Posts Tagged ‘ Film

The Train

Not long ago, MK and I watched John Frankenheimer’s The Train, and I was amazed all over again at what a tense, beautifully photographed, and surprisingly thought-provoking action movie this is.

The Train opens in the middle of the night in a Parisian art museum. A German officer, Colonel Waldheim (Paul Scofield), stands in the darkness surrounded by luminous masterpieces. The German occupation of Paris is in its final days. The museum curator appears, and together they regard the art in silence. Then she thanks him. For not being like the rest of the Nazis. For treating her and the art with such respect. For protecting it.

Then the spell is broken as he tells her that he is going to continue protecting it. The art will be taken from the museum and brought to Germany before the Allies take the city. As if on cue, a small army of German soldiers burst into the museum as the lights come up, armed with creates and packaging. As the curator looks on in horror, France’s artistic heritage is entombed in crates with names like “RENOIR” and “PICASSO” stencilled in black lettering across their lids. The scene ends with the curator, standing stunned beneath stark white light and surrounded by empty walls.

The Train is shot in black and white, and is probably the last major action picture shot that way. Throughout the film, Frankenheimer goes for brutal, stark contrasts, cutting frames in half and thirds. His scenes are packed with action all the way into the background, and the camera stalks through the scenery alongside the characters. The first time we meet Burt Lancaster’s character, French railroad engineer and yard manager Paul Labiche, he is striding across the train yard as German troops bustle too and fro with their retreat. Without breaking stride he dodges past arriving trains, armored vehicles, and lines of soldiers.

All of it is actually happening. This is not an effects shot. Every frame is teeming with living detail because there really are things happening in front of the camera. You get the sense that Labiche could just as easily change directions, walk deeper into the frame, and go about an ordinary day. The Train seems to be taking place within a world, not creating one.

When Labiche arrives at his meeting, a clandestine gathering of Resistance members, we get the setup that will take us through the rest of the film. Col. Waldheim’s art train must be stopped at all costs, but without harming the art. The Resistance members initially want nothing to do with it. They have lost friends in this war and the end is in sight. In a few days the Germans will be gone, and they’ve sacrificed enough. Paintings aren’t something worth dying over. The curator is struck dumb when one of Labiche’s men suggests the paintings just be replaced.

This brings us to the most fascinating aspect of The Train. It seriously considers our relationship to culture. Nations have ideas and touchstones, but for most of us they’re not real objects. The Smithsonian is not a part of my life. I haven’t been to the Art Museum of Chicago in years. I haven’t read most of the Western Canon. And neither, I suspect, have you.

Most of us are too damn busy working hard and keeping the wolves at bay to form a personal relationship with the things that supposedly define our civilizations, or our nations. Yet for all that, we identify with a culture based on touchstones that we’ve never actually touched, on ideas we’ve never contemplated. Millions have died “for France” without ever touring the Louvre or taking Communion at Reims Cathedral. Why? How can patriotism, not that of jingoist sloganeering, but the real love of the patria, burn bright enough to make willing heroes of working stiffs and jaded cynics? How does it survive in a disillusioned world?

We begin to alight on an understanding when Papa Boule, a broken-down and mutinous train operator discovers he’s being given the job of driving the art train out of France. Boule is a drunken troll, and hasn’t been allowed to drive trains for some unknown (but easily imaginable) infractions. A conductor at the yard takes him aside during the night shift and explains the cargo, and tells him that these paintings are France. He starts listing the masters on this train, and Boule stops him at Renoir. His eyes go out of focus as he explains that once, when he was a much younger man, he dated a girl who modeled for Renoir.

For reasons he never really explains, Boule decides to save these paintings and sabotage the train. What he sets in motion will eventually involve Labiche’s small Resistance cell and numerous other Resistance members. But it’s Boule’s curious choice to intervene that remains the pivotal point of the film. When he is caught by the Germans, Labiche attempts to win some mercy for him by protesting of Waldheim that Boule is just a foolish old man, who didn’t know what he was doing. Boule turns on him and snarls that he knew exactly what he was doing. Does Labiche?

It’s interesting. Boule refuses to be made a victim or a sucker. This is a film from the early 1960s, distant enough from WWII to be skeptical of the heroic narrative, but not yet soured by the great disillusionment of the 60s and 70s. In just 14 years, Burt Lancaster would wheel on an idealistic young soldier in Go Tell the Spartans and angrily accuse him of being a “fucking hero.” But here in The Train, between World War II and Vietnam, we find a film that considers heroism and self-sacrifice with neither irony nor pity. The paintings are France, and in spite of everything, including a futile massacre in in the trenches and a bloody, ignominious debacle  in 1940, a burned-out blue-collar engineer decides to throw his life away for an idea he’d have mocked if he ever heard someone trying to express it.

The Train is ultimately an action film, and Frankenheimer does a typically expert job of building and sustaining suspense, and laying out clear, coherent, and thrilling set-pieces. But it’s an action film with its mind on bigger questions. Go take a look (it’s available for streaming on Netflix). It’s a great example of the beauty of postwar black-and-white photography, and one of the most thought-provoking action pictures  you’re likely to see.

Strange Days in Feminist Film Criticism

I saw Hurt Locker in a theater last summer, or I think I did. After reading this rather nasty take-down of the film and its director from Martha Nochimson over at Salon, I think I might have seen something else.

For instance, Nochimson sees in Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. Will James a modern John Wayne character, stripped of the humanity and feeling that marked Wayne’s protagonists and reduced to being masculine machine. And she’s convinced the film gives this character the hero treatment.

When they bonded with young, earnest boys, Wayne’s men became meaningful mentors — Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) in “The Shootist” couldn’t have grown up without the wit and wisdom of Wayne’s John Bernard Books. But Will, with his Wayne-ian steely gaze, his laconic ease at the portals of death, and his patented hero saunter, loves “just one thing,” as he tells his baby boy before leaving him, maybe forever, to return to the killing fields of Iraq. And it isn’t women or kids.

To their credit, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal never reduce “the thing” to a word. Will’s unnamed passion is left to the enormity of our imaginations when we see him back in Iraq in the humongous bomb-disposal suit that insulates him from any direct contact with the world. What’s less happy is the confused adulation of this solitary savior at the end of the film, as Will takes the place of the bomb-disposal robot we saw in the opening scene — a better “bot.”

Adulation is a strong word there at the end, and I’m pretty certain that nothing in the film supports its usage. If you look at Hurt Locker as, among other things, a character study of Will James, then it reveals him to be a man who is fundamentally broken and unheroic in spite of numerous admirable traits. He is brave to the point of foolishness, and unconscionably reckless with the lives of the soldiers around him. And the last shot of the film does, indeed, show him with that “one thing” that he loves, but it never asks the audience to share or admire that love. Coming on the heels of his unsuccessful and half-hearted attempt at resuming life with his family, James’s return to Iraq seems more like a defeat than anything else.

But I was really taken aback by this passage. I love a nasty cheap shot as much as the next guy, and I’ve taken a few of them here, but shouldn’t the targets at least have it coming? Nochimson really dislikes Bigelow and this film, and she doesn’t care how she comes across.

Quentin Tarantino, who should know better, having just directed a piercingly original ironic study of war and blood lust, dubbed Bigelow the “Queen of Directors” when she took the DGA award. I prefer the “Transvestite of Directors.” Looks to me like she’s masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.

OK, I see you objecting back there in the last row. Is it because Bigelow and Boal seem to think they have made an antiwar film, as they made clear when they accepted their BAFTAs (the British Academy Awards)? Something to do with an ironic presentation of Will? Uh-huh. We spend one-and-a-half hours enduring crisis after crisis in which Will is the only person with the daring and skill to save us (since we identify with the American soldiers) from being blown to bits. We hover over him anxiously, for seemingly endless stretches of time, watching (beautiful) extreme close-ups of his skillful and steady fingers palpating wires and wielding wire-cutters, our vicarious lives hanging on each motion. Our field of vision is so completely limited to his expertise in defusing bombs and dealing with invisible enemies that our capacity to think about the larger context of the American presence in Iraq is replaced by nuance-free instincts more characteristic of the tea party movement.

No, I can’t believe she just played the “Real Woman” card either. But we’ll come back to that in a moment, because Nochimson is going to revisit this theme. I’m more interested in her interpretation of the film.

First, we hover anxiously over Will because this is a movie about defusing and disposing of bombs, and Bigelow has told the story with all the tension and stomach-churning terror that it deserves. But in a number of those scenes, I think it’s easier to identify with the other members of Will’s unit. Because here is the funny thing about what Will does: he’s not really saving anybody. He doesn’t really even need to bother with defusing the bombs. He is summoned to sites where US troops have already found, or suspect they have found, explosives or booby-traps and have withdrawn to a safe distance. And the bomb squad always has the option to detonate the bombs from safety. But Will, regardless of what the smart or safe course of action would be, insists on sticking his head inside the lion’s mouth. And his men are forced to come along for that ride.

Nochimson also underplays the importance of Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Eldridge in this film. Eldridge is wrestling with severe PTSD from the start of the film, and it’s obvious that he needs to get the hell out of Iraq but can’t until he is finished with his tour. We last see him being placed on a medevac chopper and cursing out Will. He is being sent home wounded because Will, as he always does, needlessly put his men in danger. Sanborn, Will’s second in command, is the responsible one of the group. When the unit comes under a deadly sniper attack in the desert, Sanborn reveals himself to be as steady and skilled as Will. The difference is that Sanborn doesn’t feel the need to test himself, nor does he relish such occasions. He is a professional soldier. Will is a cowboy in the worst sense of the word.

None of this is subtext. It’s front and center throughout the film, and while there are moments we might think Will is brave or heroic, by the end we’ve seen through him, as has Sanborn.

As for the “larger context” that The Hurt Locker supposedly lacks, I’m not certain what more Nochimson could want. We have a sequence where Will, in a blind fury at the murder of a child he believes to be one that he befriended, breaks into an Iraqi’s home and holds him at gunpoint and demands answers through a mild language barrier and Will’s own incomprehensibility. Will is demanding an explanation from a man who has no idea what Will is talking about. I don’t think we need to look very far for ways this scene applies to our endeavors in the Middle East. And honestly, a movie about guys fighting the shadow war against Iraqi insurgents seems to invite some serious thought about context.

Toward the end of the piece, Nochimson comes to her real complaint. Bigelow has been praised to the skies for directing a brutal, kinetic war film. She demonstrated her technical proficiency in the kind of macho genre that Hollywood loves. In the meantime, the work of other female directors is the veritable tree falling in the forest if it’s work that can be dismissed as part of a “chick” genre.

I think the outsize admiration for her masterly technique and the summary dismissal in the current buzz of directors like Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers reveal an untenable assumption that the muscular filmmaking appropriate for the fragmented, death-saturated situations of war films is innately superior to the technique appropriate to the organic, life-affirming situations of romantic comedy.I don’t begrudge the praise for Bigelow’s depiction of urban war violence, but why the general opinion that Ephron and Meyers aren’t up to much because they don’t use hand-held cameras and flashy cuts that tensely survey an inscrutable environment? That’s not their material. Why isn’t there also some praise for Ephron, for example, for the scenes in “Julie & Julia” that capture the love of life conveyed by Meryl Streep in her celebrated performance as Julia Child? When Julia and her sister, reunited in a Paris train station, run toward each other, so adorably full of affection they don’t care about their resemblance to two lurching cows high on jouissance grass, does anyone think that incandescent moment was achieved only by acting? That the director’s framing of the scene had nothing to do with it?

I sympathize on this score, but I see two problems. First, Nora Ephron is not a great standard-bearer for female directors (I can’t speak to Meyers). I watched Julie & Julia six weeks ago, and I cannot for the life of me remember the scene that Nochimson describes here. I can remember The Hurt Locker almost scene for scene, and I saw it only once about nine months ago. The scenes I tend to remember from Julie & Julia stand out because of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci, or because they are the flat Julie Powell sequences that bear the self-conscious cuteness that is practically Ephron’s signature. Ephron makes enjoyable, often charming movies that usually have one or two flaws or tics that drive me insane each time I see them. She does not make movies I consider great.

The larger problem is that the issue Nochimson identifies has less to do with gender than it does with Hollywood’s views on what constitutes a “serious” film. Hollywood has always been a sucker for the passable epic, the “issue” film (Gentlemen’s Agreement, anyone?), and the oppressively serious drama. Spend a few minutes poking around IMDB comparing academy award nominations in a given year versus which movies came out that year, and the full scope of the travesty should be clear. To get you started, here is 1995: A year in which Braveheart beat out the superb Babe and Sense and Sensibility for Best Picture, and Before Sunrise and Clockers received no nominations. Heat, Se7en, and The Usual Suspects also came out that year. Men and women both have grounds for complaint when we consider the types of movies that always seem to make the biggest pseudo-critical, pseudo-artistic splash. So Nochimson has identified an old, recurrent problem and interpreted its latest instantiation through the lens of gender-bias.

Nochimson’s critique of The Hurt Locker is based, I think, on a seriously flawed interpretation of the film. But her attack on Bigelow highlights a persistent problem between women and Hollywood. Nochimson accuses Bigelow of playing the transvestite to advance her career. She has made a masculine film and has therefore somehow betrayed feminism by not using her talents to direct feminine “life affirming” movies. Ironically, by using this line of attack, Nochimson has tacitly accepted sexist Hollywood’s gendering of the genres. The Hurt Locker isn’t a masculine film, and I don’t consider Julie and Julia a feminine film. They are films about different subject matter and characters, and different material requires a different approach. But it doesn’t require a gendered approach, and it’s wrong to insist that female directors take one.

The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

The Marines in the original Half-Life are the classic example of a challenging enemy and, with the possible exception of the Replicant soldiers in FEAR, have never really been superseded. What made them such outstanding enemies was the fact that they were hell to defeat while remaining entirely fair. After all, the Marines were effective because they used the same weapons and tactics that players were used to exploiting. They tossed grenades to flush you out of cover, they unleashed nonstop gunfire when you came within sight, they ran for cover when they were exposed, and they tried to find good flanking positions where they could trap and kill you.

Unlike the zombies and aliens you encountered earlier in the game, you could not march up to these guys and shotgun them at close range, nor could you simply pick them off from a moderate distance. You had to actually fight, burning up ammo just to hold them at bay, maneuvering the moment your position was compromised, and listening closely for the sound of a frag grenade bouncing at your feet. You had to improve your twitch-shooter skills, but also start thinking like a tactician. However, “twitchier” players could lean on those skills and power through the ambushes, while slower, more thoughtful players could make up for lagging reflexes with a good plan and smart use of the available tools. There was more than one way to handle the Marines, and between the three difficulty levels, anyone could get past them with a little effort. Better still, making the effort was actually enjoyable.

Valve left enough room for players to find an approach that worked for them. Also, the Marines were not so overpowering that a single slip-up would result in instant death. Players had a fair chance in almost each and every encounter. It was the kind of challenge that was fun to encounter and rewarding to overcome.

It’s difficult to choose a single example of frustrating, challenge-free difficulty from all the choics that bad shooter design has given us. However, since it is cloudy and rainy outside my upper-story window, I find myself thinking about Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and its ghastly “Sniper Town” level.

The sniper level was inspired by the scene in Saving Private Ryan when the squad is ambushed by a German sniper in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. The American sniper engages the German in a brief duel, and unforgettably shoots the German through his scope. The scene was so good that the MOH:AA team made an entire level out of it, but what worked as a ten-minute movie sequence was utterly excruciating as an hour-long shooter level.

In the sniper level, you are given a scoped rifle and have to travel through a French town that’s been infested by enemy snipers. There’s probably about 20 of them, all hanging out along your route just waiting to shoot you. Unfortunately, there’s no way to locate them until they’ve already taken a shot. Since you are the only person they’re going to be shooting at, this means that you have draw their fire. However, they can also kill you in one shot.

So what the player has to do is lean on the quicksave / quickload buttons. You shuffle along for a few steps until you hear a rifle shot and fall down dead. Then you reload, take the same few steps, and get killed again. But this time you think you saw where the sniper was. Reload. Die again. Yep, he was definitely hiding in that attic. Reload. Look through your scope and train it roughly where the sniper will be. Step sideways out of cover, duck back in just before you get shot. Now you know exactly where he will be when you step out of cover again. Step out, shoot as the crosshairs glide over him, and you’ve defeated the sniper.

Now repeat twenty times.

There’s no skill involved. The enemy snipers always see you first and kill you before you’re aware they are there. So you just repeat until you’ve memorized where they will appear. You aren’t improving and you aren’t being clever. You’re just taking advantage of the save / reload feature to overcome a roadblock the designers put in front of you. It’s not there to challenge you, because there are no tactics or skills that can see you through. There is only rote memorization.

Bad adventure game puzzles are similar in that they are wholly illogical even by the genre’s wacky standards. Gabriel Knight needs to create a fake mustache out of cat hair and maple syrup in order to disguise himself as a man who actually does not have a mustache in order to fool a moped rental clerk? No gamer is ever going to deduce that this is the correct course of action, so all this puzzle wants from players is their endless patience as they flail at item and object combinations until they begin making progress.

The bottom line is that a game can be tough as hell, but all is forgiven provided it remains stimulating and doesn’t make players feel like they it is rigged against them. The Myth series was savage on its highest difficult levels, reducing me to a sense of despair on more than one occasion, but I always had the sense that if I was just a little better with my formation management, and if I just found a slightly better piece of terrain to defend, I could get through it. To the game’s credit, I always could.

Is Passivity Ever Good?

Lewis Pulsipher would still consider these games self-defeatingly challenging. By his reasoning, the notion that games should challenge players, should actually demand something of them, is outmoded. The sooner we hurl that notion overboard, the sooner games can become as big a medium as they deserve to be.

After all, he writes, “Viewers of movies, which are passive experiences, are rarely challenged.” The same cultural and commercial ubiquity is within gaming’s reach, if only they stop being so damned challenging and embrace the non-gamers who find games too frustrating to play.

I must be watching movies incorrectly, or perhaps I am just watching the wrong ones. While movies are passive insofar as I do not have to do anything in order to get through to the end, my mental engagement with movies is quite active. I contemplate characters, judge performances, notice shot composition and editing, and identify cinematic influences. If I cannot engage with a movie on most or any of these levels, it’s probably a crap movie.

Furthermore, anyone who actually likes movies (rather than the revenue figures that have such a mesmerizing effect on Pulsipher) would argue that movies can be and frequently are challenging. It is painful to watch the series of misunderstandings and the bone-deep desire for vengeance that culminate in a tragic killing in Mystic River. Watch Dave Boyle beg for his life and try to explain the truth through a psychosis that has finally broken him. Watch how Jimmy Markum reveals that he is past caring, and that he will forever be settling scores with a world that keeps taking from him. That’s powerful, challenging filmmaking, and it’s why film is a great medium. No one is ever going to point to Terminator Salvation as a reason why he watches movies.

Pulsipher doesn’t really care, though. His attitude is that big, dumb movies like Terminator Salvation make a lot of money, therefore they are a role model. Games should also be big, dumb, and easy so that the same people who love watching battling robots will play videogames. You cannot argue with commercial success.

On the other hand, as a gamer and a cinephile, I’m at a loss as to why I should care. As long as Pulsipher was looking to Roger Ebert for insight into the nature of entertainment, he would have done well to read what Ebert had to say about the arguments people made in defense of Transformers 2:

Do I ever have one of those days when, the hell with it, all I want to do is eat popcorn and watch explosions? I haven’t had one of those days for a long time. There are too many other films to see. I’ve had experiences at the movies so rich, so deep–and yes, so funny and exciting–that I don’t want to water the soup. I went to “Transformers” with an open mind (I gave a passing grade to the first one). But if I despised the film and it goes on to break box office records, will I care? No. I’ll hope however that everyone who paid for a ticket thought they had a good time, because it was their time and their money.

The opening grosses are a tribute to a marketing campaign, not to a movie no one had seen. If two studios spend a ton of money on a film, scare away the competition, and open in 4,234 theaters before the Fourth of July, of course they do blockbuster business. The test is: Does the film have legs?

Pulsipher’s argument might provide a roadmap to more lucrative games, but it has absolutely no relevance to anyone interested in better games. Pulsipher conflates them and is careful to present a dismissive, inaccurate view of what gamers get out of challenging games, but the bottom line is that he cares about audience share and not quality.

concludes with Part 3