Monday, March 28, 2011

Captain America Trailer; Or, How I Learned To Stop Hating and Get Behind The Shield

I've never had particularly strong feelings about Captain America, but historically I've written him off as another 'boy scout' superhero like Superman. These two characters, symbolic of Marvel and DC comics, have always bored me because they're just so damn wholesome. They're good guys because that's the right and just, and there's not much more to their characters than that.

Superman in particular has never interested me in his pure form, although he can be interesting when you start to mess about with his origins or situation. Mark Millar's miniseries, "Red Son," for example, imagined Superman if his spaceship had crashed in Soviet Russia instead of middle America. That change made for a hugely interesting read because it explored the character as a sociological object, originally created by and emblematic of America but now stripped of that identity. It was an incredible concept but it did fall apart as a narrative, collapsing under the weight of consistency and the need to similarly reinvent every other DC superhero (the Soviet Batman was particularly far fetched, though still interesting). Likewise I felt that the much maligned Superman Returns was intriguing for how it took Lois Lane away from Superman and depicted him struggling with the loss. This put the man of steel in a distinctly human position of frailty, caught between their feelings for another person and the reality that they have moved on. The result were some truly creepy shots of Superman floating outside Lane's house and using his x-ray vision to stalk her, but that was infinitely more interesting to watch than to see him struggle against an evil enemy only to inevitably come out victorious.

I know I'm in the minority, but I'd much rather watch a super-human being struggle with being human than beat the crap out of some other equally far-fetched entity. I never enjoyed comics for the "Kapow!" fights, I loved them because they put characters I could relate to in situations that spoke to my own life metaphorically. That's why I always loved flawed characters like Batman, and was completely disinterested in characters like Superman.

I always sort of assumed that Captain America was basically the Marvel equivalent of Superman. I never really read Captain America comics, but he was always mentioned tangentially in the other Marvel titles. Spiderman, for example, was always a hugely relatable character in that he continually struggled with human issues. He dealt with school, girls, bills, etc, and on more than one occasion he dealt with guilt over his own actions. In particular I remember a few times when Parker would express his shame by referring to Captain America as the epitome of moral righteousness, saying that "Cap' would have found a better way, but I'm just a man." Spiderman coped with his guilty by recognizing his humanity in the face of Captain America, the "unstoppable force" of goodness. The Cap' was literally so good that he was beyond mere humanity, he existed as a conceptual totem of justice, and that was exactly what made him so overwhelmingly uninteresting to me.

The trailer that was released last week for the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, completely changed my mind. Take a look at it below and then I'll explain how and why:

I watched this trailer and I thought, "Yeah... That actually looks kinda worthwhile...," which was a complete 180 from my previous stance of "Captain America, pfft, that's just another crap flick Marvel is crapping out in order to get to The Avengers, which is only worth thinking about because of Joss Whedon." I was prepared to ignore Captain America completely and probably would have, but something in this trailer changed my mind. At first I thought it was the novelty of seeing a superhero use a Luger pistol, but it's actually more than that.

Rob Bricken over at Topless Robot puts it best:
But the thing I like most of all is that line "Because a weak man knows the value of strength." That's something I never considered about Captain America before, something I never saw or realized reading all those Avengers comics in the '80s. The reason he's so compassionate and determined to help the weak and powerless is because he was weak and powerless himself.
The fact that Captain America was once weak makes him more than just righteousness incarnate, it makes him human. As soon as I heard that line Cap' stopped being a concept and started being a character. Moreover he suddenly started to be one that made sense in a way that was separable from his overt Americanness. Let me try to explain that last bit...

Captain America is known for his shield. That's his symbol, his "totem," if you'll excuse the reference. There's a meaning to that object that I never realized before but makes total sense in light of the fantastic line about weakness and strength. At one point in the trailer the pre-super Captain America is shown trying to defend himself from a bully in an alleyway, and he grabs a trashcan lid to shield himself. I initially thought the scene was just a throwaway reference to the Cap's eventual transformation, but the more I thought about it the more I like the scene for how well it establishes his character.

Captain America never forgets about what it means to be weak, which is why he tirelessly uses his strength to defend those around him. That trashcan lid Cap' grabs in the alleyway, and to a greater extent the famous shield he eventually holds, act as symbols of Captain America himself: they are objects of strength that protect the weak from those who prey upon them. That is exactly what Captain America does, that is his very reason for being a superhero: he stands in front of the weak and protects them. That idea is elegantly conveyed by the image of him as a weakling using a trashcan lid as a shield, and then brilliantly summarized by the line explaining why he of all people ends up being chosen to become the ultimate hero.

I still don't know very much about Captain America, but at least now I know he's worthwhile. Apparently he's also got some sort of "hero out of time" angle to his character that I am aware of but haven't rationalized conceptually, but frankly that doesn't much matter. I once thought Captain America was nothing more than a boy scout who symbolized American righteousness in the abstract, and to a certain extent I still do think that. But now I see that the Cap' is actually quite well fleshed out in terms of his design and character. He is a guardian of the weak, literally embodied by the shield he carries. The trailer has made me respect the character conceptually, and has gotten me excited to see the movie.

If that's not effective marketing then I don't know what is.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Many reviewers have likened the Oscar-nominated Incendies to a Greek tragedy, and that comparison is - in a word - apt. The movie tells the devastating story of how the Lebanese Civil War forever altered the lives of Nawal Marwan and her children. Without getting into spoilers, the narrative serves as an allegory for the reproductive nature of hatred. It explores how violence has a rippling effect that hurts everyone it touches, and how forgiveness and love are required to end the resultant suffering. But while that might sound like the perfect setup for a hopeful drama about finding a way to end cycles of hatred, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than focusing on solutions, Incendies instead depicts the most horrifying possible outcomes of hate begetting hate in self-perpetuating patterns. Make no mistake, this is not an uplifting movie. It is a brutal experience that wallows in the misery and pain that human beings cause one another.

It makes sense that Incendies was nominated for an Oscar, but it is unsurprising that it did not win given how unflinchingly tragic the movie is. Towards the end the story becomes so harrowing that it is only bearable for how obviously contrived it is, and that is both the movie's finest moment as well as its greatest failing.

I'm really straining to avoid spoilers here, but suffice to say that at Incendies' climax it's revealed that all the pain the characters suffer is not meaningless. It is made abundantly clear that the whole story is figuratively about the effects of endless cycles of hate, and the kind of work that is required the resultant suffering. In one sense it's the perfect ending, because it gives greater significance to everything that's come before. Even the most distressing scenes in the film become strangely beautiful when their context in the whole meaning becomes clear.

On the other hand, the way in which this is achieved is so quick and blunt that it makes the artifice so painfully obvious the whole experience loses some of its tragic tone. The climactic transition is marked by M. Night. Shyamalan-esque twist that you can see coming a mile away, and it's quite literally the most horrible thing that could possibly happen. I spent the last few minutes leading up to it silently begging the story not to go where I rightly suspected it was headed.

But the problem isn't with what happens per se. It's over the top, granted, but it actually does make sense in terms of Incendies' overall tone and thematic structure. Rather the problem is with how the final piece of the puzzle is presented. As I said, you can see it coming form a mile away, but it's just so horrible that you don't actually expect the movie to go there. Once it does you're left amazed at the level of depravity the film has stooped to and the overabundance of human suffering, and above all else stupefied by the utter tactlessness with which the surprise conclusion is presented.

And that's just it: the ending of Incendies is so contrived and clumsily presented that it brings you out of the filmgoing experience. Everything fits, artistically speaking, but it's just so obviously art that it actually makes the entire experience less affective. Right up until the big reveal I was absolutely devastated, the movie had reduced me to an emotional wreck; but as soon as the big picture was revealed I suddenly didn't care anymore. I couldn't. None of it seemed real anymore.

Since seeing Incendies I've discovered that it's adapted from a play called Scorched, and from what I've read online it sounds like one of the primary differences between the original play and this film adaptation is the way the ending is handled. Liam Lacey calls the film version "stripped-down," and takes issue with the loss of "the playwright's poetic language." Both critiques make a lot of sense given how rushed and poorly written the film's ending comes off. Again, the issue with Incendies isn't the content so much as it is the form, and it's actually somewhat relieving to hear that the original play succeeds exactly where the movie fails. At least one presentation of the powerful story lives up to its poetic design.

I thought Incendies was a stellar film and I'm glad I saw it. That said, I never want to see it again. Ever. I could be tempted to go see a good production of the original play, Scorched, but even that's a maybe at best. It's an incredible tale and a true modern Greek tragedy, in every sense of the comparison, but frankly I don't need that kind of unhappiness in my life.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Nuclear Boy

Above is a video that (I assume) has been created to educate Japanese children about what's going on with the Fukushima nuclear power plant. It simply must be seen to be believed. On the one hand it's admirable that there's an effort to inform the children and put the crisis in terms they can easily understand. On the other hand, the video's summation of what happened at Chernobyl (at 1:45)... Well, lets just say it's quirky.

Props to Liz for the link.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

RIP Michael Gough

Michael Gough, 1917-2011

From /Film comes the sad news that actor Michael Gough has passed away at the age of 94.

Mr. Gough was best known to many (myself included) as the original Alfred in Tim Burton's Batman and its three sequels. He was not only the most consistent aspect of that series but also its best feature. As a rule he improved every film he appeared in by virtue of honouring the film with his presence.

He will be sorely missed.

Happy Irish Stereotypes Day!

Today is March 17th, and as such people around the world (myself included) are wearing green and embracing alcoholism. To slightly assuage my guilt over the matter, I'd like to share a few links identifying and debunking Irish stereotypes.

I don't know about you, but my alcohol abuse today will not be in honour of the Irish as much as because I am clearly a lush who takes advantage of any excuse to drink and be merry with friends. Please be safe, drink (relatively) responsibly, and keep an eye out for those around you.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Godzilla is American: A Response to "Japan's Long Nuclear Disaster Film"

Peter Wynn Kirby has an opinion piece in the New York Times called "Japan's Long Nuclear Disaster Film," discussing the Godzilla movies and the dangers of nuclear technology. It's an interesting article with some in-depth historical insights that are worth reading, and it reminded me of my old post about Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and kaiju films generally. However I had some major issues with Kirby's approach to the subject of Godzilla as an expression of anti-nuclear sentiments, and I wanted to discuss them here (mostly as an excuse to talk about Gojira again).

Firstly, I want to point out how Kirby seems to completely miss the environmental message that is so integral to Gojira and its immediate sequels. The 1954 film explores where Gojira came from, and in stark contrast to the 1998 remake, the original monster is a natural phenomenon as opposed to a product of nuclear technology. Rather Japan's testing of nuclear bombs is responsible for awaking the creature from centuries of hibernation, precipitating its attacks on Japan in retaliation for interrupting its slumber. Throughout Gojira there is a running discussion as to whether or not to use the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon that kills all life in the sea and is therefore capable of eliminating the monster. The characters debate whether or not the cost is justified, and moreover whether or not they even have a right to cause such horrifying destruction to kill a beast that they irresponsibly awakened. It's heavy stuff, and the theme of humanity's negative impact on nature carries on throughout the entire series. Kirby talks about the dangers of nuclear power and how Gojira discusses such fears, but he misses the intertwined environmental message. This doesn't ruin his point, but it does make the whole piece come off a little hallow and humanist, although that's far from the worst part of his argument.

Kirby spends a lot of time talking about an American thermonuclear test near Bikini Atoll in March 1954. Without re-hashing the details too much, the detonation ended up being significantly larger than predicted, and a Japanese tuna trawler called the Lucky Dragon No. 5 was covered in radioactive ash from the explosion. The men on board were horribly injured and returned to Japan with radioactive fish that famously ended up finding its way to the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. The whole incident caused something of a scandal in Japan and, as Kirby puts it, significantly impacted the psyche of the "nation fixated on purity."

The historical breakdown is a fascinating read, and it's obvious how this kind of thing would inform the country's sentiments towards nuclear technology. In terms of informing Gojira, I'm not sure how significant an influence the scandal could have had given that the film came out only a few months later. It's clear, however that the incident impacted the 1998 American remake, the opening scene of which featured a Japanese fishing boat being attacked by a giant lizard that was itself the result of French nuclear tests in French Polynesia. Wow. It's honestly worthy of a post in-and-of itself, but for now I'll just sum it up as food for thought: American filmmakers, remaking a Japanese movie about the horrifying effects of nuclear power, recast America as the victim of French imprudence. Recall now how the Japanese original also depicted the Japanese as being responsible for the nuclear testing that awakened the monster, as opposed to, say, the nuclear activities of other nations.

That brings up my biggest problem with Kirby's piece: it completely ignores the American nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In talking about Gojira as a response to nuclear technology, that isn't just a forgetful omission, it's downright offensive. The uncomfortable silence on those events reflects the article's complete ignorance towards America's role in the scar on Japan's cultural psyche. It's not as though the Japanese people were just presciently mindful of nuclear technology in the abstract. The horrifying destruction unleashed upon the country had a lasting impact that is measurable in the success of Gojira. It's telling that American audiences received a "jingoistic, shoot-em-up, stomp-em-down" while Japanese audiences "watched Gojira in sombre silence, broken by periodic weeping," although the article does nothing with this captivating insight. The article also critiques Japan for its "unusually shoddy record for nuclear safety," which isn't necessarily wrong; but in an article that ignores America's nuclear bombing of Japan, the accusation comes off as both hypocritical and callous. Moreover the article touches upon how the series is coloured a sense of "the profound vulnerability of Japan," but does nothing to acknowledge the role of the bombings in engendering/exacerbating such fears. It's not as though the country's entire complex about nuclear technology was engendered by some radioactive fish, Japan was given a very good reason to be afraid of nuclear technology long before the Lucky Dragon No. 5. Kirby's skirting the issue of America's impact on the cultural setting that produced Gojira is insensitive and hard to believe, particularly in a piece about how America should take recent events as a sign of the dangers of nuclear technology.

There's a lot to be said in the examination of American attitudes towards Gojira, and I might eventually write an entire post to the subject. The Japanese original was remade within two years as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, and many changes were made in order to make the film more palatable for American audiences. Some of these changes included the addition of an American main character, the removal of an incestuous subplot, and the complete removal of debate about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost 60 years later, it's startling to see an article that continues this incredible wilful ignorance of America's responsibility in Japan's fears of nuclear technology.

- - -

On a more sombre note, it's impossible to talk about this stuff without thinking about the tragic events going on in Japan right now. I'd like to point you all towards Google's Crisis Response page, a resource centre for realtime updates, information on how to get in touch with people and organizations in Japan, and a place to make donations. If you are able then please consider giving, the Japanese people need all the help they can get in such difficult times.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Max Rambles Does New Orleans Part 2

The promised second half of my photos from New Orleans:

Bourbon St. has its own rules

Bourbon St. doesn't beat around the bush

New Orleans: a blissful heart-attack waiting to happen

Friday, March 11, 2011

Games As (More Than?) Art: Reality Is Broken

This isn't a traditional Games As Art post in that it's not about a video game. Rather I'm writing about a book I recently heard about, Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal. The basic premise behind the book is that video games are good for us, they make us better people in our real lives. The website for Reality is Broken describes the book as such:
"Drawing on positive psychology, cognitive science, and sociology, Reality Is Broken uncovers how game designers have hit on core truths about what makes us happy and utilized these discoveries to astonishing effect in virtual environments. Videogames consistently provide the exhilarating rewards, stimulating challenges, and epic victories that are so often lacking in the real world. But why, McGonigal asks, should we use the power of games for escapist entertainment alone? Her research suggests that gamers are expert problem solvers and collaborators because they regularly cooperate with other players to overcome daunting virtual challenges, and she helped pioneer a fast-growing genre of games that aims to turn gameplay to socially positive ends."
In the video below McGonigal explains her premise at a recent TED talk:

Jane McGonigal speaking at TED

I won't talk about McGonigal's ideas too much given that I haven't read Reality is Broken yet, and I don't want to purport authority on something I haven't yet fully considered. A post over at Boing Boing seems to have done a good job of that. However, based on what I'm reading the core premise seems completely plausible, and is indeed confirmed by my own experiences.

Given that my parents had the good sense to buy me edutainment style games like Math Blaster and Treasure Galaxy, it seems trite to say that video games can have a positive effect on players. My problem solving and critical thinking skills were undoubtably improved by my enjoyment of video games, and not exclusively ones that were designed to promote education. There's no doubt in my mind that my gaming habits improved things like my abilities to tackle unfamiliar problems, accept failure, and retry with greater knowledge. The idea that such talents could be more effectively harnessed in the real world in ways that make us happier and solve real problems is exhilarating, nay, intoxicating.

I first heard about McGonigal's book via a recent post by Tycho over at Penny-Arcade, and an accompanying comic. While the specific example might not be the best one possible (my hours playing video games have done nothing for my plumbing skills), the point is exactly right: if I can see and understand a problem, there is a good chance I will feel capable of solving the problem. I have spent a significant proportion of my life facing new problems and solving them with the means available to me. The effect that time has had on me is not negligible, and the potential it has created/expanded is palpable.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Max Rambles Does New Orleans

Diehard Max Rambles fans (they exist, I'm sure of it) may have noticed that the second half of February featured a sudden drop-off in posts around here. Some of that is because I got a little busy in school for a spell, but a lot of it is because I took a road trip down to New Orleans. A bunch of my classmates and I hopped on a bus and went down to volunteer with Rebuilding Together New Orleans to help restore houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Additionally we got the chance to see the city, experience the culture, and find out what it's like to spend 100+ hours on a bus. It was fun times!

Anyway, the point of this post is not to tell you what I was doing as much as it is to explain why I wasn't posting. However, I do want to share a little bit of my trip with you all. To that end I'm including a bunch of the more artsy (read: people-less) photos I took from the trip. Some of these are pretty cool, and give a sense of what the French Quarter is like. I'll be splitting the photos across two posts, so tune in again early next week for the rest of these:

Canal St.

An abandoned building in the financial district

Pirates Alley Café

Friday, March 4, 2011

Existential Crisis

That's what I feel like every time I watch Requiem For A Dream.

Been out of town, new posts impending, I promise.