Saturday, July 15, 2006

Video Games: Establishing Aesthetic Criteria

In the July 2006 edition of Esquire, in the column Chuck Klosterman's America, the author has penned a piece called "The Lester Bangs of Video Games." He concludes (perhaps rightly) that there is no Lester Bangs of video games...

He writes:

There are still people in America who do not take video games seriously. These are the same people who question the relevance of hip-hop and assume newspapers will still exist in twenty-five years. It's hard to find an irrefutably accurate statistic for the economic value of the video-game industry, but the best estimates seem to be around $28 billion. As such, I'm not going to waste any space trying to convince people that gaming is important. If you're reading this column, I'm jut going to assume that you believe video games in 2006 are the cultural equivalent of rock music in 1967, because that's (more or less) reality."

Klosterman goes on to write that although many writers review games...there are few if any real "video game critics." He fails to locate a "Pauline Kael" of video game writing for instance, and examines the reasons why in his fascinating piece.

The Esquire article got me thinking about this notion. I recently completed a book about Rock'nRoll Movies, and so the author's metaphor about rock music in 1967 seems really powerful to me. Are critics missing the boat on what is potentially the most influential art form of the next thirty years? Have we - as a culture; and as critics - failed to come up with a common lexicon for legitimate criticism of video games?

Klosterman sees the gap in video game "criticism" as arising directly from the fact that games are seen as "product" and little more. They are not seen in terms of narrative, but rather in terms of playability. This would be a little like going to the movies and reviewing the quality of the auditorium seating, no? Actually, movies are increasingly seen this way too; but that's a debate for another day...

If Mr. Klosterman is right and - outside of product - there exists no common set of aesthetic criteria for "video game criticism", why don't we - here on the blog - establish them? Henceforth. I would like to put out a call to all those who are interested in this idea to submit scholarly pieces to me at my e-mail address, and I'll post them here on the blog in their entirety with your byline. Seems to me, we need to establish this missing information as soon as possible, and begin a new critical movement in the study of video games.

Why do I think this is important? Well, in honesty, video games actually have "one up" on movies and TV. Movies and television are always being criticized as "passive" pastimes. Personally, I find movie and TV viewing stimulating. Heck, I've made a career out of watching TV and film and analyzing them. But video games are different...you can't argue that they are passive. Instead, they are immersive. What does that mean to us, as percipients and as participants?

What should the criteria be for "video game criticism?" If we're talking about horror games, I submit the same criteria I judge for horror movies: a benchmark of "is it scary?"; and consequently how does it make itself scary? I played the GameCube version of Resident Evil 4 last year and I'll tell you something...it was as frightening, jolting and suspenseful as anything I'd seen in theaters in the last year or so. The game exploits a cinematic sense of "tight framing" and "peripheral vision" to create scares and jolts. Yet as much as it pains me, I honestly feel we might have to leave behind the descriptors and language of cinema studies to create a whole new vocabulary for games.

Maybe someone has already done this? Let me know!

And again, if you're so inclined, e-mail me well-thought out, scholarly pieces (no more than maybe 1200 words in length) that I can use here on the blog. Together, let's establish the aesthetic criteria for video game criticism. Let's haggle over it; fight, debate, and then emerge with a new school of criticism.

Who's...game?

Friday, July 14, 2006

The marX-Files (at Paperback Reader) writes about The House Between!

Hey, look at this!

In his new column over at the web-zine Paperback Reader, blogger Marx ponders the future of television and in that light considers my up-and-coming independently-produced series, The House Between.

Check out his column (and Paperback Reader)
here.

The blurb is under the header "Not Comic Books, But I Like It," one of several regular categories that Marx uses to organize news, facts and editorials at his site. Very cool!

Here's a clip:

"Muir, author of An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith and The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film & Television, wrote and directed this science fiction/horror series. It is being produced by Joseph Maddrey, co-producer of A Haunting and author of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue. No, you won’t find the upcoming seven black-and-white episodes on a cable channel near you. This original live-action series will be available for streaming online in the very near future. Could this be the future of television? Could this be the start of an independent TV (or should I say web) series trend?"

Marx is asking smart questions. These are the very underpinnings of what we are trying and hoping to accomplish with this project. Just like blogging has democratized news, editorials and punditry in the last few years, I'm hoping that streaming video will democratize independent film and TV production. We'll see what happens, but I'm pleased as punch that Marx is thinking (and blogging...) about the notion. Someone is going to make this concept work...hopefully The House Between will be a part of that.

Thanks, marX-Files!

Trading Card Close-up # 2: "The Deadly Fumes" (*snicker*)

My trading card close-up this week arrives from the 1979 Roger Moore James Bond/007 effort, Moonraker. It's laughably...titled..."The Deadly Fumes" (*cough*, *nudge*).

No, but seriously, I'm featuring this particular trading card because that absurd caption clashes so amusingly with that horrific image. That poor guy looks as though he's caught a whiff of something really, really bad. But heck, he who smelt it...

Anyway, this is card number #31 of the Moonraker series, and no doubt, the most absurd. Recently, I re-watched a sixth-season Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode in which the Nerd Trio (Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew) debated the finer points of Moonraker. Warren was against it because of the notorious shot of a pigeon doing a double-take at Bond's all-terrain gondola in Venice. I think I agree with him...

When I was a kid, I loved this movie with a passion (hey - it had space battles!). Now, I think it's probably the worst of the series (at least before Die Another Day...). In the final analysis, I guess I like Moonraker even less than The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). At least that Bond effort has Agent 007 piloting my first car - an early 1970s vintage AMC Hornet! - over a collapsed bridge. Whoo-hoo!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 44: Hasbro's Think-A-Tron - Electronic Question and Answer Computer!


"It Thinks! It Answers! It Remembers!" It's "amazing," "fascinating" and "educational." Wow!

You just never know what you're going to find at a flea market...

Last week, I was back in Deltaville, VA, visiting in-laws with Kathryn, and I unearthed another retro-toy treasure. This time, it's "the machine that thinks like a man," Hasbro's 1960 toy/learning device, the all-mighty Think-A-Tron. My sister-in-law, Julie, purchased the toy for me as an early Christmas gift, and now here it is...featured on the blog.

The amazing Think-A-Tron comes from the far-flung year of 1960, a year when computers seemed like miraculous devices that sometimes filled an entire room (or several rooms...). They operated on punch-cards, and were esoteric things that not all Americans had a familiarity with. The Think-a-Tron was designed to bring that "technology" home to kids right here in the U.S. of A. It's an educational tool and a fun toy too! The Think-A-Tron I found was still in its box (which had been taped on the top...), and appears unused. It now earns a place of reverence and worship in my office.

Inside the instruction manual, Hasbro had the following to say about the Think-A-Tron (in a sub-section entitled "Facts About Data Processing Machines"):

"There are new types of machines being made today that would have seemed impossible a few years ago. They quickly and effortlessly do work that once required many human minds and many hours to accomplish.

These new machines, called "Data Processing Machines" can "read" and "write" hundreds of times faster than humans can. They have "memories" able to store millions of bits of information to be used when it is needed. They can make intelligent decisions from the information given them, write out their answers and even control other machines.

They can do mathematical equations thousands of times faster than human minds can and on certain difficult problems requiring very exact values. They can be made to continue working, performing millions of operations until extremely accurate answers are obtained.

Sometimes, these difficult problems take several hours for the machine to complete, but this is fast because these problems would otherwise take many years of calculating by other methods. With faster and more exact calculations, airplanes can be designed to fly faster, rockets made more accurate and dependable, even old products, such as camera lenses, are made more perfect. Without the "Data Processing Machines," many of our latest technical achievements would have been impossible.

Of course, these new machines do not really "read" as humans do, instead of eyes for "reading," they use electrical sensing devices and they do not read books and magazines but read patterns on punched holes in cards or tape or sometimes they read magnetic patterns on discs or drums. Instead of living protoplasm, their "memory" might be thousands of little magnets.

They do not ""write" with pencil and paper, but write instead with electric printers, lights or by punching holes in cards. And they do not really "think" as humans do, but instead follow very simple and exact rules built into them by their designers.

Those of us not familiar with these new machines find them mysterious and often worry about their effect on our lives. Where earlier machines that man invented, such as the steam engine or the electric motor, were meant to increase his muscle power, the Data processing Machines are meant to increase his mental power and to do work that formerly required people's minds to perform.

The Think-A-Tron machine contains some of the more important elements of actual Data Processing Machines. The miniature punch cards contain information that the machine must "read." After reading the card, the Think-A-Tron selects the correct information from storage and prints out the answer in lights on the display screen."

Man, isn't that just great? A toy from another age! Before that new fangled thing called a PC. I hope someone has one of these things safely displayed in a museum somewhere (other than my office...). As for the punch cards, they ask great True/False questions. One asks if the population of the Earth is "1 billion," "2 billion" or "3 billion." This multiple-choice selection badly ages the Think-A-Tron, alas, since there are now 6.4 billion people on the planet. Computers - sadly - are only as good as the information we feed them, I suppose.

Other questions: "The scorpion is a type of?" (a. fish) (b. insect) (c. bird). "The speed of light is approximately?" (a. 1,000 miles per second), (b. 300,000 miles per second) (c. 186,000 miles per second). I hasten to add, "all questions and answers" have been "compiled and authenticated from THE BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE" according to the Think-A-Tron's box. Well, there's that, then. All hail the mighty BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE. You are wise, oh great Landru...peace be with you.

Okay, I need to stop playing with this thing and get back to work. I keep feeding the machine these punch cards waiting for answers. I feel like William Shatner getting his fortune told by a Bobble-Headed little devil in that Twilight Zone episode, "the Nick of Time." "The United States is the chief producer of cotton in the world?" True or false? "The oldest culture in the Far East is the Japanese?" True or false? "Silk is obtained from" (plants? caterpillars? sheep?) "Radar will not operate efficiently in heavy fog?" True or false? Come on! True or false?

Man, this is fun! Wait...don't I have a TV show to edit? A book to write? Okay, now I feel like Charlton Heston's Taylor discovering a human doll in Cornelius's cave in the Forbidden Zone, showing Dr. Zaius an artifact from an earlier age. "Think-A-Tron was here before Apple and Commodore VIC-20s...and it was better!!!!" Well, er - not really. Anyway - culturally speaking - at least we were more naive back then, in the Kennedy Age, in the epoch of Hasbro's Think-A-Tron. Back then we were amazed by a device wherein "Wheels Turn - Lights Flash!" Today? Not so much...

I wonder if I can program this thing to write my book for me...

TV REVIEW: Epitafios

Although - to some degree - I'm experiencing the summer doldrums in regards to TV viewing (reruns, reruns, reruns...), I've also found a number of new cathode tube obsessions. I wrote yesterday about Entourage (recommended to me by my buddy and dp, Rick Coulter), and today I want to feature another fresh obsession: the HBO Spanish-language series, Epitafios.

Epitafios, or "Epitaphs" is the harrowing, multi-part (13 episode...) tale of a diabolical serial killer who has spent the last four years of his life developing an intricate plan to bring justice to those who botched a delicate hostage situation at a Buenos Aires university years earlier. This lunatic (whose identity is cloaked from the viewer...) writes "epitaphs" on specially designed grave stones for whose whom he plans to "judge" (meaning: kill). These epitaphs are wordy and mysterious, their meaning unfathomable until justice is rendered, like "Here Lies He Who Turned Deception into A Game."

It's up to a balding, retired policeman-turned-cab driver, Renzo (Julio Chavez) and the psychologist he once loved, Dr. Laura Santini (Paula Krum) to catch the killer before he strikes again. This case is personal, however, since it was Renzo and Santini who botched that hostage situation at the college years earlier. One headstone is marked with their two names...so they realize the killer is coming for them soon.

The bread and butter of the highly cinematic Epitafios is the notion that a fine line separates revenge and justice; and it's a line based entirely on personal, subjective perspective. However, viewers may find themselves in love with the stunning visualizations and compositions more than any deep thematic strands. Epitafios - which is filled to the brim with gruesome, inventive (and gory...) death scenes - is perhaps the most cinematic venture I've yet seen on television. In some regards, the series represents a lengthy variation on David Fincher's 1995 noir, Seven, because Epitafios is filmed (by DP Guillermo Zappino) in such sterling fashion. It's a world of rain-soaked streets, off-kilter close-ups, revealing angles and the like. In short, the series is simply beautiful to look at; and the mise-en-scene is the best I've seen on a TV show. Like...ever.

After viewing the first three episodes, I've witnessed corpse pieces strewn over a house that represents the killer's mind, vicious dogs rip out a detective's throat (in a harrowing scene that makes fine use of quick cross-cutting), a penny-pincher's mouth stitched into an open, agape position while coins are hurled down her throat (and the camera actually travels down her esophagus and tilts down into her stomach...), and most horribly of all, a beautiful leather fetish model stretched to death on a rack....before acid is poured on her face with a bottle dropper. Then one hand is amputated. Then...well, you get the idea...

Yep, it's that kind of show. I love it.

The (wide...) suspect pool in Epitafios consists mostly of the relatives of those hostages from years back...parents, ex-lovers, etcetera, who somehow might desire revenge, but this series alternates "current" murders with flashbacks of the University siege (which ends...disastrously...in flames), as well as fine character development. Renzo quit the force over the siege, then fell in love with Santini...who spurned him. Now he's hooked on expired anti-depressants (provided to him by a transvestite client...) and still desperate to be with Santini. Meanwhile, the killer has communicated with the psychologist and demanded that she become...intimate with Renzo, lest her son be killed. It's all fascinating thriller material, and Epitafios utilizes flashbacks more cleverly than say, Lost, for example.

I still have several shows to go before finishing the "story arc" of Epitafios, and yes - the show is in Spanish (with sub-titles), but you'll hardly notice. The visuals on this series are so amazing (except for one or two instances of crappy CGI...) that they transcend the language barrier. This show first aired on HBO last fall, and it pains me that I'm only discovering it now. But better late than never, I guess...

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

To Mr. Merlin, a Fond Farewell...

I just read the sad news that Barnard Hughes has passed away at age 90. This talented actor is famous to my generation for his appearance as the Walt Disney-type character in the 1982 special effects epic, Tron as well as his role as Corey Haim and Jason Patric's eccentric grandfather in the 1987 vampire film, The Lost Boys. In the case of the latter film, he gave The Lost Boys its memorable final line...

Yet, I tell you, I'll always remember Hughes for his performance in the short-lived 1981 TV sitcom, Mr. Merlin. The premise of that pretty obscure show is that Hughes was indeed the wizard Merlin...but living in modern (or eighties...) suburban America. Clark Brandon was the youngster who learned his secret and became Mr. Merlin's apprentice. I'm sure wackiness ensued, and I can't objectively speak for the real quality of that sitcom since I haven't seen it since I was twelve years-old. But I loved the show at the time, and have enjoyed Mr. Hughes' performances ever since. He always brought a special charm, quirkiness and warmth to his portrayals, and boasted a magnificent career in Hollywood.

So I bid a sad (but appreciative...) farewell to this talented actor, and grieve with his family in their time of loss.

Production Update: The House Between

Courtesy of Kim Breeding, my independently produced and shot TV series, The House Between now boasts an official logo.

Pretty cool, huh?

Kim did a great job (and she also updated the look of my web-site at
www.johnkennethmuir.com.) Check it out!

Anyway, editing on the first episode of the series, "Arrived" continues. It's coming together real nice now, and my wife (a producer on the project...) is peering over my shoulder every step of the way. And...I will indeed have a trailer ready for public consumption at the convention Fantasci, July 29, 2006! I've been in touch with my composer too, and he's making strides on theme music and such. (I've been listening to the end credit theme all morning...or I should say, the prospective end credit theme music...) so it seems like everything is coming together. I hope to have the trailer on the Web (and here, on the blog...) by no later than mid-August.

Of course, at this rate, I'll be shooting the second season episodes by the time anyone sees the first season shows...

TV REVIEW: Entourage (Season 3)

In its third season, the HBO comedy series Entourage continues to fire on all thrusters. For those of you who haven't been watching, Entourage is the story of Vincent Chase (Adam Grenier), an up-and-coming young movie star in Hollywood - a veritable stranger in a strange land. Vince thrives (and navigates the Byzantine by-ways of La-La Land...) by keeping it "real;" maintaining his ties to the old neighborhood, Queens NY.

Vince's "entourage," his colorful group of hangers-on, include Johnny "Drama" Chase (Kevin Dillon), an out-of-work actor and Vince's brother; Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) - the driver, and a budding entrepreneur; and Eric (Kevin Connolly), the savvy business manager (and the only one with even a lick of common sense...). Also among those Vince must contend with is Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), his foul-mouthed agent...who plays all the angles and knows the ropes of the industry. This season, Ari is vexed by a dissolute child actor that wants to date his daughter.

However, what has really made this third season so much fun to watch (for me, anyway...) is that in the fictional world of Vincent Chase, he's just starred in a huge Warner Bros. superhero blockbuster: James Cameron's Aquaman! An early episode this season, "Aquamom," takes Vince and his buddies to the premiere of that mega-budget film, and features red carpet cameos by "King of the World" director James Cameron himself, and James Woods, who plays the fictional movie's villain (and who parodies his off-kilter, temperamental persona). What's neat about this facet of the series is the way Entourage pays attention to detail. For instance, production designers have developed a "logo" for Aquaman (a trident forming the letter "A") that looks just like a real Hollywood marketing ploy.

Follow-up episodes have continued the jokes about Chase's big superhero movie. The second episode of the season, "One Day in the Valley" follows Aquaman's opening weekend, and the worry and concern over the box office numbers. Is the movie going to be another Spider-Man (which grossed 114 million on its opening weekend...) or fall below expectations (which rest at 95 million)? As Ari tells Eric, Vince's business manager, one penny under expectations and the movie is a failure...and Vince might as well leave town. One penny over expectations, and Vince is a conquering hero. I hasten to add, this is the exact same rigmarole that Superman Returns and the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel have faced in the last two weeks...so the Entourage observations are timely.

The same episode takes the time to offer a well-crafted riff on a trademark scene from Cameron Crowe's 2000 rock-n-roll masterpiece, Almost Famous, so it's clear that Entourage is having a tremendous amount of fun with the exigencies of modern Hollywood, as well as film history. I also got a kick out of the fake scenes from Aquaman...one of which includes hunky Vincent ripping open his shirt (Spidey or Superman-style) and spectacularly leaping off a pier to confront a looming tidal wave (which appears lifted right out of Cameron's The Abyss [1989]).

Other Entourage episodes this season, including "Guys and Dolls" and "Crash and Burn" continue to track Vince through his surreal, Alice in Wonderland-style existence as he becomes a prisoner of his own success and instantly becomes typecast as Aquaman. Vince wants to play Pablo Escobar in a passion project, a movie called Medellin (directed by Paul Haggis...who also cameos in an episode), but instead must report back to Warner Bros. for shooting on Aquaman 2, which is to be directed not by James Cameron...but Michael Bay.

The episode "Dominated" follows Vince to a promotional appearance at a theme park...where he's tasked to open the Aquaman rollercoaster ride, and it's all quite funny. I'm enjoying watching a show that acknowledges (and ribs) the odd, bi-polar nature of Hollywood. It's a land filled with creative artists, storytellers and actors, yet dominated by cutthroat, imagination-impaired businessmen. No wonder the town seems so schizophrenic...and watching Vince navigate this mine-field is amusing, bewildering, and spot-on accurate. I remember conducting an interview with the great writer Simon Moore (the man behind the Sam Raimi western, The Quick and the Dead) and he discussed with me in great detail how he was with Raimi when the opening weekend numbers for that Sharon Stone film came back...and the ensuing fall-out. So Entourage is not quite a satire...because it observes without histrionics the "real" movie industry, but it tickles the funny bone anyway; and in intelligent fashion.

I would say that Entourage is further proof of HBO's utter dominance on the contemporary TV series stage. Their slate also includes winners like Deadwood, Rome and Big Love. But then I got a gander at Lucky Louie, HBO's dreadful new sitcom...and realized that even at HBO, not every show is a winner (or even passable). Entourage is so good because it's precisely the kind of show that acknowledges how and why two-dimensional crap like Lucky Louie gets made in the first place...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Now in Book Stores: Scott Nicholson's The Farm

Horror readers, look out! Scott Nicholson's latest genre novel is now haunting bookstores.

Scott is not only a good friend and a fellow North Carolina author, he's one of the select horror novelists working today who's actually merits all those breathless comparisons to Stephen King. The blurb from Bentley Little says it all: Nicholson boasts a "true talent for terror." I couldn't agree more...

Scott serves as a guest reviewer on my upcoming Horror Films of the 1980s from McFarland, and certainly many readers recognize the author from his chilling previous novels, including The Red Church, The Harvest, The Manor and The Home.

The New York Times raves that The Farm is a "smoothly engineered supernatural entertainment," and here's another blurb on The Farm, and Scott's earlier work that will whet your appetite:

"For his latest thriller, "The Farm," he fictionalized the community history of Todd, NC, a once-booming forestry and railroad center that had declined, and threw in some small-sect Baptist religions that were sprinkled among the mountains. A 200-year-old circuit-riding preacher, a ghostly ex-wife, a pot-growing Libertarian, and a blood-thirsty scarecrow are among the characters in the book, but the story is built on the relationship between Katy Logan and her daughter Jett.

"Katy has married so she can move out of the big city and keep Jett away from bad influences," Nicholson said. "Except bad influences come in many forms. When a herd of carnivorous goats are watching you from the dark throat of the barn, you're probably better off taking your chances with drugs, gangs, and pollution."

Nicholson has written four other novels based in the North Carolina mountains. His first, The Red Church, was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award and an alternate selection of the Mystery Guild. It was inspired by a haunted church near his home. His novel The Harvest is a B-movie allegory about encroaching development in the rural mountains, and in The Manor, Nicholson used real ghost stories about the Cone Manor on the Blue Ridge Parkway to invent a tale about a haunted artists' retreat..."

I expect The Farm is going to be a real creepfest, and here in the Muir house, the real contest will be who gets to read the book first, husband or wife, since we're both fans. Anyway, check it out at Scott's web site here for more info, or click on over to Amazon.com.