Archive for the Interactive Category

The Devil’s Music

Posted in FILM, Interactive, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2021 by dcairns

Oscar Micheaux’s BODY AND SOUL opened Hippfest last night and was a triumph — thanks in no small part to the jazz accompaniment by Wycliffe Gordon and his big band. It’s a movie full of skilled performances, and some good big cartoonish ones, and a curious mixture of sophisticated and naive storytelling. The score made it seem like some of the more curious choices were intentional — perhaps because he’s from Georgia himself, where the story is set, Gordon seemed really… well, phrases like “in tune” or “in sync” could seem a little corny. But he really gave the film the power of confidence, so you could definitely believe Micheaux totally knew what he was doing.

An early news article tells us that the film’s phony preacher villain (Paul Robeson, startlingly nasty) is being tracked by “Black Carl, noted Negro detective” — a character we were very excited to meet. But he never shows up. He’s like Godot. This may be because the New York censors reportedly objected so strongly to the premise of a drunken, lecherous and corrupt preacher, even a fake one, that Micheaux was forced to recut and retitle the third act making the whole central part of the film a dream. This kind of ending (see UNCLE HARRY) is usually pretty disgustin’, but it kind of plays here… Since there was a strong history of Black audiences talking back at the screen, and since the heroine’s mother, deceived by her fake pastor, spends the film in a daze, audiences would yell at her “Wake up!” So at the end, she does.

And, thanks to Gordon’s score employing vocals — a risky business in silent accompaniment, but one that pays off here — Black Carl becomes a truly defining absence, the film’s avenging conscience, spoken of in song and headline, rather than a one-line mention.

Professor Charles Musser, Micheaux scholar, and Wycliffe Gordon himself, who joined us for a virtual Q&A after the film, provided useful context. Musser questions whether the film was really recut, and may have always had its strange, oneiric structure, which he identifies as a mash-up and critique of three hit plays about “the Black soul” — The Emperor Jones, Roseanne and All God’s Chillun, all of which had starred Robeson on stage. Just as Sidney Poitier felt compelled to play noble characters because he was the only Black star, carrying the burden of representing his whole race, Robeson seems to have been horrified at what he’d done here and spent the rest of his life denying that he was ever in such a film as BODY AND SOUL.

I asked if Black Carl would have showed up had the censor not forced a revision — Musser told me, first, half-seriously, “No doubt about it. He would have carted Robeson off to the prison in the sky where he would have had to serve penance for his sins,” but added, “Oscar Micheaux’s response to the censors was that he had left out something important –the opening scenes that makes clear that Robeson is playing an escaped convict who is pretending to be a man of God. Of course, this was playing off of Chaplin’s The Pilgrim. So I am not at all sure that this “new” beginning was for the benefit of the censors. I think this was the original, intended ending. You have to decide if this was the film’s “reality.” Or if this over-the-top ending was just one more fantasy. It does bear some relation to the ending of Symbol of the Unconquered when our hero turns out to be a millionaire.”

Micheaux intercuts jaggedly, running parallel actions whenever possible: if a character leaves, we’ll likely watch them going off down the street in little snippets that bite into the scene they’ve just left. This creates an odd, staccato rhythm in bursts, and might have seemed awkward or inept, but the music found a pace that really made it work. And the anticlerical slant was fascinating — Micheaux lampoons the congregations ecstatic reactions to their fake pastor’s big sermon — those censors weren’t wrong to see this as an attack on religion, not from where I’m sitting.

It’s not too late to catch this movie at Hippfest, with its truly amazing soundtrack. Here.

I want to see more Micheaux now. A kind of outsider artist who didn’t get much support from Black critics and intelligencia. I hope when I do see WITHIN OUR GATES, it’s with Gordon’s forthcoming score, which you can hear a sample of in the Spotify playlist he put together for the screening’s afterparty. Meanwhile, are there Micheaux talkies you’d recommend?

The Glinner

Posted in Interactive, Politics, Television with tags , , , , on June 27, 2020 by dcairns

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Since I simply HATE sport, and Twitter insists on giving me sports headlines, I’ve set my Twitter location to New York, because at least that way I get notifications on sports I know nothing about and which don’t automatically annoy me.

I woke up this afternoon and found Graham Linehan trending, and knew it wasn’t going to be for anything good.

Graham Linehan has been banned from Twitter. He’s the one who actually got me onto WordPress and then Twitter, but we’ve only had one brief exchange in recent years. I was kind of concerned about his mental health, since the once-brilliant comedy writer who used to offer links to amusing things found online, was now obsessively monotopical, only able to talk about trans rights issues from the point of view that trans rights are bad.

I asked him why this subject devoured all of his entire attention and he replied in all caps that it was because nobody else was talking about it. I gently pressed him on this, and he admitted it was a slight exaggeration. I do try to maintain a civil tone online. It occasionally helps.

The Glinner’s pronouncements on trans rights varied from reasonable-sounding to frothingly insane. Reasonable people, I think, could respectfully disagree about whether trans women should compete in female sporting events or whether some kids are being rushed into gender reassignment procedures before they’re ready. I’m not trans, I’m not a parent, I’m not a child, I’m not a woman, I prefer not to force my way into these arguments, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Linehan was certain this was his fight, his hill to die on.

He wrote an article about how he couldn’t write comedy in a world where expressions like “female penis” were taken seriously. Which is a weird thing to fixate on. My impression is that some trans people enjoy the apparent incongruity of the phrase, find it sort of humorous as well as useful, and anyway, so what? Words are always changing their roles (like people).

In a much earlier conversation, Linehan had talked about getting into production (I hoped I might get a job out of him one day) because he didn’t expect his creativity to last into late middle age — I’m not sure why he thought this, but it’s at least better than blaming a decline in comedy ideas on trans people. Any conspiracy theory that suggests that The I.T. Crowd is not as brilliant as Father Ted or that Count Arthur Strong, despite its wonderful central character, is not nearly as good as either, because of continuing advances in LGBTQ rights, seems to be operating (poorly) on a false basis, to say the least.

There was also the fact that Linehan’s entry into the debate followed a trans-based subplot on The I.T. Crowd, which seemed like the product of lazy, out-of-date thinking more than a coherent, retrograde or political stance. Linehan was criticised for it, and I believe admitted it was a mistake. (A character embarks on a relationship with a trans woman, having misheard her revelation that she used to be a man. When he finds out, he throws her out a window. It sounds worse on paper, actually, but it’s… not great.)

What made Linehan’s Twitter rants dangerous is that he could seem quite reasonable on the surface, at times, before plunging into transphobic vileness. A sincere, I presume, belief that women were being put in danger, could be used to justify anything — distorting what people said, for instance. When a teacher said that their grad students could bring up subjects in seminars that they couldn’t discuss with their parents, Linehan quote-tweeted this with the single word comment “Grooming.” Does Linehan know that grad students are adults or does this not matter to him? Likewise, how is it grooming if the students are the ones raising the subject? Why was Linehan following this person anyway?

At some point my attempt to believe Linehan was a well-meaning person who had different beliefs from me disintegrated completely. There seemed to be a toxic, Twitter-fuelled admixture of politics, ego, neurosis, anger — did the man’s surviving testicular cancer feed into this in some bizarre way? Or is it just the way the internet can turn everything into a war? The word “transphobia” certainly seems well-designed, because fear lies under the hatred, pretty clearly.

Twitter allows people to communicate together in an apparently consequence-free way, people who would not normally seek out each others’ company. It’s a bit like granting a populace the power of invisibility. Hi-jinks ensue. Then there are pile-ons and public shamings and these don’t typically transform the offenders into better people. Prejudices are fed.

Linehan would slide from sounding concerned about women’s rights being infringed, to making snide and nasty comments about specific trans people, reserving the right to deadname anyone he didn’t like, to sounding like a “harmless” fuddy-duddy who didn’t like the way society was changing… I imagine some were drawn in by the concern or “concern,” and ultimately seduced by the hatred. In a way, perhaps he was too. Twitter was slow to act.

There might be real places where trans rights and women’s rights are partially at odds, where some creative thinking might be required, where the natural tendency of people of all genders and sexes and persuasions to get excited about issues which deeply affect them might be stopping them getting together and building something positive that’s for the common good. I strongly suspect the solutions will not be devised on Twitter.

Linehan was always nice to me. I want to think that he’s redeemable. A man having a very protracted, public nervous breakdown rather than an evil bigot. This might be wishful thinking. But getting off Twitter might be good for him.

Defective Detective

Posted in FILM, Interactive, MUSIC with tags , , on March 28, 2020 by dcairns

On the advice of a friend I bought my first video game in maybe ten years, Disco Elysium.

Highly recommended, especially if you’re thinking of self-isolating. This will comfortably fill a week of your time (with breaks for eating and strolling from room to room).

It’s an RPG that’s also cinematic and literary. It’s the reverse of a shoot-em-up and if you’ve never, ever enjoyed a video game, this one would still be worth trying.

It’s a noir detective story where your cop is a drug-addled alcoholic who wakes up with total amnesia and has to discover who he is, how the world he’s in (an insanely detailed fictional planet) functions, and what the case he’s on is all about, before hopefully solving it. As with the likes of Chinatown, the case escalates as it complicates, until the whole of society, seemingly, is implicated.

It’s very intriguing, beautiful, and frequently hilarious. Some of this is because of the character’s extremely dysfunctional personality: you get to select from multiple-choice dialogue options as you interrogate suspects, and some of them are truly insane, and will lead your character into peculiar situations.

But what was truly remarkable to me was how emotional it was. For instance, one scene involves notifying a woman that her husband is dead. You have to select from available options, which you end up with depending on what kind of a personality you’ve chosen to build (for instance, have you gone on the wagon? or are you high?) and on chance. With delicate music by British Sea Power providing a melancholy bed for the action, I found myself desperately hoping I could pull this off and not traumatise the poor non-player character more than necessary.

And there are transcendental scenes too. Little miracles.

I’d be really interested if some movie lovers out there who haven’t gotten into games in a big way were to try this one out and report back. You can easily get a week of entertainment out of a single playing, and it rewards multiple plays, too: you can choose variants on the character with different levels of empathy, emotion and strength, and these skills will unlock different clues and discoveries in the story. As you play, your character can not only acquire skills and tools (a shopping bag for collecting empties is very handy — collecting the deposit is one of the main ways of earning cash), he develops a political view, which can range from communism, through social democracy, to fascism, or, like me, you can be a muddled combination of the first two (there wasn’t an easy socialist option). And all of this affects your outcome.

Supporting cast: this is usually the weak spot in games for me, and some of the voice acting is sub-movie standard, but you have a partner, Kim, and the guy doing him — dry, sardonic, French — is terrific. No matter how you play the game, so far as I can see (but I haven’t tried fascism and don’t think I CAN), the combo of wild, drunken amnesiac and calm, eyebrow-raised partner is highly cinematic.

On the other hand, while the first-person-shooter type game has a built-in cinematic aspect (and we’ve seen mainly lame attempts by movies to imitate it), Disco Elysium is presented as a high-angle shot which observes the characters from a distance. You can pull in or out a bit to get more of a panorama but you can’t create a closeup of a radically different angle, and sometimes relevant action or scenery is reported from offscreen — enlisting your visual imagination in an unusual way. Any desire for an “impactful” presentation is frustrated — it’s kind of like going to the flat, distant observation of a standard 1931 Warners movie after a lifetime of 3D Marvel costumed punch-ups, the airiness and distance forces a different kind of engagement. It’s effective, though, and might even be borrowed by some smart filmmaker as an unusual one-off approach to the right story.

This all comes about because the creators, an Estonian art collective led by novelist Robert Kurvitz, have really huge ambitions — the game is intended to challenge your thinking and change your manner of existing and interacting with the world.

You can buy it online from the link above and own it instantly.