Sunday, 28 February 2010

"Like a final, fatal, Livejournal entry..."

So it's finally happened. Originally part of my planned Valentine's related love extravaganza, I let loose about a band I love. A lot.*
My words found themselves, dazed and confused, on the page in the esteemed publication Redbrick. You can see the edited-for-paper version at the Redbrick website.

And it's good. I'm pleased with it. But I'm here today to talk about the extended, nearly-double-the-length version that I've just unleashed onto the internet. It's almost dangerously bloggy, but I felt its home remained with Redbrick, not least because it starts:

"Los Campesinos! were the first band I ever wrote about for Red­brick, back when my cheeks were rosier and I still believed in Santa. Com­par­ing them to the musi­cal ver­sion of fizzy pop, I gave Hold On Now, Young­ster… an 8. A cou­ple of years and a cou­ple of hun­dred lis­tens to the album later: this is a pub­lic apology."

And I only get more reverential from there. Find out just how far I'll go on...well, the Redbrick website again.

Everything I talk about in the article is available on Spotify- just be warned of the other, Spanish Los Campesinos! on there.

*Both that I love a lot, and that I gushed a lot.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Ratatouille or: Pretension, A Dish Best Served Cold

Ratatouille is, in many ways, the black sheep of the Pixar family. Produced, along with Cars, in that period when Pixar had broken away from Disney and were searching for a new identity, it often gets lumped in with that film's confused aims and mixed success. It's not the clear classic of Toy Story or Finding Nemo, nor the adult breakthrough of Wall-E or Up.

Fittingly, what Ratatouille is, is misunderstood.

Even in my own memory - having come out of the cinema, raving about how it was a bold statement on the situation of the artist - the film was difficult, even boring. My lofty claims were shot down, not unsurprisingly, as nonsense. Look at the funny English student, they laughed. Watch his silly dance.

And perhaps the dance remains silly. But, watching it again, Ratatouille says everything to me. It is a manifesto on originality, what should matter (and what, in reality, does matter) in great Art. I'll break this down....

Remy - the film's hero, the plucky, sellable-to-the-kids rat - is an artist. His art, for the purposes of the film, is cookery. It is clear from the beginning that this passion goes far beyond your everyday omnomnom, and to the fervour of an auteur. He is visited by visions of his hero, the chef Gusteau, and risks his life to pursue this passion.Yet, he is tied down in his roots. Remy is a rat- enemy of the cooking industry. This provides a lot of the film's conflict, but it represents any underdog, any unlikely outsider. Though he looks to the stars, Remy is unarguably of the gutter. I couldn't help but see an undertone of class to his position- all the talk of snobbery and 'us vs them' has the ring of working class rhetoric. You could read in multiple other ways, but that's the one that - perhaps significantly - stood out to me.

Though, as Remy's hero reinforces throughout, "anyone can cook", regardless of who they are.

But Remy's family don't understand. Their ambitions focused purely on survival, Remy's interests are surplus. The humans, the class he (pretentiously, you might say) aspires to, repress him- in an early scene, by literally shooting a shotgun at him and chasing him firmly away.

So Remy ends up in Paris, gay ol' Paree, in the company of multiple humans. What they represent is where the film starts to get interesting, and complex.
Our secondary hero, Linguini, on the right there, is just a proxy for Remy's ability. For the purposes of the film's metaphor, he is just another part of the artist- the physicality, the real life, struggling to juggle multiple demands and stresses. The resemblance between him and Remy is not coincidental.

In the middle is Skinner, the villain of the piece. He embraces genre, sticking rigidly to convention. The cooks working under him are told to create nothing new, only to stick to Gusteau's successful recipes*. It is for this that Anton Ego, the secondary villain and Will Self lookalike, condemns the restaurant to "tourist fare."

Ego vs. Remy is the film's great success. Ego is the critic who has lost his passion for what he criticises, Remy the untrained but talented outsider. Ego is, as Linguini oh-so-tactfully points out, "thin for someone who likes food." There is a parallel with Remy here- earlier on, his family accused him of looking thin. Why, they ask. Not enough food? Or too much snobbery?
The moment of Ego's rediscovery is glorious. It snaps back to his childhood, revealing the critic's roots as a working-class farmhouse type himself, triggered by the titular ratatouille- "a peasant's dish". The colour shoots back into him, and we see a return to passion: later on, he dons a beret (always handy short-hand), moving back from critic to artist. All thanks to the work of an outsider, who is finally outed.

And, of course the world can't take it. There is always a backlash against the pretentious intruder...

Maybe I'm putting too much thought into this. Maybe it is a kids' film, plain and simple, untainted by the thoughts and experiences of its writer/director. Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions- writing this at 2am having just finished watching the film, I'm Remy, all passion and no consideration. I haven't even talked about the visual poetry of the tasting sessions, the lump the ending left in my throat, how much I identified with... well, everyone. Maybe I have pretensions above my station.

Good.

At least I'm not the embittered critic. I'm a few years away from becoming pure, emaciated Ego.

(Sidenote: look at the film's logo. Even its somewhat pretentious, for a kids' film, title is broken down to accessible chunks. It's a silly little joke, it's making it easier to approach for kids, it's the entire film in one handsome logo.)

*It might be worth noting at this point that the film was written and directed by the wonderful Brad Bird, who worked on the peak seasons of The Simpsons, probably TV's comedy, but by Ratatouille's 2007 release very firmly in a formulaic rut. Ahem.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Post-Valentines Post: DIRTY TALK

I think I've said here before that I don't often post poetry I like on here, and that's because: a) I'm embarassed and b) it seems like I have to keep them a tightly-held secret until I can sell them for millions.
So, without further ado, the closest thing I've ever written to a love poem...

Dirty Talk

How can people say,
Do it for me slut,
I’ll take you from behind,
You dirty little whore?

In bed together
We talk of our secret origin:
A few drinks too many
And an awkward kiss.

Apart, I remember hiding
In the soft fur of your lower back
And seeing dogs in the street and smiling
Because I know you would.

Holding you down
When you have fits of anger,
My weight pressing down on yours.

It’s not that I don’t want to take you
On all fours
Tear off your tights with my teeth.
But how am I supposed to say that?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Physicality of Games

I like games about shooting. I like to run, and jump, and blow things up. I'm a fairly cerebral - some would say pretentious - type. My musical tastes are 50% chasing avant-garde newness, 50% over-thinking pop; in film, I talk about the new Coen Bros, how Where The Wild Things Are figures in the Jonze/Kaufman/Eggers canon, in a way that annoys my girlfriend.

And yet, in gaming, it's yr Halos, yr Marios, yr Grand Theft Autos that grab me. These are the videogames your parents warned you about- the ones with the explosions and childish colours and dinosaurs and mindless killings. As this blog attests, I like the more thinky games too - Bioshock, say, or indie games - and I definitely like to over-think games. But those games, almost without exception, are the ones where I get to do physical things. Shooters, platformers, action games...

For me, gaming is that physicality. It's fair to say that I am: fairly chubby, non-athletic, completely lacking in any hand-coordination beyond the confines of my keyboard. I'm not incapable of experiencing the rush of speed and activity: semi-regular biking, or my occasional attempts at fitness through running. But, by and large, I'm not regularly putting aside time for sports or major physical activity. I'm not in any Fight Clubs. In this way, I'm pretty much your average 'hardcore' gamer.My sport is Halo multiplayer, my exercise a burst of left-to-right platformer. I take out day-to-day frustration on the poor citizens of Liberty City, or the buildings of Mars, or anyone unfortunate enough to be worse than me on shooting games. I need that physicality- the Fight Club thought leads me down an entire new path of thought, where that extreme physicality - fighting strangers - is sublimated safely into the (largely) non-active pursuit of gaming.

But, my point remains: a game needs to be physical to succeed. For me, anyway. I don't mind using my brain - whether in Portal's puzzles, or deciphering the avant-garde mystery of Time Fcuk, or learning about Objectivism and Ayn Rand from Bioshock -I just want to feel engaged in that world. The world is physical, so a gameworld should be physical too.

Simple as that.* Half of the joy of New Super Mario Bros Wii is bumping into your playmates, knocking them off ledges, picking them up, helpless. Living-room griefing, hilarious because of its unpredictability, bringing together housemates in a way only a few games have. Another of these being Sumotori Dreams, the fantastic slapstick physics-based drunk-outside-a-kebab-shop fighting game.Half-Life 2 made puzzles tangible, showing how using physics to carry through a simple task made it that much more entertaining. Portal took that a step further and, beyond a few mods floating around, no-one seems to have really tried since. I know it's a tired maxim but games need to do what only games can. That's interactivity, yes, but it's also consistency, physical interaction. Remove the abstraction, and do less to distance the player.

What I'm trying to say here, really, is aimed at the world of game developers in general. Make your games physical: represent what a player can do as fully as possible, make them feel possible of anything, and you can revive dead genres. You can make slapstick funny again. You can make a player feel powerful in a way Michael Bay never could. You can make it exciting to bounce a basketball around a room, for someone who'd never actually pick up a basketball.

*It's not quite as simple as that- my love for the point-&-click adventure game disproves my point, though my lack of love for strategy games, and loathing for turn-based combat** puts us back on familiar ground. Phew.

**Further undermined by my current obsession with Solium Infernum. Balls.

About Me

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.