Mass Effect 3’s ending part 1 – Retake Mass Effect is wrong

I just finished playing Mass Effect 3 on Saturday. While I didn’t love the ending, I certainly didn’t hate it like most people did.I do have may thoughts on the ending though, enough that I am splitting this post into two parts. Part 1 will deal with the criticisms of the ending, namely the Retake Mass Effect effort. Part 2 will deal with what I thought was good and bad about the ending, and some a few tweaks that could be made to the ending to make it incredible. Now that I have played the game, I can confidently say that I think the Retake Mass Effect point of view on the game is, for the most part, wrong.

Warning, major spoilers of the last few minutes of Mass Effect 3 ahead.

The Retake Mass Effect petition states (1):

A Petition for Alternate Endings to the Mass Effect Trilogy

We, the undersigned, respectfully request the consideration of the following petition.

Whereas:
* Mass Effect is an interactive video game providing a detailed framework within which the player may create a unique story
* A major concept of the Mass Effect games is that your choices significantly affect the outcome of the story
* Another major concept of the Mass Effect games is success in the face of seemingly impossible odds

We believe:
* That it is the right of the writers and developers of the Mass Effect series to end that series however they see fit

However, we also believe that the currently available endings to the series:
* Do not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game
* Do not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds
* Do not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to
* Do not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story

We therefore respectfully request additional endings be added to the game which provide:
* A more complete explanation of the story events
* An explaination of the outcome of the decisions made, especially with regard to the planets, races, and companions detailed throughout the series
* A heroic ending which provides a better sense of accomplishment

To this end, we donate to the “Retake Mass Effect 3” Child’s Play Charity drive in lieu of our signature to this petition, in order to establish our sincerity, our love for these games, and for the Mass Effect universe.

We thank you for your consideration.

For the most part I just don’t agree. BioWare is all about story. They set out to tell a story with the Mass Effect games, just like they did with the Dragon Age games. I think that the point of view above places gameplay over story. They want the story to be the expected outcome of how they played the game; in other words predictable! It’s sad, but everyone wanted a formulaic ending. I’m going to do my due diligence though and go through these arguments one by one instead of just hand-waving them away as being asinine.

“Do not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game.” This is the only point that I do agree with. While the choices weren’t bad, and they can be an interesting reflection on the part of the person playing, I do think there should have been one (and probably only one) more option which I will discuss below.

“Do not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds.” Seriously? No matter which option you choose, the Reaper threat is over. There are no more cycles. How is this not a sense of success? Do players need to see parades with everyone singing yub nub to get a sense of success? Can these players not handle open ended endings? Sadly the answers to those last two questions are “yes” and “no,” and these answers have been born out by decades of film history. This is why mainstream summer blockbusters sell so well, even though they are incredibly formulaic, predictable, and boring, while the really interesting, thought-provoking, and truly great movies are lucky to be made at all and make orders of magnitude less money than their summer blockbuster brethren. People just don’t want to be intellectually challenged, they wanted to be intellectually satiated.

“Do not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to.” This can be nice sure (this is something Dragon Age: Origins did very well), but to say that the ending sucked because it wasn’t there? That’s ludicrous. That type of ending didn’t fit with what BioWare wanted to do, and did do, which was to provide a thought-provoking, cerebral, and open-ended ending.

“An [sic] explaination of the outcome of the decisions made, especially with regard to the planets, races, and companions detailed throughout the series.” I’m sympathetic to this argument, but I still think Bioware did the right thing. An explanation wasn’t necessary…the outcome of all of the races, etc, was obvious. Explicitly showing what happened to, say, the Krogans based on whether or not you saved Wrex and Eve and whether or not you told them about the STG sabotage was unnecessary because the game made it painfully obvious what was going to happen given those decisions. An explanation like this would have just served as a pat on the back to players and wouldn’t have contributed anything new to the story. It would, however, have diluted the story that BioWare did want to tell because the core ending would have had to share screen time with this fluff.

“Do not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story.” I simply don’t see any inconsistency. There are two major consistencies I see discussed: 1) the kid came out of nowhere and 2) everyone should have been destroyed by the relays exploding. Both of these claims are flat out wrong. On 1), the existence of something controlling the reapers was explicitly mentioned earlier in the From Ashes DLC (which should have been shipped with the game) which takes place fairly early in the game. In addition, this theme of new layers being slowly revealed has a very strong precedence. First, we thought the Protheans were the only previous race, then we learned that the Reaper’s also existed with the Protheans, then we learned that races existed before the Protheans, then we learned the Protheans weren’t a single-race species but rather a multi-race empire, and so on. Whoever claims that the kid came out of nowhere simply wasn’t paying attention to the game. On 2), well everyone wasn’t killed because the relays didn’t explode. Everyone compares the events of the ME2 DLC Arrival, where a relay did explode because an asteroid was crashed into it with the end of ME3 and claim OMGZ PLOT HOLE !!!!11!1!@#! Once again, these people simply weren’t paying attention. The relays broadcast a signal across the galaxy that did whatever choice was chosen, and overloaded in the process. It’s like detonating a nuclear weapon version breaking one by over volting the circuitry. The nuclear weapon is destroyed in both cases, but only the first one destroys an entire city. The other consistency issues brought up are so tiny and assinine, I can’t believe people got hung up on them to begin with. I am someone with a lot of physics and some biology background, yet I still enjoy sci-fi movies. If I got upset at the MAJOR misunderstandings of science in virtually EVERY sci-fi movie EVER MADE, then I wouldn’t be able to watch movies, period. Entertainment isn’t going to be perfect down to the last detail, it’s just simply not possible.

Party Time (this is what fans wanted)

Party Time (this is what fans wanted) (2)

There is a common trend among all of these complaints: people wanted a predictable, thoughtless ending that was focused on them. They wanted the ending to Return of the Jedi, not the ending to 2001. They wanted a party with everyone getting drunk, as shown in the fan art above, without any real depth or intellectuality at all.

To quote another player mentioned in Ben Kuchera’s excellent writeup on the issue: (3)

Mass Effect 3 emotionally wrecked me. It’s Bioware’s game so it’s their choice. And obviously the game was effective to get that response, but I still feel like shit,” one fan told me. “I don’t play games to feel like this after [they’re over]. How do I trust Bioware to not wreck me again if I decide to join them on their next epic?”

This player is pissed off that the game made him/her feel something other than satiated happiness? That’s…just…fucked…up. It is through emotional and intellectual discovery that we advance as a species. This type of discovery doesn’t occur when you have the attitude expressed by this player, and it really makes me despair for humanity to see opinions like this proffered. These types of fans hated the image from the synthesis ending of ME3 below, despite the fact that this is a very powerful scene, just dripping with meaning. The sad thing is that it went over most people’s heads.

Synthesis of love (what people hated)

Synthesis of love (this is what fans hated) (4)

I wrote the following paragraph when discussing the ending of another recent BioWare RPG in which people hated the ending: (5)

I suspect that the majority of these players weren’t making choices because it’s what their interpretation of Hawke would actually do, but because it would result in the outcome they wanted in the story, thus making these choices a game itself. These type of players wanted to “win” at the game of “choice,” instead of taking part in a narrative. Given this mindset, it is no wonder that they were upset because they felt that the game cheated them out of winning.

I get the distinct impression that the same phenomenon is manifesting itself with Mass Effect 3 too.

People often complain about the banality of AAA games these days (I’m one of them), but the Retake Mass Effect effort tells us exactly why most AAA games are so mundane: the average gamer hates intellectually challenging games! So much so that they create petitions to try to force game companies to make the few attempts made at interesting games be rewritten. The ending of Mass Effect 3 wasn’t perfect, as I am going to outline in part 2, but the response by the average gamer to the ending fills me with far far more rage than the actual ending itself. And that’s just sad.

(1) “Retake Mass Effect.” ChipIn. 12th March, 2012. Available: http://retakemasseffect.chipin.com/retake-mass-effect-childs-play
(3) Plunkett, Luke. “Mass Effect 3 Gets A Happy Ending After All.” Kotaku. 21 March, 2012. Available: http://www.kotaku.com.au/2012/03/mass-effect-3-gets-a-happy-ending-after-all/
(3) Kuchera, Ben. “Why the ending of Mass Effect 3 was satisfying, and worthy of the series.” Penny Arcade Report. 13th March, 2012. Available: http://www.penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/why-the-ending-of-mass-effect-3-was-satifying-and-worthy-of-the-series-mass
(4) Freeman, Zadishe. “Outrage over the ending of Mass Effect 3: Not just a game.” Freeman’s Mind. 25th March, 2012. Available: http://zadishefreeman.com/the-outrage-over-mass-effect-3-not-just-a-game/
(5) Salo. “The Illusion of Choice in Dragon Age 2.” Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum. 26 October, 2011. Available: https://chronosynclasticinfundibulum.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-illusion-of-choice-in-dragon-age-2/

Part 2 is live!

“Shame”

I recently watched the film “Shame,” directed by Steve McQueen starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful person in his 30’s living in New York who suffers from a sexual addiction. It is a truly amazing film, and it’s really unfortunate that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award last year. Unfortunately, the existence of the film and the reaction to it say almost as much as the film itself does.

Shame Movie Poster

Shame Movie Poster (1)

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

It’s difficult to classify specifically what Brandon’s addiction is, and the film wisely doesn’t try and explain it for us. Instead, the film simply observes his behavior and his interactions with others. It simultaneously tries to make a statement about addiction in general, but also sets out to tell a very personal story as well. We see Brandon engaging in as many sexual encounters as possible. He takes several breaks during work to masturbate in a bathroom stall. He always arrives late to work, even though he leaves his apartment early. He takes long lunches and takes off during the afternoon to have sex with prostitutes. He starts looking at porn and masturbating as soon as he gets home, and doesn’t stop until he goes to bed. His life is consumed by sex.

Brandon’s sister Sissy is a singer trying to make it in New York, but hasn’t had a lot of luck. Early in the film, she stops by Brandon’s apartment and asks to stay with him because she doesn’t have anywhere else to stay. Brandon, desperate to conceal his addiction, is very reluctant to say yes but he eventually relents. They don’t get along and constantly fight, but she stays and he doesn’t throw her out. We learn that Sissy cuts herself and it is implied that she has attempted to commit suicide in the past. Both of their pasts are shrouded in mystery, but we get the impression that they went through a shared trauma together.

Brandon

Brandon (2)

Brandon sometimes goes out in the evening with his boss, David, to various bars and lounges. David is the type that hits on anything that moves, and usually fails spectacularly. Brandon never hits on anyone, which ironically makes him more attractive to others than David does. Brandon never puts any effort into picking up women at all; if they happen to want to have sex, then all the better, but otherwise he couldn’t care less. I suspect that Brandon doesn’t try because he is so used to porn/prostitutes who don’t say no that pursuing women at a bar just isn’t worth the effort. One night, David and Brandon go to hear Sissy sing, leading to one of the best scenes in the entire film.

Brandon eventually asks a co-worker, Marianne, out one evening which leads to a very awkward dinner. Brandon obviously doesn’t know how to act around real people. At one point, he goes to a hotel with Marianne where they try to have sex, but Brandon isn’t able to maintain an erection. It’s a rather unusual situation for someone with a sex addiction, but at the same time it kinda makes sense. Brandon is not used to having to care about the sexuality of a partner, and indeed is not used to having any connection at all with his partner. It’s possible that Brandon feels that having sex with Marianne is letting her into his secret life, making him apprehensive. Or perhaps it’s that sex with Marianne is a little to “real” for him. Or maybe it’s just simply too much effort. Sex with prostitutes is an act of fantasy that is completely focused on Brandon, so this situation just doesn’t fit with his usual experiences.

The comparisons with drug abuse are obvious, but there are a few key differences. Drug abuse has, in a way, become “accepted.” Not in the sense that it’s OK to be addicted to drugs, but in the sense that it’s OK to admit if you have a problem. Society has accepted that drug abuse is just a part of modern society, albeit an undesirable one. Sex addiction, however, has no such acceptance. Admitting that one is a sex addict is likely to result in much shaming and revulsion for all but the most experienced therapists. It must be an incredibly lonely experience compared to other addictions. We see this in the reaction of Brandon when his sister catches him masturbating one evening. This, in and of itself, isn’t that big of a deal; most guys, myself included, have been caught masturbating at least once in their lives. Normally it’s just an embarrassing situation that you get over quickly, but not so with Brandon: he utterly flips out. He is aware that sex addiction is universally reviled, and is freaked out that his may be exposed. While most addicts display similar behavior, the severity of the reaction for Brandon seems much greater.

Sissy

Sissy (2)

The climactic moment in the movie has Brandon spiraling out of control wherein he goes on a sex “bender.” He goes to clubs, meets up with prostitutes, and even frequents a gay bar where he hooks up with some men, something he hadn’t shown an inclination for before. It seems obvious that Brandon just needs more and more, and is willing to try anything to satisfy his cravings. Like any addiction, his fixes become less and less fixating over time, requiring him to do more and more to satisfy him. During this time, Sissy attempts to commit suicide. When Brandon finally gets home, he finds her in a pool of blood on his bathroom floor. She survives, barely, and Brandon is utterly shaken. He resolves himself to rid himself of his addiction, and we get the sense that he may finally find some resolution. But, as in reality, this is not bound to last. While riding on the subway, Brandon exchanges glances with a beautiful woman and we immediately know that he has slipped back into his old habits. Although not exactly an uplifting ending, it is sadly realistic. People who overcome their addictions are, unfortunately, in the minority.

One frustrating aspect of this film is it’s rating. This film was rated NC-17, and that is absolutely absurd. It’s not surprising in the least, but it’s still absurd. In any absolute measure of the sense, there wasn’t anything in this film that Eyes Wide Shut, Original Sin, or Basic Instinct didn’t also have. So what makes this movie different? Two things: it contained full male nudity, and it contained gay sex. This is something that just pisses me off to no end: full female nudity is perfectly OK (hell, PG-13 rated Titanic had full female nudity), but full male nudity is verboten. It’s a perfect example of the inherit sexism present in the mainstream media. They feel that women are supposed to be sex objects, and men aren’t. Same thing with sex. Heterosexual sex can be very explicit, as long as it’s not hardcore, to be R rated as Original Sin showed. But if it’s gay sex? Forget it. That this film was rated NC-17 shows off perfectly well the biases in mainstream movie industry today, and shows just how far we have to go before we really achieve equality. At least we have people like Steve McQueen who are willing to make films the way they need to be made, regardless of the impact it will have on their bottom line.

(1) “Shame Movie Posters #3.” IMP Awards. 18th November, 2011. Available: http://www.impawards.com/2011/shame_ver3.html
(2) “Shame.” Fox Searchlight. Available: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/shame/

Dear Esther

I just finished playing “Dear Esther,” (1) a game, if you can call it that, about the the death of a man, and I have to write about it (Warning, spoilers ahead). He is sick, or so he says. He was friends with a man named Donnelly who suffered from syphilis and abused laudanum, or so he says. He pines for his lost love Esther, or so he says. The player’s character narrates the game, but is he a trustworthy narrator?

In the game, you wander around an island, witnessing sights of beauty while listening to the forlorn tale of the island’s inhabitants. There is Jakobson, a poor man who tries to raise himself out of poverty by herding goats, and Donnelly. Who are these two people, and how do they relate to the player? We gather that Donnelly was the player’s friend but that there was a falling out.

Why is the player on the island? We hear that the player has cordoned himself on the island to isolate the sickness from others. Perhaps. When we first start out, we can see a communications antenna on the peak of the central mountain on the island, with it’s pulsating light at the top drawing us in. We immediately know that this tower is our destination. What awaits us there? Why must we traverse the island to get there? The narrator tells us that the seagulls have all left the island, and that the original inhabitants of the island have left as well. There is nothing left, just the remnants of buildings and the sickly, scraggly plant life, rocks, and sand. The feeling of loneliness and emptiness is palpable.

A beautiful cave

A beautiful cave (2)

There is a tension between the idleness of the island, the feeling of inevitable death, and the drive to reach the top. The narrator calls it his Damascus. As we travel through the island, we come across sights of true, awe-inspiring beauty. We come across paintings on the walls of caves and cliffs; paintings of hydrocarbon chains, alcohol compounds, and electrical schematics. Perhaps this is symbolic of how Esther died? Then start the messages…at first they tell the tale of the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, but they start to take a subtle turn. “Was Paul’s conversion the result of brain trauma?” it hints to us. Is our trip also the result of brain trauma? Is any of this real? We start to feel more and more that we are being led to the top, not going there of our own accord. It is nighttime now and the moon is up, and there are candles lighting the way. Who lit these candles? We catch glimpses of a hooded character in the shadows, but nothing more. Who is this stranger?

The drive to get to the top gets stronger. We are moving faster now. The messages on the walls start to hint at something less hopeful. We aren’t heading to our salvation at the top, but rather to the inevitable conclusion of our fate. We get to the top, to the communications tower. We climb to the top of the tower and look out over the island. We look down, past the tower, past the cliffs, to the ocean below, and we jump. We fall in slow motion, pas the tower, past the cliffs, and begin to fly across the ocean. Our shadow is that of a seagull. We fly out over the ocean, soaring, and the screen begins to fade until there is nothing left but the sound of the ocean. We are dead.

I sit pondering the game. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is supposed to be a story of redemption, but that is not the fate of the character. The continual references to the story seem to say many things, but never confirming. Perhaps the story is a sort of wistful hope that the character clings to in order to avoid dealing with his fate. Perhaps the game itself is saying that stories such as there only serve to divorce ourselves from reality. It certainly shows a sense of desperation in dealing with death…and perhaps even in trying to find meaning in life; some sort of sign that this journey has some revelatory meaning.

The lonely island

The lonely island (2)

Just what was the journey? Was the island real? Was there really a person leading us to the top, and if so who was he/she? Was it Esther? Donnelly? The narrator himself? We never really find out. The narrator refers to “Esther Donnelly” a few times; are they actually the same person? Was Donnelly really the narrator’s lost love? Are they perhaps different parts of the narrator himself? Does the narrator even exists for that matter? These are not questions that the game answers.

It’s amazing to see how indie game devs are really pushing the boundaries of what can be done with games. Games such as “Dear Esther” show that there is such a huge potential for telling meaningful stories in the medium. While it may sound strange at first to use a game to convey a story like this, it actually was the perfect choice. The story is one of discovery (as much as you discover anyways), and by using an interactive media, we are actually making the discoveries for ourselves. As the drive to reach the top increases as the game moves on, it is not just the character that is driven, but ourselves that is driven. We aren’t just contemplating the death of a character, but the death of ourselves. By using the format of a game, it becomes much more introspective, and much more personal.


Dear Ester Trailer (1)

(1) Briscoe, Robert. “Dear Esther.” Dear Esther. Available: http://dear-esther.com/
(2) [H|G]~Modred189~ “Dear Esther Screenshots”. Steam Community. 19 Februrary, 2012. Available: http://steamcommunity.com/id/Modred189/screenshots/?tab=public&showdate=1&filter=app_203810

Art is for everyone, you just have to know where to look.

I really do believe that art is for everyone, but many people don’t get into it because they are intimidated. I can understand the (false) perception that you have to have this encyclopedic understanding of art history in order to appreciate art, and that if you don’t just absolutely love every piece cited as a masterpiece, then it’s your fault and you just don’t “get it.” It’s unfortunate that this perception is so prevalent because it is patently untrue.

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1)

Art is, almost by definition, subjective. It is emotional. When experiencing art, we are going on a journey, one in which we bring all of our past experiences and values in to our understanding and appreciation of a work. Given the huge diversity of experiences, it seems obvious (to me at least) why everyone experiences art differently, and thus appreciates different art.

I do think that there is an objective answer to the technical qualities of a work. Some pieces are just simply painted/written/composed better than others. I don’t think that anyone would claim that Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto’s are less technically accomplished than The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or that the Monet’s On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt is less technically accomplished than Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup.

For me personally, though, I prefer Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band over the concertos because I just don’t respond emotionally to Baroque era pieces. Similarly I like the Warhol piece over the Monet piece because the impressionistic period, well, kinda bores me. Most impressionists painted subjects who were well off, usually in a state of leisure. I don’t get the sense that impressionists were trying to really say anything with there pieces, but rather were trying to push the boundaries of technique. This approach just doesn’t invoke the same response in me that the idea-focused works of Picasso or Dali do.

Campbell's Soup Cans

Campbell's Soup Cans (2)

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of Monet or Bach; they were both pivotal to the growth of their respective meanings, and were very talented artists. They just aren’t my cup of tea is all, which is fine. I recognize that many people don’t share the same tastes that I have. Shostakovich is one of my favorite composers, but critical opinions of him are mixed. For example, French composer Pierre Boulez was critical of  Shostakovich, dismissing it as “the second, or even third pressing of Mahler.” (3) That doesn’t really matter to me though, because when I listen to his work, I love it. I also recognize that Boulez doesn’t like Shostakovich the same way that I don’t like Monet. Everyone is different, and that makes it interesting.

So what about someone who isn’t in to art and doesn’t know where to start? My advice is to try and sample as much as possible. Go to a varied and all-encompasing museum (such as the de Young museum in San Francisco), instead of a more focused museum (like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Museums like the de Young make it easy to see a lot of different types of artwork. The same thing for music, film, and literature: just experience as much as possible. There is so much variety in the art world that there is most likely something for everyone. Finding out what one likes is the hard part. Once you know what you like the rest is easy, and rewarding.

(1) “On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt.” The Art Institute of Chicago. Available: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/Impressionism/Monet
(2) “Andy Warhol.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Warhol
(3) “Dimitri Shostakovich.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitri_Shostakovich#Criticism

P.S. My banner for this site is a cropped version of a photo I took of a piece at the de Young museum in San Francisco.

Self Portrait by Francesca Woodman

I was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) recently where I saw the collected works of Francesca Woodman. It was a truly amazing exhibit! SFMOMA puts it best in describing Woodman:

Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) was an artist decisively of her time, yet her photographs retain an undeniable immediacy. Thirty years after her death, they continue to inspire audiences with their dazzling ambiguities and their remarkably rich explorations of self-portraiture and the body in architectural space. (1)

Woodman was only active for a few years, starting in 1975 and ending when she committed suicide in 1982. She focused primarily on self-portraiture, intending her work to be a sort of dialog with herself. (2) While others focused on the world around them, Woodman look inward. Her work has an ambiguity about them that is endlessly fascinating. The meaning of her work is very non-obvious, and I’m sure has generated much discussion. She explored a variety of themes, such as occupation of space and differentiation of the self from one’s environment. She has a number of pieces where she almost appears to be disappearing into the space itself.

There is one piece that spoke to me more than the rest. SFMOMA had the title listed as “Untitled,” but I have also found the title listed as “Self Portrait,” so I am going to use that title going forward. While studying this picture, I started talking with one of the museum staff about it, and our interpretations of the piece were quite different; a perfect example of the ambiguity of her work. Before I discuss our interpretations, take a moment to come up with your own. It’s hard to see in this copy of the image, but the sheet of paper on the wall is a birth certificate, and the scarf around her neck is a mink scarf.

Self Portrait

"Self Portrait" by Francesca Woodman (1) (3)

The staff member and I both agreed that the birth certificate plays an important role, but we differed on what that importance was. The staff member viewed the birth certificate as an unnecessary reminder that the subject is alive…i.e. that there is this beautiful woman filled with complexity who is very much alive, and the birth certificate is only necessary for those who can’t see it. It makes a statement that people get caught up with image and how they think society wants them to look and that they needed to be reminded from time to time what real beauty is. My interpretation is subtly, yet dramatically different. I don’t think that the birth certificate is superfluous for the subject but necessary for others, but rather that it is superfluous for others but necessary for the subject.

When this picture was taken, Woodman was attempting to become a fashion photographer in New York. It seems reasonable to assume that she was aware of the superficiality of the industry. Look how the mink scarf serves as a sort of border between the superficial and the real. Her face is very done up; covered in makeup, perfect hair, that “modelling” expression that looks like there is no emotion. It is practically lifeless. Contrast this with her body below the scarf. Her body is very natural, with skin blemishes, armpit hair, and a more natural skin tone. To me, this represents a woman who has forgotten that there is a real person below the facade of superficiality thrust upon her by the industry/society, and needs the birth certificate to remind herself that she really is still alive.

Which interpretation is correct? I’m not sure, and I’m not even sure if there is a “correct” interpretation, or even if the question itself is valid. It’s also interesting to ponder that the photo was taken in 1981, the year that Woodman committed suicide. Could this have been an expression of how she saw herself at the time? She never said while she was still alive, so we’ll never know. All we can do is ponder her magnificent work and discuss, as great works of art are wont to do.

(1) “Francesca Woodman.” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 151 Third Street, San Francisco, California. Visited January 15th, 2012. Reference: http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/430
(2) Romano, Gianni. “Francesca Woodman on being an angel.” PhotoArts. October, 1998. Available: http://photoarts.com/journal/romano/woodman/
(3) “The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery.” The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. Available: http://www.friendsoftheuffizigallery.org/gifts.html

Halloween Movie Madness

Every year for Halloween, we do a horror movie marathon. This year we went in a slightly different route and have watched mostly psychological horror movies so far, i.e. movies that are scary for the ideas that they present, not necessarily because they are straight up scary. We started out with Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist”, and have also watched Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s baby.” We did also throw in “The Descent” and “Little Shop of Horrors” to get some variety. Coming up we still have “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Devil’s Backbone.” and “The Orphanage.”

The Birds Movie Poster

The Birds Movie Poster (1)

The Birds is, of course, one of Hitchcock’s classic films. I would say that it is hands down his most intense film, and the one most deserving of the term “horror-film.” Sure there are other horror films that are a lot scarier, such as “The Descent,” but the tone and mood of “The Bird’s” is still one of the most despairing in film. The last third of the movie is especially important in that it’s influence is very clearly seen in many films such as George A. Romero’s seminal “Night of the Living Dead.” It is filled with such dread and uncertainty. The reason for the bird’s attacks are never explained, and there isn’t even a real resolution to the film. Hitchcock shows with this film that he really is one of the greatest directors of all time. Consider the final shot of the characters driving away, surrounded by birds. Hitchcock didn’t use the standard shot showing the characters in the car, with a view of the birds behind them, but rather showed the car driving away from the viewpoint of the porch, framed on all sides by birds. In essence, we are still trapped with the birds at the conclusion of the film, with the only people we knew driving away. This single shot so effectively reinforces the feeling of loneliness and utter despair institutes “The Birds” as one of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements.

Rosemary's Baby Movie Poster

Rosemary's Baby Movie Poster (2)

“Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby” are first two movies in Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” so called because Polanski made three consecutive movies (“The Tenant” being the third) that featured a protagonist that is trapped by their apartment surroundings. While an apartment is specifically used in these three movies, I suspect that “apartment” is meant to refer to urban life in general. I first saw “Rosemary’s baby” a few years ago, but had not seen “Repulsion” until this viewing, and I was amazed how much it changed my perception of “Rosemary’s Baby.” “Repulsion” is a character study on the effects that women’s oppression can have, and Polanski uses a variety of techniques to really convey the paranoia and trauma that the character experiences. Polanski uses many of these same techniques in “Rosemary’s Baby,” but in a much more subtle manner. This similarity in technique is not just a way for Polanski to reuse effects, or for Polanski to slack off. Rather, he uses these effects very selectively as a way to reinforce the misogyny of Rosemary’s husband and other males in the film. It made the film that much more impactful. These movies are very powerful studies on the consequences of a male-dominated society.

Antichrist Movie Poster

Antichrist Movie Poster (3)

Now we come to Von Trier’s “Antichrist.” How to describe this film? I think it is absolutely brilliant, and one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. This was my second time to see it, and I still have as many questions as I do answers. It’s not disturbing because of gore or any of the typical “disturbing” horror moments, although it does have a few somewhat gory moments. What makes it truly disturbing is its ideas, of which there are many. As an example: the film makes the statement that in the natural order, man’s violent tendencies are more powerful than woman’s sexual tendencies, as illustrated by the husband murdering his wife at the end of the film. It discusses the relationship between violence and sex, female oppression, psychological torture under the guise of “helping,” and many others. If you go into this film looking for your run of the mill jumps and scares, be prepared to be disappointed. However, if you actually think about this film and really listen to what it has to say, it is unforgettable.

To me, the best horror movies are the ones that make you think. They are about more than just the events that happen to the main characters depicted during the running time. They say something (dark and sinister) about the human condition. They make us realize that there are real horrors in the world, things that we should indeed be scared of.

(1) “The Birds (film).” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birds_(film)
(2) “Rosemary’s Baby (film).” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosemary’s_Baby_(film)
(3) “Antichrist (film).” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antichrist_(film)

The 2011 San Francisco Atheist Film Festival, Part 3

"The Ledge" Movie Poster

"The Ledge" Movie Poster (2)

Things have calmed down at work, and I finally have some free time again (yay!). Belatedly picking up where I left off with part 1 and part 2 of my series of posts on the 2011 Atheist Film Festival, I now want to take about the premier showing of the festival “The Ledge” (1). This film, directed by Matthew Chapman who was on-hand for a Q&A, is being billed as a thriller that features an atheist main character. Some are even calling it the atheist movement’s “Brokeback Mountain.”

Before we get into a discussion on the film, a warning is in order: *MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*. If you haven’t seen it yet and are at least somewhat interested in it, go see it first and then come back and read this post. You can watch it streaming online from iTunes.

The film opens with Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) walking out onto the ledge of a tall building with the intent of jumping off. The police are called in and Hollis (Terrance Howard) tries to negotiate with Gavin. Gavin is an atheist who’s daughter was killed in a car accident 2 years prior. The movie consists of a series of flashbacks, with Gavin telling Hollis about how his wife left him after their daughter’s death, and that he now works as a manager at a hotel. It was at the hotel that he met Shana (Liv Tyler), who stops by one day looking for a job. Gavin immediately fell for Shana, but Shana is married to Joe (Patrick Wilson), a hardcore fundamentalist Christian.

Their relationship grows and Shana eventually ends up falling for Gavin and they have an affair. Joe finds out, looses it, and through a series of events Gavin ends up on the ledge, blah blah, blah….to be honest this part of the plot isn’t very interesting. Rather, it serves as the framework in which to do more interesting things.

I found the relationship between Gavin and Shana quite interesting. It grows slowly, starting out with just glances and little looks. It’s actually believable. Shana’s views on religion also change slowly throughout the film, or at least it’s implied that they do. She doesn’t abandon her religion all together, but she seems to be thinking “yeah, Gavin has a point.”

More interesting than Gavin and Shana’s relationship was the interplay between Gavin and Hollis. Joe is the stereotypical crazy fundamentalist, and so is rather one dimensional as a result. Hollis, however, is much more nuanced and complex. He is also a Christian, but I suspect he is really just a cultural Christian. I also suspect that he had never even considered the possibility of non-belief until he met Gavin, and is clearly affected by everything that happens. Hollis’ worldview is challenged, and he changes and grows as a result. I agree with Greta Christina (3) that Hollis is the foundation for this movie.

Of all the scenes in the movie, the final scene with Hollis and his family is hands down my favorite. Hollis sits down at the dinner table, his wife asks him to say a prayer before dinner, but he responds by stating “not tonight.” This, in my opinion, is the defining moment of the movie, more so than the climactic moment on the ledge. Everything leads to this point. The interesting question, of course, is what does this moment mean? Is he not praying out of respect for Gavin? Is he having a crisis of faith? It’s an open ended question to be sure, but I have a theory. I think it’s the beginning of a crisis of faith (hopefully leading to the complete abandonment of religion), but it’s not even a conscious thought yet…just the kernel of an idea in the back of his subconscious. I think all that he consciously knew was that he was sick of all of the hurt and misery that religion caused that day, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

It’s a good film, and an important film, but not a great one in my opinion. The third act was contrived and mechanical, the back story of the characters were borderline incredulous, and Joe was too one-dimensional. I’m not saying there aren’t people like Joe in the real world (there are), but it just didn’t make for as interesting of a film. He lacked the nuance of, say, Frank Fitts from “American Beauty” or Dan White in “Milk,” and is a much less interesting character for it. Is this our “Brokeback Mountain?” I don’t think so, but it’s an important step in the right direction. As Greta wrote in her article:

“The Ledge” isn’t atheism’s “Brokeback Mountain.” “Brokeback Mountain” was the result of decades of activism and consciousness- raising — about LGBT people in general, and about media depictions of LGBT people in particular. “The Ledge” isn’t that. It isn’t the culmination of a decades-long cinematic conversation about atheism.

It’s the beginning of it.

And that might be even more important.

I think we can all agree with that.

(1) Chapman, Matthew. “The Ledge.” Available: http://ledgemovie.com/
(2) “The Ledge.” IMDB.com. Available: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1535970/
(3) Christina, Greta. “”The Ledge”: Does Atheism Have Its “Brokeback Mountain”?” Greta Christina’s Blog. 6th July, 2011. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2011/07/06/the-ledge/