Friday, March 28, 2008

Limited interpretations

I occasionally listen to a college radio station in my area. Whenever I turn to it, I expect to hear songs I've never heard before. It plays music from different genres and eras, with an emphasis on indie or obscure or up-and-coming artists--things that fall below the radar of the mainstream.

One day, I heard on this station an odd song with striking, evocative lyrics that I assumed were directed at President Bush. The genre was hard to place: it sounded like folk, but had a certain jazzy quality. Featuring a synth riff and a sort of pop-gospel chorus, it was sung by a man with a very low, raspy voice that might have become annoying if not for the infectiously catchy melody and complex chord arrangement.

I learned that the song was Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows," and that it was recorded in 1988, kind of early to be talking about Dubya. What made me think it was an anti-Bush anthem? Well, read the first two verses:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows
If this song were part of the current Bush-bashing bandwagon, it would probably be the best thing along those lines ever written. Most such music today just sounds cranky and self-righteous. (Green Day is the worst offender in that area.) This is surprising when you consider the many great protest songs from the Vietnam era. Those were better in part because their grievances had less to do with a specific U.S. president, in part because the threat of censorship encouraged more subtlety.

I'm not the only person to have interpreted Cohen's song this way. The only Youtube video currently playing the studio version consists of slides attacking the Bush Administration. Whether Cohen would approve of his song being used for that purpose, I have no idea.

If the song isn't about Bush, what is it about? Commenters on Youtube said it was about the AIDS virus. While I do agree that the song alludes to AIDS (especially in the fifth verse), I don't think that's the whole picture. The pivotal line "Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost" would seem to encompass more than the battle against a disease. At least I like to think so. Listen for yourself if you want. (It is five-and-a-half minutes long.)

A popular cover version by alternative rock band Concrete Blonde, done for the 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume (which I have not seen), provides a somewhat different take on the music and lyrics. I go back and forth on whether I prefer this version. On the one hand, the female lead, Johnette Napolitano, is a far more polished and expressive singer than Cohen (who sounds like he has laryngitis, and not in a charming Louis Armstrong sort of way). On the other hand, the cover omits two of the six verses and rearranges the remaining ones so that it ends with the one about infidelity, which almost makes the song sound like a failed-relationship ballad. (Here is the official video, which is four-and-a-half minutes long.)

I don't think the song can be reduced to one topic. It's more of a general meditation on the endless cycle of suffering and betrayal in the world. (I suspect it was partly inspired by the old black spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen.") In limiting its scope to war or infidelity or AIDS, listeners overlook the poetry. They ought to sit back and lose themselves in the words and imagery before intellectualizing the experience.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Three Jews

What's the difference between a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nebbish? The schlemiel spills the soup down the schlimazel's neck, and the nebbish has to clean up the mess.

That's my personal variation on Leo Rosten's version of an old Yiddish joke. A few years ago as I was watching The Three Stooges, it occurred to me that this joke provides a perfect description of Curly, Moe, and Larry.

Curly is the schlemiel, the clumsy oaf who always causes problems. Moe is the schlimazel, the guy who's always at the receiving end of bad luck. And Larry is the nebbish, the meek middleman who gets punished for Curly's mistakes.

The schlemiel/schlimazel distinction is played out throughout the series, as Curly is chronically stupid but not necessarily unlucky, while Moe is chronically unlucky but not quite as stupid as Curly. There is even an episode (I can't remember the title) in which Curly is blessed with good luck.

Would their fitting into classic Yiddish character types by any chance have something to do with the fact that the actors were Jewish? When I watched the films as a kid, at first I didn't know they were Jewish. And even when I found out, the fact didn't resonate with me. I didn't think of the jokes as "Jewish humor" per se. I perceived them as nothing more than slapstick by comedians who happened to be Jewish, and all that mattered to me was that they made me laugh.

Seeing the films as an adult, I was a little surprised that I still found them funny. But I began to notice things I hadn't noticed before, notably the Jewishness of the humor.

For starters, they use many Yiddish words, which may not have been known to general audiences at the time. It was like their personal inside jokes. I suspect that Larry grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household. When he disguises himself as a Chinese person, he simply speaks Yiddish in a stereotypical Chinese accent. And when he wants to be Indian, he dons a turban guessed it, speaks Yiddish with an Indian accent.

There are also some general Jewish jokes, as when the wind blows in a scrap of paper containing an advertisement for "O'Brien's Kosher Restaurant."

In 1940, they did an episode called You Nazty Spy! parodying Hitler and the Nazis several months before Charlie Chaplin did something similar in The Great Dictator. These films were significant, for they were the first time Hollywood took a stand against the Nazis, in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor. And it's interesting to compare the perspectives of Jews and non-Jews, since Chaplin later regretted having made The Great Dictator, but the Stooges always considered You Nazty Spy! their best film.

They liked it so much they eventually made a sequel, I'll Never Heil Again. This one actually referenced The Great Dictator, parodying the scene where Chaplin dances with a balloon globe. In the Stooges' version, several world leaders are fighting over a beach ball globe, and suddenly it looks like they're playing football.

Friday, March 07, 2008

More is less

Is it just me, or does the special effects in movies from thirty years ago often look more convincing than in films today? The technology has progressed by leaps and bounds. The question is how efficiently it's being used.

One of the issues is CGI. No matter how sophisticated it gets, it doesn't look as real as physical models. You can see the difference by comparing Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi to the CGI Jabba in Phantom Menace.

The catch is that CGI seems to get better with each passing year. Will it ever achieve photo-realism? The tentacled Captain Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean comes close. Yet just this year, the third Pirates movie curiously lost a Visual Effects Oscar to The Golden Compass, which created a CGI bear that, to my eyes, looked like it came right out of a Pixar cartoon.

Another issue is changing actor's heights. By manipulating the angle of the camera, you can make someone look substantially taller than someone else, even if the two aren't far apart in height. It's an old trick: I remember seeing it in the Faerie Tale Theatre version of "Jack and the Beanstalk" when I was a kid. It wasn't convincing back then, and it still isn't today.

But today they seem to do it a lot more. In the past, when they wanted a giant, they got a giant: Lock Martin as Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca in Star Wars, Andre the Giant as Fezzik in The Princess Bride. Nowadays they get an actor of relatively normal size and try to make him seem much taller.

Hence the Harry Potter films have 6'1" Robbie Coltrane play seven-foot Hagrid. Sometimes they use the old camera-angle trick, as in the scene where Hagrid enters the bar. Sometimes they play around with the props, as when Hagrid has to duck through a doorway (which may simply not be that high). Sometimes they have him loom above the camera as if to suggest that the other characters are craning their necks upwards to see his face. But most of the time they just avoid shots of Coltrane standing next to the other actors, especially the adults. To fully appreciate how unconvincing this is, you need only look back at The Princess Bride, which featured many ordinary shots of Andre the Giant towering above Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin, both reasonably tall men.

Lord of the Rings went in the other direction, casting ordinary-sized men as hobbits. Why they felt the need to do so is curious, since there are many talented dwarves in Hollywood. But one way or another, they did it, and while they used more sophisticated techniques than in Harry Potter, in no way does it look real.

The films seem to assume that we can't estimate an actor's height unless we already know the height of someone standing next to him. Therefore, they use no special effects at all when the hobbits are seen only with each other, which is most of the time. In those shots, the hobbits have normal, proportionate bodies like any average adult male in our world. But when allegedly tall characters like Gandalf or Aragorn appear, suddenly children or dwarves are used as body doubles for the hobbits, and I suspected the filmmakers of occasionally resorting to the technique popularized in Forrest Gump, where an actor gets superimposed over separate footage.

What past filmmakers had that the current filmmakers don't can be summed up in one word: restraint.

Steven Spielberg famously agreed to direct Jaws only on the condition that he wouldn't show the shark at all in the first hour. Even by the second hour, we only see fleeting glimpses of the shark at first, and it isn't until the climax that we get a really good shot of the thing. The mechanical shark they created was spectacular, but Spielberg took his time in getting to it.

Similarly, the original Alien features very few shots of the creature. Even in the famous scene where the alien eats its way out of John Hurt's body, we see it for no more than a split second. If we had seen it any longer, we might have started to notice it was an effect.

Undoubtedly, the effects wizards today can make better-looking sharks and aliens than they could thirty years ago. But the filmmakers have lost a sense of when to stop, to leave things to the audience's imagination. They shoot for too much and end up with too little.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Entertainment about entertainment

Vivian Vande Velde's science fiction novels User Unfriendly and Heir Apparent brought back memories of the computer adventure games I used to play as a kid. I enjoyed even pure text adventures better than arcade-style action games, because of the unique mixture of creativity and logic required to win them. I will briefly discuss these games before reviewing Vande Velde's two books.

When I first began playing Infocom's text adventures at age nine, I felt hopeless without the clue books that came with the software. In Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for example, Mr. Prosser would have his bulldozer in front of my house, and no matter what I typed into the command prompt, he would demolish the house. So I consulted the clue book, which told me the solution: "Lie down in front of the bulldozer." It makes sense, if you think about it. Prosser won't kill to get his job done. But I simply didn't consider that possibility--partly because I lacked experience or cleverness, partly because I had never read the Douglas Adams novel on which the game was based.

Beyond Infocom, most text adventures did not come with clue books. But they helped prepare me for games like The Legend of Zelda that are part arcade-style action, part strategic adventure. With or without graphics, computer adventures all have the same basic setup. They can have any storyline, though they are traditionally magic tales featuring kings and castles and wizards and dragons. You always make your way through some kind of complex setting and collect various objects in your path. Figuring out the solutions to problems usually involves trial and error. Find a piece of cotton? Try throwing it, or eating it, or sticking it in your ear.

How well do science fiction books fare in portraying these sorts of games? A few weeks ago, I discussed Killobyte, Piers Anthony's 1993 novel about characters who become trapped in a role-playing VR game. I decided to dig up a particular young adult book with a similar plot, Vivian Vande Velde's User Unfriendly, which I first read in 1992. I remembered very little about it other than that I enjoyed it.

The gaming machine in this novel actually places you into REM sleep and hooks directly to your brain to make you think you're in the virtual setting. The session lasts no longer than an hour, but feels like five days. You can see, hear, smell, feel, and taste your surroundings. You're able to experience pain, and you must eat and sleep in the course of your journey. You are provided with new memories and skills, corresponding to the character you occupy.

That almost makes the technology in Killobyte sound primitive by comparison. It brings to mind Orson Scott Card's warning to novice sci-fi writers about presenting an extraordinary invention without considering other uses it might have. If one hour can be made to seem like five days, then (doing the math) three days can be made to seem like an entire year. Such a device could in effect greatly prolong a person's life--or at least provide a little extra time for reflection.

As for the implanted memories, if a computer can do that, what need is there for school (much less Jeopardy)? Just hook your brain to a machine, which will feed you all the information you need to know.

Needless to say, the book does not deal with any of those possibilities.

The narrator is Arvin, an eighth-grader who enters the game along with several of his friends. One of his challenges is figuring out which of his friends appear as which characters. His mom is also playing, much to his chagrin. I may have missed it, but I didn't catch what she thought of the fact that they're using a pirated version of the software.

Vande Velde's greatest strength is her attention to detail. She has plotted out the game in great depth. She structures the book in numerous short chapters that end in cliffhangers, as the characters encounter wizards, elves, trolls, orcs, goblins, and dragons, not to mention enchanted boots, sand hands, and giant rat zombies. The book kept me reading, with its fun blend of excitement and humor. (One example of the latter involves a dwarf who feels compelled to recite his entire genealogy any time someone asks his name.)

But the book compares poorly with Killobyte, which spent many pages in the real world, fleshing out its two main characters. User Unfriendly begins in the game itself and stays there until the very last few pages, without any flashbacks along the way. There are more than a half-dozen characters, all vaguely drawn. Arvin comes off as a typical teenager, embarrassed in front of his mom, eager to prove himself before his peers.

In Killobyte, the characters weren't just trying to win the game but were literally fighting for their lives. The stakes are lower in User Unfriendly. Because the game is pirated, some bugs and glitches appear, and the kids cannot exit the game prematurely. But the book bases a great deal of its plot around our vicarious experience of the game rather than anything more urgent.

The game itself is lacking in the qualities of computer adventures I mentioned before. Most of the time, the kids seem to be winging it, and their successes feel arbitrary. Again, Killobyte does a better job on this front, which is doubly impressive since Piers Anthony admits to having very little gaming experience.

In 2002, Vande Velde published Heir Apparent, about another game from the same company. It is narrated by a fourteen-year old girl named Giannine, who was a relatively minor character in the first book. It makes no mention of the events in User Unfriendly, and it may take place earlier. The front, inside, and back cover do not mention the older book at all.

Vande Velde writes on her website that she does not consider Heir Apparent a sequel, just a story taking place in the same universe. I have another theory. I think she was attempting to do User Unfriendly over again, but better. If so, she has succeeded. It improves on User Unfriendly in all the areas I mentioned.

For the first time, we get to see the world these kids occupy when they remove their VR helmets. In the first chapter, we encounter a robotic bus driver and a tiny, genetically engineered dragon. The setting can't be too far in the future, however, for we also see conventional-looking email, Windows Freecell, and a $50.00 gift certificate enabling Giannine to play a VR game of her choice. (By the time all this advanced technology exists, wouldn't fifty bucks be pocket change? Never mind.) She chooses a medieval fantasy about a peasant girl who becomes king. The session will last thirty minutes but will feel like three days. The catch is that any time her character dies, she will have to start over from the beginning, which she can do indefinitely.

That reminds me of the old Atari game Pitfall II. Possibly compensating for the fact that the original Pitfall was almost unwinnable, Pitfall II was made literally unlosable. Any time you'd get hit by an enemy, you'd merely be transported back to the last red cross you touched. The only way to end the game without winning was by turning off the computer. In the VR game depicted in Heir Apparent, however, you cannot just turn off the machine, or leave it sitting and come back to it later. You're stuck until you win the game or a technician pulls you out. That's practically asking for trouble.

The trouble comes in the form of an activist group called Citizens to Protect Our Children, or CPOC (pronounced "sea pock"), who feel that VR games are corrupting the youth. To show just how concerned they are for the children's welfare, they break into the arcade and sabotage the equipment. The problem is, Giannine is already hooked up to the game.

A technician briefly enters the virtual world to inform her that if they detach the equipment, she may suffer brain damage. But if she stays hooked up for too long, her brain will surely fry. All she has to do is win the damn game--and avoid getting killed too many times.

Easier said than done. The game is set up so that that there are many ways to succeed, and a lot more ways to fail. At first, it seems that every time she stumbles, a character pulls out a knife and slaughters her. Then she finds herself back on the sheep farm at the beginning, where she has to do the whole game over again. This aspect of the novel has an intriguing Groundhog Day vibe to it, as she meets the same characters in a host of different situations that change depending on all the little choices she makes.

There is, for example, a boy caught by guards who claim he stole a deer. The evidence is lacking, and Giannine has no desire to sanction the boy's execution, even though he is only computer-generated. But if she simply frees him, more problems will occur.

The technician gives her only two clues on how to win the game: find a magic ring, and keep a weird, mystic nun away from Kenric, one of Giannine's three half-brothers vying for the throne. (The nun, who seems to worship Oneness rather than God, is made nondenominational by the game's manufacturer so as "not to offend anyone.") Among the many challenges she faces is a knight who will chop her head off if she does not create a poem he likes. The poem can be absolutely inane, so long as it's original.

Unlike User Unfriendly, she is the only real person in the game--the rest of the characters are computer-generated. But they all have personalities, and they seem able to carry on nuanced, naturalistic conversations. I presume they're simply responding to cues in her speech, but the effect is quite convincing.

One way or another, I enjoyed the book much more than User Unfriendly. The game is still not much like the computer adventures I remember as a kid. It's ten times better! Maybe that's the point of books like these, to depict games we wish we could play, but which exist only in the author's wildest imagination.