Saturday, February 23, 2013

Repost: "There can be only one [rooster]"

Business Week has put up an inspiring story about the meteoric rise of Huy Fong's "Rooster" Sriracha hot sauce. I love me some Sriracha, so I was excited to learn more about my favourite/go-to brand of the stuff. It turns out that the actual term "Sriracha" is generic, and the actual "rooster" brand is Huy Fong's Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce. Good to know.

The actual article is a fascinating read, telling of Huy Fong's humble beginnings and its unprecedented rise in popularity in the West. Interestingly, it turns out the entire hot sauce industry is experiencing something of a renaissance, with it ranking as the eighth-fastest-growing-industry (behind for-profit universities and solar panel manufacturing, randomly). Anyway, give the article a read if you have any affection for the one and only "rooster" sauce, it's a good bit of background info on my condiment of choice.

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'Reposts' are inspired by other articles or blog posts around the Internet. They are used here with accreditation as the basis for short bursts of Max's interests.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

My first thought coming out of Zero Dark Thirty was “Kathryn Bigelow is not a subtle filmmaker.” The film ends with a close-up of star Jessica Chastain, just moments after successfully completing her decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden (spoilers?). In this final shot she breaks down in tears as a nameless military pilot asks her “Where do you want to go?”

The last line felt like a proverbial hammer, tactlessly beating the film’s message into me so that I didn’t miss the point. “Clearly this movie is undermining the hunt for bin Laden,” I thought, “and with this final bit of dialogue it literally begs the question ‘Was the victory worth it?’” In finding the dreaded terrorist the American characters lowered themselves to disturbing moral lows, and with this final line Bigelow was asking the audience, “What now? What does one do with the victory that cost them so much?”      

However, in talking to other viewers and reading reviews (like that of the infamously contrarian Armond White) I realized how politically motivated my reading was. Far from the biting critique I saw the film to be, I heard voices extolling the film’s detailed account of all the effort involved in the search for bin Laden. Intelligent people argued with me about whether the hunt was necessary, and explained all the good done in the world by the example made of bin Laden. Clearly I had missed something if people with eyes could get that kind of message out of Zero Dark Thirty, and so I struggled to find my stance on the film.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a harrowing presentation of the September 11 attacks, as 9-1-1 call recordings are played over a black screen. The audience is not shown a single moment of the historic day, but we’re allowed to listen to it and remember the horror and confusion. It’s an effective, clever, and respectful way to convey the emotion and memory of 9/11, and it starts the movie off on a high note.

However, other depictions of attacks later in the film begin to problematize the opening’s artfulness. Although 9/11 was beyond portrayal, Zero Dark Thirty has no problem showing us a shooting in Saudi Arabia, or the bombing of a Marriot in Islamabad from 2008. There’s also a depiction of the London bus bombing from 2005, though the actual explosion is respectfully cheaply hidden behind a bush at the last moment.

The contrast between the depictions of 9/11 and every other instance of terrorism in Zero Dark Thirty is palpable and troubling. Further, the film’s journalistic approach to history makes the artful opening scene seem increasingly out of place as the movie proceeds. Why the special treatment for 9/11? What makes that attack stand out among the rest? Is it a difference of importance or scope? Do the victims of that attack feel pain more acutely than those of the others? Is the movie saying that 9/11 is more important because it happened to America(ns)?

While it might be easy to write off Zero Dark Thirty with a politicized answering of these kinds of questions (indeed, I almost did), to do so would sell it short. There’s no overtly pro-American agenda at work here, as any attempt to insert one would be undercut by elements like the depiction of American soldiers shooting down parents in front of their children. So why the difference in treatment between 9/11 and other attacks?

This question is (perhaps frustratingly but also brilliantly) best answered with another question: whose perspective is the film portraying? The answer is Americans, but not for the reasons you might think. Zero Dark Thirty is not a celebratory film, but nevertheless it tells its story from a distinctly American perspective.

This point is underscored by the film’s use of its protagonist and narrative focal point, Chastain’s enigmatic “Maya.” Although it remains unclear whether she represents an amalgam of real CIA agents or one specific person, by all accounts her character is given an intentionally vague background so as to protect the identities of the people who brought down bin Laden. However, the film takes advantage of this necessary lack of characterization by using Maya’s indistinctiveness as a narrative conceit. All protective purposes aside, Maya’s lack of definition is expertly used as a signal of both Zero Dark Thirty’s audience and its subject: Maya is specifically characterized to represent any — and thereby all — Americans as the hunters of Osama bin Laden and those who suffer its tolls upon them.

What do we know of Maya? That she's smart, relentless, and increasingly dedicated to the cause; that she has nothing in her life besides her job, no social life or family to speak of; that she lost something in 9/11 attacks; that she may or may not feel that she’s been spiritually chosen for her purpose. All of these qualities make her simultaneously anonymous and analogous to huge swathes of Americans. Perhaps most tellingly, we learn late in the movie that she was chosen for her job right out of high school and has, in her own words, never done anything else. Maya’s entire existence (barring her formative years) is contained within Zero Dark Thirty: we see everything she’s ever done, and so in a very real sense she is the hunt for Osama bin Laden, or at least America’s experience of it. Through her, the movie is both aimed at and about America and its hunt for bin Laden.

With this direction in mind, consider Zero Dark Thirty’s matter-of-fact portrayal of the decade-long manhunt. This approach is a far cry from “Mission Accomplished”-type political announcements and dancing-in-the-streets-in-font-of-the-White-House reverie that the history has inspired in the past. Rather this is a film that depicts the bare facts almost entirely without comment. It forces its audience to watch Americans waterboard, beat, confine, and kill in the course of that country's search a single old man.

Finally, in an incredible climactic sequence, Zero Dark Thirty presents a moment-by-moment account of the raid on bin Laden’s compound. The scene is one of the only times in the entire film when Maya is not the central focus, as the raid instead plays out from the perspective of the Navy Seals team that carried it out. Although the depiction remains journalistically faithful to the facts, it’s notable that at no point does the perspective shift to that of the residents of the compound, for whom the event must have seemed more horrific than action-oriented. This inflection is yet one more nod to the fact that Zero Dark Thirty presents history to the audience from an American perspective, and stays true to that sense of the facts at all times.

The closing shot of Maya crying against the hanging question, “Where do you want to go?” forces the audience to consider what they feel about everything they’ve just seen. The film presents its story as it was lived and perceived by America, and asks the audience as witness: was it worth it? Where does one go now/from here?

How you answer that question will be informed by your politics, and indeed my initial response to the film was dominated by mine. I still think that the notion that bin Laden’s assassination was a significant victory for America demonstrates an adolescent ignorance that verges on offensively arrogant, but then that statement is political rather than critical of Zero Dark Thirty. A contrary perspective could equally make the same assertion about my take on the film, and that is precisely its brilliance: Zero Dark Thirty uses a largely (but, again, notably not completely) journalistic approach to America's hunt for Osama bin Laden to craft a narrative that demands critical reflection on politics and history but doesn’t provide any answers. The way the question is posed might be a little clumsy, but the range of possible answers necessitates its asking. It’s quintessentially the opposite of the Spielberg-ian, beat-you-over-the-head-with-meaning approach to filmmaking that I initially perceived.

Kathryn Bigelow is not an overly subtle filmmaker, but perhaps she’s just subtle enough. Brave enough to have a voice (because make no mistake: an uncelebratory American take on the killing of bin Laden this soon after the fact is a distinct voice) but subtle enough to leave room for others. The film is a nuanced portrayal of history that accords to a distinct perception of it without asserting that perspective as the end of the conversation. It in fact specifically calls for debate as to whether that depiction is justified on its face, not to mention once other perspectives are considered. In that sense, Zero Dark Thirty is a true product of its time: a film that evidences contemporary political debate without purporting to the benefit of hindsight.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Has the true meaning of the ending to The Thing been revealed?

A post went up on io9 today about a reddit user who may have revealed the meaning of the ending of John Carpenter's classic The Thing. If you haven't seen the movie then you should probably reevaluate your choices in life, or at least stop reading now because I'm going to be spoiling its awesome ending. Seriously though, you haven't seen The Thing? Come on, you can do better than that.

If you're still reading then I'm assuming you've seen The Thing and recall how at the end Kurt Russell and Keith David are left sipping whiskey and contemplating their assured demise, but it's unclear whether both of them are still human or not. The film ends on a totally awesome and characteristically ambiguous note with the audience left wondering, "Was one of them the thing at the end?" It's the perfect ending for a perfect movie (you can expect a post on this at some point), and one that has resonated with viewers since the film was released in 1982.

UNTIL NOW (maybe) [probably not]

reddit user kleinbl00 posted a comment on a discussion of The Thing describing a conversation with a friend of his about the movie. His friend claims to have worked for and talked to John Carpenter about The Thing, and well... Just check this out:
A friend of mine, back when he was an assistant, spent a great deal of time with John Carpenter doing interviews and the like for video games and comic projects. I was discussing my conversation with Larry Turman with this friend and he said 
"You know, I asked John Carpenter about The Thing." 
"Oh yeah? What did he say?" I asked. 
"He said he never understood where all the confusion came from. The last frame of The Thing is Kurt Russel and Keith David staring each other down, harshly backlit. It's completely, glaringly obvious that Kurt Russel is breathing and Keith David is not." 
I looked at my friend for a minute, soaking it in. Straight from the horse's mouth. 
"That's a pretty subtle cue to expect the audience to absorb having seen severed heads grow spider legs and run around," I said. 
"That's the genius of The Thing," my friend said, and we moved on to other subjects.
Holy. Freaking. Hannah.

Admittedly it's totally a "friend of a friend of mine"-type unsubstantiated anecdote that could be totally fabricated, but even then it'd still be a really cool take. It just makes me want to go back and watch The Thing again and do a frame-by-frame when I get to the final scene. It's also way too cool a story for me not to have shared here.

(reddit via io9)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Racing Game Players Drive Too Fast for "Gentlemen" Competition

In an interesting bit of gaming news, the British GT has banned graduates from Nissan's GT Academy from competing. For those of that aren't car racing/game enthusiasts, there's a lot in that sentence that probably doesn't make much sense, so let me break it down. The British GT Championship is a sports car racing series based (predictably) in the UK. The GT Academy, meanwhile, is an interesting little experiment where the best players of the Gran Turismo games are invited to train/compete in real cars in what essentially amounts to an annual reality television special. It's been going since 2008 and has probably been little more than a PR-stunt, only been notable to those involved/interested. Until now.

Last week the British GT Championship announced that it will not be allowing graduates of the GT Academy to apply for the series' "pro-am" format. By all accounts, this format uses teams that pair a professional driver with a "gentleman driver," AKA a talented amateur who's expected to be good-for-their-experience-level but below the professional level. This difference typically manifests itself in the speed at which both drivers race, with the "gentlemen" amateurs generally coming in at much lower speeds than their professional counterparts. Only last year, GT Academy winner Jann Mardenborough drove at speeds that were on par with his pro-driver partner, Alex Buncombe. The guy who got his start playing Gran Turismo on his Playstation was suddenly driving as fast as the pros.

In response, the British GT Championship has banned this year's GT Academy graduates from competing. British GT series manager Benjamin Franassovici has issued a statement saying,
[GT Academy] has shown itself to be a great way to source raw talent and turn that into real racing talent as we saw in British GT last year with Jann Mardenborough. However Nissan’s ability to find such amazing raw talent means that we cannot accept their full season entry for British GT in 2013. Their new recruits have very little racing experience so they have to be on the lowest performance grade. Their talent, going on Jann’s speed last year, doesn’t reflect this lack of experience so it is not fair to put them up against our Pro/Gentleman grid, the basis of British GT3.
I'm not a fan of racing games, and I don't even care about car racing, but I think this is pretty cool news. Essentially an entire (albeit small) class of video game players have been deemed too talented to compete as amateurs in a real driving competition. That's not only the best marketing that Gran Turismo (subtitled "The Real Racing Simulator") could ever have hoped for, it's an honestly good argument in favour of taking the medium seriously in terms of training potential.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Repost: Why games need colour blind modes

Tyler Wilde at PC Gamer has done a great piece on why games need to incorporate colour-blind modes for visually-impaired gamers. It's well-worth the read so head over there if you've got a moment to spare, and/or check out the video below. It shows the upcoming SimCity reboot (?) with a simulated deuteranopia setting on to demonstrate how colour-blind games see things. It's a very cool and revealing video, and it makes a good case for an argument that has been made many times before: games need to be more accommodating in terms of accessibility so that all gamers can enjoy them.

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'Reposts' are inspired by other articles or blog posts around the Internet. They are used here with accreditation as the basis for short bursts of Max's interests.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Repost: Dead Space 3 Microtransactions Break Internal Logic

Ben Kuchera of the (fantastic) PA Report wrote an interesting post about the recent news that Dead Space 3 will include microtransactions allowing players to purchase materials to craft weapons. The article touches on some of the qualities I most enjoy about the Dead Space series, and so I figured I'd chime in a bit here.

Kuchera notes how the Dead Space games have always been particularly effective at establishing and drawing players into a coherent and self-contained world: the menus appear in the game, all information typically conveyed via a HUD are contained within the game world, etc. The point of all this is to more effectively draw players into the world of the game and hold them there. The most superficial effect of this is to increase players' tension by refusing to allow them to put the action on hold while they access their inventory (as was the convention prior to Dead Space). However, Kuchera argues that this tension is but one symptom of the greater immersion that the game creates by forcing the player to participate in its world in the same way as the fictional characters within it. At no point in the game does the player engage in activity that their fictitious character does not also undertake; in effect the game world is constructed so as to force player immersion by limiting their interactions with the game world to those of their character.

The availability of microtransactions in the upcoming Dead Space 3 breaks this immersion via the deus ex machina availability of crafting materials. When players use a terminal they are told they can access "Downloadable Content" by which "A god-like hand is introduced and drops supplies in the lap of the character." This whole availability breaks the immersion spell that the Dead Space games have so effectively established, and moreover upsets the delicate sense of isolation and desperation that the survival-horror genre is premised upon.

The offending intrusion on Dead Space's fiction.

Kuchera's argument is compelling, and though even he acknowledges the nerdiness of getting hung-up on such a detail, I think it's a significant sacrifice on the part of the developers. A big part of what made Dead Space unique was its uncompromising immersion, forcing them to exist in the game world. It's unfortunate to have that quality diluted for the sake of some extra income and a further attempt at attracting a wider audience by dumbing-down the experience.

Tom Phillips at (the also fantastic) Eurogamer has also chimed in with a counterpoint, arguing that the kind of gamers who will be bothered by this feature are also not the types who are likely to use the it. Rather, Phillips argues, the microtransactions will only be taken advantage of by more casual gamers while more hardcore players will likely ignore them. While I think Phillips is right practically speaking, at the same time I'm more in line with Kuchera in feeling that there's a more significant cost to the sacrifice. I don't think "hardcore gamers" will take advantage of the microtransactions, and while I do feel there's a somewhat legitimate argument to be made against their existence at all I'm perfectly happy to simply ignore them. However the fact that they're implemented in such a way as to break the immersive fiction of the series will bother me if/when I play Dead Space 3. From all accounts the menus make their existence painfully clear so as to attract potential buyers, and that fourth-wall-breaking advertising is necessarily going to take away from the sense of isolation and immersion that the series' horror is based upon.

What do you guys think? Is it too early to tell, is Phillips right and are Kuchera and I just whining EA-haters, or is this a legitimately intrusive dilution of one of Dead Space's most unique qualities?

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'Reposts' are inspired by other articles or blog posts around the Internet. They are used here with accreditation as the basis for short bursts of Max's interests.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Repost: The Alien Beauty of Les Arènes de Picasso

An architecturally-inclined friend of mine pointed me towards Untapped Cities, a site that examines interesting and largely unknown qualities about major travel destinations. It seems sort of like a mix between a cultural blog and Lonely Planet, and that seems like a pretty awesome little niche. In particular I was directed towards a post from January 2012 about mass housing units in the suburbs of Paris, and despite how boring that description sounds it's actually a really cool piece.

The whole article is worth a read but I just want to focus on the bit about Les Arènes de Picasso. It's the building pictured at the top of this post, and as author Charles-Antoine Perrault explains,
In the post-Modernist tradition, Spanish architect Manolo Nuà ±ez Yanowsky intended to break with standardized, functional modern architecture. The overall setting is highly symbolic–the two circular modules are aligned on an axis parallel to the Equator and are meant to represent the wheels of an overturned chariot.
 The building is strikingly unique, especially when you consider that this is a mass housing unit that contains "540 dwellings, a kindergarten, a high school and a few convenience stores." I would love to see this place used as a set in a movie, either in a Bond flick like with Hashima Island in Skyfall (check that link out by the way, it's a really cool story itself) or as a deserted setting in a post-apocalyptic flick à la London at the beginning of 28 Days Later. Sadly, given the fact that Les Arènes de Picasso is a housing unit and at least one school, it's unlikely that it would be used as a film setting. Still though, the design of the place is just so out-there that it would be beautiful to see on film. I could imagine a really interesting tracking shot that takes advantage of the columns seen at the bottom of the image up top. They've got kind of a Sagrada Família vibe (see below), very cool stuff.

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'Reposts' are inspired by other articles or blog posts around the Internet. They are used here with accreditation as the basis for short bursts of Max's interests.