Wednesday, 28 May 2008

[26] The Game Heroes

Just a short one today. I have finished my exams, and I do have a lot of content planned; I'm just finding it hard to find the time to write it properly.

This week sees the launch of the video game media site The Game Heroes.

The site is mainly run by a group of personalities who found internet-fame with their work on, which had a lot of videos picked up by Gametrailers. I've been aware of Handsome Tom and Perfect Liz's work for a while, and it was a shame when they split from Screwattack.

However, this new venture looks pretty good.

They have recruited a few good presenters who have their own distinct personalities and expertise, and the site as a whole is branching out a little. Geoff Sexyness is witty and brings a lot of tech and pc based discussion to the site, and Elite Alyssa is covering comics, animation and roleplaying. Another segment features a host taking you through certain game theme tunes with a depth beyond the usual youtube 'watch me play vampire killer' videos. Also, the site features blogs and other interesting things, such as game collections and 'top game picks'.

It's all still in the early stages, but their trial videos over the last month or so have shown a lot of potential. Hopefully this will shape up to be something special. Check it out.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

[25] Contra 4 Review

The Contra series is one of the gaming world's classic franchises. The first three games (Contra and Super C on the NES, and Super Contra III on the SNES) should be on anyone's list of must-play retro titles. In the last 13 years or so, however, the quality of the games have floundered somewhat; the developers have experimented with 3D and 2.5D graphics, with seemingly diminishing results both in terms of sales and reviews. For its 20th anniversary Konami took a major step in giving up the reins to an America-based developer, Wayforward Technologies. They also allowed the game to be a numbered sequel, making it instantly noteworthy.

Wayforward Technologies have taken the series back to its roots. Tight controls, legions of bad guys, big boss battles and a selection of kick-ass weaponry to choose from. Levels of constant-moving-to-the-right-of-the-screen + hold-down-shoot-button gameplay is broken up with platforming segments, over-the-shoulder shootouts and vehicle combat. One important thing to point out - this game is hard. The Contra series is one of those gleefully old-school titles which has a short main game (less then 2 hours to complete, 9 levels), but the longetivity is in the difficulty. I love challenging games - or 'super-fiendish', to take wording from the Sudoku world. Quite often, shooters like Contra are hard, but doable. They are meant to be completed, the only issue is skill. The game doesn't cheat. You're just not good enough. It is all down to pattern recognition and quick reflexes. The game is made more difficult by one oversight; both DS screens are used, creating an upright arcade cabinet feel. However, the break between the screens is effectively dead space - a blind spot. Stray bullets and enemies can sneak up on you through the gap, so extra vigilance is required.

Even though the main game is lightweight, the amount of extras and easter eggs is quite staggering. After completing the game on any difficulty, a 'challenge mode' is unlocked. These bite-size levels include beating a boss with one life, surviving an onslaught of baddies, or completing a stage under a time limit. This mode is a fantastic idea, and gives Contra 4 an on-the-go playability that suits a hand-held platform. There are 40 of these challenges, and they're short and straightforward enough that you will keep playing despite repeated failures. Completing certain numbers of challenges also unlocks goodies, like full versions of Contra and Super C (the original, arguably best NES installments) and concept art. This package is positively brimming with content, and puts most shallow DS games, hell, even home console games to shame.

The smooth, beautiful 2D sprites and locations do not push the Nintendo DS hardware in the way that games like Ninja Gaiden DS or The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass do, but there is still something to admire in its art. Animation is fluid and the huge bosses are impressive. The DS more than holds up against the 'plethora of pwnage' on screen. The music, composed by VG remix deity Virt / Jake Kaufman, is fantastic in paying respect to the genius of Konami's chiptune library, while injecting the style with an undeniable freshness. Level 1-1's music is a prime example, near-quotes from the original Contra's 1-1 theme, but boosted by extra dynamics, depth and punch. This game is immaculately presented, right down to the manual. Here's a quote:

'Challenge Mode - When Hard Mode Just Isn't Hard Enough... So you think you're a Contra Expert. You've blasted Black Viper back to the dark hole he crawled out of, and Earth is singing your praises. Well, we've got news for you, hot shot. There are hundreds of thousands of gamers out there with just as much Contra skill as you claim to have. If only there was a way to prove your mettle... There is; it's called challenge mode.'

Wayforward Technolgies have done a great job. This is a loving tribute to a series and genre which have been forgotten in recent console generations. It is highly recommended.

Contra 4, on the Nintendo DS. Played for approx. 7-10 hours. Completed on Easy Mode. Contra 4 is not available yet in Europe (and doesn't have a release date yet). Import copy was played.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

[24] Memory, Time and Genre in La Jetée and Tokyo-Ga

This is the second exam answer draft I have written for my Memory, Space and Place exam on Monday. The first was my previous post, on Siegfried Sassoon and War Trauma. La Jetée and Tokyo-Ga are two films that have really intrigued me, and through my own stubborn determination, I have slotted them in as an answer to the following question:

'Discuss the role of avant-garde film in relation to issues of memory and genre'

I think this would make a good essay to submit to a magazine. I'll post it here for the time being, but bear in mind it is work in progress. Enjoy.

Once again, as this is for an exam answer, I haven't retained full bibliographic information (although I at least attribute every quote or concept). If it becomes an issue, I can add it in later; or leave a comment and I'll sort it out.


Since certain landmark theoretical texts put forward by French Nouvelle Vague theorists, avant garde cinema has explored various thematic and formal approaches to the medium. Philosophical and psychological content is often married to a fresh or radical reworking of generic boundaries, to give sophisticated and complex pieces of art. Two filmmakers, who in their own ways have engaged with the accepted notions of genre, and the thematic opportunities of memory, are the French artist Chris Marker and the German director Wim Wenders. I will focus on the films La Jetée (dir. Marker, 1962) and Tokyo-Ga (dir. Wenders, 1985).

Both films are examples of the cinematic style described by Alexandre Astruc as 'camera-stylo', where cinema had moved beyond simple spectacle and towards 'a form of expression', or 'that the motion picture [had] become an art of sheer personal creation, as direct and immediate as the novelist's pen' (Bordwell 1997, 49). Indeed, despite the two films' immediate genres (science-fiction and documentary respectively), they both exhibit aspects of avant-garde subgenres (Marker's 'photo-roman', Wenders' cinematic essay). The use of these reworked genres allows the filmmakers the space to discuss and present issues related to the topic of memory.

La Jetée is ostensibly a science fiction film. In a post-World War III France, a group of scientists experiment with time travel in order to solve issues of food and fuel shortages. However, the style of the film does not comply with mainstream aspects of the genre. This film is a 'photo-roman', a photographic novel. Indeed, the film progresses as a sequence of still images, accompanied by a voice-over narration. The film opens with the introduction

'This is the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood. The violent scene that upsets him, and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later, happened on the main jetty at Orly, the Paris airport, sometime before the outbreak of World War III'

Marker here references Freud's concept of 'Screen Memories', as experiences 'which had aroused some powerful emotion or which, owing to their consequences, had been recognised as important soon after their occurrence' (Gay 1995, 117). These lingering and influential memories are articulated by the narrator as 'scars'. The protagonist's obsession with this childhood memory makes him a perfect candidate for the time travel experiments ('...the inventors were now concentrating on men with very strong mental images...if able to conceive or dream another time, perhaps they would be able to live in it'). Moving away from the industrialised or mechanised traditions of science fiction, La Jetée's form of time travel involves deep psychological connections with the past. Time travel is facilitated by memory.

Sellers describes the 'photo' aspect of the film as conjuring up 'the frozen moments that constitute memory'. Indeed, the use of still images as the visual track of the narrative calls up the theoretical work on the psychological aspects of still photography, such as the work of Siegfried Kracauer or Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. Indeed, the presence of narration coupled with the images recalls Kracauer's focus on the need for the 'oral tradition' to make sense, in order to make cause a more distinct reaction in the viewer (Barthes' 'punctum'). Bringing such attention to the role of narration, through its necessity in the film, also helps to stress the uncertainty of the narrator - Who is speaking, what is their relation to the story? Such questions, and such a formal critique of the narrative form, gives La Jetée a distinctly literary quality.

The film also uses elements of cultural and cinematic memory to present issues of time and identity. In one scene, where the main character is in the past, with the woman from his memories, they 'stare at the trunk of a sequoia tree covered with historical dates'. This scene is an allusion to Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo. In a sly inversion of one of that film's key scenes, where Madeleine points to a point on the tree, telling Scottie 'here I was born... and there I died', La Jetée's time traveller 'shows her a point beyond the tree', and says 'this is where I come from'. In La Jetée, such a moment resonates with notions of identity, history and memory.

Indeed, the protagonist of the film, in travelling into the past, motivated by his own desire for the woman of his memories, creates his own identity, and attempts to control time. The central 'sci-fi' narrative, that of resolving the WW3 survivors' shortages of fuel and food, is effectively used as a 'narrative alibi', in order to discuss more philosophical themes (Nelmes 2003, 435). When given the choice at the end of the film, the man decides not to reside in the 'pacified future', but 'the world of his childhood'. This moment of re-fashioning is nostalgic: the man escapes the horrors of the post-war France, and retreats into a fantasy of the woman he loves, even though this experience is dated and war nevertheless looms. This nostalgia, coupled with the black and white photography, highlights the sense, articulated by Barthes, that still images and photographs, as artefacts of the past, remind the present viewer that the subject, as represented, is dead or will die.

This final act from the man, to escape from the trauma of war, is rendered futile, as he is killed on the jetty at Orly. Indeed, the final narration of
La Jetée is unavoidably fatalistic, as the traumatic memory from the character's childhood is revealed to be 'the moment of his own death'. This ending is interestingly, and importantly articulated as there being 'no way out of time', acutely focusing the audience's attention on the philosophical aspects of the film.

Whereas Marker uses aspects of fiction in his meditation on memory and time, Wenders' Tokyo-Ga uses the framework of documentary film. Like La Jetée, Tokyo-Ga is narrated, although this time by the director himself. Wenders begins the film with a short clip from Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 film Tokyo Story, and explains that his respect for the Japanese director led him to travel to Tokyo in order to find the city as depicted by Ozu. This very engagement with a fictional, cinematic memory of a foreign culture (especially one that is over 20 years old) is inevitably flawed, and Wenders finds a very different Japan from the tranquil, spiritual world of Ozu. Indeed, even though Wenders bookends his film with clips from Tokyo Story and interviews with Ozu's collaborators (actor Chishu Ryu and cinematographer Yuuharu Atsuta), these sections only make up a small proportion of the film's running time. As a documentary on Ozu, this film fails.

Instead, as soon as Wenders introduces the footage from his trip to Tokyo in 1983, the film begins to exhibit certain 'camera-stylo' aspects. Wenders presents and narrates this footage of Japanese culture in a very subjective style, with many asides and deviations from the stated topic of the film. McKenna describes this development as Tokyo-Ga being 'overtly about the process of trying to make one kind of film and getting sidetracked'. This kind of film is referred to as a 'cinematic essay', which is described as a rejection of 'the restrictive notion that documentary was merely a medium for mass communication and social betterment', and instead using cinema 'as a means to express strong personal opinions and points of view' (Macdonald and Cousins 1996, 211).

Wenders' narration gives the film a very subjective feel, and his opening narration muses on the link between film and memory

'...I don't have the slightest recollection, I just don't remember any more. I know I was in Tokyo. I know it was the spring of '83. I know. I had a camera with me, and I shot footage. These images now exist and they have become my memory. But I can't help thinking, if I had been there without the camera, I'd now be able to better remember.'

This recalls Sontag's On Photography, and her discussion of the 'the camera's role in beautifying the world', and the modern culture of photography as more relevant or permanent than memory. This monologue is a homage to Chris Marker's 1983 film Sans Soleil, another cinematic essay, which is similar to Tokyo-Ga in its blending of travelogue and documentary. Indeed, Marker is featured in the film, as well as Wenders' fellow German filmmaker Werner Herzog. These sequences solidify the film's subjective, diary-like style. The discussion with Herzog about the pursuit of 'pure imagery' in a consumerist world is filmed in a spontaneous style, in public, with a handheld camera. This in particular provides a heavy contrast to the composed interviews with the Japanese filmmakers, which is told in long, meditative takes, like an Ozu film.

One of the most striking qualities of this film is due to Wenders' obsession with cultural representation and memory. The focus on the dichotomy between the 1940s cinematic Tokyo and the 'real-life' 1980s Tokyo, with its Pachinko parlours and golf driving ranges, inevitably ties the film to a specific time and place. Like Marker's motif of the sequoia tree, used to solidify and highlight the passing of time, Wenders' subjective stance dates Tokyo-Ga, both in its stance and its representation of Japan. Viewers of the film will be reminded of the passage of time between the work of Ozu and Wenders, as well as between Tokyo-Ga and their present.

Indeed, even though in Tokyo-Ga, Wenders focuses on a very different topic and style to La Jetée, the film resonates with Marker's pronouncement that there is 'no way out of Time'. Both of these films, through use of hybrid or avant-garde genres, in their own way explore these themes of time and memory.

Friday, 16 May 2008

[23] How Best To Remember? The Great War, Siegfried Sassoon and Social Memory

This is an essay I wrote a few months ago, as a formative essay for a module titled 'Memory, Space and Place in Literature and Film'. It got a good mark, and I'm using it as an exam answer (albeit a bit tweaked). I was going to put it up here at the time, but never got round to it. For some reason, I don't have the bibliography on this document, but I do on my print copy. If anyone is that bothered, I can add it later on. I'm sorry if the formatting is dodgy, Blogger just doesn't seem to respond to my edits.


How best to remember? The Great War, Siegfried Sassoon and Social Memory

Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye, which is mainly concerned with the act of remembering, contains a scene in which the principal character, Elaine, recalls a childhood experience of Remembrance Day:

‘At eleven o’ clock we stand beside our desks in the dustmotes of the weak November sunshine for the three minutes of silence… I keep my eyes closed, trying to feel pious and sorry for the dead soldiers, who died for us, whose faces I can’t imagine’

(Atwood, 1990, 107)

There is an inherent insufficiency in this institutional form of remembrance. Elaine and her school friends are taken out of their regular school day, and expected to ‘remember’ a historical period in which they had no active participation. This abstraction and forced remembrance reflects a mode of social memory discussed by the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in his work On Collective Memory. This collective memory is created through the association between individuals, groups and institutions within a given society. This is especially seen in the case of historical memory, which the person at hand ‘does not remember directly’; this sense of the past is almost solely created by artefacts and commemoration, such as the Remembrance Day ceremonies, physical monuments, and art (Coser, 1992, 24). This essay will attempt to engage with the creation and perpetuation of the social memory of the First World War, reflected in the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, and will question whether the traditional, external forms of social memory are adequate.

Siegfried Sassoon’s war poetry is distinct from his contemporaries in approach and style. Whereas others such as Brooke, Sorley and Owen would write in an easily discernable highly poetic form, Sassoon’s more famous poems featured a straight-forward, satirical technique. This has led to Sassoon’s poetry being characterised as ‘realistic, anti-war, anti-heroic… direct, angry’ (Caesar, 1993, 61) and ‘hard, clear, sharply defined, rather than suggestive’ (Bergonzi, 1981, 192). However, it is worth noting that, after the war had ended, the tone of Sassoon’s poetry changed. Indeed, anthology editors such as Stephen mark their ‘shock’ of finding a ‘softer, more elegiac’ mode of expression in Sassoon’s post-Armistice work (1988, 300). Stephen also highlights an anxiety in this elegiac tone, where the satirical verve of Sassoon’s earlier poems, such as ‘The General’ or ‘They’, is replaced by a need for effective and consistent remembrance of the horrors of the Great War. The chapter in his anthology, Never Such Innocence, which collates post-war writing, is called ‘Will they remember? After’ (1988, 297). This is interesting, especially in Sassoon’s case, as the focus moves away from the expression of the realities of trench experience for either personal ‘working through’ or socio-political statement, and moves towards the construction of retrospective social memory.

In these post-war poems, Sassoon presents an argument against the abstraction, distance and mollifying effect that are granted by time and memory. Indeed, these issues are personal, but Sassoon uses strategies to give these concerns macrocosmic relevance. This is particularly seen in his poems of 1928, although his 1920 poem, called ‘Aftermath’, contains elements of his previous confrontational style:

HAVE you forgotten yet?...

For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,

Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:

And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,

Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—

Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Have you forgotten yet?...

Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

(Sassoon, 1988, 311-2)

In this short extract there are many facets of ‘memory’ on display. There is, like in other Sassoon poems, the tension between personal experience and the wider society’s conscience. However, this notion of forgetting replaces the satirical commentary with an anxiety that, as time moves on, the experience and loss of the Great War would not be remembered and would be rendered irrelevant or intangible. Sassoon attempts to regain a connection with the experience through references to ‘the rats… the stench… corpses rotting in front of the front-like trench’. He also proposes that the act of remembering the war as a political event, as well as the atrocities committed, is the burden of the surviving population. The line ‘Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?’” is strangely prophetic, and suggests that there is a lesson to be learned from the Great War. The trauma of the First World War should not be suppressed and forgotten; a process of remembering and working through would be beneficial to society as a whole.

However, Sassoon also writes poems that attack the more traditional forms of remembrance and commemoration that were in use for the Great War. In the 1928 poem ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’, Sassoon’s target is the monument, opened in 1927 in Flanders, dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during the war:

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,

The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?

Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,—

Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,

The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride

‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.

Was ever an immolation so belied

As these intolerably nameless names?

Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime

Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

(Sassoon, 2000, 2057-8)

The same anxiety is present in this poem: the retrospection of history would create a cultural memory that was unmindful of the atrocities of the Great War. However, this poem is directed at a physical monument to those who died in the war, and is a more direct critique of the forms of social memory. Whereas ‘Aftermath’ was concerned with the act of remembrance, ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’ attacks a particular form of remembrance, namely that of constructing monuments. Sassoon focuses on the ‘peace-complacent stone’ and ‘these intolerably nameless names’; the abstraction and investment of the trauma into a concrete monument is a disservice to the events being commemorated. Indeed, the long list of names, seemingly remembered by mere citation, is utterly depersonalised, and, as a result, the experience and violence may be easily forgotten.

Austere architecture and the sheer volume of names are certainly effective, but in the process, there is an empathy that is lost. Furthermore, the social aspects of the First World War, which Sassoon particularly addresses in his poetry (such as the relationship between those in power and the conscripted soldiers), are also glossed over. Such a structure also encourages a passive relationship to the war, similarly to the forced mourning of Remembrance Day, as the social ‘guilt’ resides within the monument, which is situated far from the habitual travels of most UK residents, in Ypres. Indeed, this study of the historical use of monuments is close to that of David Lowenthal in his The Past is a Foreign Country, where memorials are described as ‘[celebrating] the past in a different guise’, as the focus on the futility of war and its human cost only gained prominence in institutional circles after the war (1985, 321). Equally, Lowenthal highlights how the ‘form and features’ of these monuments ‘may in no way resemble what they are expressly built to recall’; indeed, the gate does not inherently reflect the actual experiences of trench warfare (op. cit.). Sassoon attempts to redress the disparity between his own experience and the depersonalised memorial through juxtaposing the ‘peace-complacent stone’ with the ‘armies who endured that sullen swamp… the Dead who struggled in the slime’. In a way, these strategies recall his satirical approach, and the anxieties present in ‘Aftermath’ are also on display here. However, whereas the earlier poem exhibited a worry that in peace-time, there was no suitable form of commemoration for the war dead, the criticism of the Menin Gate is based on its irrelevance to the experience that Sassoon expects the post-war world to remember.

This representation of the insufficiency of depersonalised, passive remembrance may reveal Sassoon’s endorsement of a poetic, artistic connection to the past. Indeed, critics and historians agree that the historical, social memory of the First World War is informed by the expression of the War Poets. Even in Cat’s Eye, amongst the forced mourning, Elaine acknowledges her own knowledge of the war being from ‘a poem’ (1990, 107). It is possible that poetry, or creative art in particular, can provide a more empathetic link to the experience of the events. Indeed, when critics and anthologists describe the power and appeal of the War Poets, they focus on the manifestation of truth and reality within the expression. Caesar states that their poetry ‘commands our respect and homage’ (1993, 2), and that Sassoon ‘render[s] the actualities of trench experience’ in his ‘documentary-style’ work (1993, 81). The influence of this collection of poetry is highlighted by Stephen, who reveals that the popular memory of the Great War is informed by the poets’ output, creating a ‘folk-myth’ (1988, 12). These critics also focus on how the poetry, primarily written for personal expression or contemporary social concerns, act as effective bridge for ‘communicating to later generations the reality, horror and futility of war’ (Caesar, 1993, 1) and ‘recreating the feel and atmosphere of the First World War for those who fought in it, and thus for those who did not’ (Stephen, 1988, 12).

Therefore, it is possible to suggest that poetry, in this specific circumstance, is a far more suitable form of large-scale remembrance that the abstraction and reification of the Menin Gate, or the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Art, and poetry in particular, has a singular quality that more objective or clinical modes of documentation lack. In poetic terms, this is achieved through linguistic strategies which make the content immediate and effective. However, psychoanalytical writers have presented poetry as being unique in its connection with the unconscious, and therefore tapping into a feeling of ‘psychological truth’. The writer Adam Phillips refers to poetry having a ‘convincing, truthful… eloquence’, and suggests that ‘the poetic is closer to the source’ of perceptions of reality (2000, 19-20). Indeed, the aforementioned critics focus on this aspect as key to the War Poets: Stephen even justifies the inclusion of ‘second-division’ writers by stating that they have a certain ‘heart and feel’ which render the trench experience well.

However, even though poetry adds a more immediate, informative and empathetic dimension to remembrance, this is not to say that the ‘truth’ at its heart is strictly factual. Stephen focuses on this, revealing that the ‘folk-myth’ created by the subsequent canonisation of the War Poets has blurred certain details, namely that the majority of the casualties sustained on the Western Front was from shell-fire, not from going ‘over the top’, and equally, the demonising of Field Marshall Haig and other generals conflicts with the significant body of work defending his leadership. Despite these factual inaccuracies, Stephen maintains that it ‘hardly matter[s]’ (1988, 298); the process of remembering such trauma symbolises ‘what in our national guilt we feel we ought to think about the First World War’, and provides a suitably ‘convenient image’ to shape the nation’s mourning (1988, 10). This suggests that even though poetry lacks the strict external factual accuracy of more depersonalised forms of memorial, it does have a certain empathy and immediacy which can be more effective and informative.


Friday, 9 May 2008

[22] Slipping Away (Nine Inch Nails - The Slip)

I realise I'm a couple of days late, but I've been stuck in revision hell.

I only seem to write about Nine Inch Nails when it comes to music, but really, they are the only band interesting me at the moment. On Monday, Trent Reznor released the new Nine Inch Nails album, The Slip, through their website, for free. This release follows the 2 hour experimental collection Ghosts I-IV by 2 months. In the last year, Reznor and Nine Inch Nails have been revitalised, with a current count of 3 studio albums, 1 remix album, 1 collaboration/production job with Saul Williams and 1 world tour. Fans of Nine Inch Nails are positively gorging themselves on this new material, and Reznor seems to be engaging with his music and his fan-community with a new enthusiasm since breaking with long-time label Interscope last November.

The Slip, after the instrumental pastures of Ghosts, is a return to Nine Inch Nails' traditional industrial-rock sound. The album was recorded with returning-players Josh Freese and Robin Finck, as well as Alessandro Cortini. I might write a proper review in the coming weeks, but I think this album, while not a masterpiece, is certainly a keeper. There is a definite With Teeth vibe on the first few tracks, and they are not all solid. Nevertheless, a 3-song run towards the end of the album, with 'Lights in the Sky', 'Corona Radiata' and 'The Four of Us Are Dying', is one of the most impressive and brilliant of any Nine Inch Nails release.

The album is free, I recommend that anyone with a passing interest in music check it out. It is available here, in a variety of formats, including the expected MP3, AAC and Flac, but also the 'higher-than CD quality 24/96 Wave' (full download ~ 1.4gb).

Once again, Reznor stresses the community around the music. The album is dedicated to the fans; the official release blog post states 'thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years - this one’s on me', the website also has this:

we encourage you to remix it share it with your friends,
post it on your blog,
play it on your podcast,
give it to strangers, etc.

Multitracks are already available for remixing at Of course, this is under the Creative Commons license, now accompanied by a link to a short, to-the-point explanation (in various languages!). Nine Inch Nails will be embarking on a tour of North America this summer.

Monday, 5 May 2008

[21] Tokyo-Ga (dir. Wim Wenders, 1985)

Yesterday evening I watched Wim Wenders' 1985 film Tokyo-Ga, a documentary on both the real-life capital of Japan, and the representation of the country and its culture in the films of Yasujiro Ozu.

As the film ended, and I went for a walk in the warm Sunday evening, I wondered what kind of film Tokyo-Ga is. Almost every synopsis or review I have read about the film describes it as a documentary on Ozu, mixed in with footage from 1980s Tokyo. Nevertheless, the actual discussion of Ozu's films, and interviews with colleagues such as actor Chishu Ryu and cinematographer Yuuharu Atsuta only make up a small proportion of the film's 90 minute running time. However, the mixture and variation at the heart of Wenders' film is beguiling and wonderful. It is part travelogue, part musing on universalisms, cultural imprerialism, art, popular culture, modern life, memory and identity, part diary, and part documentary on one of Japan's greatest directors.

The result is much more in the style of the so-called 'visual essay' than a traditional film. It is beautifully shot. Two particular highlights involve Wenders meeting two friends: Werner Herzog and Chris Marker (in the bar named after La Jetee, no less!). Herzog brings his usual charisma and energy to the piece, with a tirade against the lack of pure or transparent imagery in the modern world, concluding that the solution would be to film on Mars or Jupiter - or Skylab. This scene perhaps most extremely articulates the modern world's descent into consumerism and decadence (other scenes include trips to Pachinko Parlours, driving ranges and the proliferation of American television). However, whereas Herzog vows to climb mountains and go to great, exotic lengths to create what he feels to be the pure, natural aesthetic - Wenders finds these moments amongst the supposedly-damning modern world, in children playing baseball, teenagers dancing to rock-and-roll tracks and other flashes of beauty.

Wenders' opening narration includes an eloquent description of the disparity between memory and photography:

'Anyway, Ozu's work does not need my praise, and such a sacred treasure of the cinema can only reside in the realm of the imagination. And so, my trip to Tokyo was in no way a pilgrimage. I was curious as to whether I could still track down something from this time, whether there was still anything left of his work - images, perhaps, or even people. Or whether so much would have changed in Tokyo in the 20 years since Ozu's death, that there would be nothing left to find. I don't have the slightest recollection, I just don't remember any more. I know I was in Tokyo. I know it was the spring of '83. I know. I had a camera with me, and I shot footage. These images now exist and they have become my memory. But I can't help thinking, if I had been there without the camera, I'd now be able to better remember.'

One thing that struck me, is the fact that this film was created in opposition to a distinct period of time (Ozu's creative life, 1930s-1960s), from the viewpoint of another distinct period (Wenders' trip to Japan, 1983). Wenders constantly refers to the passing of time between Ozu's death and 'the present'. I couldn't help but think about the further passing of time between this film's gestation period, and this present time, 2008. Maybe the chain should be perpetuated, by going to Tokyo today, and noting the further differences.

In a perfect world, I could use this in my exam on Memory, Space and Place in Literature and Film. Sadly, the exam questions are restrictive, and I must focus on exactly what the tutor wants.

Friday, 2 May 2008

[20] The Oxford Murders (dir. Alex de la Iglesia, 2008)

This week I went to see The Oxford Murders with a couple of friends. My interest was originally piqued by a small feature in a recent issue of Sight and Sound, which described the film as 'the thinking person's Da Vinci Code'. Corny, certainly, but what gave this film an edge is its basis in 20th century Mathematics. A friend of mine who lives/studies Maths was more than up for seeing this film, and Wednesday came around and we thought we'd check it out as part of our Cinedicate (Cinema Syndicate). It was easily the worst film I've seen for a long while.

Admittedly, the last film I saw was Persepolis last week, which in its own way was nearly perfect, but I have to be reaching as far back as Lions for Lambs last Autumn for something that had me shaking my head and muttering under my breath with comparable frequency. The script was heavy-handed and unpolished, and the production values were maddeningly inconsistent. It seemed that in the post-production, enthusiasm for the film had stilted, so that certain important processes, such as dubbing one character's dialogue, was botched beyond salvation. It finishes up as feeling more like a TV Movie, not unlike an Agatha Christie adaptation, or a Midsomer Murders or an Inspector Morse episode. Nevertheless, it was an entertaining film - it was laughably bad. I would still recommend giving it a watch, if you found yourself with nothing better to do one evening and it was on television. I think there are 5 aspects that saved it from utter failure. After my more traditional and straightforward review of Shine a Light, I'll go for a more interesting approach here:


5 Reasons Why The Oxford Murders Did Not Completely Suck

1: John Hurt

John Hurt is one of my favourite actors. I have only seen him in a few films, although he has always stood out. He is part of my 'Northern English Shakespearean Actor' trinity, along with Ian Mckellen and Patrick Stewart, that I harbour a great respect for. Strangely, The Elephant Man aside, I have only seen him in supporting or cameo roles, but he always stands out in his respective roles - V for Vendetta, Alien, Dead Man, Midnight Express. He even manages to shine in films which I personally find quite dull on the whole, such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Contact. In The Oxford Murders, he eclipses Elijah Wood's limp turn as what is supposed to be the leading man, and manages to bring some energy into the turgid dialogue. His scenes as Arthur Seldom, Mathematician and Oxford Lecturer, are performed with gravitas, but with a sense of over-the-top glee.


2: Flashes of Brilliant Directing

Even though I stated that the script was horrible and elements of the production were botched, there were flashes of brilliance in the direction. Some of the camerawork infused the whole proceedings with an intensity that the story itself lacked. One distinct highlight is the discovery of the first murder, told in extreme close-ups of Hurt and Wood. Recent Hollywood Thriller / Action films would dictate a shaky handicam feel (see M.I.3); however, director Alex de la Iglesia keeps these shots mostly static, letting Hurt and Wood move in and out of shot. This creates a sense of claustrophobic urgency, as opposed to rollercoaster dizziness. Another key moment is an elaborate tracking shot through Oxford, following the main characters, which is skilfully and artfully executed.


3: Unprecedented access to Oxford

On the topic of Oxford, one of the real strengths of the film is the fact that it was mostly filmed on location in its titular University City. Lesser productions would have shot a few key exteriors before shipping the actors to somewhere cheaper. Here, however, we're given a real sense of the city, and those viewers familiar with Oxford will spot familiar interiors, such as the Blackwells book shop.


4: Math(s)

I'm not a Mathematics student; but I'm intrigued by the more radical, theoretical and abstract end of it all. It starts becoming philosophy, just with mostly incomprehensible (to the uninitiated) equations. The Oxford Murders strives to reference, and to a certain extent explain, some of the more complicated examples of Mathematical thought from the 20th century. Although I think that for any of the non-math-minded audience members, it will come off as the usual 'history / philosophy / religion / language' gibberish that we've seen in films from The Mummy and The Matrix, to the Da Vinci Code and Seven. Nevertheless, it feels fresh, well-read and comfortable; the references to Wittgenstein, Godel and Alan Turing are welcome. Some of the best moments of the film are involved with explaining or side-glancing at Mathematical Thought, usually tied to distinct personalities or even written texts. I doubt it will spurn a renewed interest in this area, a la existentialism and The Matrix, but it is good that the screenwriters retained this, along with cinematic asides, such as Wittgenstein scribbling away a draft of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in a WW1 trench. Another digression involved Arthur Seldom's old colleague (Alex Cox in a stand-out cameo), who was driven to madness and near-death by his obsession with the mind.


Leonor Watling

What? She's hot.

This film has eye-candy through the roof, which is surprising given that there are only 2 young female cast members. Both Watling and Julie Cox are given stereotypical, 'stock' female roles (passionate Latin and English Rose respectively), who almost merely serve the purpose of sexing up the narrative to an almost soap-opera extremity (both characters are introduced, and attempt to hump Elijah Wood within their first scene). It is obvious that these characters were added to warm collars, just see this Spanish television report on the film (disclaimer: this clip includes almost all of the romantic scenes in the film - The Oxford Murders is not the fuck-fest it suggests). Nevertheless, both actresses are beautiful and manage to work their often over-the-top roles into something that resembles convincing performances.


The night after watching The Oxford Murders, I went to see Iron Man, a wholly more satisfying film. Expect a review soon.