REVIEW – Flower of my Secret (1995)

I conclude my canter through the generally excellent Almodovar Collection box set with a look at his 1995 film Flower of my Secret, the FilmJuice review of which can be found over here.

Before I move onto my usual commenting around the review, I’d like to take a couple of minutes to dwell on the Almodovar Collection itself. When proper critics review collections, they usually take the time to address not just the works the collection contains but also the collection as a cultural artefact in and of itself. I feel that the history of home media releasing means that we appear to have by-passed this stage completely and now appear to be teetering on the brink of an age where directors’ entire back catalogues are simply available as part of a subscription model.

The Almodovar Collection is an interesting box set as it has appeared recently enough that we can avoid leaping to the conclusion that the contents of the collection is the product of rights issues. Too many directorial box sets are presented as being critically neutral, making it rather difficult to get a read off the company’s choice of films and so work backwards towards a particular critical viewpoint with which it might be possible to engage critically. Indeed, one of the things I really enjoyed about working my way through the Almodovar Collection was the sense of a critical intelligence at work in the wings. The collection begins with Almodovar’s ensemble melodramas, drifts towards his unsuccessful attempts to break with those narrative structures and concludes with one of his strongest films, a work that manages to be as emotionally complex and morally serious as the director’s earlier works whilst also demonstrating all the ways in which his direction had improved and shifted with the passage of time. The Almodovar Collection could have showcased Almodovar as a queer film maker with a love of camp and provocation but instead it chose to show him as a great maker of women’s films in the great art house tradition that began with Douglas Sirk, passed to Rainer Werner Fassbender and currently exerts a pressure on the works of Francois Ozon:

“While it is often observed that Almodóvar writes very well for women, the desire to market him as a queer filmmaker who produces joyfully camp and transgressive comedies serves to obscure the roots of his talent. If we consider the history of art house film, we can trace a straight line from François Ozon to Douglas Sirk via the work of both Pedro Almodóvar and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. That line is evident not only from the later directors’ fondness for musical numbers and transgressive silliness but also for their willingness to psychologically complex and morally serious films around the figure of the strong-but-vulnerable woman. This filmmaking tradition is as old as the Hollywood hills but it pivots around Sirk as Sirk was a director who, despite making films for women and about women, would often use his female protagonists and commercially-successful story forms to critique American society with particular attention to the injustices surrounding both gender and sexuality. Flower of my Secret finds Almodóvar at his most powerful and insightful; it is a brilliant film in the grand tradition of Sirkian melodrama as well as the much-lamented and under-appreciated genre known as Women’s Films.”

Watching The Almodovar Collection made me yearn for a box set of Women’s Films. The weird thing about Woman’s Film is that while the genre is now seldom spoken of, most of its great works are still in circulation and relatively easy to get hold of. It’s just that rather than having a proper Woman’s Film box set with specialist commentaries and video essays explaining the importance of the genre and how it fit into the Hollywood system from the silent era all the way to the 1960s. You can buy a Douglas Sirk box set, you can buy the films of D.W. Griffith, George Cukor, Josef von Sternberg and Max Ophuls.You can find women’s films in film noir box sets. You can even buy Joan Crawford and Bettie Davis box sets. But there are no commercially-available box sets exploring the Woman’s Film genre and I think that’s a terrible shame.

Anyway, The Flower of My Secret is one of the better films in the Almodovar collection as it plays entirely to Almodovar’s strengths and contains some scenes of dazzling emotional complexity and genuine psychological anguish. The scene in which Leo diminishes and retreats from Madrid in order to become a little old lady who spends her days weaving and gossiping is endlessly wonderful and even a little close to home. Ahem.

 

TV Games Are For Boys

So… today, I’m doing something different. Rather than me rabbiting on about a film, a book, or a misshapen cloud, today’s post will be written by someone different.

Joel Goodwin (a.k.a. Harbour Master) is the founder of Electron Dance, a wonderfully singular site devoted to the world of independent PC gaming. It says something about Joel’s writing that I became a fan of his work long before I acquired a PC allowing me to play any of the games he wrote about. Joel writes about games with the kind of critical intelligence that is vanishingly rare in the world of mainstream games writing; he cares about how games work, he cares about how different elements of a game interact to create a particular experience and he aggressively seeks out games that push the limits of what the medium can achieve. I recommend his (now sadly defunct) podcast Counterweight, I recommend his on-going video series Side-by-Side, and I definitely recommend posts such as his take on AAA story-telling, his take on Christine Love’s Don’t Take it Personally Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story and the so-called Petri Dish trilogy of posts about the Internet and online culture that begins with “As Good as it Gets”, progresses to “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cat Videos” and ends with “TV Games are for Boys”.

“TV Games are for Boys” is a piece about parenting, making mistakes and trying to participate in a culture where even the tiniest misstep can result in complete social annihilation.

 

 

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TVG1

 

It seems I’ve been terrified for nearly three years.

Young brains are wired to mimic. This gets them up to speed as quickly as possible, meaning children often want to get involved in whatever their parents are doing. This includes cooking and the washing up at early ages (I hear this doesn’t extend into the teens) and also the playing of games. At the age of two, my son, K, wanted to play games with Daddy.

He certainly didn’t like Portal 2 (Valve, 2011) but if a game’s Spookiness Factor was low, he would be happy to watch. The only game that really worked for him was an early version of Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2012) which satisfied him for a while.

 

 

K was fascinated with city infrastructure: recycling trucks, fire engines, trains, that sort of thing. I thought of GTA III (Rockstar Games, 2001) and, heartened by the tale of another parent who exposed their four-year old to GTA, I let K have a dabble.

His controller skills were poor as his fingers were too small to manipulate the thumbsticks, so I had to keep course correcting, but he enjoyed his excursion in Liberty City and rode the train over and over again. I felt comfortable because he didn’t have the maturity to comprehend what was happening in the game: he saw roads, trains, bodies of water. The muffled shouts of angry pedestrians and the occasional traffic accident were background detail.

But I left the room for a moment and when I came back, my son was carrying a rifle.

Continue reading →

BG47 – Hang All The Critics

Futurismic have just published my forty-seventh Blasphemous Geometries column entitled ‘Hang all the Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing’.

I originally wrote the column about ten days ago but last weekend I became aware of two significant blogospheric shit-storms that seem to provide an interesting context for the column.  The first shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by an article about yoga and the second shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by a review of an epic fantasy novel. Though ostensibly very different in their origins and subject matters, both shit-storms involve a community reacting very angrily to negative coverage from a perceived outsider. In the case of the ‘yoga community’, the outsider is the New York Times senior science writer William Broad and, in the case of the ‘epic fantasy community’, the outsider is the Strange Horizons reviewer and post-graduate student Liz Bourke.

The link between these blogstorms and my most recent video games column is that ‘Hang All the Critics’ is an attempt to confront the fact that the age of the critic has now passed. Criticism and its less well-heeled cousin reviewing rely upon the assumption that a person of reasonable insight and creative flair can consume a cultural product and issue an opinion or reaction to that will be of use to other people despite the fact that these other people might have very different tastes and interests.

It is no accident that the role of the critic has its roots in the cafe culture of the 17th Century as the coffee shops frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson tended to be cramped places where all kinds of bourgeois intellectuals were forced to rub shoulders. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the Internet’s infinite potential for space is that people from a particular class and with a particular set of interests are no longer forced to rub shoulders with people with ever-so-slightly different sets of tastes. These days, if you are interested in steam locomotives but not other forms of train then you are in no way obliged to encounter the opinions of people who consider steam trains to be a quaint but outmoded form of technology. The more the Internet matures, the more interest groups fragment and the more interest groups fragment, the more isolated and tribal these communities become. There is no place for criticism in a world dominated by tribal conflicts and persecution complexes, this is why Liz Bourke and William Broad got it in the neck and this is why Rotten Tomatoes is filled with people reacting angrily to the idea that a film they haven’t seen might not be as good as they expect. The age of the critic is at an end and it is time to change the way we do business.

Needless to say, I am not the first person to notice the collapse of our culture’s public spaces. Indeed, many reviewers and critics have attempted to respond to the increasingly commercial and tribal nature of the public sphere either by retreating into the walled-garden of academia or by creating a tribal space of their own. While I can entirely understand this desire for retrenchment, I think that it is ultimately an act of cowardice:

As someone who has never once tried to review a game for a major site, I am not in the least bit opposed to the fracturing of public space in order to create environments in which inaccessible forms of writing are protected from the vagaries of commerce and popular tastes. A recent comment on one of my pieces described my style as “masturbatory” and I find myself absolutely powerless to disagree. There is something decidedly self-indulgent about sharing one’s opinions online — particularly when one makes little or no effort to reach out to the majority of people interested in a particular topic — and this kind of self-indulgence is not about subjecting games to serious intellectual scrutiny or ‘consolidating a continuous counterbalance’; is a cowardly retreat from the public sphere, driven by the recognition that my opinions are of use to nobody but myself. There is absolutely nothing brave or revolutionary about taking your ball and going home.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad is not that they are wrong to feel the way they feel. Life in the 21st Century is frequently lonely and it is easy to begin thinking of one’s sub-culture as a kind of family that provides us with both an identity and a set of values. When you invest yourself that heavily in a particular sub-culture then it makes perfect sense that you should bristle when that elements of that sub-culture come under fire from outsiders. Even if you don’t like a particular novel or have your own concerns about the way that yoga is taught, it is one thing to hear those feelings from someone you trust and quite another to hear them from someone you don’t know. Ever bitched about a sibling to a member of your family? ever defended that same sibling when they came under fire from someone else? Some truths can only be spoken inside the family.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad (or the people who complained about Uncharted 3 only getting 8 out of 10) is not that they are wrong, it is that they are being insular. As I said elsewhere, the most wonderful thing in the world is to have someone care enough to listen to you and tell you that you are completely full of shit. By wanting to protect epic fantasy from outsiders like Bourke, the defenders of epic fantasy (and those of yoga) are closing themselves off to a potential source of cultural renewal.

I would like to believe that there is a place for people like Bourke and Broad because I would like to believe that there is a place for cultural generalists and for people who take the ideas and values of one culture and carry them into those of another.  This blog is very much devoted to the idea that a single person can look at radically different forms and subject matters and say something of value about them. Unfortunately, while I would like to believe that there is a place for that form of cultural generalism, I think that the Internet is growing increasingly hostile to it. After all, why listen to random strangers when you can only listen to fellow academics, fantasy fans, yoga enthusiasts, republicans or furries? Why listen to anyone other than yourself?

A Bride’s Story… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest Stripp’d column. This month, I return to anime in order to look at Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story.

The manga is published in hardback by Yen Press and is very much in the style and tradition of such prestige titles as Fumi Yoshinaga’s unrelentingly splendid Ooku: The Inner Chamber. Somewhat less focused and much less high-concept than Yoshinaga’s look at a alternate edo-period Japan, A Bride’s Story is made up of a series of stories drawn from the early married life of a young woman living on the steppes of central Asia in the early part of the 20th Century. However, while the characterisation is frequently intriguing and the central love story between the bride and her (much) younger husband is undeniably affecting, it is clear that both the story and the characters are little more than vehicles for Mori’s exploration of her understanding of that particular culture. Indeed, I conclude my piece by likening A Bride’s Story to a piece of literary travel writing such as that of Geoff Dyer, Paul Theroux or Pico Iyer:

Like any piece of literature written about one culture by a member of a different culture, there are questions of morality and appropriation that need to be asked. Mori mostly answers these questions by celebrating life on the steppes while acknowledging quite how shockingly alien and unfair that life could be. While a lot is made of the ethics of depicting alien cultures, my feeling is that travel writing, like all forms of writing is always produced from a particular perspective. Objective truth is the sole preserve of the hard sciences. As such, we should look upon A Bride’s Story as an impression of a particular culture filtered both through the eyes of a Japanese women and through the demands of the Japanese comics scene. Would real Mongolians enjoy gently burgeoning and chaste love stories? Would real brides be so impossibly lovely and accomplished that their clan would not hesitate for a second before fighting to the death in order to defend them? Possibly not but Mori’s stories are beautifully told and sensitively embedded in a culture that she clearly both loves and respects. At the end of the day, if you want the truth about the Asian steppe, go and visit it yourselves… just don’t expect to encounter any gorgeous 20 year-olds with devoted 12 year-old husbands.

Boasting some of the most jaw-droppingly intricate and beautifully composed artwork I have ever encountered. A Bride’s Story is a wonderful example of what manga can achieve when it moves beyond the straightjackets of the populist and the fannish.

BG46 – Skyrim and the Quest for Meaning

Futurismic have my forty-sixth Blasphemous Geometries column entitled ‘Skyrim and the Quest for Meaning’.

This column took me quite a while to write as I struggled to put my finger on precisely what it was that annoyed me about Skyrim. Initially, I thought it might be the bleak nature of the setting that reduces life to a series of to-do lists and selfish ambitions with easily quantifiable outcomes. However, while I am no Randian and tend to think that this vision of life is to be rejected rather than embraced, I simply could not fault it. I mean… life is ultimately about jumping through hoops until we die, right? Then I began to reflect upon the game’s lack of narrative and how playing it felt a lot like playing World of Warcraft without engaging with the social realities of guilds and pick-up groups. This was more promising as Skyrim is indeed a nightmare of pointless grind hidden by the tiniest narrative fig leaf imaginable. Then it occurred to me: if life really is nothing more than grind, why should we seek to immerse ourselves in fantasy realms that are similarly bleak and mechanistic? Skyrim‘s real problem is that it is an escapist fantasy that denies the possibility of escape:

While all video games ultimately reduce down to mechanical feedback loops and branching decision trees, most game designers soften the impact of their mechanical reductionism by hiding it behind a series of dramatic conceits that place the events of the game within a particular context which, though meaningless in mechanical terms, will provide the players with a context through which to understand their in-game actions, a context that will allow them to connect on an emotional level with the plots and characters of the game.

As usual, when faced with the bleakness of the world, I turned to Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic for advice. The great sage’s advice to me was clear and unambiguous, when confronted by the horrors of existence and the feeling of bottomless dread that can only come from the realisation that we are truly and hopelessly free, the only possible solution is to laugh and launch into a nice little musical number as searching for the meaning of life is really nothing more than a quest for the most psychologically convenient form of self-delusion available.

BG45 – Demon’s Souls and the Meaning and Import of Virtual Death

Futurismic have my forty-fifth Blasphemous Geometries column about From Software’s Demon’s Souls and its place in the history of video game attitudes towards death.

Following on from some of my thoughts on Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, the column argues that rather than trying to downplay virtual death by re-packaging it as with Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia‘s talk of death-as-flawed-memory, video game designers ought to follow From Software in embracing the cataclysmic number of deaths that feature in their games. Indeed, what makes Demon’s Souls such a fascinating game is its relentless downbeat tone and its recognition of the fact that characters will die and players will give up in disgust. Clearly, if Demon’s Souls had been a film, it would have been directed by Ingmar Bergman. The column also draws the reader’s attention to Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon, a book all about the psychological impact of experiencing a futile death over and over again…

Nowhere is the need for unpleasantness greater than in video gaming’s attitude to death.  What was once a means of rationing the time people spent hogging a particular arcade machine has now ossified into a set of linguistic tics that are now completely disconnected from both their real-world and in-game significances. Video games ask us to die over and over again but rather than acknowledging this fact, many game designers seek to minimise the impact of these sacrifices by explaining them away as lapses in memory. By trivialising death, game designers have not only cheapened the lives of our characters, they have also deprived themselves of one of the most powerful thematic motifs in all of art and literature.

Games like Demon’s Souls recognise that they are dealing in death and this recognition is genuinely disconcerting. Like death itself, Demon’s Souls is utterly indifferent to both our presence in the game and our attempts at engaging with it. Demon’s Souls is a game of misery tempered by frustration, and its unapologetic recognition of this fact is what makes it both different and great. While I appreciate Walker’s point, I cannot help but feel that he is looking at the problem in entirely the wrong way: Let us not repackage death, but rather celebrate it as the core of the video game experience.

Having spent a good deal of time playing carefully-packaged AAA-rated titles for this column, one of the continuing joys of Demon’s Souls remains its complete indifference to my presence.  Forty hours in and I’m still not completely clear on how many basic aspects of the game actually work. One of the game’s major mechanics involves shifting between different forms and you begin to pick up magical items helping with that transition a long time before you actually realise what it means. Similarly, it took me about 20 hours to realise that the game had a magic system. In a video game culture full of shallow joys and craven player-pandering, there is something truly wonderful in From Software’s complete indifference to whether or not we ever get the hang of the game.

DC: The New Frontier… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest comics column on Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier.

New Frontier is an ‘elseworld’ that takes the superheroes of the DC Comics Universe and transposes them into the late 1940s in much the same way as Neil Gaiman transposed the Marvel Universe into Elizabethan England in 1602 (2003). However, while 1602 is really nothing more than an extended exercise in fan service that wanders around Elizabethan London going “Oooh… I wonder what Daredevil would look like if he was an Irish bard!”, DC: The New Frontier is an attempt to liberate mainstream superhero comics from the cynicism of the post-Watchmen era by finding a way of reconciling psychological depth with the values of old-fashioned Gold and Silver Age heroism. While I do not think that Cooke is ultimately successful in his endeavour, I do think that the result is one of the most fascination mainstream superhero comics ever produced.  It is fascinating because it is a comic that clearly realises the challenge that faces large generation-spanning mythological systems.  As I pointed out in my review of Dick Maas’ horror film Saint (2010), myths must reinvent themselves in order to stay alive and DC: The New Frontier is clearly designed as a mutation that might help superhero comics adapt to the culture of today:

The last thirty years has seen a drive to re-invent traditional heroes as darker and more realistic figures. Moore’s reinvention of the superhero as a vigilante mired in psychological trauma and political compromise is no different to the re-invention of King Arthur as a Roman Centurion or an Iron-age Chieftain. The world has changed and though we can no longer believe in a campy middle-aged Batman, we can believe in a tortured psychopath who acts upon his own flawed sense of justice. Humans have always and will always yearn for escape from the prison of their lives but the vehicle they choose for that escape is determined by the nature of the lives they are escaping. Because of this, stories must be retold and heroes must be reborn. Even modern day myths are subject to these evolutionary pressures, in order to survive stories must change to suit the demands of their audience.

Despite its failures, DC: The New Frontier is still a fascinating read and a great place to start if you are looking to get a handle on the tendency of superhero comics to keep re-launching and re-inventing themselves.