The Rear-View Mirror: Shadow of the Colossus and Psychonauts (2005)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Video games are the cosplayers of modern media. They like to dress up as other media, in particular movies and comic books. Look at the biggest-selling games of almost any year and you’re likely to see games dressed up as Michael Bay movies or as the latest Marvel extravaganza. In some ways early video games had more of a unique voice, not least aesthetically, because when you’ve got pixels the size of pomegranates and harsh bleeps and bloops it’s futile to try and look like a Jerry Bruckheimer action flick. There was an abstraction to the classics, the Space Invaders and Pac-Men of yore, that came with technical limitations. At least since the modern days of real-time 3D graphics, and especially in the last ten years, video games have come to look less and less like abstract art and more like what we see at the cinema, a big bucket of popcorn in our lap.

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July Variety Pack (but it’s an odd one…)

A quick “Hey there!” in between a week’s holiday in Paris and a work trip to the UK – and since the heat is making my brain frizz out on a semi-regular basis and I don’t have the stamina for a longer-form post, here’s a variety pack. It’s a strange one, though; for once I’m not writing about a couple of films I’ve watched recently but about a few topics that have been hanging around in my brainpan, equally lacking in energy due to summer having icumen in.

What did you do in the war, dad? – I was in an HBO miniseries, son.

A war veteran, reminiscing about the time he was pursued by a pack of velociraptors.We’re currently watching HBO’s The Pacific, a sort of follow-up to Band of Brothers. It’s a good series with great production values and strong performances, and the theatre of war it depicts does come across as distinctly different from the Western front of the earlier series. At the same time, there is definitely something a bit samey about the two series, and about so many American war films of the last ten, twenty years in general. (Clint Eastwood’s Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima come to mind.) They don’t go in for the easy, unambiguous heroics of the war films of yore, yet the subtext still seems to be this: these men we’re watching, the soldiers they’re standing for – they deserve our respect. Not because they’re heroes to begin with, but because they’re ordinary men that become heroes in extraordinary circumstances. The experience of war – and, on a more meta level, the act of turning them into film, with all the trappings of the genre – ennobles them. And this is the bit that I’m uncomfortable about: as riveting as a well-made war film is, very few of them end up not telling you unquestioningly that these men and what they do is noble. Being in a war and watching your buddies geting shot to pieces may be hell, but the act of going to war is a noble one. Sad, yes, but that only makes it more noble. Perhaps the Second World War was the kind of fight that sustains these narratives that, at least implicitly, suggest the Good War. Regardless of the ideologies of The Pacific, though, part of me wishes for a genre piece that doesn’t insist with its elegiac soundtrack and close-ups of brothers in arms giving their lives for each other that warfare is a noble endeavour and that soldiers unquestioningly deserve our respect. (For the record, there are scenes and narrative strands throughout The Pacific that provide glimpses of a different perspective – but they still end up surrendering to the superior firepower of the filmmaking that keeps emphasising, “Noble! Sad! Elegiac! And, yes, patriotic!”, rather than leaving me to form my own thoughts.)

History will teach us nothing…

… except that the Middle Ages were oh-so-pretty. And Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV and Queen of England, could summon storms by going “Oooh, ooooh, ooooh…!” in a menacing way. Not a bad parlour trick!

Anyway, watching The White Queen has made me long for Rome‘s way of handling history. It’s a tricky genre, historical fiction (and perhaps I should just accept that The White Queen doesn’t belong to that particular genre so much as to that of historical romance), and one thing that often goes wrong is that such fiction wants to have its cake and eat it: it wants to show that these olden-times people were different from us and did things differently and we shouldn’t judge them from our anachronistic vantage point of being all enlightened and such stuff, yet then in the next scene it espouses a completely ahistorical, modern point of view to make the characters relatable to us. Balancing these two narrative impulses – Ooh, look at how different and weird these people are! And now look how they’re just like us after all! – is extremely tricky, and I don’t think The White Queen has handled it particularly well so far. In one scene we see the young king almost raping his queen-to-be when she doesn’t assent to a quick tumble in the grass, yet ten minutes later when he actually says he’ll marry her she goes all swoony and Twoo Luv, like a 20th/21st century teenager in love for the first time. If we’re supposed to see this through modern eyes, how can we accept Edward’s earlier attempt at Lancastrian date-rape? Only if we give him the benefit of historical perspective – of course, he’s the king, and she’s a woman at a time when women have very little power, it’s rarely love that starts a relationship in these days, if she’s lucky she’ll learn some affection for him – but then her later behaviour makes little to no sense, because it is entirely predicated on current ideas of romance. Again, though, perhaps that’s it: the series definitely puts romance before history.

Cast for realism... or swoon factor? What do you think?

Talking of historical fiction: revisiting Deadwood

Alan Sepinwall, TV critic and blogger, is currently finishing his Deadwood Rewind. His perceptive, eloquent posts on the series’ third season are a great read – not least because he’s got some of Deadwood‘s actors visiting the comments threads on a regular basis, such as Jim Beaver (Ellsworth), Keone Young (Mr Wu) and W. Earl Brown (Dan Dority). It’s fascinating to revisit the series through their eyes. (Here’s a link to the Deadwood Rewind for episode 6 of the third season, “A Rich Find”, with some great contributions by Jim Beaver.)

My favourite kinds of imperialism

We’re getting close to the end of The Sopranos. Both Rome and Carnivale only have one more season to offer us. And at the speed at which we’re going through West Wing, President Bartlett will have finished his second term in record time.

How to find good, new series? Used to be, I could pretty much get three out of four HBO series on DVD and be happy for the next year or so. Even if some of them found an untimely end, the journey was absolutely worth it.

Now, though? Can’t say I’m all that interested in Hung, and I’m not sure I would enjoy Big Love (which may be due to my lack of trust in Bill Paxton’s acting abilities – “Game over, man!”, indeed…). What about all these new series starting on other channels, though? The Elmore Leonard series Justified sounds like it might be fun, and I’m definitely hoping to get Caprica, provided that it doesn’t get cancelled after one series.

However, HBO seems to be stepping up its game, with not one but three series premiering this year. The one I’m currently most excited about is the one I only found out about five minutes ago: Boardwalk Empire, by Sopranos alum Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese – yes, you read that right, the Raging Bull of mob cinema himself! Check out the trailer, which looks like the murderous bastard child of Once Upon a Time in America and The Sopranos:

Also looking quite promising, although in a more Norman-Rockwell-meets-Interracial-Slaughter way: The Pacific, which seems to be a sort of companion piece to Band of Brothers. Oh, and it stars the little kid from Jurassic Park, all grown up. Listen, boy, you should know better than to return to island jungles! (Cue bad “Doyouthinkhesaurus?” jokes about jungle warfare…) Again, let me peruse YouTube:

Finally, the creators of my favourite series (it shares the pedestal with Six Feet Under) are doing a new show on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It’s called Treme and it’s got the usual awesome cast of actors, including Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters. It’ll be good to see Lester Freamon and Bunk Moreland back in action!

Nazis. I hate these guys.

In the meantime, we’ve finished watching Band of Brothers. Since I’d avoided it at the time, thinking that it would probably be Saving Private Ryan extended over 10 hours (due to Spielberg and Hanks’ involvement), I must say that I am positively surprised and very impressed. Yes, there was some pathos and sentimentality, but these need not be bad. The series does try to give an impression of what it was like for the soldiers, and there is room for these emotions. It’s silly and not a little arrogant to condemn all instances of sentimentality in war-related films, series and books, as some European critics would seem to do.

Clearly, the winning countries would seem to be more comfortable with war nostalgia, and at its most extreme I do find it rather distasteful – and dishonest. Rhetorics of “honour”, which usually go along with war sentimentality and nostalgia, so often gets in the way of an honest, complex discussion that addresses the darker aspects of the winning side’s engagement as well.

This is one thing that Band of Brothers does really well. Especially the last episode makes it clear that, yes, there is heroism in the men who fought, but that doesn’t make them infallible good guys. You get Liebgott going off on vigilante missions, shooting the people suspected of having been involved in the running of concentration camps. You understand his anger and hatred, clearly, but even Webster (whose occasional glee at killing ze Germans has been chilling at times) can’t bring himself to go along with Liebgott’s making himself into judge, jury and executioner.

At this point, after the German army has surrendered, many of the men have become their own worst enemy. But then, throughout the series, the Germans as such haven’t really been the enemy. The soldiers on the other side of the line – the people who will kill you if you don’t kill them (and it’s the same for them) – are the enemy. The sheer randomness of artillery fire, explosions, whizzing bullets is the enemy. Bad commanding officers, bitter cold, gangrene – those are the enemies. In that respect, the series has been consistent in providing the perspective of the men fighting – a perspective curiously, at times uncomfortably unaware of the larger context.

Which is why the ninth episode, “Why we fight”, was so important and so uncomfortable. It’d be too reductive to call it “the concentration camp episode” (echoes of “They call me Concentration Camp Erhardt!”, but that might just be me). It’s the episode that addresses the Germans’ culpability, the way none of the civilians, when facing the soldiers, seem to have been Nazis or Nazi sympathiser. They all claim to be innocent bystanders. But faced with the incomprehensible horror the American soldiers find when they happen upon a work camp (not even one of the more gruesome concentration camps), it’s difficult to swallow that line of “It wasn’t us, it was the others, the bad Germans, and anyway, we’re as much victims as them!”

What made the episode, and the series, for me is how Band of Brothers very rarely makes explicit comments and judgements. It leaves that to the viewers. In the last scene of “Why we fight”, as Nixon watches the German civilians bury the decaying corpses (some of the Germans clearly physically sick, others crying – some still children, some too old to have done anything much) , he sees the proud, if not even arrogant elderly woman he’d happened upon earlier. There’s defiance in her face as she looks back at him. Does she judge him for this collective punishment? Is she telling him, “Yes, I accept our culpability. Would you do the same?” Is she simply showing him that she – and by extension, Germany – can’t be broken? Or perhaps a combination of all of these? We don’t know, Nixon doesn’t know, perhaps she doesn’t even know.

The last episode has a similar moment – not quite as strong perhaps and rather simpler in terms of good/bad/right/wrong, but still very effective. The US soldiers watch as a German general addresses his troops. The general’s demeanour is arrogant, yet what he tells his men (in German, translated by Liebgott) strikes a chord in the paratroopers: “Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond, that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

Out of context, the speech may come across as “Yeah, we know, yadda yadda, blah blah”. Within the episode, and coming at the end of ten episodes, it works – and it is interesting that it was put in the mouth of a German general, speaking to his soldiers. At first this way of melding the two sides – Allies, Axis – felt uncomfortably apolitical to me, but I’ve accepted that the series chose to represent the perspective of the fighting men, and that perspective is different from that of the history graduate looking over from a comfortable distance of fifty years.

I’m very curious about the follow-up project that HBO is working on now, covering the war in the Pacific. I remember many of the (sometimes angry) reviews of Letters from Iwo Jima, denouncing Eastwood’s inadequate relativism (see for instance the Salon.com review). But the discussion of why it’s worse to humanise the Japanese soldiers than the Germans will have to wait for another time. Otherwise we’ll still be here by tomorrow…

P.S.: I apologise for the lack of photos – there simply don’t seem to be any good pictures of the last two episodes to be found, and I didn’t have time to make screen captures. If I get around to writing a short review of Iron Man, though, there’ll be pics and videos. Yay!

Airborne, tumbling down…

I resisted watching Band of Brothers for a long time, just as I still haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan and am not planning to do so any time soon. While I acknowledge Spielberg’s skills as a director, I tend to mind those films of his that purport to be “important”, because usually he mistakes pathos for importance. (I’m excluding Schindler’s List from this, though.) Band of Brothers came out in the wake of Spielberg’s Omaha Beach Party, and I assumed that it would be more American WW2 pathos.

When we watched the first episode, I was afraid that my expectations would be proven true. The main theme of the series, without the context of the actual episodes, dripped with solemn, righteous pathos, like a particularly constipated John Williams on Fourth of July. The episode itself neither confirmed or rebutted my fears, though: it concentrated on the battalion’s training in England, so there was little space for outright heroism. The episode was interesting enough, although it was hampered a bit by casting David Schwimmer as a bullying instructor. Schwimmer did a good job, but it’s more or less impossible to look at him without thinking “Ross! From Friends! and wanting to smack him in the gob.

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It was only in the second episode, “Day of Days”, that I came to realise that my fears were unfounded. Yes, there may still be lots of soldierly pathos in the remaining eight episodes, but there was little to none of that here. It’s extremely difficult for a war movie – even for a supposed anti-war movie – not to make scenes of warfare exciting, so the implication is “War is hell… but it’s a bloody adventure, innit?” Instead, the first scenes we get of the characters involved in an actual battle is them sitting in the planes, waiting for the jump, as flak fire shoots several planes to bits. The soldiers are powerless, and whether they live or die isn’t down to their heroism but rather to sheer luck.

We were eating lunch when we started watching the episode, but both of us stopped digging into our sandwiches pretty soon as horrible, frightening, saddening things started to happen on the screen: as a plane went up in flames, and you saw little human specks on fire tumbling from the conflagration to fall to their death. The surviving soldiers’ first direct encounter with the enemy was no more heroic, as they shot a group of Germans on a horse cart from the safety of an ambush, riddling the horses as much as the enemy troops with gunfire. At this point, you got the impression, wartime reality for these men was probably not that different from that of the German soldiers: you point your gun at the guys in differently coloured uniforms and you hope that they die before you do.

This impression that even the Good Fight is a pretty crappy fight became even stronger when Sgt. Malarkey gets to talk to a prisoner of war, a German-American born in the States whose parents decided to move back to the Fatherland. Just after he stops chatting to the young man who, but for the accident of family might have been wearing the same uniform as him, all the POWs are rounded up and shot. Can’t waste time and men on protecting these prisoners.

Right now I’m impressed at the lack of “Rah, rah, Allied Forces!” pathos and very curious as to how the series will continue. After a pretty gut-wrenching second episode, will it be able to maintain this level of intensity?

And, perhaps more importantly, will I manage to remember the names of all the soldiers (looking so similar under their over-sized helmets, where you haven’t even got hair colour to go on) before we get to the end?

P.S.: Talking of distracting cameos by TV comedians – there was this little guy in one of the scenes in the first episode, and I thought, “Man, he looks just like Shaun from Shaun of the Dead… but it can’t be him, because why would they want to cast a Brit for an American?” Well, turns out that Simon Pegg is far from the only Brit playing a US soldier in Band of Brothers. Is this payback for all of those villainous Germans played by British actors?