are clearly ready for the big time.
The ongoing debate regarding the creation of non-linear, cutscene free stories in games is founded on a very interesting premise. Video games could, with the right technology, create a completely interactive story that changes in response to the player to create a unique play experience for every person. Games like Far Cry 2, STALKER, or Fallout 3 are all pushing the envelope for simulating unique and open stories. The problem is…back here in critic town we tend to do better when we talk about what we’ve played instead of speculating. So Godspeed developers, I anxiously await your return. Instead, why not talk a bit about linear games and the experiences they create? How does one develop a story in a good old fashioned Mom & Pop linear game? How does that compare to a game with unlimited possibilities?
Oddly, the best place to really start getting an idea of what a story-teller does in a linear game is to watch a writer convert a video game into a movie script. In an interview with Gamasutra, Jordan Mechner describes what it was like writing both the original Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and the process of making it into a screenplay. He explains that the game starts off with everyone becoming a zombie except two or three people. That’s a fantastic way to setup an acrobatic fighting game set in Persia. The problem is that for a movie this would get old very rapidly. Watching the Prince leap up yet another pillar and stab the hundredth zombie got old in the actual game, so it’s hard to imagine this working in a screenplay. To convert a game into a film you have to start adding other characters and new plot elements, and try to maintain the spirit of the game without telling a dull story. The writer’s first job, then, in a linear game is to create a fun environment or setting for the player to interact with. Yet countless linear games take place in epic fantasy settings, recreated real-life cities, or other fascinating scenarios. What makes Prince of Persia: Sands of Time stand out in so many people’s minds?
It stands out because it incorporates the dramatic and characterizing elements of a film in conjunction with this setting. Whereas the characters are the focus and the setting is secondary in a film, a linear game plot flip-flops those values. Conversation has a built-in connection with the game design, and must serve as the backdrop to the game instead of act like the main focus. Many of the game’s acrobatic puzzles involve Farah, the female love interest, as you both work together to get to the final tower. Sometimes she pulls the lever you need to keep moving and sometimes you have to press the block that helps her. All of the puzzles are linear in their solutions, but the dynamic process that gets you to the end often involves your character relying on Farah and vice-versa. There are many sections where her safety is in your hands during combat as well, further magnifying the relationship through the game design. Make no mistake, this is a tricky balance for a game to strike. Jonathon Blow notes how disingenuous this can become in a game such as Half-life 2, where the player sometimes just sees Alyx as a way to unlock doors. Kill X number of creatures, protect subject Y, and incorporate dialog is not as easy a formula as it sounds. What makes Prince of Persia work, in my opinion, is that the Prince begins to fall in love with Farah. He says so in his internal monologues while you crawl around the acrobatic puzzles. Since so much of linear video game stories involve role-play instead of player input, this important difference smooths out the harsher realities of the game design. I worry about Farah because the Prince is worried about her.
Another interesting take to linear plots in video games is to simply pause the rollercoaster for a few moments and ask the player what they think. Not in a literal question that affects the outcome of the plot in a meaningful way, but rather just to postulate a game design choice that induces some sort of reflection. JRPG’s are extremely good about this by providing dialogue options at key emotional moments in the game that induce reflection for the player. Do you want to go out on a date with Tifa or Aeris in Final Fantasy VII? When one of them asks you if you had a good time, do you say you wish you were with the other? None of this changes anything in terms of story, but it does create an interesting capacity for the video game to ask the player to reflect. If a film or book had a reader’s note that simply said, “Hey, think about this before continuing on” it would break up the flow of the experience. But video games can do this because they’re pausing to reflect on which direction they want things to move in. It’s all still very minor stuff in the grand scheme of the plot, but I think many players would take pause if the game asked them why they shot innocent civilians in that last level. Forcing them to say they don’t care is just as interesting a moment as having them engage emotionally.
Steve Gaynor comments in an essay on the merits of video games, “Video games excel at fostering the experience of being in a particular place via direct inhabitation of an autonomous agent.” To rephrase the comparison made at the start of this essay, is the game creating a virtual experience where I’m playing as myself or as someone else? That’s the difference between a linear plot and a non-linear one, one where I play as a character or where that character is me. If I’m playing as someone else, that means my game design and relationships have a logical limitation based on the character. The Prince is never, ever, going to stab Farah because he’s sick of her dying on him. The game design of a good linear story is able to engage the player because it explains the role they inhabit and makes them comfortable with the actions rather than thinking “I wanted to do it differently”. You worry about Farah because the character you play is worried about her. As David Cage earnestly explains in an interview with Gamasutra on his own linear adventure game, designers should not be so afraid of telling the player no. They’re roleplaying a character not of their own making and they should be willing to accept that this comes with certain limitations within the story. Perhaps the real key to making a linear game great is figuring out how to do that without the player being annoyed by the restrictions imposed. Instead, those restrictions are embraced as part of the story.
Since returning from vacation, I’ve read little other than posts about the banking industry’s continued implosion and the various bailouts meant to rescue it. The most recent issue is Treasury secretary Hank Paulson’s plan to spend unlimited billions without any oversight buying up banks’ bad assets in a contemporary version of the Resolution Trust Company, which was deployed during the 1980s savings-and-loan bailout. Paulson’s idea seems to be to stop the financial crisis by fixing banks’ balance sheets once and for all, through the magic process of letting banks replace failing, ill-considered, or impossible-to-price items on it with what the banks want them to be worth in government (aka taxpayer) cash. With the toxic assets—strange how toxic has moved from a business journalism cliche to a virtual term of art—cleansed from the system, banks can resume borrowing short and lending long again as their business model demands. As Mark Thoma points out, this will work if the problem is illiquidity. If the banks are actually insolvent, what’s needed to bail them out is a massive capital infusion—money for nothing. Given the nature of the assets the government would acquire under the Paulson plan, it’s not clear if there is a difference.
Most experts and pundits and economists who have commented on Paulson’s plan seem to hate it. (Steven Waldman has a good roundup here.) Some question it because it rewards an industry for its failure to effectively perform its most basic function—evaluate credit risk so that it can make loans to make money. Some are skeptical because it gives Paulson unchecked power to help his former compatriots on Wall Street. (The proposal features this banana-republic-appropriate codicil: “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.”) Some wonder why it uses taxpayer money to prop up an industry that has doled out to itself millions in bonus money while doing nothing to help the wage-earning classes directly. Some are curious about why the banks should be able to get away with selling assets no one else wants to the government at sweetheart prices. Many note that this is risk-free socialism for the rich—the gains of entrepreneurship are privatized while the losses are socialized. Accordingly, most commentators want to see a taxpayer stake added to the plan, under which the government gets to own part of the firms it helps out—a debt-for-equity arrangement of some sort. But such an arrangement would threaten to nationalize the banking industry.
Would that be a terrible thing? It could, in economist Luigi Zingales’s phrase, “save capitalism from the capitalists.” Of course, bankers don’t like such a thing, and as Zingales points out, it is much easier for those few bankers to coordinate and argue their side to Congress then the many taxpayers who would get nothing under the Paulson plan. So it seems unlikely that the plan will be modified too much in our favor. But hey, we got a lot of overpriced and inefficient houses in the exurbs out of this whole mess.