alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Dear Marvel and DC,

Please stop creating stories which revolve around ethical debates about superheroes. It is impossible to honestly tell such a story without coming to grips with the fact that the vast majority of your protagonists are one or more of:

• extralegal vigilantes
• people who solve almost all of their problems with a combination of brute force and deceit
• people who routinely lie to their loved ones
• people who encourage minors to participate in the above activities

I’m not saying it’s impossible to tell good stories about superhero ethics – but I AM saying that it is impossible to do so within a shared corporate universe that is dedicated to maintaining the profitability of its trademarks. (And given that those corporations are direct descendents of organized crime cartels, getting them to ever put ethics or story values above profits is always going to be an extreme uphill battle.)

This rant brought to you by the fact that I recently caught up on a bunch of Marvel comics which were involved in the Civil War II crossover. A lot of characters had to suddenly be a lot stupider than they previously had been in order for that conflict to happen.

I note that Squirrel Girl was not involved. My personal headcanon is that she was off-planet during this mess. If she HAD been around, it would’ve been wrapped up in one or two issues, three tops, and would never have gotten so heated as to deserve the title ‘Civil War’.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
I spend a *lot* of time providing on-the-fly descriptive tracks for Kestrell. In that time, I have gotten great utility out of a technical term I picked up from Buffy scriptwriters, "Baitcam". This describes the frequently-used shot where the camera starts looking at the protagonist and/or potential victim from behind concealing foliage, usually from the middle distance, implying that something dangerous is hiding in the bushes. (There usually is, but sometimes it's just a fake-out.) This is, as you can see, complex to describe, but sufficiently quick to establish visually that it's very handy to have shorthand for it.

After the third time in a week that I found myself pausing a video to say: "They're doing that thing with the protagonist in the middle distance and suddenly an indistinct outline figure dashes across the camera in the foreground," I decided I needed a new piece of shorthand. After some thought, I decided that "Forezoom" did the job nicely, being evocative, and only rwo syllables.

Having used it successfully for a month or so, I've decided to share it with the world :)
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
In the game Marvel Puzzle Quest, I've recently spent a lot of time playing both with and against a particular version of Black Widow (gray suit). When used strategically by the player, she is a *considerable* badass. The opponent AI, however, has no idea how to properly apply her powers.

I take this as an accidental-but-apt commentary on the character's recent treatment in the movies. The actors and directors make her badass, but none of the money people know what to do with her.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Recently, Kestrell and I watched a related pair of movies: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) and the film it is a remake of, Bedtime Story (1964). The comparison was FASCINATING.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it in its original theatrical run. Michael Caine and Steve Martin play a pair of con men who cross paths, compete, cooperate, and then compete harder. Glenne Headley enters the film about halfway through as the ingénue that they compete over. Barbara Harris has a small but delightful part as a mark early in the film.

When I first saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I wondered if it was a remake of an earlier film (in those pre-Internet days, it was nontrivial to find out). Though my film knowledge was not encyclopedic, I had seen enough movies starring David Niven to recognize that Michael Caine was obviously imitating him in his performance. And, indeed, the original movie, Bedtime Story, did turn out to star David Niven. What I was NOT expecting, was that Steve Martin’s performance turned out to be significantly informed by that of – Marlon Brando! As near as I can tell, Frank Oz (director of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) made a deliberate choice to “keep everything that worked” from Bedtime Story when remaking it. It’s pretty clear that both leads studied the performances of the original actors.

This attitude of “keep what worked” applied on a script level as well. Something like 50% of the dialogue is VERBATIM the same, and even where it isn’t, the majority of the action is the same. Sometimes this goes so far as to use the same staging and camera angles.

I don’t want to give the impression that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a carbon copy. Indeed, I would say that it is a MUCH better movie. Not that Bedtime Story is bad, but the remake improves it in almost every way. What’s fascinating is that the degree of similarity is close enough that you can see lots of places where Bedtime Story COULD have gotten a laugh (or a bigger laugh) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels DID. You could use these two films as a master class in film comedy – and the art of the remake.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Major[livejournal.com profile] kestrell and I recently re-watched Bell Book and Candle (1958). It’s a mostly fun, if problematic, romantic comedy with Jimmy Stewart essentially playing Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak playing a sophisticated modern day witch who casts a spell on him. Also a great supporting cast, including Jack Lemmon (on the bongos!), Elsa Lanchester, Ernie Kovacs, and Hermione Gingold.

The major problematic aspect is that, by the rules of this movie, witches are literally “not human” and are incapable of love. If a witch does fall in love, then she loses all her witch powers and “becomes human”. Naturally, lots of Wiccans and Wiccan-friendly people take offense at this. The offensiveness actually gets worse, in my mind anyways, once you realize that “witch” is a wafer thin metaphor for “homosexual”. Though I admit it does lead to some very funny moments, such as when Ernie Kovacs (playing an alleged expert on magic) confidently tells a room full of closeted witches that he can “just tell” if someone is actually a witch.

As we watched, I often felt myself strongly reminded of another movie which on the surface looks very different, but actually isn’t: Chasing Amy (1997). Both of them are about a straight white guy who has troubles with his romantic relationship, because she’s queer. They even both feature scenes where the woman loses support from her queer community due to her new relationship.

Of course, the endings are quite different. In 1958 Hollywood, the only possible “happy ending” to such a story is for the queer woman to become a normal straight woman. Chasing Amy has a more honest ending: the relationship ends up failing because the straight white guy, despite having a somewhat-raised consciousness, is fundamentally unable to cope with someone so outside his experience.

I do like both movies. But they do make me long for more stories that show the possibility of happy relationships between two people who celebrate their differences. Season two of Sense8 can’t come soon enough!
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
I had an interesting realization the other day, after watching some stuff with Kestrell. As you know, Bob, Kestrell is blind, so I do a descriptive track of the action. Over time, I was noticing a pattern of flaws in my descriptive tracks. Some characters, I could not identify by name, but only by their plot function. And the vast majority of those characters were women.

At first, I was embarrassed by what I thought was an expression of my own subconscious gender bias. And there may be some element of that indeed. However, after some more thought (and discussion with Kes), I realized that there was a significant element of fault in the media themselves.

Female characters are consistently NAMED far less often than male ones. A female character will get named during a proper introduction, just like a male character – but in subsequent conversation, her name won’t be used and his will. Since it takes me three or four repetitions to actually remember the name of the character, I am far more likely to know the name of a male character than a female one, even when they get the same amount of screen time.

Does anyone reading this know someone in a Women’s Studies department who might be looking for thesis material? My own “findings” are strictly anecdotal, and running actual numbers on this would be way too much work for me, but I bet there’s some interesting numbers to be run…
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Kestrell and I recently watched "All Through The Night", a comedy-drama with gangsters versus Nazi spies, released mere weeks before Pearl Harbor. It's not the *first* movie I've seen that had the trope "We may be crooks, but we're *American* crooks!" … But I wonder whether or not it's the *earliest* appearance of that trope.

Anyone have other examples? I know I've seen this before, but it's apparently not common enough to get a TVtropes entry.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
So, I was watching a cartoon from 1944, Swooner Crooner (link is a brief excerpt), and it featured a trope I didn't think went back that far: that of fangirls screaming and fainting at the presence of famous musicians. I was familiar with it from The Beatles and Elvis, but had no idea it went back to "Frankie" Sinatra and his generation. So how far back *does* it go?

(One could argue for the Bacchantes being the prototype, but I'm looking for more early 20th / late 19th century examples.)
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Just saw a very curious Warner Brothers cartoon: "Old Glory" from 1939.  It's not humor, it's patriotic history propaganda.  And it's very interesting what gets covered and what doesn't in its 9-minute running time.  They devote a good deal of footage to Paul Revere's ride, but never make any mention of "British", just calling out "To arms!"  The entire Revolutionary War passes without any direct mention or depiction of the Britsh.  We then pass on to the colonial period, with, as usual, the middle of the continent described as "undiscovered", and no depiction of the natives.  There <i>is</i> a mention of difficult "marches" -- that the settlers went through!  Almost the last bit is Lincoln quoting a bit of the Gettysburg Address.  Naturally, there is no context, no mention of a Civil War, and certainly no allusion to slavery.  Very much an artifact of its time...
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
I said some of this in conversation recently, and thought the analogy worth expanding upon.

He produced a great deal of work in genres and formats that were widely considered to be lowbrow, disposable entertainment for the lower classes. Most of his work wasn't

collected during his lifetime. Shortly *after* his death, some of his literary disciples started getting his work collected and reprinted, marking the start of the genre and form being seen as (at least *capable* of being) "literature".

Some of his political attitudes are not in fashion today, which some readers can't get past. And he had stylistic quirks (including a fondness for long words) that are easily parodied (and arguably became self-parody in his own lesser works).

Of his prodigious output, about the top 5% consists of enduring classics, works that influenced *everything* that came after them in their "home" genres, and had considerable influence even outside those genres. The next, say, 10% of his output was also very good, though not quite *as* enduring as the first-rank material. After that, the work ranges from "good" down to "wretched".

Although only the cream of his work is widely influential, devout fanboys of his work (starting with his first reprinters) have been completists, including everything they could get their hands on, indiscriminately. This has inadvertently led to a dilution of his mass appeal. People often hear great things about his work, but are then exposed to (sometimes quite large) pieces of his work that is not at all impressive. This is, IMO, why so many people are willing to say, "I'm not a fan of his stuff", even if they generally like the genre he helped make respectable. I believe they *would* be fans of his if they read his best works, and avoided the vast sea of mediocrity around it.

[Of course, countless arguments could be made about *which*, exactly, the best works are. But if you compiled a list of many people's opinions, I don't think many people would put works in the top tier that anyone else thought weren't at least second-tier.]

I once had a conversation in which I drew a few comparisons between Shakespeare and Neil Gaiman. While there's still some validity there, when I look at the *whole* of the description above, the name Jack Kirby leaps out at me as the Shakespeare of superhero comics.

Small world

Sep. 3rd, 2013 11:30 am
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Someone in South Korea wants a copy of my DVD of "The Knight of the Burning Pestle" to show to her English Lit class. So cool!
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Saturday was the annual 21st Century Party. Most of it featured playing of Artemis, which Tom had requested I get set up in the living room. It's a great multiplayer co-op computer game, where each player takes on the role of a bridge officer on the starship Enterprise Artemis. It's an impressive achievement, and really captures the core fantasy quite well. There are still some bugs and kinks to work out, but it's already great fun, and still under active development.

Sunday morning, I did some final polish on my Sandman paper, and got it uploaded. If you read the last version, you'll be happy to know that it now has a Version History at the end that lists new stuff since last time.

After some thought, I decided that, rather than try and sell it in a traditional fashion, i would make it freely available, and just put a Paypal button on it. After all, I could never have completed it in the first place if lots of other people hadn't freely put the efforts of *their* scholarship on-line.

That said, I figured it was worth publicizing a bit, so I sent out announcements to a bunch of major geek news sites, in the hopes that they will link to it. No posts, as such, yet, but Neil himself has tweeted it, calling it "Astonishingly well-researched". That got me some readers, one typo correction, and (so far) two small donations. From this small sample, I infer that French speakers are generous, as one of them came from France, and the other from Quebec. This sort of cross-continental interaction seems *very* 21st century to me!
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
This time it's in html, so should be readable by everybody. Comments welcomed. Especially comments of the sort "I know a great venue for getting this published for money". [If I *do* get it published "for real", I'll probably be taking down the web version at least temporarily.]

Crisis on Earth-Sandman: The Uses of Continuity in Neil Gaiman's Sandman
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
"I’m going to tell you a story about llamas. It will be like every other story you’ve ever heard about llamas: how they are covered in fine scales; how they eat their young if not raised properly; and how, at the end of their lives, they hurl themselves – lemming-like- over cliffs to drown in the surging sea. They are, at heart, sea creatures, birthed from the sea, married to it like the fishing people who make their livelihood there."

"'We Have Always Fought': Challenging the 'Women, Cattle and Slaves' Narrative" by Kameron Hurley

(h/t [livejournal.com profile] james_nicoll)
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Some years ago, I had a research paper start banging on the back of my head, trying to get out. I started writing it down, to quiet the voices, and have worked on it on and off since then (though mostly off). Lately, a burst of productivity has happened, and I think it's first-draft complete. [Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] kestrell for her understanding as I went into "thesis mode" for the last few weeks.]

If you've read Neil Gaiman's Sandman recently (or often), I'd be very interested in your feedback.

The file can be downloaded from this link. (Note: Click on the gray "Download This File" button, *NOT* the big green "Download" button.)
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Neil gives good lecture. (Tough crowd; he doesn't get a laugh until 17 minutes in...)
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
I finished The Walking Dead last night. I *meant* to only play for an hour, but found myself quite unable to stop playing when my timer went off. Luckily, the final episode was a bit on the short side, so I only stayed up late by about another half hour.

I had an idea of where I thought the game would go. I wasn't completely wrong, but the writers turned out to be much cleverer than I had given them credit for. The ending was brilliant, shocking, and simultaneously life-affirming and tragic. They paid off a lot more of the long-term consequences of player choice than I thought they would, and they *nailed* their themes perfectly. I cried. Admittedly, I'm a well-known sentimental softy, but still: actual tears.

A few final observations:
This game should forever put to rest the notion that "moral choice" systems in games should be tied to gameplay rewards. They are *so* much more rewarding taken on their own terms, without game-mechanical rewards like gear that is only usable if you are sufficiently "good" or "evil".

This game has earned a really high mark of respect that I don't recall encountering before. *No one* wants this experience spoiled. I am immersed in videogame culture both on-line and physically at work, and even though lots of people discuss this game, they are always very... elliptical, as if the specific details are actually sacred.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Writing in the middle of the night to exorcise my demons. Or zombies, as the case maybe. My brain is over-full from The Walking Dead videogame. So I may as well write about it.

This is a game based on The Walking Dead comic book, but following an entirely different cast of characters. While I had some fundamental problems with the comic book, it wasn't clear that they would apply to this game, and the game received rave reviews, so I figured it was worth checking out.

TWD is, for want of a better descriptor, a point-and-click adventure game. That's what Telltale Games started making when they were founded, years ago. But they have been gradually pushing on the limits of the form, and are approaching something new and cool. TWD does feature some 'puzzles', but they are far less emphasized than is standard for adventure games, and also the weakest part of the experience. Instead, the game focuses on narrative and direct interaction.

A brief media studies digression: Postmodernism in general, and postmodern horror in particular, has had a fascination with audience complicity going back at least to Bertolt Brecht. These stories like to call attention to the function of the audience *as* audience. If they didn't *want* to be entertained by these horrors, the horrors would not exist, so the audience is in some sense morally culpable for what happens.

TWD manages a similar effect *without* the postmodernism. Because you control the protagonist's actions, you are automatically complicit, without necessarily being reminded that you are "audience" and removing your immersion in the story. As a game designer myself, I am still aware of how tightly they are controlling the story, but the fact that they require you to actively drive the action forward is still surprisingly powerful.

One early example is when the protagonist/player is confronted with a trapped-but-animate zombie that needs to be searched, and therefore needs to be rendered inanimate. This zombie was, in life, an important person to the protagonist, and now he has to 'kill' them. He has a blunt object, and the game provides a cursor that you can -- *must* -- place over the zombie's head and press the mouse button to swing. Four. Separate. Times. From a strict UI design perspective, this is meaningless busywork, involving no player choice, and no interesting challenge. But it is nonetheless emotionally *hard* to keep pressing that button, and the camera angles and animations while you do so tell their own story in miniature. It's a microcosm of the whole game, right there. I should note that they only use this technique where it will be emotionally impactful. If the characters decide to leave their safe-house and sneak through the sewer system for half a mile to reach the next important plot location, the game just cuts directly from leaving the safe-house to them coming out of the sewer. But if you have to sneak up slowly on something, you'll be pushing the 'forward' button every step of the way.

The game contains many interactive dialogue scenes. The writing and voice-acting is top-notch. The animations are impressive, though they still aren't quite out of the Uncanny Valley. When presented with a dialogue choice, you are usually on a timer, and if you don't act fairly quickly, you'll just say nothing. Which is sometimes exactly what you *want* to say. This is one of the only games I can recall that understands the value of negative space in dialogue -- how silence is sometimes the most powerful line there is. The choices you make in the dialogue only rarely affect the broad outcome of events, but can have a large effect on what the other characters think of you -- and what you think of yourself. The game is rife with no-win scenarios where you struggle to choose which is the least horrible alternative.

With a name like "The Walking Dead", you might think that this was a zombie game. Only sort of. Yes, there has been a zombie apocalypse, but that's setting, not theme. In fact, this game is an example of a genre that is becoming more common as the average age of game designers goes up: this is a story about parenthood. Very early on, the protagonist comes across a small girl named Clementine, and bonds with her as they save each other's life. She becomes his surrogate child, and is the emotional focus of the game. You not only want to protect her (difficult in and of itself), but you want to set a good example for her. This makes the aforementioned no-win decisions even more emotionally devastating than they would be on their own.

Those difficult decisions are a big part of why I am up in the middle of the night. My conscious mind is aware of how constrained the choices in the game actually are, and is furthermore committed to owning those choices I make, even the ones I kinda regret after the heat of the moment has passed. But my *subconscious*, sleeping mind is another story. *That* part of my brain doesn't understand the no-win scenario, and has been endlessly replaying, doing a brute-force search of the possibility space in order to find some outcome that is less awful than what I did experience. Not that it *can*, because my subconscious is a really lousy storyteller. So, sleep, but not very restful.

I haven't yet finished the game. There are five episodes, each running between 2-3 hours, and earlier tonight I finished episode 4. One could theoretically play the whole game in one sitting, but I think it actually benefits from being drawn out, so I've been playing it an hour or so at a a time intermittently for the last few weeks. Theoretically, they could still fumble the ending, but I don't believe they will. In fact, given what happened in the penultimate episode, I'm pretty sure I know how this story ends, though I don't yet know exactly how I'll get there. But I'm definitely going to walk that road.

Highest Recommendation.
alexxkay: (Default)
I'm sure I have earlier here plugged my favorite bit of Shakespeare-related silliness, A Bloody Deed. If you haven't seen it, go watch it now. Or hell, even if you have seen it, it's worth a rewatch. And, y'know, these days you *can* easily rewatch it.

But back in late 2003, I didn't even know that the performance was being recorded, much less that that recording would be widely available. So, in order to share what I could of it with my friends, I wrote down what I could from memory. I just came across the file again. It gives interesting insight into the production of the Bad Quartos of Shakespeare, some of which are allegedly sourced from audience accounts in a similar manner.

What I wrote down is recognizably the same story. It's a lot shorter, and only has about half the laugh-lines. There are lots of paraphrases. Bits of it aren't quite in the right order. It's good, but it's only a shadow of the Real Thing.

For historical interest, I'm going to put that 'bad quarto' here. (In the comments, though, so that I won't get the full text in every reply...)
alexxkay: (Default)
Here's a great article by one of my favorite game journalists, Tom Chick: Bioware plays the gay card. It starts out about the portrayal of a gay relationship in Mass Effect 3, then goes in some unexpected but interesting directions before looping back 'round to the start. Especially recommended to [livejournal.com profile] londo.

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Alexx Kay

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