Press A to Design/Play/Disrupt

Two cloaked figures sliding down a glittering dune, singing to each other. A hunter in Victorian garb, facing down a gigantic hairy creature on a dilapidated bridge. A grizzled middle-aged man and a young woman making their way through a ruined, overgrown city. Grinning figures, half-human, half-squid, swimming salmon-like through splotches of paint. Hundreds of extraterrestrial worlds, the skies above them in hundreds of different hues. An eagle, half visible through the trees, half concealed by the empty gaps between them.

Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt

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True West

I’ve made a couple of posts on the subject of games, films, art, yadda yadda yadda. Boring stuff, and anyway, who cares whether Roger Ebert knows a gamepad from a Wiimote?

Rockstar, the makers of the infamous Grand Theft Auto series, take a strange position in the whole game/film argument. There are few games that borrow as liberally, and as successfully, from the movies and from TV as Rockstar’s. This has never been as obvious as in their latest, Red Dead Redemption, which is in equal measures Once Upon a Time in the West and Deadwood. The ghost of Sergio Leone haunts the game’s arid landscapes. I’ve rarely seen as effective and evocative an interpretation of the West as the one Rockstar have conjured up. Yet their games never become that most frustrating of hybrids, the interactive movie. They are both grandly cinematic and great games.

More than anything else, Rockstar excels at creating worlds to explore that feel alive: the faux ’80s Miami of GTA: Vice City, the parallel LA, San Francisco and Las Vegas of San Andreas and the not-quite-NY that is Liberty City.

None of these measure up to the accomplishment of Red Dead Redemption, however. I’ve played the game for five to ten hours, and in terms of gameplay it’s nothing revolutionary – missions here, duels there, horse riding, cow herding and poker minigames elsewhere – but it creates a sense of place that is simply amazing, as the video of the game’s time-lapse day/night cycle shows:

John Hillcoat, director of Australian neo-western The Proposition and the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, was asked to direct a short film using footage from the game – possibly a gimmicky way of advertising its release, but one that’s pretty gutsy, speaking not only of Rockstar’s confidence in their creation but also in their chosen medium. Is Hillcoat’s half-hour take on Red Dead Redemption an overly idealistic barrage in the Great Movie/Videogame War of the ’00s? Is it just something to do in between directing grim, gritty and depressing movies? Judge for yourselves.

How the West was won, pixel by pixel

Nothing big to add here – I’m still working on a blog entry on Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in my mind (these things take time, and it’s not as if the film’s already years old), but since I’ve posted the odd entry on Ebert’s big “Video games cannot be art” shtik, I wanted to post this link: The Observer has two gamers and their regular film critic Philip French give Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption a whirl. French is obviously not a gamer, but he knows his films, and it’s good to read a critic who’s at least willing to take the artistic potential of games seriously. He doesn’t use the A word, but that’s fine – any discussion of art that circles around what art is tends to vanish up its own backside anyway.

And now for some heavy-duty shilling of the game, because it does look quite good – western fans take note, and don’t be put off by the sucky stills below:

Habemus PS3…

… and a stomach bug brought home from Egypt. All in glorious HD.

So why have I, a stalwart PC gamer (with a PS2 obtained originally for entirely academic purposes, I swear!), got myself one of those newfangled PS3 Slims? Two reasons, really: 1) Blu-rays and 2) The Last Guardian. Obviously I had more reasons than that, but they’re the main ones.

1) When we originally got digital TV, I was told that our connection was fast enough for HD channels. And yes, it was pretty glorious (in a nerdy way) to be able to record and watch both volumes of Kill Bill in high-def. Even boring old football (that’s “soccer” for y’all yanks out there) just popped off the screen in a way that made it watchable. For five minutes. At most. But you could see every blade of grass, and every pore on people’s faces! (Makes you feel all Walt Whitmanesque…)

But then our digital connection was downgraded. Why? They couldn’t tell; in fact, they were pretty mystified why I’d been told to begin with that the connection was fast enough. Guess I imagined all those red pixels in Kill Bill

In any case, yesterday we watched our first complete Blu-ray disk, Sunshine. To paraphrase another brainy sci-fi flick, “My god, it is full of details.” While I still have problems with the film’s ending, this visually stunning film becomes doubly so in HD. Almost makes you want to dive into the sun yourself… in a good way.

(If you’re interested in seeing a good comparison of DVD vs. Blu-ray, check out this YouTube video. Make sure to watch it in HQ though.)

2) This one is a bit more esoteric, perhaps. Two of my favourite games on the PS2 are called ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, and they may just be the main reasons why I got the PS2 to begin with. I was writing a paper on games as art (Et tu, Roger?), and both of these seemed to fit the bill, combining subtle storytelling, beautiful art direction and gameplay in ways that few other games have managed. The developer’s new project is called The Last Colossus, and the trailers definitely have left me more than curious:

A tale of two movies

I like films that are cinematic, that show me images I wouldn’t see otherwise. I like directors who are audacious about their use of the camera and of editing. I like my movies not to look like TV fare. (I don’t like my TV fare to look like TV fare, for that matter.)

In spite of this, I very much like John Sayles’ movies. None of the ones I’ve seen so far are visually spectacular, although they’re definitely not drab. It’s more that Sayles clearly isn’t interested in David Lean-type filmmaking. As a matter of fact, his films don’t look like he’s trying to impress their audience. They seem, at first, unassuming little movies.

But, once you get into them, they pack a surprising punch. Much of this is down to the fact that they’re immensely political films, something not seen very often in American filmmaking. Certainly politics is often used as a backdrop for movies – how many thrillers or action movies get a kick out of putting the president in jeopardy? – but they’re not interested in politics, not really.

John Sayles

John Sayles’ films are, but they’re not of the finger-wagging, lecturing type. Clearly they’re mostly left-leaning in their politics – almost all of them are concerned with small communities being fundamentally changed by big business – but more than that, they don’t tell you what to think. They provide you with Sayles’ interpretation of facts, but you’re still the one who has to make up his or her mind.

Limbo, which we watched on Sunday, is a strange film. It starts very much like Sunshine State or Lone Star, depicting a small community undergoing changes, focusing on a small ensemble of characters… but about halfway into the movie, it turns into something else. There is a thriller element, just as there was to Lone Star, but what the second half of Limbo reminded me of more than anything else was Into the Wild (also see Roger Ebert’s comment on the movie). Sayles, whose focus on ensemble casts usually is almost as strong as Altman’s was, zooms in on the fate of three individuals in an exceptional situation. Yes, it ties in with earlier lines in the film about how Alaska is about to be turned into a themepark and how people want the illusion of danger – they want to feel at risk without actually being at risk -, turning these lines on their head, but in effect it feels like Sayles started making one film and decided half-way through that he’d rather make a very different film.

The net effect is strange but compelling. Ten minutes into the film, I thought I knew what to expect; one hour into the film I no longer knew where Sayles would take me, which was exciting and quite frightening. Anything, literally anything, could happen to these characters.


And then came the ending. Absolutely fitting. And it felt like a punch in the stomach. Not because it was horrible or tragic or nasty. Because it was consistent to what had been set up. But, again, not the kind of thing you do if you want to impress or please your audience. I read that there’d been catcalls when the film was shown at festivals, and I understand why. But, the more I think about it, the more I feel that the “lady-or-the-tiger” ending was the only proper way to end the film.

But if I ever meet John Sayles, I’ll kick him in the shin.


P.S.: John Sayles is one of the consistently best writers for women, especially for middle-aged women, in American filmmaking. He should write for the stage…