Archive for August, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum arrives in the midst of a raging battle over the caped crusader’s identity. No, I’m not referring to the recent comic book storyline during which various parties fought over the cowl after Bruce Wayne’s apparent death. I’m talking about how we want to view Batman and write him. For much of his existence, we (and gotham city) have accepted Batman as an unalloyed good. But his 70-year history is also marked by concerns about the actions and the motives of the dark knight. In the fifties, Fredric Wertham famously argued that Batman and Robin were gay lovers, a claim that has dogged their partnership ever since.* In the past 30 years, we’ve been more concerned that Batman is nothing more than a vigilante, and that his nocturnal behavior, style, and argot are signs of insanity that mirror his oppopents. Most recently, The Dark Knight connected Batman to the heated discourse on the Bush Administration’s practices of unwarranted surveillance and torture. And in his home medium, comics, Batman’s books are sites of moral ambiguity and disturbing violence.

*Wertham may have been a vulgar Freudian, but many of his other claims were on the money–Wonder Woman does have clear a bondage subtext, after all. Consider that, at the very least, Robin’s apprenticeship under Batman constitutes child endangerment (a fact wonderfully dramatised in Frank Miller’s loony All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder).

Take this baggage, and add it to the burden video games carry. People have always worried about the hypnotic effects of mass media, from dime novels to war propaganda to television. To some, interactive media take this a step further, in that participants feel like they’re exercising control in a universe whose rules, nonetheless, limit their options. The choices developers and players make with Batman don’t just contribute to user expectations about violence–they contribute to the way we understand Batman’s position on the subject. Let me try to put that another way–if traditional action video games shape player feelings toward violence and crime on a visceral level (a big if, but this column really isn’t about that issue), a Batman video game has the potential to shape player feelings toward violence and crime on a philosophical level as well.**

** Not that regular video games can’t converse on these subjects philosophically, but they’re usually doing so as subtext–Batman’s stance on, well, Being Batman has a way of floating to the surface.

I’m not taking the arguments for Batman’s ambiguous morality all that well. This guy doesn’t take justice into his own hands–he makes citizen’s arrests. The folks who try to make the argument that Batman loves hurting people or that he is insane usually have to dress up their points with material that feels somewhat out of character (think of when Miller’s Batman chooses the second-most-lethal option when incapacitating criminals). I’m more willing to entertain the idea that Batman violates civil liberties, but I don’t think we’ve seen the definitive case on that, either. His villains are mostly escaped convicts who are making very public threats on Gotham. He’s probably not as good a role model as Superman, but I still consider Batman a hero.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is mostly a triumph in that regard. Its gameplay asserts the basic goodness of Batman while stressing the complexity of his work. The game’s story is that Batman has arrested the Joker and taken him to Arkham Asylum. Sensing that something is wrong, Batman follows Joker through admissions, and when the Joker makes his move, Batman leaps in, attempting to save the guards, arrest escaped criminals, and foil the Joker’s goal of creating a super-powered army. Batman makes use of a believably limited set of tools to manuever the buildings and fight criminals.

Batman’s moral calculus in the game is strong. He never has to sacrifice the safety of Arkham employees to further his ultimate goal of recapturing the Joker. He fights to disarm and knock criminals unconscious, not to kill or maim them. There are exceptions to this, unfortunately. At one point in the game I was able to use the Batclaw to throw criminals into an endless pit. I wish this wasn’t possible. Our confidence in the hero and his mission is backed up by Kevin Conroy’s authoritative voice (you may remember him as the voice of Batman on Batman: The Animated Series, which was created by Arkham Asylum writer Paul Dini).

Of course, his villains hold themselves to different standards.*** As you progress through the game, the dead bodies of guards accumulate on the grounds of Arkham Island. The interiors are splattered with survival-horror gore. Batman collects patient interviews conducted at Arkham during the course of the game, which spell out the severity of its inmates’ afflictions, and the hopelessness of reforming them. We also learn, through various pieces of the backstory, how the Asylum asserts its own malevolent influence on both inmates and workers. In this environment, Batman’s refusal to kill his villains (instead, he  funds their rehabilitation) seems stubbornly optimistic. Batman has been painted with many labels, but “Idealist” usually isn’t one of them.

*** Batman has the best rogue’s gallery not simply because each villain helps refine an aspect of Batman’s personality, but because his villains have such rigourous standards in the first place. Over time we’ve developed a fine sense of what’s acceptable behavior in the minds of the Joker and Two-Face. You won’t catch these folks in the same kinds of contradictory behavior that mark a villain like Magneto–although Mag’s certainly interesting in his own right.

I’m a very casual gamer (1/3 of the games I own for the PS3 involve Batman), but I had a lot of fun playing this. The fighting flips the script on survival horror–call it thrival horror–because Batman’s so prepared, and he really can take out everyone, no guns needed. The detective vision feature allows you to identify criminals before they can see you. The melee is mostly button-mashing, but the game’s sense of timing is acute. My favorite part of gameplay is hunting for criminals in a large room, taking out armed guards from above or below, setting off timed explosives to drop a wall on a guy, or separating a man from his party with a batarang. It can get repetitive, but in a fun way, as the criminals get more anxious and make more mistakes as you pick them off, one by one. Unfortunately the game is very short, and the boss battles are lamely predictable. If you’ve played one just one action game, you’ll know how to take out every boss on your first go. I expected more from them. These are criminals who have tested their mettle against Batman time and again; they should be able to dream up more imaginative fight scenarios. It’s also a little too tempting to complete the entire game in Detective vision, searching for the Riddler’s trophies and stray criminals.

But several qualities of the game make for an immersive experience. The Riddler puzzles shouldn’t be so easy to solve (I would definitely welcome a more puzzle-oriented Batman game), but they were fun to collect and forced me to explore every nook and cranny of the island. The opening sequence, in which Batman follows Joker through Intensive Care, was stunning in its ability to suck me in, deeper and deeper, without giving me the chance to get my bearings. I love how Batman knows he’s walking into trap after trap, and does it anyway–how even after he clears area after area, it’s the Joker who is actually consolidating his control of the island. The Scarecrow sequences got a little repetitive, but delivered on verve.

Mark Hamill, as the Joker, carries the game. He makes bad lines good and good lines great. The Joker is a constant presence in the game, appearing on loudspeakers and a closed-circuit tv system. He even starts to tease his guards as you take them out, one by one.

In short, it’s not the sandbox-y Batman I long for, and it could use some good puzzles, but Arkahm Asylum is a remarkably satisfying experience.

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Mad Men 3.2, “Love Among the Ruins”

In this episode: Sterling Cooper loses, than wins, then gives up Madison Square Garden; Betty and her siblings counsel each other on end-of-life matters; Roger’s losing a daughter, but he’s gaining a headache; Peggy has a one-night stand.

Don’t have a lot to say about this episode, even though I enjoyed it immensely. Most of this stems from the foregrounding of Peggy. She’s the character I’m most solidly behind. While she can at times be as inscrutable as Don, she’s generally more scrupulous, and her moments of warmth and self-discovery feel more genuine. Her frustrations with the other characters echo our own. Plus, her struggles to slip into new identities contrast with the naturally gifted Don.

Take, for instance, her enthralling imitation of Ann-Margaret in front of a mirror. Half-mocking, half-jealous, hers is a bravura performance.

Most of the episode is about CHANGE, in 12 foot tall letters. In fact, the fight between change and tradition is so obvious that Don even gets to give a little speech about it. So much so, that it simply overpowers the final scenes this week, of Don watching a teacher dance around a maypole, then returning to the office and giving Peggy a long stare .

My opinion is that these actions are less about the heavy thematic weight of the show, and more about Don’s quirks. Maybe he’s attracted to the teacher, maybe not. Maybe he’s invested in the soothing ritual of dancing around the maypole, or maybe he’s looking forward to the changing of the seasons it represents. We’re reaching for a suitable explanation, but Don is reaching for a soda cup. And maybe Don’s reaching for that explanation too, seeking to imbue that moment with a significance it ultimately lacks. It’s another moment that could mean anything from a series full of them. That doesn’t exactly equal depth in my book–overdetermination is not the same as ambiguity.

Brief thoughts on Inglorious Basterds

First of all, I don’t think this is a mind-blowing, stone-cold classic. But it grandly simmers throughout its long, tension-filled conversations. Spoilers below.

Continue reading ‘Brief thoughts on Inglorious Basterds’

Anxiety Digest, 8/20

Here’s the view from the empty side of the glass: I’m worried I’ll never get a professional job.

I’m supposed to be patient and resilient right now. This recession is a temporary, extraordinary circumstance, my mom tells me. Once the economy rebounds, I’ll get a job, the world will be introduced to my incredible assets, and financial security will cease to be one of my problems.

But I’m resistant to this reading of our current situation, because everything I did pick up in my damned schooling has taught me that capitalism’s big adjustments carry a lasting price. Manufacturing closes down, businesses move elsewhere, giant corporations tighten their grip while the small competitors bite the dust. What if things don’t return to normal, and we just have to get used to the new normal? For some people the Depression never ended, and with every recession the numbers of a permanent lower class swell. There are people who won’t ever experience a recovery from this recession. Maybe I’m one of them.

Missing out on the professional-class life (one I’ve always foolishly assumed was in the cards) frightens me for three reasons. First, I dread the thought of working in food or retail again. Those jobs were unbearable enough the first five times–I don’t think I could stand to do them for the rest of my life. The moment I took one of those jobs, I would know that my life was over–I would be locked into my living space and my location.

Second, I’d be embarrassed, because most of the people I knew in college are becoming pretty successful. It would prove one of my deepest fears–that I’ll never amount to anything.

Third, I’m disturbed by what the fear itself means about me as a human being. Who am I to sniff at a job? Why do I think I deserve an enjoyable one? Am I looking down on the people who do serve these jobs? Have I written them off, as I fear others would write me off in their place? Why don’t I devote more thought to them and their problems? One last nagging question: why can’t I appreciate that some people actually do like these menial jobs?

In Praise of . . . Bill Simmons

During an age in which the general sports columnist has become an endangered species, Bill Simmons (a k a ESPN’s The Sports Guy) has flourished. He’s done so through a combination of pop cultural savvy, humor, and flat-out great writing. His columns feel immediate and familiar, like the ramblings of a close friend–but they’re extremely difficult to imitate well. Even when his column ideas are lazy, he’s never a lazy writer. He’s decidedly an amateur at radio, but his podcasts are basically intimate, hour-long phone conversations with his friends. In our new media environment, he’s become doubly irreplaceable, because no one can fill his shoes, and sports culture would be incomplete without him.

Simmons was definitely ahead of the curve in recognizing that the appeal of sports cannot be stripped down to some primal ideal. Instead, his domain covers the entire culture of sport. If he has any one subject, it’s the fan experience. Over the past ten years, Simmons has written not just about the events on the field. If anything, he’s more interested in chronicling seemingly extraneous parts of sports–the arenas, athletic finances, media coverage, fan argot, memorabilia.

But he doesn’t really theorize the fan experience–he dramatizes it. In anthropological terms, Simmons is a participant-observer, explaining how many fans think via autoethnography. These circumstances make for some fascinating columns and podcasts, especially when Simmons struggles to expand his horizons and admit his profession disqualifies him from being your average Joe Sports Fan. Take, for instance, his most recent podcasts with Chuck Klosterman, in which the latter implores Simmons to critically examine his own place within sports media. Some would dismiss Simmons for his inability to recognize his special role at ESPN, or for writing the kind of factual errors that you’d never see an expert make–I think his struggles unfold as vital human dramas “caught” on tape or the page.

At his best, Simmons isn’t telling you anything insightful about how athletes perform on the field. What he delivers is rarer and more valuable–an accounting of the many ways that sports become meaningful.

Mad Men 3.1, “Out of Town”

In this episode: Sterling Cooper layoffs continue; Don and Sal fly to Baltimore to comfort London Fog; Don learns Sal’s secret; Dick Whitman gets a birthday present; Ken and Pete earn promotions; Joan schools Moneypenny.

Critical opinion on this show has calcified: it’s an important show about Serious Things. People who try to disagree with this premise wind up looking silly. But Mad Men wouldn’t have just earned its best-ever ratings unless it was a show about characters you like and support. Out of Town was a brisk and lively start to the season, packed with laugh-out-loud moments (although there were some intimations of trouble to come).

Don begins the episode warming milk, not for a child as it turns out, but for the still-pregnant Betty. Right off the bat, we’re reminded that Betty, despite her attempts at personal growth, is still infantilized. Don has a fantasy about the circumstances of his birth which is, stylistically, unlike anything the show has ever done. We witness his birth mother sleeping with a man, giving birth, uttering curses at the man. We see a midwife bringing the baby to the Whitman household. The whole thing is done up as a 50s-style modern play. I love the suggestion that Don’s fantasies play out in the narratives of his time.

Back at the office, Lane Pryce takes charge by completing the latest in a series of firings. An angry Bert Peterson wreaks damage in the secretarial pool, claims “We’re the future,” (but who is that we?), calls his former coworkers “Comrades in mediocrity,” and says he’ll see them in the breadline. He has two replacements as head of accounts: Ken and Pete. Pete’s reactions to this news are the highlight of the episode–he fumbles through his promotional meeting, does an impish dance in the privacy of his office. There’s a great scene in the elevator in which Ken and Pete, each believing himself to be in sole possession of the new title, complement each other.

Meanwhile, Don and Sal fly down to Baltimore to assure London Fog that their account is still in good hands. Don seizes the chance to pounce on a stewardess, while Sal has what may be the first gay sexual encounter of his life. It’s interrupted by a fire alarm, and as Don climbs down the fire escape, he spies Sal with the bellhop. He knows, and Sal knows he knows. In a brilliant double stroke, Don tells Sal to “Limit Your Exposure” as he pitches a new London Fog ad.

Notes:

  • Bert Cooper has new weird art: Hokusai’s Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. It’s a nasty little bit of hentai. To take it further, it depicts a woman getting it on with her husband’s, um, rival? Given the amount of infidelity on this show, the painting’s foreshadowing is overdetermined.
  • Peggy appears to be doing quite well. Pete complains that she’s the creative member assigned to nearly all of his accounts, and she’s got a secretary of her own now. She’s even got the Lever Brothers account.
  • Pryce’s anecdote about London Fog captures the insidious duplicity of advertising, just in case anyone hasn’t gotten the point from the first two seasons. Don also calms Betty down by placing her, mentally, in a coconut oil commercial.
  • Pete can’t trust anyone, but I would argue that his paranoia makes him a better employee.
  • John Hooker, Pryce’s “right arm” has been nicknamed Moneypenny. Bond books have been around since ’53; US premiere of Dr. No comes later in ’63.
  • Attitudes toward drinking and smoking appear to be making glacial shifts. The flight attendents aren’t allowed to smoke in uniform. When Don and Sal poke fun at a liquor ad, I get the feeling that they’re not just making fun of its conception, but its attitude toward drink as well.
  • Don is told he looks like Tyrone Power, swashbuckling star of stage and screen (and someone who seemingly had affairs with everyone in Hollywood).
  • Meanwhile, very quietly, Sterling Cooper is making the transition to TV. Harry is practically running the accounts meeting, complains about higher tax brackets, and claims that 40-odd% of the S-C money is spent on television.
  • It can’t be stressed enough: Don gives the London Fog people terrible advice when he tells them to stick to raincoats. On the other hand, his new ad is more risque than the company was willing to go a year ago with Maidenform.
  • ant farms are, of course, gynocracies too.

District 9 Times That Same Song

District 9 is a mostly excellent pisstake on The Globalization Movie, a relatively recent film genre that examines the consequences of economic upheaval: extensive immigration, culture clashes, pollution, cities made of refuse. In the past ten years, we’ve seen globalization films such as City of God, Babel, and Children of Men garner considerable acclaim; Crash, the watered-down American version of these films, became a hit and won a Best Picture Oscar.

The Globalization Movie tells two kinds of stories. One is about how seemingly-disparate lives weave together. Through braided narrative strands, privileged and impoverished characters of all races slowly come to realize their  shared fate.  The other kind of story involves the good white man discovering The Truth about massive corporations (the iconic case being The Constant Gardener, in which Ralph Fiennes finds out that Big Pharma kills ). These movies do a bang-up job of sucking me in; their complicated plots give my brain something to work with, and I sympathize with their politics. But many of their tropes have already become cloying, so it’s refreshing to see District 9 skewer them.

And skewer it does. District 9 uses characterization, score, mise-en-scene, and special effects to replay the Globalization movie as a comedy. But not as a farce. The end result is not a rejection or repudiation of the politics of those other films–it’s a strange and disturbing kind of confirmation.

I’ll explain more, with spoilers, after the cut.

Continue reading ‘District 9 Times That Same Song’


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