Auto Focus (2002) – Made Free, Yet Everywhere in Chains

Paul Schrader is better known as a writer than a director. Having co-written most of Martin Scorsese’s better-known films, his own directorial efforts have often left him stranded between two cinematic cultures; his themes are often two weird and downbeat for Hollywood and yet his style is too conventional for the aesthetes of Cannes. As a writer/director, the creative high point of his career remains the beautifully demented and heavily-stylised Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

Well-received at the time and since largely forgotten, Auto Focus is very much a companion piece to Schrader’s best-known film: Like Mishima, Auto Focus is a biopic chronicling the rise and fall of a relatively obscure cultural figure. Like Mishima, Auto Focus uses cinematic style rather than narrative or dialogue to deliver its intellectual substance. Like Mishima, Auto Focus is about a man who is hollowed out and destroyed by his commitment to an unsustainable model of masculinity.

 

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REVIEW — The Forgotten (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Oliver Frampton’s debut film, a low-budget British horror film named The Forgotten.

The film is set in Central London where a troubled teenager has returned from holiday to find his mother gone and his father living in an abandoned council estate. By day, the teenager helps his father break into flats and strip out copper wiring. By night, he worries about the noises coming up through the floor and the people who seem to be following his father home at night.

The Forgotten was maybe one major script revision away from being a genuinely excellent modern ghost story. It would be interesting to see what a more experienced and worldly Frampton might be able to produce as Britain really could do with a few more genre directors who were willing to make films about the harshness of normal lives.

Though not to be confused with the identically-named Christian Slater-fronted TV series about a group of amateur detectives piecing together the lives of unnamed murder victims, both Forgottens share a desire for social relevance and a belief that pop culture can serve to increase our understanding of the world rather than simply distracting us from it.

However, despite some admirable aims and some real technical skill yielding some really effective scares, The Forgotten is ultimately little more than one of those disposable low-budget horror flicks that wind up on supermarket shelves.

Ghost Story (1981) – I Spit on Your Town

It is easy to see why people might hate this film. After all, it is not and could never be a book by Peter Straub.

The origin story behind Straub’s novel has been extensively documented: Straub has repeatedly stated that Ghost Story was inspired by Stephen King’s early vampire novel Salem’s Lot, a tip of the hat that was later acknowledged by King in his non-fiction collection Danse Macabre where Ghost Story was written up as one of the most influential and structurally effective novels in 20th Century horror. This much we know.

For my part, Straub’s acknowledgement came as something of a surprise as Straub’s approach to fiction has always struck me as quite different to the plodding accessibility of King’s Victorian realism in which the world is just as real and fixed as the characters uncovering it. In Straub’s books, the boundary between world and character is far more mutable, its nuances coaxed into existence by structural complexities and stylistic flourishes designed to keep readers off-balance until a trap is sprung and a particular impression is lodged deep inside the reader’s vulnerable skull. Cocteau famously said that style was a way of saying very complicated things in a very simple manner and Straub is an author who is mostly in the business of using style to coax his readers into receiving certain — often wordless — impressions.

Had Ghost Story been written by Stephen King then one might have described it as the story of a group of old men who are being haunted. As the story unfolds, the men are revealed as having shared a disastrous encounter with a single woman. This encounter not only fills them with guilt, it also seems to account for a litany of emotional crises that have defined their adult lives. Assuming that both world and characters are fixed and real entities, Ghost Story is all about a haunting the grows with the passage of time, consuming not only the lives of the guilty but also the town in which they live. This is the story that John Irvin tried and failed to adapt but the result was a cinematic Ghost Story that is a lot closer to that of Peter Straub than that of Stephen King.

 

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Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – Deathless Capital

Jim Jarmusch is one of those directors who attract a lot of critical attention despite few critics being fans of their work. You can always identify these directors from the way that reviews of their work often include sentences like ‘a return to form’ or ‘his best film since x’ where x stands for some previously well-received but not necessarily successful film.

Exemplified by the likes of Woody Allen, Tim Burton, and Spike Lee, this type of director invariably has a strong and immediately identifiable vision that seldom seems to translate into great films. We all know what we think of when we talk about the films of Woody Allen and Tim Burton but pointing to a really good Woody Allen or Tim Burton film is quite a lot harder than you’d think given the way that these directors have been allowed to pursue and perfect their cinematic visions. Critics like the idea of this type of director as perfecting a vision is what directors are supposed to do and yet the ability to articulate and explore a personal vision is no guarantee that you will produce interesting films. Some people just have boring visions.

Jarmusch’s vision is as singular as it is identifiable in that many of his films feel like attempts to produce American genre film using the themes and techniques of European art house. For example, 1995’s Dead Man is an ironic deconstruction of the western that dwells on feelings of cultural isolation while the more recent The Limits of Control strips the espionage thriller down to its component parts resulting in a film about beautifully-dressed people wandering around exotic locations in response to some inarticulate conspiracy. Only Lovers Left Alive is neither as minimalist as Limits of Control nor as tongue-in-cheek as Dead Man but it is excellent and precisely what you would expect from a Jim Jarmusch vampire movie.

 

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REVIEW – Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection (2014)

This week saw the release of Arrow Films’ Camera Obscura; a magnificent box set exploring the early work of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk. As someone who already owns quite a few luxurious box sets devoted to art house film directors, you would think that I’d be immune to the packaging-foo of independent DVD publishers but Camera Obscura has taken me completely by surprise. Aside from an impressively thick booklet, the box set contains five beautifully restored feature-length films as well as Boro’s early short films and a suite of documentaries about both him and his work. To say that Camera Obscura is comprehensive would be an understatement, FilmJuice have my reviews of:

FilmJuice’s editorial format required me to break the box set down into five separate films, which is something of a pity as Camera Obscura does an absolutely amazing job of capturing Borowsczyk’s development as an artist. The key to this process of evolution are the short films included on the same disc as The Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal.   Continue reading →

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set – A Much Needed Fresh Start?

Seeing as a number of people have asked me for my first impressions of the new D&D Starter Set, I thought it might be fun to write up my thoughts in a little more detail than Twitter allows. In short, the Starter Set is both a brilliant introduction to a new set of rules and a fantastic opportunity to re-launch Dungeons & Dragons both as a brand and a hobby. However, while the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is a breath of fresh air, it is nowhere near enough to fill the lungs of someone who is already half-drowned.

 

The Weight of History

I first started playing tabletop RPGs not long after the release of the Second Edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. AD&D2 was really nothing more than the original 1977 D&D rules with a load of extra sub-systems bolted onto them. An excellent example of the design philosophy underpinning D&D at the time was the way that different editions handled skills:

  • D&D featured no skills beyond fighting, spellcasting and a few abilities with their own discrete sets of mechanics like picking locks or noticing the gradient of a slope.
  • AD&D1 kept all of these discrete mechanics and introduced the concept of secondary skills but provided little in the way of mechanical support for those additional skills.
  • AD&D2 kept the discrete mechanics and introduced new rules that served to flesh out the secondary skill system. Despite presenting the rule changes as a more integrated system that encompassed languages, weapons and non-combat skills, the proficiencies were really nothing more than a tidy way of allowing players to choose and then keep track of their areas of expertise and the ever-expanding network of sub-systems that governed them.

If the name and design principles underpinning AD&D2 make it sound cluttered to the point of complete inaccessibility, then you would be completely right. It was nearly 25 years before someone thought to take D&D back to first principles and one can only assume that this reluctance to mess with the rules was derived from an unspoken assumption that the audience for D&D was the same as it had always been. If you assume that the only people buying AD&D2 are the people who already own AD&D1 then it doesn’t really matter that rules changes mean additional sub-systems… it’s not as though anyone has to learn all the rules from scratch! Similarly, if you assume that the only people interested in playing D&D are the people already playing it then every rule change runs the risk of alienating the people who have been playing the same campaign for 20 years. Do these designers not realise how difficult it is to port a 75th level Paladin Demigod from one edition to another?

The collapse of TSR and purchase of D&D by Wizards of the Coast inspired a long-overdue re-examination of the rules but while the game’s third edition replaced AD&D2’s warren of sub-systems with the integrated d20-based mechanics, the iteration of the d20 rules that became 3E was still an incredibly insular piece of game design. The reason for this creative introversion is that 3E was developed during a time when D&D was under intense pressure from games that tried to put RPGs on a slightly different footing.

The original D&D rules are a model of simplicity; After presenting its readers with the revolutionary notion that they could play a game entirely in their own heads, the box set provided just enough mechanical support to make those imaginary worlds seem concrete. However, because the rules were originally drawn up as the basis for a war game that focused upon individual characters rather than units and because the game wound up being marketed at boys, D&D came to be seen as a game primarily concerned with tactical combat, a myth that the publishers of D&D were only too happy to support through an endless barrage of publications pandering to the tactician’s need for more monsters, more traps, more encounters and more magical bling. As this ‘canonical’ vision of how to play D&D slowly emerged, gamers interested in other aspects of roleplaying such as playing roles and solving mysteries began to drift away towards games that emphasised their vision of what gaming was all about. As is so often the case in small sub-cultures, the desire for legitimacy and visibility inspired hyperbole that in turn provoked social schisms.

The more some gamers sought to distance themselves from traditional D&D, the more people interested in tactical play came to revel in a form of tactical fundamentalism in which non-tactical aspects of play received little or no support in published materials. It was during the years spanning the move from ADD2 to 3E that White Wolf Games reached out to fresh audiences with the promise that their games would not be about killing things. Despite this injection of new blood into the hobby and the manifest truth that hundreds of gamers had moved away from D&D, the game’s publishers listened to the tactical fundamentalists and turned their back on people less interested in tactical play.

 

DD1

Despite being built around a core mechanic that could support almost any form of tabletop play, 3E featured a set of combat and movement rules that encouraged the use of miniatures as part of a highly tactical playing style. The tactical nature of in-game combat exerted a pressure on every aspect of the game as the need to make the right tactical decisions in combat encouraged players to think more strategically about their character design, which in turn created a huge market for gaming materials aimed more at players than at the Dungeon Masters who had traditionally been responsible for buying most of the books.

Nowadays, people frequently refer to the d20/3E years as something of a gold rush in which the market for RPG books expanded massively and unpredictably heralding the rise of new companies and the collapse of older ones. However, as many books as 3E managed to shift, the gold rush was not fuelled by the arrival of new players but by the more effective exploitation of existing markets. 3E saw existing players spending more and lapsed players returning to the fold either by ‘getting the band back together’ or by engaging in a weird kind of vicarious RPG experience in which they would hang out on RPG forums and buy lots of RPG materials without ever actually sitting down to play. 3E made a lot of companies a lot of money but it did almost nothing to grow a hobby that was already showing serious signs of institutional neglect.

Unlike most geeky hobbies, tabletop gaming expects you to spend time in the same room as other people. In fact, in order to get the most out of an RPG campaign, you regularly need to spend long periods of time in the same room as the same group of people who are all doing exactly the same thing as you… and who has time for that in this day and age? Nowhere is the toxic nature of capitalism more evident than in the changing face of work: A generation ago, a family could support itself with only one person working a regular 9-5 job but the waves of economic collapse that have swept around the world since the 1970s mean that everyone now works increasingly long hours with increasingly unpredictable schedules. Ever happy to exploit, the companies that helped to shatter the traditional work/life balance now peddle their wares as rewards and escapes from the demands of the unreasonable workplace that they themselves created. The upshot of this capitalist push-me-pull-you is that people now regularly return home in a state of physical and spiritual exhaustion that lends itself more readily to medicinal applications of booze and shit TV than to arguing with your friends and doing maths. Some of the main beneficiaries of our increasingly horrid work/life balances are massively multiplayer online RPGs such as Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, a game inspired by tabletop RPGs that removes the need to prepare adventures, do maths or meet up with people in real life. Given how successful MMORPGs have become, it is hardly surprising that the next iteration of D&D would use MMORPGs as a point of aesthetic departure.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition remains the most radical reworking of the rules to date. While the designers drew inspiration from the 3E rules and retained a lot of the iconography of previous editions, the game is best understood as an attempt to create a board game based upon principles of MMORPG design. Unlike 3E, which provided a flexible skill system that wound up focussing on tactical engagements, 4E was built with nothing but tactical engagements in mind resulting in characters almost entirely defined by lists of powers. Despite making some gratifying inroads into the MMORPG market thanks to the widely publicised (and presumably expensive) support of Penny Arcade, interest in D&D4 plateaued when people suddenly realised that it was nothing more than a regular MMORPG with added maths and travel times.

Dungeons & Dragons has long been paralysed by the weight of its own history. Early editions simply assumed that anyone wishing to play was already playing and when that toxic attitude finally receded it was replaced by the equally problematic assumption that anyone wanting to play D&D would want to play it in the exact same manner as the brand’s core audience. This weird cultural ego-centrism will be instantly familiar to anyone who expressed an interest in science fiction only to have Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocketship Galileo thrust into their disappointed paws. Sure… the Heinlein juveniles served as a gateway drug for a lot of young readers but should we really assume that young readers today will respond to the same things as young readers in the 1940s? This is not the 1970s and not everyone is a socially inept teenaged boy, why do the owners of D&D continue to ignore thousands of potential customers? Simple: Cowardice and short sightedness.

 

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The Hunt (2012) – This is my Rifle, This is my Gun… Both Make Me Superior to Women.

TH1Despite a small budget and funding secured from about half a dozen Scandinavian film funds, The Hunt premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival where it was the first Danish film to make it into the competition for about 14 years. Well-received by judges and critics alike, the film landed a prize for its leading man and then went on to secure Best Foreign Language Film nominations at both the Oscars and Golden Globes. The reason for this warm reception is that the man responsible for directing it has pointedly refused to claim responsibility for his best-known film. The man in question is Thomas Vinterberg and the film in question is Festen, the first film created under the strictures of the radical Dogme 95 filmmaking manifesto that also launched the career of Lars von Trier.

Shot entirely on location with hand-held cameras and without props, sets or lighting, Festen told of a disastrous birthday celebration at which a family patriarch is accused of having molested two of his own children. Far from shutting the matter down, the family’s inevitable denial of the patriarch’s guilt only serves to fan the flames of anger and resentment until years of distrust explode in a fireball of violence and madness that consumes what is left of the family’s loyalty and trust. I mention Festen not only because it is easily Vinterberg’s best-known film, but also because it shares a good number of themes and ideas with The Hunt. However, while Festen is an unashamedly youthful film that draws on feelings of betrayal and confusion and hurls them into the face of a complacent older generation, The Hunt draws on a decidedly more traditional emotional palette including smug moral certitude and emotional restraint. The difference between to the two films is so stark that it is tempting to view The Hunt as the result of an aging Vinterberg having chosen to shift his sympathies from angry accuser to vilified accused but a more straightforward reading of this film would be to view The Hunt as a celebration of patriarchal values and women who know when to keep their cunt mouths shut.

 

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