Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man (3/5)

The Wolf Man is one of those films that you know even if you’ve never actually sat down and watched it.  It has become a sort of ur-text for werewolf films, and the mythology of the werewolf that’s posited in this film has made its way through each subsequent movie about a man transforming into a wolf creature.  The Wolf Man was made during Universal’s “monster movie” heyday, but unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, The Wolf Man isn’t based on a previous existing text.  And while I would have to strain a little if I wanted to call it a “classic,” I can, at the very least, appreciate its role in constructing a modern myth out of cast off legends. 

The movie begins when Larry Talbot returns to his father’s manor in England after the death of his brother.  Larry’s father, John Talbot, is played by the erudite Claude Raines, and the two are a complete mismatch.  Where John is a man of theory and academia, Larry works well with his hands but freely admits he doesn’t exactly have a lot of book smarts.  It’s somewhat puzzling that despite John’s upper class English accent, Larry sounds like he’s been working in a Pittsburg steel mill. 

But Larry, played by Lon Cheney Sr., isn’t so broken up by his brother’s death that he can’t hit on the local women.  While looking through his father’s telescope, Larry happens to spot his neighbor, Gwen trying on some earrings.  In what is arguably the most awkward pick up scene in movie history, Larry proceeds to go over to Gwen’s family shop to ask her if he can buy a pair of earrings.  When she offers up a few that are on display, Larry tells her that he actually wants the ones she was just trying on in her room.  I honestly don’t know why Gwen didn’t turn around and flee the shop right then.  After insisting that he will pick her up at eight that night (Gwen pretty much turns him down repeatedly), Larry is able to convince Gwen to grudgingly go out with him. 

At the very least, Gwen is smart enough to bring along a chaperone on her creepy date.  Gwen, Larry, and the third wheel go see the local gypsies and get their fortunes read.  From here you can pretty much guess what happens.  The third wheel is attacked and killed by a wolf, which in turn is killed by Larry who happens to have a silver topped cane on hand, but in the scuffle he is bitten.  Now cursed as a werewolf, Larry must come to terms with his monstrous transformations.  At this point the audience might draw a connection between Larry’s animalism and his repressed sexuality or perhaps the dual nature of man.  But don’t worry, audience member, because John Talbot helpfully makes this point again and again.  While John doesn’t believe in werewolfs, he does think people sometimes suffer from lycanthrope as a mental disorder, which is really just a metaphor for our innate animal urges.  Who needs subtext when you have text-text. 
Up until now I have been a little hard on this film.  But watching it is an interesting look back in history to pre-slasher era horror films.  It’s interesting to note that questions of psycho-sexuality seem imbedded in horror movies long before Carol Clover’s study, Men, Women and Chain Saws.  Besides, the movie is actually pretty good whenever the director has a chance to film a simulacrum of the English countryside at night.  These shots are surprisingly dark for a black and white film, causing the images to devolve into a sequence of abstract shapes.  He also brilliantly shoots through the gnarled branches of tortured looking trees and surrounds them with Fibonacci-like swirls of smoke.  The set design on this film is clearly top notch.  In fact, it’s a shame the movie wasn’t made a couple decades earlier as a silent-film.  If you turn off the volume, you might very well have yourself a horror classic. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Back to the Future: The Game

Back to the Future: The Game (4/5)

In the early years of the 21st century it became clear that nostalgia had reached the point where its own gravity would cause its collapse, resulting in a black hole of childhood reminiscence, film reimaginings of decades old cartoons, and impeccable recreations of popular music culled from the past fifty years.  It has gotten to the point where, once you reach this black hole’s event horizon, there is no possibility of escape.  You are doomed to spend your remaining years looking backwards at your formative years. 

I’ll admit to being more than a little anxious about the awesome power of nostalgia’s gravitational pull.  But I’ll let you in on a secret.  It’s not because I never want to return to my childhood.  No, it’s because, like anyone living in the new millennium, I too feel a pull towards reliving old cartoons, movies, and music.  In fact, sometimes I’m afraid I love nostalgia too much.  As a result, my defenses go up whenever I sense that a product is carefully constructed to send me back on a recollection bender.  So it’s a real compliment when I write that Telltale’s Back to the Future: The Game, with its knowing intertextuality and reverence for the original trilogy, easily disarmed me. 

While Back to the Future hasn’t embedded itself in the popular culture firmament in the same way as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, there are some of us who hold this series in just as high regard.  In other words, the bar was set pretty high for Telltale Games.  The developers smartly decided to push up the narrative a year after Marty and Doc have returned from the Old West.  So instead of our two adventurers attempting to get back to 1985, they’re trying to return to 1986.  This also means that Back to the Future: The Game is likely the closest we will ever get to Back to the Future Part IV. 

If the movie trilogy was mostly about saving Marty’s past, present, and future, the game revolves around young Emmet “Doc” Brown and his struggles deciding between his love of science and his father’s plans for him to go into law.  The story begins in 1986.  Doc has gone missing and his house is being put up for sale.  You begin as Marty looking through all of Doc’s byzantine collection of gadgets, which also serves as a walk through memory lane, from a wall filled with clocks to an oversized guitar amp.  Thanks to the Delorean’s retrieval system, Marty is able to, eventually, find where in time Doc has been stranded, and it happens to be prohibition era Hill Valley, 1931. 
Upon making his way to 1931, Marty discovers that Doc, under the pseudonym Carl Sagan, has been framed for burning down the local speakeasy.  Your job, then, is to break him out of jail before he is gunned down by the local gang (lead of course by a Tannen), but to do so you must convince young Emmett Brown to stray from his duties as his father’s law clerk so that he can invent a drill that will help Marty with his jail break.  Of course, even after you save Doc and make your way back to 1986, you soon notice that the time line is out of whack.  Over the course of five episodes, you pong back and forth between past and present attempting to reset Hill Valley to semi-normal. 

The single shifting variable happens to be Hill Valley’s local teetotaler, Edna Strickland.  While making certain that Kid Tannen (local bootlegger and father of Biff Tannen) gets nabbed by the coppers, Marty inadvertently sets up Strickland with the young Emmett Brown.  The pairing of a science obsessed Emmett and a control freak Edna reverberates through the timeline and transforms Hill Valley into a police state.  Your goal then becomes to dissolve Brown and Strickland’s relationship back in 1931.  This may in fact be the only game where you must prevent a totalitarian police state by serving as a cock block. 

The fact that, as Marty, you must break off Doc’s relationship in order to win the game only further emphasizes what is perhaps the mono-theme of major blockbusters: male bonding.  I’m not suggesting that Marty and Doc are up to any funny business behind the scenes.  But I am suggesting that, despite a love interest here and there, the Back to the Future movies were chiefly about homosocial relationships.  Aside from Oedipal anxiety, the first film revolved mostly around the relationship between Marty and the 1955 version of his dad.  In the second film, Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, is allowed to hitch a ride to the future, only to be quickly sidelined.  The central dilemma of the final film is Doc’s decision to either stay with Clara in the past or to return with Marty to the future, and his final decision, to stay in the past (albeit, briefly), was arguably made by the screenwriters in order to reassert his heterosexuality.

But enough about the old trilogy.  The game makers have absolutely nailed the dynamic between the odd pairing of mad scientist and slacker teen that typifies their relationship.  You can hear Doc sputter out strings of technobabble and Marty drop 80s appropriate slang.  Of course, it helps that they got Christopher Lloyd to reprise his role, and even though Michael J. Fox didn’t come back to voice Marty, the voice actor, A.J. Locascio, does an eerily spot on impression. 
There are a number of throwbacks to the original series, but the one that will hit you straight in the medulla oblongata nostalgia center is the original music by Alan Silvestri.  The moment the majestic, rising horns sound out the opening notes to the Back to the Future theme, I guarantee you every scene from all three films will come flooding back to you.  In addition, there are plenty of allusions that reach back to the film, from reminiscent bits of dialogue to familiar action beats.  At times, all of the loving connections to the films threaten to make the game feel like a retread, but since the movies themselves took part in these sorts of call backs, ultimately I think it’s in keeping with the spirit of Robert Zemickis’s creation.  Perhaps the only drawback to the game is that, as an adventure game, it is entirely too easy.  This might be bad for adventure gamers, but it likely won’t bother those who are unfamiliar with the genre. 

I’ll admit that I was originally reluctant to look back at my past.  I don’t want to be like one of those old hippies still going on about the time they saw The Grateful Dead back in ’72.  There’s too much great art and culture released every year for me to spend too much time on things I loved when I was a child.  And yet there’s still value to be found in thinking like a child and of loving something without reserve like a child.  I may not want to live in the past, but it sure is a great place to visit now and then. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Black Swans - Occasion for Song

Black Swans – Occasion for Song (4.5/5)

Death may be the most difficult topic to honestly, straightforwardly address in popular music.  The topic is so imposing that it is nearly impossible to fully explore the one constant of human existence within a three or four minute song.  Luckily for Black Swans, they tackle the subject of death not through a single song, but over the course of a nearly hour long album.  The single loss that hovers over the album happens to be that of Noel Sayre, the band’s violinist who died suddenly in a swimming pool.  The front cover pictures the stark, imposing image of a diving board.  And absence is at the heart of the album, since much of the music and lyrics are less about death itself than with coming to grips with loss.

“Portsmouth, Ohio” is the only song that directly grapples with Sayre’s death, and it serves as a sort of emotional and thematic centerpiece.  Black Swans tackle the subject with a hushed understatement, preferring to let the real life narrative speak for itself without a forced emotional push.  The song’s refrain, “Nobody’s supposed to die three days before the Fourth of July,” is delivered matter of fact like.  Within that phrase is imbedded the unthinkable nature of death—that, try as we might, we can never truly wrap our heads around the idea of not existing.  It also emphasizes the devastating abruptness of such an accident, a reminder that no one is guaranteed the supposedly requisite 75 years. 

The rest of the album approaches death obliquely.  Even when the subject matter seems to deal with our past, because of the shadow Sayre’s death casts across the album, each song seems to fashioning a cartographic image of mortality.  When singer, Jerry Decicca, tells us, “I give one hundred dollar bills to homeless men, so they can get fucked up right,” I can’t help but think that he’s giving us a perverse reinterpretation of carpe diem.  In “Work Song” Decicca ruminates on the tension between material necessities and spiritual fulfillment, singing “Watch the seahawk dive, it needs food just like you and I to survive.”  For some of his best lyrics, he relies on concrete imagery rather than abstraction in order to cut to the pith of his meaning.

Each song sounds both lush and ramshackle, like an intricate bird’s nest thatched together by twigs and mud.  Decicca’s singing is similarly rugged, falling somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan’s speak-sing.  But the most interesting aspect of their music is what’s missing.  Instead of trying to replicate Sayre’s violin, Black Swans instead chose to do without the instrument, possibly deciding that some things are just irreplaceable.