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WELCOME to SlamDunk! Studios. This is a portfolio of creative and analytical writing I've produced over the years. The articles focus on literature, cinema, gaming, history, and sociology.

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Nintendo's E3 Press Conference 2011 (VG article)

Posted on June 10, 2011 at 10:20 AM Comments comments (0)

I was little let down by Nintendo offering at this year’s E3. They didn't reveal any new games for the Wii; just another Zelda trailer, which actually managed to look worse than the 2010 trailer. The 3DS lineup looks great, with a new Super Mario and Luigi's Mansion previewed, but I'm not a really handheld gamer. And Nintendo's newly unvealed console, the WiiU, is intriguing, but that won't be out for at least a year, and even then the software lineup will be thin. The system features an iPad-like controller, in which players can interect with a game in interesting ways, such as viewing the game environments from different or magnified angles, via a large touch pad. The demo's on show indicated full high definition, which is nice. Certainly interesting things could be done with it, but the same was said for the Wiimote. Nintendo supported the technology and experimented with it, but third-parties didn't. I hope Nintendo releases a more traditional controller as well, so that it doesn't alienate multi-platform developers. Third-party support seemed strong though, with Assassin's Creed, Ninja Gaiden, Splinter Cell, and other HD properties promised in the future.

 

Regardless, I care about the here and the now, and there is nothing on the horizon for current console owners (except for Zelda). What makes it even worse is that Nintendo are sitting on fantastic, original titles (Xenoblade, Last Story, Fatal Frame 4, etc.), and simply refuse to localise them. It looks like 2010 was the Wii's prime, and now it's all a bit downhill. I mean, there is NOTHING on the horizon for Wii owners. Sony and Microsoft had pretty lackluster showings as well. Overall, a disappointing E3.

White Noise & Pulp Fiction (film/lit essay)

Posted on June 4, 2011 at 12:40 AM Comments comments (1)

The novel White Noise and the film Pulp Fiction are postmodern texts that utilise a “[montage] of tones, styles, and voices” to examine the “terror and wild humour as the essential tone of contemporary America” (Lentricchia). Both texts employ pastiche and intertextuality to explore the consumerist, media-saturated societies in which they inhabit. They also contrast themes of human violence and amorality with a postmodern self-awareness. In other words, the characters in each piece operate largely in world where history has been replaced by popular culture, and their reality is informed by a patchwork of pre-existing ideas and art. This creates a metaphysical understanding of reality in the characters minds, but also alienates them from this world


This essay will discuss the use of pastiche and intertextuality in White Noise and Pulp Fiction. “Pastiche” is the “cobbling together” of several original works. It is an imitation of different artistic styles, light-heartedly blended into a new narrative form. “Intertextuality” is the referencing of one text in the interpretation of another. It involves the shaping of a texts’ meaning by contrasting it with other texts. Both techniques examine the relationship between fiction and reality (Ott). This essay will explore how these literary concepts are employed in White Noise and Pulp Fiction, as well as the themes of consumerism, pop culture, media, violence, and death that they inspire in the texts.

 

White Noise has been described as “one of the last real novels of the postmodern movement in America” (Lentricchia). It contains key characteristics of postmodernism, such as paranoia, fear of technology, dark humour and pastiche. The characteristic of pastiche is evident in the shifting tone and style of the novel. It is difficult to place the story into a definitive genre, because it is told in so many differing ways. It moves from social commentary to black comedy, from conspiracy theory to suspense-thriller. It is also a reflection on the dysfunction and isolation of the modern nuclear family (Lentricchia). White Noise combs a number of literary genres into one cohesive work. This schizophrenic narrative arc may be commenting on the affect of technology and media on the lives of people in modern society. Whether for good or ill, DeLillo presents technology as an inescapable force: “You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.” (DeLillo). It is annoying and intrusive, but has become so common that characters are not even fully aware of it anymore (Wilcox). This may refer to the title of the book—white noise—the melting of all visual, aural and emotional stimuli into a single, unending, unimportant stream of data. Most of the characters are so bombarded with technology, such as an advertisement for a new car that they are no longer thinking for themselves (Wilcox).


Fear of death is the central theme of White Noise, and it is present in both the protagonist Jack Gladney, and his friend Murray. The discussion of death between these two characters one afternoon is described as a “serious looping Socratic walk” (DeLillo). This passage evokes Plato’s Phaedo, in which Socrates and his companions also engage in a lengthy discussion on death. The play presents “death” as an art which must be learnt, rather than something wicked to be evaded or rejected (Al Mousa). Conversely, the character Murray argues that one can come to grips with death “by believing in an afterlife” (DeLillo). But Gladney dismisses this notion as a “convenient fantasy”. This reference is an example of both pastiche and intertextuality, as DeLillo is “recalling [a] less problematic past” by “commenting on the complexity of life in the postmodern era” (Al Musa), as well as creating a dialogue between the novel’s theme of death and an ancient Greek text about the same subject.

 

Pulp Fiction is pure pastiche. The entire film is constructed of dialogue, situations, outfits, hairstyles, weapons and music borrowed from a vast array of different movies, genres and periods. Tarantino pays homage to 1940s film noir, 1970s blaxploitation, westerns, and even kung fu movies. For example, the scene where Marcellus Wallace steps out in front of Butch’s car is a direct recreation of a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which the protagonist, who has just stolen thousands of dollars in cash from her workplace, is spotted by her boss. Another example is the scene in which a soldier returning from Vietnam passes on a gold watch to the son of his fallen comrade. It is inspired by the movie The Deer Hunter, in which the same actor, Christopher Walken, plays a POW in the Vietnam War. The scene in which Butch cycles through a series of weapons references a few exploitation films, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Yakuza. Floyd Wilson, the boxer Butch was supposed to take a dive on, is the same fighter who Terry Maloy was meant to lose to in On the Waterfront. Even the freeze-frame in the opening diner scene mirrors the ending to Sam Peckinpah’s western, The Wild Bunch (Reinhartz). There are literally dozens of references to classic films, from almost every genre imaginable. Tarantino has crafted a living, breathing patchwork of America cinema. Even the non-linear narrative was inspired by earlier films, such as Citizen Kane, The Killing and Rashomon (Reinhartz).


Besides cinema, Pulp Fiction is pastiche of 20th American culture. The film takes its title from the hardboiled detective fiction, such as the Black Mask series. Like the 1940s pulp novels, Pulp Fiction “deal[s] heavily in the realm of improbable coincidences and cruel cosmic jokes” (O’Brien). The two texts also share intricate plot mechanics and an interweaving structure. Tarantino’s “rich dialogue”, dark sense of humour, and use of violence were also influenced by the crime author Elmore Leonard (O’Brien). The movie also hosts many pop cultural allusions, particularly in the 1950s themed restaurant, Jack Rabbit Slims. There is the famous shot of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt flying up over a subway grate; American muscle cars turned into dining booths; a Buddy Holly waiter; and even a swing dance contest. The film exhibits a “playful reverence for the 1950s” and is a “terminally hip postmodern collage” (Walker), or as Vincent Vega describes it, “a wax museum with a pulse”. Some critics have argued that the Pulp Fiction’s constant cultural allusions empty the film of meaning. The violence in the film is without “any critical social consequences” and offerd the audience “only the immediacy of shock, humour, and irony without insight”. The film has been described as being about nothing, “other than its own cleverness” (Giroux). Of course, to empty an artwork of all its contents may just be the ultimate realisation of postmodernism.


Instead, the originality of the film can be found in the dialogue sequences. The characters ponder everything from fast food and foot rubs, to TV pilots, gourmet coffee, and divine intervention, all with a wicked sense of humour and sly wit. Pulp Fiction, despite its gangster facade, is far more interested in the moments between the action. For example, we don’t see Butches boxing match; instead we see the taxi ride home. It’s the transitional and trivial that intrigues Tarantino’s lens.

 

Intertextuality informs every aspect of White Noise, from the characters’ comprehension of reality, to the author’s examination of a postmodern society. DeLillo’s characters in are in a conversation with the past. Jack has modelled his whole career around Adolf Hitler, capitalising on his historical prominence to further his own reputation. Murray is devoted to pop culture, and is fascinated by Elvis, who he sees as the embodiment 20th century American history, the same way Hitler embodied Germany. Jack and his wife Babette pour over old family photographs, looking at “children wincing in the sun, women in sun hats, men shading their eyes from the glare as if the past possessed some quality of light we no longer experience” (DeLillo). The entire narrative is a dialogue with older artistic works, from Elvis Presley to Plato (Al Mousa). White Noise has been criticised as being “an irresponsible romp through literary, historical, and artistic archives without any particular point or recognition of the previous work’s contexts” (Al Mousa). But Jack himself argues that “when tradition becomes too flexible, irony enters the voice” (DeLillo).


Jack’s ruminations on death exist chiefly within a modernist context. He ponders its significance, visits gravesites, and discusses it with his friend Murray. “Yet Jack’s existential crisis is obsolete in the new postmodern order” (Wilcox). When he confesses “I want to live”, Murray responds with a series of intertextual allusions, from an “aggressive jazz score by Johnny Mandel” to a “Robert Wise film” about a convicted murderer (DeLillo). In this postmodern world, “death loses its personal and existential resonances”. The experience of dying is “utterly mediated by technology and eclipsed by a world of symbols.” (Wilcox). Jack observes during a medical scan that “when death is rendered graphically... televised so to speak... you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself” (DeLillo).


Murray concludes that death is almost too petrifying to discuss intelligently, arguing that “Ivan Ilyich screamed for three days. That’s about as intelligent as we get” and that “Tolstoy himself struggled to understand” (DeLillo). Murray even ponders whether it is fear itself that brings on death. Murray is referring to a 19th century novella by Leo Tolstoy, called The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In it, a man “tries to cope with his death anxiety by burying himself in work and wholeheartedly embracing the ceremony of his office and position” (Al Mousa). DeLillo is again commenting on Jack’s own fear and denial by comparing him to a literary character from the past. Jack’s capacity to deny or avoid death by viewing it through the prism of television could be seen as a “postmodern version of Tolstoy’s use of illusion... as a tool to avoid death” in The Death of Ivan Ilych (Mousa).

 

Pulp Fiction is so drenched pop cultural and cinematic allusions that it’s somewhat difficult to narrow down a meaningful example of intertextuality. That is, an example in which the film directly converses with an outside text, through which the film itself can be interpreted. The most immediate illustration of intertextuality that shapes the meaning of Pulp Fiction, is Jules’ quoting of the Bible. As Jules explains, before executing someone, he will recite the biblical passage, Ezekial 25:17 (“The path of the righteous man...”;). Jules admits the speech is meant to be more threatening than insightful, and that he “never gave much thought to what it meant”. However, in the final scene of the film, he comes to the realisation that he is “the tyranny of evil men” that Ezekial refers to, and that he needs to become the “shepard” in order to save himself. This transformation represents the film’s fundamental character arc. The “depth of Jules’ transformation is indicated by the difference in his two deliveries of the passage” – the first is majestic and menacing, while the second is calm and reflective (Reinhartz 106). In  true postmodern fashion, “Jules reflects on the meaning of his speech and provides several different ways that it might pertain to his current situation” (Conrad 130). It dawns on him “that it refers to an objective framework of value and meaning that is absent from his life” and contrasts with the film’s “prevalent representation of a nihilistic culture” (Conrad 130).


The most elaborate intertextual reference in Pulp Fiction is towards the French New Wave film Bande à Part, by Jean-Luc Godard. Vincent and Mia’s dance echoes a very similar scene in Godard’s film, in which a young French girl befriends two bumbling criminals. Mia Thurman’s hairstyle is the same as Anna Karina, who is the protagonist of Bande à Part. Even Pulp Fiction’s production company—A Band Apart—references the text. Unlike the majority of Pulp Fiction’s references, which focus on genre films like western, gangster and war, Bande à Part distinguishes itself as an arthouse film. This indicates a reverence or affection Tarantino holds towards 1950s French cinema, which in many ways, acted as the precursor to the American New Wave of the late 60s and 70s (Walker 320).


A final example of intertextuality could be through the character of Vincent Vega. John Travolta portrayed the character, and at the time of Pulp Fiction’s release, the actor had faded out of the limelight that he once commanded with film’s like Saturday Night Fever and Greece. Perhaps Vincent was meant to symbolise the fallen star; a relic from the 70s when disco was king; now reduced to a “wax [figure] with a pulse”. Conversely, Pulp Fiction represented the resurrection of Travolta’s career (Giroux 79). Vincent may also have a textual connection with Tarantino’s previous film, Reservoir Dogs, in which a similar looking character named Vic Vega appears.

 

White Noise and Pulp Fiction each embody the postmodern movement of the late 20th century. By employing concepts of pastiche and intertextuality, they sought to re-examine and redefine literary and film grammar. DeLillo established thematic links between his novel and other works, exploring themes of death in the technological age, and capturing the quality of a media-saturated society. His rich intertextuality and textural contrast provides an important cultural discussion of individuality in the postmodern era. Tarantino took homage one step further, drenching his prose in cultural allusion, and removed all meaning and thematic potency from his work.  Tarantino and his characters revel in the cinematic and cultural milieu of postmodern society. He presents a work stripped completely of politics and moral investigation, perhaps symbolising the final surge of the postmodern craft.


Gamer Embarrassment (VG article)

Posted on June 3, 2011 at 10:20 AM Comments comments (0)

I found this article about why it’s still not cool to admit you’re a gamer, and I found it quite interesting. I'd actually have to agree with most of its points. I'm not really embarrassed to tell people I play video games (though I don't think I'd refer to myself as a "gamer"), it just doesn't come up all that much. And there's no point talking about video games to someone who doesn't play them, so I keep my mouth shut.

 

In my Modern Texts class at uni, I've considered bringing up a particular game during discussions, but the truth is, compared to films and literature, most games are extremely poorly written and badly acted. Most popular games are just aping cheesy action movies, so there's very little chance of innovation. Even Heavy Rain, which many gamers hold up as some kind of proof of progress, is really just the equivalent of some crappy airport novel. But a game's narrative is as much about gameplay as it is about cutscenes, and that dynamic is difficult to explain to non-gamers.

Akira (film essay)

Posted on May 26, 2011 at 12:40 AM Comments comments (1)

The Japanese anime film Akira reflects a “love-hate attitude toward monsters” that suggests ambivalence about the future of Japan (Napier). This essay will explore this interpretation of the film, drawing on Japan’s rise as an industrial nation in the aftermath of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. It will examine Japan’s role as a global superpower, contrasting it with cultural feelings of victimisation, antagonism and fear at the hands of the West. These concepts will be juxtaposed against Tetsuo’s own monstrous transformation at the end of the film.


The years leading up to the release of Akira marked one of the most rapid economic growth spurts and politically tranquil periods in Japanese history. Japan stood proud as the “only non-Western society to have successfully industrialised every aspect of its economy” (Napier). Moreover, with its “superb bureaucracy”, “efficiently functioning government”, and “high technological expertise”, the nation symbolised a “utopian alternative to what many perceived as the corrupt and decadent societies of the West” (Napier). So when Akira was set upon Japanese audiences in 1988, with its post-apocalyptic dystopian views of “carnage, inner-turmoil [and] extreme violence”, it questioned what was beneath the surface of this seemingly blissful society (Napier).

 

The film opens with a bold heading: “1988.7.16.Tokyo”. It is obvious to audiences that what they are viewing is a modern day utopian Japan. What follows is a massive atomic blast that destroys the seemingly peaceful city. This, to a Western viewer, may seem like just the premise of an action movie, but to Japanese audiences, the fact that Japan is the only country in the world to suffer an atomic attack; the “point of view flows more to a sense of victimisation” (Wynn). This introduction into the world of Akira emphasises the situation of Japanese culture, as does the “student revolution” sub-plot in the first half of the film. It depicts a dystopian society, dominated by mass hysteria and devoid of any parental authority.  This fictional setting is actual commenting on the “increasingly competitive nature of [Japanese] society, which appears only to emphasise material values and appears spiritually sterile”, as well as “the erosion [of] the cities” and of “a sense of community” (Napier). This cultural disintegration “confuses the children to the point of alienation and isolation”, which is shown through the character Tetsuo (Wynn).


In the place called Neo-Tokyo, where “revolutionists wage war and street gangs run wild”, the character Tetsuo is introduced (Wynn). He is not the leader of the gang, but the runt. His best friend Kaneda runs a gang of bikers, determined on beating their rivals through force and unflinching violence. As the black sheep of the group, Tetsuo’s character development is a significant reflection of Japan’s perceived place in the world. The motorcycles they operate as a gang can be seen as “phallic symbol[s] of power and authority”, and it becomes obvious that there will be a struggle between Tetsuo and Kaneda for power (Napier). The motorcycle may also symbolise “isolation and alienation” which are Tetsuo’s chief characteristics. If Tetsuo represents the isolated and hesitant Japan, then perhaps Kaneda represents the confident, controlling America. The relationship between the two is initially positive, but underlying tensions and feelings of resentment gradually emerge, until the climax of the film, when the two forces are in bitter opposition. (Grace).


Tetsuo’s initially meek character transforms and changes radically throughout the film, to the point where he resembles an almost Cthullu-like abomination by the final act. When Akira was released in 1988, Japan was at “the peak of post-war… rise from the ashes” and “many feared it as being the world’s next super-power” (Grace). Similarly, Tetsuo begins as a relatively minor part, but grows into the central, most powerful role in the narrative. It offers both hope to the downtrodden, the social outcasts of society, but also warns of how a sense of victimisation can become an all-consuming and destructive force, both to the perceived victim and the people around them. This is illustrated when the mutated Tetsuo crushes his girlfriend Kaori. Once again, this fear of self-destruction reveals a significant characteristic about Japanese society at the height of its post-war/post-atomic rise to power (Grace).

 

The bond between Tetsuo and Japanese society is strongest through the subject of “metamorphosis”. The character undergoes a clear development and degradation, embodied by a physical transformation and psychological breakdown. This “shifting nature of identity in a constantly changing society” has been an issue for the people of Japan for many years (Napier “Akira” 55). Torn between many beliefs and an ever evolving culture, Japan has had difficulty forming its own identity. It is an Asian nation that has adopted Western religious beliefs and a Western economy. Everything from technology to fashion passes through its culture at rapid succession. Mass audiences (or pop culture) are constantly changing, and constantly seeking new things (Shamoon). This struggle is shown in the development of Tetsuo, first mentally and then physically. At first, “Tetsuo rejects his powers in favor of what he knows” (Wynn). This is shown by the scene in which he goes back to take Kaneda’s bike. This also shows that although Tetsuo has grown in power, he still lacks control over himself. This implies that Japan, although it is gaining strength, “is still just waiting to fall apart from the inside out” and is “a country still trying, in an age of technology, to grasp hold of its own history” (Shamoon). Symbols of Japan’s past litter Akira, such as the Ronin—warriors who existed outside of the government and law—“much like the biker gangs of Neo Tokyo” (Shamoon). Akira suggests that “identity [both national and personal] is in constant fluctuation”, and can be read as postmodern text (Napier).


At the climax of the film Tetsuo transforms into a grotesque combination of man and machine. He is helpless to stop his own growth and screams for help from Kaneda. In this moment Tetsuo realises that, although he has become strong, authority still lies back with his leader Kaneda (Napier). This scene illustrates Japan’s own hesitation as a self-realised superpower, drawing on its feud with America over World War II and the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. Something with too much power can cause destruction that will be felt for generations to come. The American nuclear bombing of Japan didn’t just kill hundreds of thousands of civilians, but left a radioactive cloud of poison in the region for decades to come, causing countless mutations and deeply scaring the Japanese psyche. Likewise, the God-like entity known as Akira was responsible for the destruction of Tokyo and the beginning of World War III. The Japanese were able to bury Akira deep beneath Neo Tokyo, but never fully eradicate him. His subterranean presence was a constant memento to the city of a self-realised apocalypse. Like the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings, Akira could be contained, but never wholly forgotten… or forgiven. The Japanese social consciousness picks up on this and knows that “with growth in economy comes mass power”. Although it is “ever forming new faces”, Japanese culture still shows these “traits of advancement with great caution” (Shamoon).


While, the film presents some interesting allegories for modern Japan’s struggle for self-control, Akira remains a decidedly nihilistic text. Akira’s central images are of characters roaming the streets aimlessly on motorbikes (machines which themselves are a symbol of alienation). This seems to represent the futility of the quest for self-knowledge (Shapiro). The film also examines a society with no sense of history or parental guidance. All of the characters are orphans in some form, and maintain a strong distrust and revolt towards adult authority. The landscapes depicted are “ruinous”, with old Tokyo “represented only by a dark crater” (Grace). If Otomo is commenting on the cultural state of Japan, then his conclusion is not optimistic. Akira can also be read as an attack on the Japanese establishment, in which several aspects of Japanese culture are satirised, in particular “schooling and the rush for new technology” (Grace).

 

In American animated features “mass culture articulates social conflicts, contemporary fears, and utopian hopes and attempts at ideological containment and reassurance”.  (Napier). This illustrates how, in Western animation, audiences experience stories that are well rounded, happy in their conclusion and leave the central characters in a better world than when they started. On the other hand, Japanese animation “resists any attempt at ideological containment, and could well be a cinema of de-assurance, rather than reassurance” (Napier). This shows how anime, as a whole, is open to the hero falling, or of an open-ended conclusion, that doesn’t tie up all of the loose strands. This narrative style reflects the societies themselves. While “America [would deny] any fault in their society and hesitate to point this out directly on animated film”, Japanese animation “embraces [it] and makes [it] the battleground for most of their film’s questions” (Grace). In Akira, the lone anti-hero Tetsuo is isolated and alone, much like a lone nation, struggling against all the odds.


In 1997, the stock market collapsed in Japan. It was the biggest financial downturn since the Great Depression. Society in Japan cracked under the strain, eating away at its banking funds, and the growing super-power that was Japan started to crumble from the inside out (Shamoon). So, it could be said that Akira, in attempting to show what would happen if a country become too powerful to govern itself, actually predicted the Japanese economic crash. In other words, the unstoppable force Otomo was addressing in the late 80s is different to the modern Japanese landscape. Akira is really a “direct outgrowth of war and postwar experiences” (Wynn). Otomo grounded the work in recent Japanese history and culture, using the atomic bombing of Japan during World War II, alongside the economic resurgence as inspirations and underlying issues. Thematically the work centers on the nature of youth to rebel and the transformative passage of adolescence. This is represented by the morphing experienced by characters.

 

The film has prompted “both film and social historians to regard [it] as a unique source of insight into national cultures” (Napier). Tetsuo’s journey represents a struggling nation, changing identity all the time and never slowing down. The monster Tetsuo becomes by the end of the film was Japan’s ultimate fear. They had once desired an all-consuming, empirical power, but were shocked by the atrocities they committed and retaliation that was delivered to them, in pursuit of this power. Akira is about Japan’s ambivalence towards itself, towards its own history, and the monstrosities it is capable of. Akira reminds its audience that those who study evil are studied by evil.


The Appeal of Modern Warfare (VG article)

Posted on May 16, 2011 at 10:05 AM Comments comments (0)

With the impending release of Battlefield 3, the growing hatred for the Call of Duty series has reached a boiling point. Gamers (including myself) are continually flawed by each gameplay video of this upcoming title, with a host of gaming bloggers and YouTubers declaring Battlefield 3 the “COD killer”. While I feel COD gets a harsh wrap amongst gamers, I can sympathise with their distain. Like Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero, COD has become blockbuster franchise, with new installments released every year. Since the developers have been using the same engine for the past 4 years (a modified version of Doom 3) many gamers see the series as little more than glorified map packs. The popularity of the series has also turned off a lot of gamers, with its fanbase seemingly composed of ADD afflicted, prepubescent brats. Not to mention the diva-like behaviour of their core studio, Infinity War, and the almost James Bond level villainy of their publisher, Activision. So I thought I’d offer some thoughts as why the original Modern Warfare game was so highly praised, back in 2007.

 

After a decade of WWII shooters, gamers finally got a fresh, modern take on the FPS. Advanced weaponary; an emphasis on stealth and strategy; much improved enemy and ally AI; and a real sense of speed and desperation were all part of the games appeal. Modern Warfare was also much less linear than previous shooters. You could try an outflank the enemy via a number of routes, make use of explosives as distractions, or you could just run and gun; all required a degree of skill. Also impressive was the dialogue, which (while implausible to an actual soldier) had a sense of realism to it; and of course the voice-acting was top-notch for the time. And of course the graphics and level design were absolutely gorgeous for 2007, and still hold up today. Most importantly, however, was the multiplayer. It was simple enough to learn, but required weeks and months to master. The use of kill streaks encouraged practice and strategy; and the perks and guns were well balanced. The idea of prestige also helped balance the combat; as skilled players were working with less advantages. Many reviewers and gamers at the time saw Modern Warfare as the spiritual successor to Counterstrike, and to an extent they were right.

 

So, overall, it was the games fresh new FPS mechanics and excellent multiplayer that made it popular and critically acclaimed. While this has faded over the past few years with the avalanche or Modern Warfare clones and sequels, I feel that it is still a quality game that deserves its popularity. I think the main reason Call of Duty inspires such fanaticism is because, for many kids, it served as their main introduction to video games. And like most of the newly baptised, they see the world in very black and white terms. Call of Duty is their saviour, while its rival Halo, is damnation. The tourists will follow its long decent into oblivion (see: Sonic series), while the proper gamers will expand out into other games, and maybe start to look back on all of the games that influenced Call of Duty. Modern Warfare 1 and 2 are fine games (maybe not entirely original, but certainly enjoyable), however this third installment is just silly. I thought the series was supposed to be covert warfare and intelligence gathering, not a global conflict engulfing multiple nations. What's MW4 gonna be, an alien invasion? Actually, I could be down for that.

Group Polarisation (soc essay)

Posted on May 4, 2011 at 11:50 PM Comments comments (1)

The reasoning and decision-making process of an individual is altered, sometimes dramatically, when played out within the context of a group discussion. Social dynamics, such as firm leadership, minority or dissenting opinion, and the pressures of conformity, all play a role in determining the outcome of people’s choices. “Group polarisation” occurs when a dominant point of view is reinforced through conformity, and opposing views are ignored or suppressed. This process often leads the group to determine a more extreme position than would otherwise be made by individual rationale. Conversely, group polarisation can allow for more robust discussion, and a broader exchange of ideas and perspectives than would otherwise have been considered by an individual.

 

A study conducted at the University of Hong Kong explored the effects of computer-mediation on group discussions, and its association with group polarisation. Sia, Tan and Wei (2002) carried out two experiments, the first testing the impact of removing verbal and visual cues from an identifiable setting during discussion, and the second examined the provision of anonymity and reduced social presence. Results indicated that when discussing through computer messaging systems, participants had a reduced social presence and were more likely to present polarising arguments and engage in one-upmanship with other discussants. Group polarisation was even more pronounced when participants were anonymous in the computer-mediated discussions. The study outlined the significance of social presence in group discussions, and concluded that while group polarisation increased, participants were less likely to bow to conformist opinion, since their presence or identity was shielded by a computer screen. While this approach may foster more even-handed discussions, with participant’s able to stand firmer on their positions, anonymity does tend to foster hyperbolic statements and competitive, anti-social behaviour, which detract from the tenor and rationality of the decision-making process.

 

Straus, Parker & Bruce (2011) examined the nature of group polarisation within the intelligence analyst community. Traditionally, intelligence data has been dissected on an individual basis, but recent trends illustrate experts and policymakers relying on team-based exercises. Their studies found that pressures towards uniformity existed within such discussions, overconfidence leading to errors and missed data, and productivity lost in brainstorming activities. The conclusion of the study was critical of group polarisation within intelligence teams, as it tended to exert responsibility away from the individual, and not being dividing evenly among the team. It is an example of group context having a negative impact on accuracy and confidence.

 

A study conducted by the University of Iowa challenged the assumption that group polarisation occurred as a result of individuals attempting to differentiate themselves from outsider or “outgroup” positions. Krizan and Baron (2007) conducted an experiment in which participants were made to discuss moral dilemmas, with and without information on outgroup positions. The study found that this manipulation of information did not affect the degree of group polarisation, and participants displayed evidence of “ingroup” identification. Krizan and Bron concluded that the study refuted the notion that people categorised themselves as conforming to a group mentality.

 

On average, groups make more accurate judgments than individuals, and exert a higher level of confidence in doing so. Group polarisation draws on the diverse knowledge and experiences of a range of people, and helps individuals approach problems and decisions from different and sometimes more informed perspectives. Robust discussion may unearth aspects of an issue that an individual may not have even considered, and allows for a range of arguments to be given ample deliberation (Krizan & Baron, 2007). This is, of course, how group problems would be dealt with in an ideal world. Often, however, dominating personalities tend to sway the groups thought process to his or her point of view, and dissenting voices are humbled by a shared desire for agreement and courtesy. Likewise, “groupthink” reveals tendencies for close-knit groups to emphasise consensus by focusing selectively on information which supports the conforming opinion, and suppressing external information which challenges it. Groupthink often deprives the group of critical thinking and rational decision-making, again leading to extremist or risky resolutions, than would otherwise be made by an individual. Such processes can often be observed in political or religious discussions, in which members of a party or faith will reinforce each others views, while at the same time dismissing or ignoring external arguments against their position.

 

"Anonymous" Responsible for the PSN Outages? (VG articles)

Posted on May 2, 2011 at 10:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Apparently Sony posted a message that “an outside party” may be responsible for the PSN outages (which could last another couple of days). And this message was posted by the Anonymous Facebook page:

 

"Take a break from online gaming for a while... it will help your skills, your health, and your emotional levels, which by the way are a bit out of order if they are being shackled by the PSN being down. We have no qualms about our actions, even though it may affect fellow anonymous or supporters... we hope they understand the bigger picture."

 

Obviously this doesn't take away from Sony's poor handling of the situation, but as someone who's pretty indifferent to Anonymous, this kind of pisses me off. If it's true of course. I wouldn't care so much, but this comes just after the release of Portal 2, Mortal Kombat, SOCOM 4, and the Infamous 2 beta. Here's a link to the article.

 

UPDATE: Over a month later and PSN is finally back and running. Sony has lost billions in profit and branding, and along with gamers everywhere, is keen to hunt down the hackers responsible. It’s still unclear whether Anonymous was responsible, or if was a splinter cell claiming to represent the group. Regardless, Anonymous’s reputation is almost as damaged as Sony’s. The hacking of American credit details have even raised the ire of U.S. congressmen. On the plus side, Sony is offering two free games and a 30-day PSN+ subscription, as part of their “Welcome Back” package.

Resident Evil 5 (VG review)

Posted on April 27, 2011 at 10:55 AM Comments comments (0)

Resident Evil 5 is tricky game to critique. On its own, it's a perfectly enjoyable and engaging action horror game. The visuals look superb, and the level of detail in the environments really helps immerse you in the storyline. The enemies are creepy and suitably threatening (as zombies should be), and the soundtrack creates a real sense of nervous tension. However, the game is part of a series, and the fact that it borrows so liberally from the previous installment really hurts the experience, and the game suffers by comparison. The fact that the entire village starts attacking you in the first level lacks any impact because that's exactly what they did in Resident Evil 4. So, right from the get go, the game is sticking to a previously established formula, and is failing to execute it as well as its predecessor.

 

The game is much shorter than RE4, the bosses are much less imaginative, and the storyline is even more contrived. The Resident Evil series has always skimped on decent voice actors, but this is just absurd. With the exception of Chris, every character ranges from camp to hysterical. RE4 managed to embrace the theatricality of the series, but still maintain a core element of horror. This game fails miserably, jumping from tension filled gameplay, to an almost Austin Powers level of campiness. RE4 certainly delved into the action genre, but it always routed the gameplay in survival horror. Health was low, enemies were violent, and ammo was scarce. This game feels more like John McClane being air-dropped into Dawn of the Dead. You never feel the same sense of danger and desperation you should in a horror game. The developers have got the tone and gameplay mechanics all wrong.

 

Which brings us to one of the few new elements introduced to the series – the co-op mode. For the entire game you play alongside a character named Sheva (who can be operated by a second player). Overall I found her to be more useful than a hindrance. She can hold onto items when your cache is full and will run over to heal you if you’re low on health. However, this sort of removed that sense of desperation I was talking about, (1) because someone else has you’re back; (2) because you’re never alone throughout the game; and (3) you don’t have to worry about low health, because she’ll always be there to heal you. While I certainly appreciated her in-game, in hindsight it took out the “survival” element of survival horror. Another gripe I have is the inventory cache. In RE4 items took up room according to their size. For example, a herb would take up 1 square, while a rifle would take up about 20. And you could upgrade the size of your cache as the game progressed. In this game, however, every item takes up 1 square, but you have decidedly less squares of inventory and no option to upgrade. So according to this game, a herb and a rifle each take up the same space, and while some items will stack, like ammo, other won’t. There’s no rhythm or reason to any of it. It does force you to manage your inventory much more with Sheva, which I liked, and there was a larger inventory cache, but it could only be accessed in-between levels. I liked how the game wouldn’t pause when accessing the cache though. That made sense and added to the tension of gameplay.

 

So in summary, Resident Evil 5 pales in comparison to the previous installment in the series. And it compounds that failure by copying so much from it. However, it is still a fun little action-horror romp. And it’s short enough and has enough fun, exciting moments for me to at least recommend it as a rental. Fans of the series will be disappointed, but your average gamer will get plenty of fun out of mowing down zombies in the Sahara.

Donkey Kong Country Returns - Thoughts, Frustrations & Triumphs! (VG article)

Posted on April 19, 2011 at 10:00 AM Comments comments (0)

So I started playing this game about a week ago, and I was really enjoying it, but I was kind of disappointed how bananas and lives weren't really as important as they were in the original DKC games. The original game in particular forced you beat about three levels at a time, before you could save your progress, and lives reset to 4 once you turned off the console. In DKCR however, you kept your lives; you could buy more lives; and the game saved automatically. The actual gameplay was fun and as challenging as the original, but it felt like some fundamental part had been taken out of the original experience. I didn't feel the same desperation to complete a level. I wasn't hunting down every banana and life balloon, like it had the cure for cancer in it. I was dying plenty by the 3rd and 4th world, but by then I had wracked up about 50 lives, and over 400 coins. They all felt meaningless, and my checkpoint was never threatened by a sudden Game Over screen.

 

Then, I think it was the 5th or 6th World, the tide started to turn dramatically. I don't wanna say the difficulty got turned up to 11, but the challenge increased just enough so that getting a checkpoint was tough enough that I needed to hold onto it. My lives started to fetter away like dry leaves. I found myself on single-digits, and finally got my first Game Over screen. I was annoyed, but at the same time invigorated that the game had finally started to fight back. This was a real challenge now, like the platformers of old. In fact, by world 7 and 8, I'd say the difficulty surpassed any of the original games and many of the great platformers of the NES/SNES era. By worlds 7 and 8 I was having to buy 20 or 30 lives a level, just to secure the KONG letters. It was brilliant, and I'm glad Retro managed to create such a fun, gorgeous, and challenging platformer, out one of my favourite gaming franchises.

 

On a separate note, however, whoever designed Time Attack in this game is a real jerk. Don't get me wrong, I love the game to bits. In fact it's probably my favourite Wii title behind Super Mario Galaxy 2. But the Time Attack stages just piss me off, especially for an obsessive completist like me.

 

First of all, why have the timer continue to run after you die. The timer should reset to what it was, after you passed a checkpoint, or back to zero, if you're back to the start of the level. This design cue just makes no sense, and seems to be there just to infuriate the player. It means that if you die, you have to pause and click "retry". There's no point even having a checkpoint in the level, if the timer continues from what it was when you died. It just makes NO SENSE!! It's tough enough to race through a stage with no errors, but you can't die once, which is essentially impossible on some of the later stages.

 

Which brings me to my next problem, the times are incredibly tough to achieve. For the early worlds, sure you can beat a level without dying but making it under the time limit my take a few hours. But for worlds 6 onwards it seems to be an exercise in masochism. You never know if you would have made the time, because I die by the half way mark. The only later levels I can complete in Time Attack are rocket or mine cart, since it's impossible to speed up or slow down. Everything else is just too tough.

 

And lastly, if you thought the gold medal was hard enough to aquire, there's a secret "shiney" gold medal, that you have no idea what the criteria for getting is, and never will because it's impossible. You might have to shave 1 second off your time, or up to 20. Now I'm sure there's master players out there who can do all of this, but I'm not one of them. This was a tough game to complete and since I managed that I can call myself a good platform gamer, but this Time Attack would take weeks and weeks of playing to accomplish, and I just don't have the time. Even though I love this game. It just irritates me. Sigh...

Dark Daze (poem)

Posted on April 19, 2011 at 2:05 AM Comments comments (0)

I remember the grey ships colliding

Over the shoulder of jagged ridges

Tongues of flame dripping over mountain tops

Webs of light painting the frantic skies

 

Echoes of life passing long into the abyss

Only a vacuous horizon approaches now

Consuming all of my craft

Sneering with such shocking cruelty

 

A dark, passionless thought

Punctuated once by voices of ecstasy

Voices of sorrow, voices of triumph and pain

Now a cold, crude nothingness, stretched eternal

 

It’s still silence curdles the blood

A glistening body of colour and movement

Freed now of memory and feeling

A deepening void that is one’s own eyes

 

The regret and mourning surged infinite

But now I feel nothing

The long, slow fall out of love

A loathing canopy dappling my isolation

 

These wicked wreaths spin mercilessly

Consuming a lifetime of meaning and knowledge

Spiders, oppressive and unflinching

Dine on my misery, choking till the last bite

 

My face carved of expression

My hands bound by remorse

A simple dream of friendship

Now bleeds eternal in my mind.

The Killer (film essay)

Posted on April 17, 2011 at 12:40 AM Comments comments (3)

In The Killer, the tendency for violence to coincide with episodes of heightened emotion reflects wider social tensions in Hong Kong between 1984 and 1997. This essay will discuss how the film responds to Hong Kong’s political climate at the time of its release; examining religious themes as well as the depiction of Chinese masculinity and male bonding.


The Killer is a classic tale of loyalty, betrayal and bloodshed. It was central to the growth of Hong Kong cinema during the 1980s and 90s, and launched director John Woo and lead actor Chow Yun-fat into international stardom. Yun-fat plays a disillusioned hitman who takes one last assignment in order to mend a girl he blinded on a previous mission. The film illustrates “[the] chivalric tradition of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema”, where “cops and noble villains sometimes join forces in defense of traditional virtues and personal honour” (Chute).

 

The Killer was released during the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty, from the United Kingdom to the Republic of China. The actual handover didn’t occur until 1997, but the joint declaration was signed in 1984. For this reason the Hong Kong cinema boom that occurred during this period, which included The Killer and Woo’s other early action films, can be seen as a response to the political and social instability of the region (Stringer). Hong Kong was in a state of flux. It was the child of two powers—colonial Britain and mainland China—and the future of its culture and place in the world was now uncertain (Stringer). This tension can be felt in the films of the time.


However, the Hong Kong “New Wave” was more than just a product of national transition. The seeds were planted in the 1970s with the birth of new and modern cinema movements in France and America; the triumph of the Cantonese language (creating a more unified film industry); superpower status in the East Asian market; and increased attention from the West towards Asian cinema. John Woo took advantage of the advances in “visual style, technical polish [and] special effects” (Chute). Like his colleagues, he pushed the boundaries of sensationalism; combining genres of comedy, slapstick, sex, and “above all, action” (Chute). While mainland China focused on creating lavish historical dramas, seeking to promote the richness of their culture and history (with government funded epics); Hong Kong cinema delved into gun-fights, kung fu and blood-soaked melodrama. This could be seen as a crisis of identity. They were a nation who weren’t in control of their own destiny; they were struggling against a changing tide (Brown). “New Hong Kong cinema came into existence under very special circumstances, during a period of social and political crisis resulting in a change of cultural paradigms” (Brown). Elements of Hong Kong society may have also resented the colonial authorities for allowing the handover to occur, illustrated through the common themes of betrayal (Brown).

 

Religion plays a dominant, yet ambiguous, role in The Killer. The church literally frames the movie, acting as a symbol of peace, refuge and finally judgement. The opening sequence presents the Killer’s friend walking down the aisle to arrange a contract with him; as they meet in the pews the friend asks, “Do you believe in God?” The Killer responds, “No, but I enjoy the tranquility here.” This remark “establishes the irony of the final shootout”, as the church is “no longer able to provide the peace that the Killer seeks” (Chute). It is itself, torn apart. Its most prominent icons—the cross, candles, the priest, and the Virgin Mary—are systematically destroyed (Chute). The church is also linked to violence through “[the] direct association of the Killer with Jesus” (Chute). This connection appears immediately after the Killer completes his first mission of the film, during which he is shot and seriously wounded. The bullet is extracted in a church, with the Killer gazing up at the crucifix in agony. Right before the film's final scene, the Killer is shown again under this same cross, wondering if he will be betrayed (Browning).

 

Similar to Woo’s other hits, A Better Tomorrow and Hardboiled, The Killer deals explicitly with the theme of “the individual fighting for loyalty and honour within a corrupt institution” (Browning). These films demonstrate the “changing understanding of the role of the free-agent individual” in Hong Kong society (Browning). In fact, these three films act as a kind of allegory of male anxiety over Hong Kong's future. They argue that there is no place for the individual in Hong Kong, except for when this individuality is completely integrated within the organization (Browning). However, while this individuality is “always framed in the context of larger institutions”, its true potential is revealed through “[the] alliances forged between individual men (Chute). In other words, male bonding is crucial to the way in which Hong Kong's future relationship with China in being imagined. Specifically, these films seem to represent the fantasy of a relationship between men, as well as the fear of China and all it represents (“returning to a differently organized and less developed kind of economy... [and] a mode of social relations that has strong ties to its feudal past”) that makes the homoerotic element such a compelling fantasy (Chute).


However, this homoeroticism always occurs within moments of excessive violence; a violence that is represented as stylish and almost operatic (Gates). The techniques Woo uses, including soft focus, slow motion, and subtle colours, portray the violence as romantic (Gates). Moreover, in shoot-outs between the heroes and villains, the heroes seem to “dance and swoon as they fire their weapons”, and such scenes are “inundated with the discharge of lead and fluids being expelled” from weapons and male bodies (Chute). Regardless of the relationship Woo intended to portray between these two men, the symbolism suggests a sexual chemistry to melodramatic to ignore.

 

The final reconciliation between cop and criminal may be a call for unity within the Hong Kong community. It may speak to a common sense of honour among citizens against the daunting tide of the unknown, and of change, that Chinese absorption threatens.


Mother Courage and Her Children (lit essay)

Posted on April 10, 2011 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (1)

The early decades of the twentieth century were marked by significant challenges to, and anxiety about, traditional definitions of gender, which were reflected in the literature and art of the time. This essay will discuss the treatment of gender in Mother Courage and Her Children (Brecht 1939). It will focus of the portrayal of femininity in the play; examining character development and attitudes towards gender within the setting of play and when it was composed.


Mother Courage and Her Children is set during the Thirty Years War in 17th century Europe. It follows a canteen woman named Mother Courage, who makes a living off trading with the soldiers from the war. Her three children, Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese (whom she is very protective of), are killed one by one in her attempts to profit from the war (Mews). Each of her children is ascribed with some virtue – Eilif is brave; Kattrin is kind; and Swiss Cheese is honest. And the mother herself is given the title of “courage”. Unfortunately each of these virtues brings great tragedy on its bearer. Perhaps the play is arguing that in times of war and desperation, acts of morality are punished. Or perhaps these titles are meant to be subjective or even ironic. Eilif’s acts of bravery include the slaughtering of villagers; one side’s war hero might be another side’s war criminal. Likewise, Mother Courage herself, is at times quite ruthless and conniving, and could be seen as seeking fortune in the misery of others (Mews). Most of the characters in the play have no vested interest in the greater good. They are just trying to survive. And when a character makes some effort to protect others, like when Kattrin warns the townsfolk of an attack, they are punished for it.


Mother Courage is quite a tragic character. She loves her children, but thrusts them in harms way through her business ventures. She is a strong female character, in that she refuses to depend on men for survival (Horwich). She is intelligent and strong, but lacks the archetypal trait of maternity. Her daughter Kattrin, plays a kindler, gentler role; in stark contrast to her mother’s “coldhearted business sense” (Matik). Courage’s “war spoils consist of what she can scavenge”, while Kattrin’s are the children she can save (Matik). While Kattrin is mute for most of the play, she is able to save the children of Halle from imminent attack. Kattrin succeeded where her mother could not, in protecting her children. Brecht argued that “sometimes silence is the loudest force”, as evidenced by the Kattrin’s sacrifice at the climax of the play (Wright). Since death is a natural part of wartime, perhaps the Bretch is commenting on how it’s more important to die for something noble. Eilif is killed in retribution for murdering villagers, while Kattrin is killed for saving them. Kattrin’s sacrifice might also be an allegory for Christ’s own death on the cross, absorbing the sins of humanity. Centuries later, in bitter irony, humanity continues to commit acts of brutality and butchery against one another in his name (Catholics vs Protestants). Even though Mother Courage is given the name of mother, it is really Kattrin who espouses the virtues of this feminine role (Wright).


The other gender archetype the play depicts is of the female as an object of sexual desire. The character Yvette plays the part of camp prostitute, and represents “femininity and feminine eroticism” (Matik). She is also quite a tragic character, having been betrayed by her lover years earlier, she sells her body as a means of survival, and because prostitution is the “only way love remains available to her in wartime” (Matik). Like Mother Courage, she not dependant on men, but exploits their lust (as they exploit her) for financial gain. Yvette’s sexual promiscuity mirrors Kattrin’s own “awaking (and repressed) sexual desires” (Matik). The danger of being raped or forced into prostitution is a constant threat the war poses to Kattrin. She is therefore forced to “lay low” until peacetime, before she can consider marriage. Privately, however, Kattrin “plays the whore” when she tries on Yvette’s fetishistic red shoes, in a bid for sexual recognition. The disfigurement she receives during the war will “ultimately make her marriage impossible” (Matik), and so she focuses her affection on children. Kattrin, therefore represents the bridge between the two female archetypes in the play – maternal and erotic.


Modern Times (film essay)

Posted on April 4, 2011 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (0)

Discussion Questions


Almost a decade after the introduction of “talkies”, Modern Times was released as largely a silent film. The only audible dialogue (apart from the singing waiters at the end) comes from machines, like radios and television screens. Why do you think Chaplin chose to keep most of the film silent? And how does it relate to the themes of the film?

This first question focuses on the context of the film. It is designed to provoke discussion regarding the benefits and failings of modernisation, and how this concept manifests itself throughout the film. The film presents industrialisation as a grim, dehumanising force. Chaplin himself argued against the use of sound in film, because he felt it detracted from the physical wit of the performer, and the naturalism of the camera. The question is supposed to challenge our perception of technology, which today is seen as a symbol of progress. Chaplin, however, depicts technology as suppressing of people’s individuality and creativity. The fact that only the machines of the film are allowed to speak indicates a direct correlation between Chaplin’s view on sound in film and industrial modernization. The question is also meant to look at how characters communicate in silent film; the use of physical comedy and “slapstick” humour; and what sorts of ideas the film presents. Modern Times was the last of the silent films. Is the film about the end of silent cinema and the shift to new Hollywood?

 

Modern Times has been called one of Chaplin’s most political films. What evidence is there for this? What messages or arguments about society do you think the film tries to convey?

This question is about the ideas or messages the film is trying to impart on the audience. It is meant to generate specific examples of political or social commentary. Examples could include the horrible working conditions; the dehumanisation of American labourers; the mechanization of society; the effects of the Great Depression; and the fight for worker’s rights (unionism). The question is also meant to focus on the film’s depiction 1930’s American society, for the lower/working class. It should generate discussion of how life was back then; the socio-economic gap between workers and bosses; and how people sought escape from the monotony of manual labour. The efficiency of industrialism meant that one worker was now doing the work of many, forcing unemployment, which leads to desperation and crime. The film, as well being a very funny, biting satire, also offers a great snapshot of the era. The discussion could also touch on the film’s depiction of communism, as it was responsible for putting Chaplin on the “Hollywood Blacklist” as a possible communist sympathizer, leading eventually to his exile from America. Though Chaplin’s character is an unwitting leader in the communist march, the film depicts some pretty horrific working conditions at the factory. Chaplin could have been making an argument for workers rights, or he could have just been making an argument against industrialism.

 

Perhaps the films most famous image is of Chaplin being fed through a series of spinning cogs and gears. What do you think this shot in the film symbolizes? What are some other images in the film that stuck out to you?

The final question is about the imagery and symbolism presented throughout the film. The first part of the question deals with the famous image of Chaplin’s character being fed through a machine. This contrasts with the earlier scene of a machine attempting to feed the worker, designed to increase productivity. What is the relationship between these two images? Does it suggest a symbiotic relationship between man and machine, or the gradual mechanisation of people (twisting men into mechanical figures)? Different theories should be discussed. The question also asks about other striking or thematic images depicted throughout the film. Examples could include the workers exiting the trains like a herd of sheep; the hard, dark, frantic patterns of the factory and prison, juxtaposed against the soft, quiet, tones of nature; Chaplin’s waiter being pulled to and fro by the café crowd (an individual being swallowed by the tide of modernity). The question should generate different interpretations of these images, and how they relate to the film’s theme of modern life. One theory could be the dissolution of the individual. Everyone moves in uniform. The American worker, once a builder and craftsman, is now little more than gears in an assembly line.


Seven Samurai (film essay)

Posted on March 28, 2011 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (0)

This report will outline what is meant by the terms “high culture” and “popular culture”, comparing and contrasting their relevance to Asian cinema. In defining these terms, it will also refer to the film Seven Samurai.


High culture refers to a set of artistic products held in the highest esteem by an elite culture; usually aristocracy or intelligentsia. It is contrasted with popular or low culture, which supposedly appeals to the less educated, or “the masses” (Storey).


The term “high culture” first appeared in Mathew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, where he described it as “the disinterested endeavour after man's perfection”; arguing that that having culture meant to “know the best that has been said and thought in the world” (Storey). Arnold also argued that it was a force for moral and political good; inextricably linked to philosophical thought (Storey).


High culture is primarily of an appreciation of “high art”; encompassing literature, music, painting, theatre, and most recently cinema. The American critic Harold Bloom championed the idea of a Western canon; that is, works of high art which have been of great importance in influencing Western culture. This line of argument was derisive of popular culture (Bakhtin). It also excludes the work of Asian artists, such as director Akira Kurosawa.


Historically speaking, products of high culture are more likely to be produced during periods of high civilisation, within a wealthy and sophisticated urban-based society (Bakhtin). Examples of this within Western canon are the Greco-Roman tradition and the Victorian era. Japanese cinema, following its defeat in World War II, is an exception to this rule. The 1950s is widely considered Japan’s golden age of cinema (Mellen). Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Rashomon, as well as Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, are highly regarded in the West. They have appeared on the Sight & Sound’s 2002 Critics and Directors Poll for “Best Film of All Time” (IMDb).


Popular culture refers to the ideas, images and attitudes that are preferred within the mainstream culture of a given society. Like high culture it encompasses literature, music and film, but as the name suggests, popular culture is far more prevalent in lives of everyday people, and is heavily influenced by mass media (Hartley). Although movies have found appreciation and analysis within high culture, they permeate far deeper into popular culture.


There are several competing definitions of popular culture. John Storey dissects several theories in his book, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. He argues that popular culture is mass culture – “mass produced for mass consumption” (Storey). In other words, high culture is art, popular culture is entertainment. Of course he also acknowledges that some works have appealed to both audiences, such as and Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare (Storey). Even more cynically, Storey defines popular culture as “the left overs”, once works of high culture have been established.


Offering a more optimistic view, T. S. Eliot talked about high and popular cultures as necessary parts of a complete cultural discourse (Bakhtin). He added that popular culture provided the perspective of working-class people, while high culture tended to focus on people of wealth and privilege (Bakhtin). Each work is concerned with the cultural experience of diverging classes.


Seven Samurai is an excellent example of high culture, as it introduced several structural innovations to Western and Asian cinema. It was the first film to feature the recruiting and gathering of heroes to accomplish a specific goal. This now-common plot element was used in later films (Mellen), such as Ocean’s Eleven, The Dirty Dozen, and Guns of the Navarone. It also included other plot devices—the reluctant hero; the nervousness of the commoners; and a romance between the youngest hero and a local woman—which are now a staples of visual narrative. The plot of Seven Samurai has also been remade into several different genres, including Western (The Magnificent Seven); Sci-Fi (Battle Beyond the Stars); Action (Mad Max 2); and Animated (A Bug’s Life) (IMDb).


In conclusion, high culture and popular culture, as argued by Eliot, are equally important elements in the cultural milieu of a society. They can each offer different perspectives on a wide stratum of cultural experiences.


Shooter Showdown: Modern Warfare 2 v Black Ops (VG article)

Posted on March 18, 2011 at 10:00 AM Comments comments (0)

I beat Black Ops last year and I actually just bought Modern Warfare 2 a few weeks ago, and I have to say, I much prefer MW2. The visuals are crisper and cleaner; the levels are better designed and more detailed; and the weapons and gadgets are much cooler. The campaign in BO is probably more interesting and certainly longer, but I felt it was too linear, with too many quick-time events, like the dev's were funneling you along this prescribed path and you were just going through motions. The same could be said of MW2, but I felt there was more freedom and interactivity. The environments were certainly much bigger. The actual plot of MW2 is pretty preposterous, but still quite fun with some great set pieces. Like the part where you're in Washington and an EMP blast takes off all the power, so helicopters start falling out of the sky. It's pretty silly, but still fun.

 

MW2 also has Spec Ops, which are short missions that you can complete solo or in co-op (online and split-screen). I feel like this makes up for the short campaign and I actually had more fun with these missions than the actual narrative. Co-op is a must. BO doesn't have Spec Ops. Instead it has zombie mode (think Left4Dead), which is also quite fun in co-op, but it gets a little boring and repetitive after a while.

 

As for the online, I also prefer MW2. Some people have complained that BO is more balanced in terms of perks, weapons and killstreaks, but that hasn't been my experience. Maybe it was worse last year, after the game was released, but I think a lot of campers, noobtubers and hackers have moved on to BO, while the more serious games have remained. I've had the game for about 2 weeks and I'm averaging about 20 kills a match with the UMP. Maybe some people will find it unbalanced, but I'm enjoying it. I will say the sniper quick-scoping can get pretty irritating and every now and then you'll come across a noobtuber (someone who only uses the grenade launcher, and resupplies its ammo with the One Man Army perk). Both of these issues are apparently fixed in BO, so that might be why it's preferred. I also feel the levels is MW2 are easier to get around. Some of levels in BO's felt way to large and cumbersome. Although, apparently camping in BOs is trickier, so that may sway your opinion towards them. I will say BO was much easier to find opponents for, whereas MW2 takes more time for some modes (like Search and Destroy) and occasionally you'll lose the connection. So that also might be a reason to get the newer installment. Although if that's the case, you might as well wait till MW3.

What's the Point of "GOTY" Editions? (VG article)

Posted on February 12, 2011 at 8:55 AM Comments comments (1)

I can’t seem to figure out the appeal of these re-released game packs. The ones I've seen just include a bunch of new maps/costumes that can be downloaded online, anyway. Am I missing something? I'm assuming you're a huge fan of the series because you're planning on getting the DLC before even playing it, but that also means you're going to have to restrain yourself from buying/playing the next installment in that franchise, possibly for 12 months. It's like a strange kind of torture. Sure you'll save money, but you'll be playing a game a year after it mattered. For good or bad, this is never an issue for Wii owners. The day Zelda comes out, I'm on it like stink on a monkey.

 

If I was going to be cynical; I’d say it’s just an attempt to get money out of the consumer by adding maybe an hour of extra gameplay. It goes towards the argument of releasing a game before it is truly finished, which is a pet peeve I have for this generation. Some sites have even nourished a suspicion that this content is already present of the disc, and that you are simply paying to unlock it. WHat are your thoughts on the issue?

Using Headphones for Gaming (VG article)

Posted on January 3, 2011 at 8:50 AM Comments comments (0)

Recently I've noticed how little I actually use the TV speakers while playing games. I always use headphones, even for movies. I find that it creates a much nicer atmosphere; it's more immersive, you can detect all of the subtle sound queues that would be lost in speakers, and it blocks out unwanted noise. It also helps you focus a lot more on what is going on on-screen, since the audio isn't being filtered. I suppose if I had a surround sound system it would be even more immersive, but those are a couple of hundred dollars at least, whereas a good pair of headphones is only $30-40. Also, I live in a dorm, so I can't really be blasting Mario Kart through my speakers at 2 in the morning.

 

You don't actually need an audio jack in your TV to set up headphones. You just need to plug a red and white cable into the audio-out jacks on the back of the TV. Then, in order to connect that cable to a headphone cable, you need to buy a little metal thing that can receive a plug at each end (Freudian slip). I can't for the life of me remember what they're called, but I just explained that I wanted a wired headphone setup at my local electronics store (Dick Smiths [more slips]) and they gave me the cable and the little metal thing. It only cost $12 and $4 respectively.

 

Now, the only thing is that, on this setup, the volume will be at a set level. It doesn't matter whether you mute the TV or turn it up to 100, the volume on the headphones will remain at a medium level. In order to control the volume on the headphones, you need to buy another red-white audio cable and plug it into the auxiliary input of a stereo. Then plug the other end into the little metal thing. Now you can plug your headphones into your stereo and control the volume via the dial, or you can unplug you headphones and listen through the stereo speaker. I guess it depends on the setup of your room, or whether you mind a few cables, but apparently a wired connection has a much better sound quality that wireless.

Component Cables in Department Stores (VG article)

Posted on December 14, 2010 at 8:45 AM Comments comments (0)

Has anyone noticed that department stores like K-Mart and Target refuse to hook up their video game displays using anything higher than composite cables. The Wii and 360 don't seem to suffer too badly, but if you blow up video from a PS3 onto a widescreen LCD, using composite cables, then things are going to look nasty. I was playing an Infamous demo the other day, and the graphics seriously looked like they were pulled straight out of Grand Theft Auto 3. It looked like Vaseline had been smeared over the monitor or something. I can’t imagine what sort of setups casual gamers have employed. Seriously folks, invest in some component or HDMI cables. You’re console will thank you for it.

Shooter Showdown: GoldenEye 007 v Metroid Prime (VG article)

Posted on October 15, 2010 at 9:45 AM Comments comments (0)

That's a tricky one. Obviously GoldenEye 007 is the more influential game, as it created many of the conventions of modern day first-person shooters, and practically revolutionised the genre, but being a 12 year old game, it holds up nowhere near as well as Metroid Prime does. GoldenEye has a brilliant multiplayer and an engaging, challenging single-payer experience (certainly longer than contemporary incarnations like Modern Warfare). Unfortunately, as FPS's are the dominant genre these days, it pales in comparison (in terms of visuals, controls and considering its generic plot, it lacks generational reach). Whereas Metroid Prime, despite being overtaken in the graphics and gameplay department, is still one of the most unique and atmospheric gaming experiences in history. It rises above the technology of the day (like Ocarina of Time), as a truly great sci-fi story. What's also impressive is how unique, detailed and interconnected all of the environments are. Most shooters are divided into levels, while Metroid prides itself on creating a single alien world for the player to explore. Metroid Prime is especially significant for how unique each room in the game is, making exploration and backtracking much more appealing. So, my vote goes to Metroid Prime. Both games are excellent of course and a must for gamers interested in the history of the genre. The Half-Life series acts as something of medium between the two games, employing modern weaponry and objective based missions, but in a single unbroken environment with platoforming and a sci-fi narrative.

The Celebration (film essay)

Posted on October 15, 2010 at 12:30 AM Comments comments (1)

The Celebration is the first entry in the Danish film movement, Dogma 95. Film-makers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg crafted the Dogme Manifesto (or “Vow of Chastity”) in an effort to “cleanse cinema of an obsessive concern for technique” and “rehabilitate a cinema which foregrounded the story [and] the inner life of its characters” (Hjort). They rejected the “superficiality and ‘trickery’” of mainstream film-making. Films made according to the Dogma principles, like The Celebration, typically have a rough, raw, gritty quality; far removed from the “slick artifice and technical virtuosity of [Hollywood]” (Hjort).


In his dissection of the Danish film-making collective, Jean-Pierre Geuens wrote that “if you change the way a film is conceived and shot, you alter its very core, the kind of film it is… If you give up the traditional tools of filmmaking, the entire conventional edifice eventually collapses” (Geuens). This essay will examine how applicable this argument is to The Celebration; how Vinterberg has used and subverted conventional narrative and character motivation. It will also explore the visual style and film-making technique Vinterberg has employed, through the lens of the Dogma initiative.

 

The Celebration is an exploration of several confronting issues, including child and spousal abuse; revenge; racism; and, in the process, shows how difficult it can be to differentiate between love and hate, when the lines between them become blurred (Hoberman). Vinterberg addresses a very twisted family dynamic, combining uncomfortable melodrama with an undercurrent of dark humour. The film depicts a wide range of troubled characters. First and foremost is Christian, the passive eldest son. Portrayed with a quiet intensity, he has a haunted but determined look in his eyes. Christian doesn’t seem like the kind of man who seeks a confrontation, but the memory of being molested as a child appears to be “a struggle he can no longer suffer in silence” (Hoberman). Christian’s polar opposite is his younger brother Michael, who is presented as “a thoughtless, vicious brute” who “terrorises his wife [and] anyone else who doesn’t agree with him”. It is unclear how deeply the events that moulded Christian's life affected Michael's development, but there is clearly a link (Ebert). The third child, Helene, is “a portrait of camouflaged sadness”, still upset over the recent suicide of her older sister (Michael’s twin). The other major character, Helge, the patriarch of the family, is something of an enigma (Hoberman). Seemingly a kind father and respected gentleman, he is revealed to have committed horrific crimes against his own children, and yet his humiliation by the final scene is so complete that the audience is almost made to feel sorry for him (Hoberman). Indeed, every character is depicted as flawed, troubled, and yet ultimately sympathetic.


The subject of child abuse remains a very challenging matter for a movie, and the setting chosen by Vinterberg is one of the most provocative. The family reunion is a very relatable event, and the audience are able to recognize patterns, while at the same time, the very formal atmosphere “creates a stage for Christian’s revelation” (MacKenzie). This echoes TV shows such as Rikki Lake and Jerry Springer, in which “a live audience decides what’s right and wrong” and the “victim” is given advice in making their decision (Guthmann). The good patriarch, the cheerful mother, the senile grandparents and the four typical children are people we’ve met before. Any viewer can recognise such personality types. They are very representative of any family, in any class of the society, and since they are very stereotyped, “they are easy to relate to and to recognize” (MacKenzie).


Vinterberg also uses the conventional break between the good servants, living downstairs and the masters, “keeper of the appearances”. Part of the house for such a long time, the servants know the truth and will help the protagonist to succeed. Here Kim, the cook, who provokes a meeting between Christian and his father after the first speech, organises from downstairs the hiding of guest’s keys and prevents any taxis from reaching the manor (Hjort). Pia (forever in love with Christian) gives Linda’s letter to Christian, which is the final step for the truth to be revealed. Besides the privileged extended family and their servants, there is Gba-tokai, Helene’s African-American boyfriend. Gba-tokai may serve as a surrogate for the English-speaking audience, as he does not speak a word of Danish, but is able to “feel” what is going on. The family's reaction towards him is “a very cheap denunciation of racism... totally out of the plot and the only secondary story which does [not] find a logical resolution”. He may also symbolise the new progressive, multi-cultural world (which Christian and Helene have embraced), confronting the old generation, in all their grotesque hypocrisy (Hjort). Making use of such stereotypes and many others allows the viewer to feel connected to the film; to be part of it because they can easily recognise such patterns from real life and from their own cultural background (Hjort).


Another narrative convention Vinterberg plays off is the idea of the “fairy tale”. The “out of the world universe”, the “upstairs-downstairs division” but most of all, Christian asking Pia to join him in Paris gives us the feeling we are watching a fairy tale (Guthmann). The “noble blonde hero” has “eradicated the evil king, helped by the beautiful princess who was locked in the castle”, and the newly-formed couple will, for sure, live happily ever after (Guthmann). Christian could also be seen as a lonely, Clint Eastwood-type crusader, coming to make justice in this outside world (Hoberman) Such a narrative cues seems at odds with the Dogmatic principles of staunch realism, though Vinterberg may also be using Hollywood clichés to emphasis the inherent horror of the situation.

 

One of the key elements of The Celebration is the style in which it is presented. It was filmed using a shaky, hand-held camera with natural lighting and little or no post-production, other than to transfer the video image to a 35 mm negative (Ebert). Vinterberg’s approach mimics the look of a TV mockumentary (such as The Office) or a reality TV show (such as Big Brother). The effect is to “make the viewer feel like he or she is part of the action”; “an impotent observer seated [at] the table with all of these individuals” (Hoberman). It is a somewhat unnerving experience, as the characters become real to us. Their actions take on an importance they would not if the circumstances seemed less intimate (Hoberman).


The Celebration was shot with one of the smallest digital video camera available, a Sony PC7, which fits in the palm of a hand (Ebert). This produces a rather blotchy, grainy image when transferred to 35-millimeter. Vinterberg frames and edits it with “such eccentric [yet] logical abandon” (Ebert) He cuts suddenly to overhead shots, crosscutting between as many as three simultaneously unfolding scenes and jump-cutting at regular intervals. He “counteracts the continuity of the plot with as much discontinuity as possible” without losing the threads of the action (Ebert). The aesthetic of the film is like a horror mockumentary version (think Blair Witch Project) of a well-constructed three-act play. Vinterberg is able to depict a finely crafted narrative with an illusion of randomness and a sense of urgency that considerably heightens the reality of the film.


The use of natural light only works in the film favour by helping convey an atmosphere required by each scene. The film starts off in daylight as all the family members arrive at the family run hotel to celebrate their father's sixtieth birthday. The bright sunlight is therefore “good... to convey the idea that the family is actually attending what they believe will be a celebration” (Guthmann). However, as the story unfolds and dark secrets of the family are unravelled, the light also changes. Outside shots “give way to darker interior shots”. Sharp images shot in daylight “give way to darker and grainy images” (Guthmann).

 

The use of handheld camera, however, is perhaps the most important element in conveying the general atmosphere of the film. The constant trembling and sharp movements of the camera in “closed claustrophobic environments” create the uneasy feeling that there is “something constantly threatening to explode” (Simons 50). When the secrets in The Celebration are eventually revealed, unleashing anger and hatred, the explosive moments the viewers had anticipated come to fruition. The fast camera movements only serve to enhance the violence of each scene (Simons 52). Vinterberg uses flat-focus digital cameras, revolving primarily around “the grid of medium shots” and “a subversive obsession with the close-up” (Simons).


The illusion of reality is emphasised even more through the use of video. In any other film, “it would have created a distance between the audience and the film” and “given off a feeling of ‘avant-garde’”, because the image is not the one we are used to on a large screen (Simons). Here, however, Vinterberg chose to film a family reunion with a cheap video camera.


In such a context, the grainy, shaky pictures remind the viewer of the “home movies” they’ve been made to watch. Vinterberg plays a lot with amateur gimmicks, such as zooming in and out (For example, when Helge is looking for Christian) or the abusing of rapid, unskilful camera movements. When the guests gather in the hall, it’s as if a hyperactive five-year old is in charge of the image (Simons).


Vinterberg also introduces very typical “home movie” shots such as the opening shot on the idyllic Danish summer fields, which reminds us of so many boring vacation films. The use of video, “far from distancing the film and its viewer”, gives a feeling of “home made” and creates an immense closeness between the film and the audience (Simons)

 

Dogma 95 was an attempt to return to “cinematic innocence and simplicity”. It was an attempt to make a fiction film carried by actors, but with a minimalist aesthetic. This means that there “should not be any technical contingencies interrupting the actors’ interpretation” on the set (MacKenzie). The camera should just be there to record their performances and subordinate itself to them. Through editing, “manipulation of image and sound is then totally forbidden”. The film should be what happened on the set and nothing else (MacKenzie).


The Celebration, like the movement that spawned it, is an artistic rejection of Hollywood's fascination with special effects. Vinterberg employs stark cinematic simplicity, including hand-held cameras, natural sound and lighting, location-filming only (which means no sets), and no computer manipulation of images. The result is a taught, shocking narrative that is made uncomfortably real by the primitive technology through which it is experienced.



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