In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The second interview is with role-playing designer and theorist Emily Care Boss. She co-authored the article in the volume “Role-Playing Communities, Cultures of Play and the Discourse of Immersion” with Bill White and J. Tuomas Harviainen. In the article, she helps provide a breakthrough analysis of Nordic and American interpretations of role-playing immersion, contrasting emotionally resonant and creative play/design philosophies and advocating for a bottom-up definition of immersion, based on communities’ play experiences.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – You are often cited for your 2008 article “Key Concepts in Forge Theory,” which does an excellent job of summarizing key debates within the American independent role-playing games scene between 1998 and 2005. It’s one of the most cited articles in the Nodal Point book series. Did you think your article would make that huge of an impact? How has the theory shifted (in your opinion) since you wrote the article?

Emily Care Boss – Thank you! That article was a labor of love. How well it was received took me by surprise. It came about as an attempt at a cultural exchange between the US independent game design community and the nordic game community where it was published. In the previous year I had visited Europe for the first time as a Guest of Honor at Ropecon, the largest game convention in Finland. The Forge was well established as an online forum where serious discussion about role-playing occurred, but the discussion happening there was viewed by outsiders variously as arcane, elite and impenetrable.

At Ropecon, I was viewed as an ambassador for the Forge (figuratively speaking), so I tried to do my best and speak well for the community. I found bafflement was a general response. Some of the games had already become successful, Primetime Adventures by Matt Wilson was translated into Finnish as well as My Life with Master by Paul Czege, but the commitment of learning the ideas that had come from the Forge community was too high a barrier for most. And the ideas that were known were also hotly contested or outright rejected.

Ironically, during my stay I was converted to being a proponent of the Nordic tradition of role play known as jeepform or jeep. Jeep is a live style of play (different from larp) that emphasizes hard hitting emotional stories and simple rules that help heighten tension. It was such an exciting new approach to play that I came home to my fellow Forge and indie game compatriots talking of nothing but jeep. It was a nice reversal of my experience in Europe: those who played learned and understood what jeep entailed (and loved it or ran screaming), but others confronted only with the website and it’s principles gave a blank stare.

All this hit home that while there were ground-breaking innovations and analysis happening on both sides of the Atlantic, there was very little of this making it over the ocean. The need for dialog seemed pressing. Opportunity knocked when I heard that the Nodal Point convention, a larp oriented event hosted by four of the Nordic countries in turn (Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark) had a book associated with it that was soliciting submissions. When one of the editors, Markus Montola, mentioned that it would be a helpful thing to have a brief overview of Forge theory from a participant that sealed the deal for me. The fact that in that volume, Playground Worlds, a jeepform founder, Tobias Wrigstad was presenting an introduction to Jeep, was icing on the cake. The cultural exchange would be complete.

Shortly after that time, I was able to return to northern Europe and attend Fastaval, an avant-garde Danish game convention and Nodal Point, or Knutepunkt as it was known in Norway where it was held that year. Much more conversation had occurred during the intervening years, many other people crossed the Atlantic to attend events and share ideas, and the article had been in circulation. The difference was palpable. General exposure and understanding was near universal. One Knutepunkt participant referred to Forge theory as a “settled” body of work, not controversial in the slightest. And the best moment for me was when two Danes I met at Fastaval explained to me central tenets of the theory. I am glad to have been part of making what was once a yawning gulf of theory seem like the merest gap, easily overcome and understood.

ET – As a game designer, how do you perceive the conversations in academic game and media studies?

ECB – Currently much of the time and energy of academia seems centered on digital game play. That makes sense, that is where the money is, and also digital media are penetrating markets that tabletop role-playing historically has not been able to touch. Casual gamers, non-self-identifying-gamers. Most people now at least know what Angry Birds is, or have tried it a time or two. The applications of games are being seen. Discussion of gamification makes it a strong marketing tool, and games as a way to change people and change the world is a message that is getting attention. What seems missing is analysis both of the literary and narrative structure of games with fiction, and deeper understandings of how the rules of a game shape and interact with the emotions, choices, motivations and actions of participants. The idea of reward cycles is well understood and worked to death. But the dynamics of communication, expectation-setting, levels of identity and emotional experience triggered and explored by narrative based play are all things that have much more room to be explored.

There is also a deep divide between different communities of play and the various analytical cultures. Players need not be troubled by theory when they enjoy a game, but it would make sense for designers to be aware not only of the discussion and analysis going amongst their colleagues, but also of what’s going on in other related fields. Just as the divide between the Nordic and the independent gaming communities is being bridged, better communication between academics and designers seems necessary.

ET – What recent games have you played that you think will create huge ripples in the way we think about, design and play games?

ECB – Microscope, by Ben Robbins. This is a game that takes many standard assumptions of a role-playing game (participation primarily via the use of an ongoing character, the presence of a Game Master or facilitator, chronological fiction, solitary world creation) and stands them on their head. In the game, the players share the creation of an over-arching storyline of an epic nature. Some examples are the rise and fall of an empire, the mythic beginnings of human culture, or a bloodthirsty war between interstellar species. Using an egalitarian, round-robin structure, the players create eras and specific events that create a timeline. Scenes are played out within events, in a fashion much like that found in any role-playing game. But the scenes’ purposes are to clarify and define the specifics of the overall sweep of events by answering a specific question about the event, rather than for the purposes of developing the characters or gaining mechanical advantage. It’s a unique storytelling engine that sweeps away blinders of limits we enforce on the medium, which, I hope, will help us better realize the full potential of this form. There is so much more we could be doing. Microscope is a great start.

ET – Given your famous aversion to the term “immersion,” do you think our title “Immersive Gameplay” does participatory media and role-playing games justice? Why or why not?

ECB – As I have the pleasure of still saying after all of these years, immersion is a broad, broad term that encompasses so many facets of the experience of role-playing that further refinement and further definition and re-definition are always needed. So here we are with our endeavor taking another look at ways people can immerse, feel, experience, revolt from, subsume, identify, over-identify and reframe their view of the world through play.

Looking at participatory media, immersion is a hallmark. Not unique to role-playing and first-person narrative forms like the video game, but certainly it establishes the engagement of the immersive experience in a unique way. By asking the players to make freeform choices that determine the direction of the narrative based on taking the role of a character within the narrative itself. The restrictions of a video game are blown wide open in tabletop and live-action role-playing. (Nearly) the full realm of human choice, negotiation and adjudication are available. There is no other narrative form that allows this. And whether you are looking at the word “immersive” from the point of view of it being the holy grail of gaming experience (i.e., having a full body/mind/spirit experience of “being” the role) or merely taking the stance of the narrative person you’ve been issued to portray, this is the touchstone of role-playing gameplay. Certainly it is not the full complement of what could be done (as the game Microscope so clearly shows) but it takes from the linear path of acting, and adds the sculpting of events that is writing, making a gorgeous new field of expression that is role-play.

Emily Care Boss is a writer, game designer and forester living in western Massachusetts and has independently published games since 2005. Her game Under My Skin won the Player’s Choice Otto award at Fastaval in Denmark. She has been published in Playground Worlds and Push: Volume 1 New Thinking About Role-playing. Her games can be found at Black & Green Games.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The first interview is with role-playing game and media scholar Sarah Lynne Bowman. Her article in the volume “Jungian Theory and Immersion in Role-Playing Games” explores mainstream games such as Dungeons and Dragons and World of Darkness as means of individuating Jungian archetypes and Campbellian heroic journeys. She contends that the explanatory power of Jungian archetypes may be used to debunk the “escapist” moniker stamped on so many game-related activities.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – When people are playing characters, sometimes they argue that they are channeling something outside of themselves, or that their character has its own autonomous existence. How would you describe and explain that?

Sarah Lynne Bowman – This question remains the most mysterious and, in some ways, unanswerable in any sort of solid, satisfactory way. Mystics have claimed to “channel” the voices of deities for millennia; the Bible is said to contain revelation given to the prophets directly from God. New age correlations include “channelers” such as Esther Hicks a.k.a. Abraham, Barbara Marciniak, Neal Donald Walsch, along with many others. On the decidedly fictional end of things, authors sometimes report the strange experience of their characters “taking on a life of their own.” Songwriter Tori Amos considers herself a vessel through which the songs, which are independent entities, communicate their messages. Role-players also report the strange experience of passively watching as the character “takes over,” particularly in deeply immersive experiences.

Of course, as scholars, we must always question the subjective nature of these reports, hence placing the word “channel” in quotes. Is the character truly channeled from somewhere else or was it present in the psyche the entire time, simply repressed? Is creativity some sort of vehicle for “channeling,” a natural function of the mind? Or does creativity open up a pathway to age-old archetypes and past-life experiences, as channelers such as Abraham claim?

Again, these questions remain ultimately unknowable, just as the nature of the divine — if it exists — is unknowable to our limited, mortal consciousness. However, the mysteriousness of our existence and our creativity inspires me to learn more and find parallels between role-playing and other phenomena. I find it fascinating that so many accounts exist describing the subjective experience of “channeling” an entity or a story; these accounts are also reminiscent of shamanic experiences in tribal cultures, where a religious official “becomes” the spirit of an animal or god in order to combat societal illnesses. Mike Pohjola recently connected shamanism with role-playing in his 2012 Nordic Larp Talk “How to Become a God” and J. Tuomas Harviainen has written on larp as ritual, so I am not the only one making connections between role-playing and ritual experiences.

The way Jung would describe the phenomenon of channeling ties into some of the theoretical principles explained in my article. We engage with our creativity through a process Jung calls active imagination, which allows us to delve into unconscious areas of our minds. Embedded within each of us through our genetic code is deep, symbolic material that bubbles up when we dream and make art. Much of this material is personal in nature, though Jung believed that some of the most potent symbols are universal, which he called archetypes. In his own personal imaginative journeys as documented in The Red Book, he would often encounter “entities,” such as Philemon and Salome. Having no real scientific explanation for these “dialogues,” he tried to explain them in a psychoanalytic manner. Therefore, Jung presents us with terminology and a model for understanding “channeling” that does not negate the power of mystical experiences, but rather tries to contextualize them in a more modern, universal, psychological language. By modern, of course, I refer to early twentieth century modernist thought, the roots of which inform so much of our current research, though we may not often learn the sources of these original premises.

ETYour recent book The Functions of Role-Playing Games deals with the many ways that role-playing culture is put to use, and how its participants engage with it. How does this piece about Carl Jung fit into that earlier research?

SLB – In Chapter 6 of my book, I describe how humans engage in childhood pretend play in a variety of ways, including creating imaginary friends and worlds. While not all children engage in these activities, pretend play does seem an instinctive and, perhaps, evolutionary evolved behavior. I then describe various theories to explain the adoption of multiple personalities in adulthood, including dissociative theory and psychosynthesis. Historically speaking, Jung worked under Pierre Janet, a pioneer in early psychological research and the originator of the term “dissociation.” While Sigmund Freud believed in a divided psyche that consisted purely of the undefined impulses of the id, ego, and superego, psychologists such as Janet, Jung, and Assagioli also believed that our minds contain multiple egos that sometimes battle for control within us. While this concept may seem extreme, most people can relate to the experience of having to perform multiple “personas” depending on the demands of our social roles at given times, as Erving Goffman explains. These personas are generally defined in terms of one’s social role — i.e. teacher, lover, daughter, etc. Jung also believed in the persona, but thought we harbor much deeper, more complex structures of personality that may wish to express themselves.

In terms of identity, dissociation is the process by which we “shift” from one of these personalities to the other. We may not be conscious of this shift; indeed, if we were conscious every time we adapted our personality to a given context, we would probably drive ourselves mad. Even people with so-called Dissociative Identity Disorder, who display extreme shifts in personality as the result of trauma, do not always perceive these transitions without outside assistance. Erik Erikson believed that individuals experience identity confusion in their youth and must establish a stable sense of ego identity in order to function in society. If we consider that each of us are inherently fragmented in terms of personality — some in more extreme ways than other — this sense of ego identity can never become a unified, monolithic thing. Instead, proponents of psychosynthesis and dissociative theory prefer to use the term Integrator to describe the ego. The Integrator learns to manage these various facets of personality and creates bridges between them, ultimately helping to merge them. In a role-playing context, the players  themselves can be viewed as the Integrators monitoring the efforts of each character from a somewhat detached state. The Integrator can always come into the forefront when necessary, pushing the character back into latency, a process that we colloquially refer to as “shifting out of character.”

In the book, I further describe the concept of archetypes and explain how they manifest in the races and classes of Dungeons & Dragons. The most common archetypal structure we see in role-playing games is the enactment of the hero’s journey, to use Joseph Campbell’s model: the call to adventure, the help of the mentor, entering the “belly of the whale,” the confrontation with the monster, the triumphant return to society. This structure is embedded within the format of the Dungeons & Dragons rule books and modules. The whole process of “leveling a character” is a mechanical representation of a hero taking on multiple hero’s journeys over and over again. That being said, Jung and Campbell both believed that the monster in these stories represents the darker aspects of the self that the hero needs to confront, conquer, and integrate. In that respect, we can move beyond the fantastical elements of these roots of role-playing games; fantasy becomes a metaphor for reality. Any sort of inner or external conflict becomes the monster that needs slaying, which is why psychologist Nathan Hook suggests in the Knutpunkt 2010 book, Playing Reality, that all role-players undergo their own personal hero’s journey, regardless of the genre. Similarly, other participants in my studies have insisted that each player is a “hero in their own story.”

In Jungian terms, these conflicts that we need to address narratively stem from the “Shadow” — the aspects of ourselves that we need to repress and deny in order to establish our sense of identity. Since much of the content of role-playing games arises from the participants rather than some external “author” such as the game master, this concept of the Shadow becomes more intriguing. Why do people play “evil” characters? Why do certain conflicts evolve between characters in terms of, say, relationship dynamics? Jeepform games in the Nordic tradition particularly play with Shadow aspects of the unconscious, such as inappropriate sexual fantasies, bullying, and infidelity. Jeepform games encourage you to “play close to home” so, necessarily, parts of your repressed psyche are encouraged to come to the foreground. The Shadow concept explains why people “enjoy” playing games such as Vampire: the Masquerade or even the Nordic Larp Kapo, which are both designed — in their radically different ways — to draw out the darker aspects of human nature in order to experience and examine them.

Even with a structured character that is uniformly distinct from one’s self-concept, any long stretch of immersion will begin to tap into deeper aspects of one’s own consciousness by necessity. The Nords have a term called the “Hollow Man,” where the character is too thinly defined and the player must insert parts of their own self into the story. I believe we always explore deeper parts of our personal psyche when we create characters, to greater and lesser degrees. I also think that we tap into essential, archetypal material, which explains how we are able to play characters with which we have no prior experience. I will never know what it means to be a queen, a magician, a goddess, or an immortal. I will never have those experiences in life, yet I have played them in games. One can always claim that media representations allow us to mimic what we have seen previously through these characters. However, if you consider that even in tribal cultures with little-to-no media exposure, individuals claim to channel these supernatural entities in ritual, that answer becomes less satisfying. A structuralist explanation posits that such expressions must be inherent to human culture in some way. A depth psychology explanation posits that such expressions arise from our collective unconscious, a part of our genetic linguistic inheritance.

ET – As a fellow film studies scholar, I am often asked about how my studies of “analog” role-playing games tie into contemporary questions of media studies? What does a film studies scholar learn about film from looking at role-playing games and gaming in general?

SLB – Well, first, I think that the “analog” nature of role-playing games is merely a formal and rather misleading distinction. While a game such as Dungeons & Dragons may be played in-person and in a small group, the original text is definitely a mass media product that has enjoyed widespread cultural influence. That product influenced the development of video games as we know them, as many of the earliest video games were attempts to recreate D&D dungeons. In addition, that product also spawned one of the most successful video games of all time; millions of gamers play World of Warcraft every day, the structure of which tightly follows the adventuring and leveling format of Dungeons & Dragons. For more on this topic, see Michael Tresca’s The Evolution of Fantasy Role-playing GamesJust as a film might be viewed by only one or a few people at a time, a role-playing game may be played in a small group. The mode of play enactment does not negate the mass media nature of the game product itself.

In addition, any reception scholar will tell you that fan behavior is subcultural in nature and, therefore, a worthy subject to investigate in terms of cultural studies. Many role-players initially find entry into these games through other generic fandom, including fantasy, science fiction, westerns, or even more “arty”/indie styles. As an ethnographer, I ask people to explain the inspiration behind their character creation. Many participants describe that the genre of the games themselves are based in existing media or that they as players have drawn inspiration from existing characters or themes from other media texts, a direct example of Henry Jenkins’ textual poaching. Instead of writing fan fiction, these players embody fan fiction. The co-creative, spontaneous nature of these games allows expressions of fandom to escape their original context and evolve into something far more eclectic and, in many cases, personal.

Just as film, television, and new media had to fight to validate their relative forms in terms of academic credibility, so, too, does role-playing studies and game studies in general. We are currently seeing a strong push in academia to consider games a serious and worthy object of study and the burgeoning field of role-playing studies is part of this wave, even if the game format is not always digital in nature.

ET – I hear you’re working on a new project about how social tension and conflict create larp culture. Can you tell me a little more about it?

SLB – Though my primary interest remains focused upon the internal, psychological processes that players undergo, the social elements cannot and should not go ignored. Aaron Vanek published an opinion piece in the 2011 Knudepunkt Talk book entitled “The Non-United Larp States of America.” In this article, Vanek claims that in America, we face a near-constant fracturing in our larp communities, where groups splinter and/or refuse to communicate and support one another. Because of this problem, larp as a practice suffers in terms of continuing player base and innovation. His paper represents a sort of call to arms to Americans to put aside differences and collaborate in order for larp to flourish. As a player involved in similar conflicts in my own larp communities, I felt personally motivated to investigate this hypothesis further. I wanted to see if these problems pertain to regional conflicts or happen in many larp communities. I was particularly interested to see if such conflicts emerge within the Nordic larp community, which appears so cohesive from an American perspective. I conducted approximately 30 semi-structured interviews with participants from various places in the U.S. and Scandinavia in order to investigate this question.

I found that splintering seems to occur everywhere, at least as was reported by my small participant base. According to Stephen Balzac, group psychologist and originator of the MIT Assassins Guild, these schisms in communities emerge as a natural evolution of group dynamics. Just as children test the boundaries of parental authority as toddlers and adolescents, according to Tuckman’s Model, individuals test leadership and group cohesion once they reach a certain level of investment in a particular activity. Some groups manage to weather this “Storming” period, leading to an even greater level of trust and productivity. However, many groups face dissolution or regression to an earlier, less collaborative state. Leaders — in this case, game masters or organizers — face particular challenges in this regard. Many game organizers do not have any formal training or experience in a leadership capacity. Even trained leaders may feel taken for granted or personally attacked, leading to clashes or “burning out.”

I also discovered several others problem areas contributing to conflict in role-playing communities. Intimate relationships predictably increase the level of emotional intensity in gaming groups, both in-character and out-of-game, which can lead to problems. The game master vs. player power dynamic can lead to abuses on both ends. Creative agenda differences and clashes within the play culture also contribute to strife. Most interestingly, perhaps, I studies incidents of “bleed,” a term more common in the Nordic community than in America, although many American participants intuitively understood the concept. Bleed is a difficult phenomenon to describe; in the past, theorists such as Markus Montola have defined it solely in terms of emotions. However, I decided to ask participants if they could recall incidents when their emotions, thoughts, relationships, or physical state outside of the game affected events within the game and visa versa, using Montola’s terms “bleed-in” and “bleed-out.” Difficulties with group dynamics may evolve in any organization, as Balzac suggests, but role-playing games add an extra level of complexity in the form of the narrative; not only do we have existing relationships and psychological states outside of the game, but we have other layers of relationships within the game world. This “layering of roles” creates a more complex tapestry of human interaction than is present in most other groups.

This concept of “bleed” helps us describe these experiences in neutral terms, as opposed to the all-too-prevalent and equally unhelpful accusation, “That player simply cannot separate fantasy from reality!” I believe that all players have the ability to separate fantasy from reality when entering the “magic circle” of play. As I mentioned before, we do not fully “become” the character for long periods of time; the player is almost always present and acts as a sort of Integrator when the character is allowed to “take the wheel.” Players sometimes describe the bizarre experience of complete identification with the character, but these moments do not last for long. However, these incidents can feel incredibly profound and cause confusion when we try to make sense of them later. If we can establish and articulate useful terminology such as “bleed,” we can help players to process these experiences in a more fruitful way. Sometimes, bleed experiences represent the most instructive and important parts of the role-playing experience. We should honor these moments and support our fellow players, rather than derogating or ousting individuals who experience negative emotions as a result of bleed.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. She is an adjunct professor at Ashford University and Richland College. She published The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity with McFarland (2010). Her research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to character enactment and narrative creation.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

This cartoon made the rounds a while back, but I still strongly identify with its sentiment:


The convergence of all media into one or two devices has had untold effects on the human relationship to information, and certainly has probably had effects on our brains as well.

Philosopher Glenn McLaren proposes in an article in the latest Cosmos and History that the virtual reality of the Internet has made us “hunter and gatherers” in a forest of information, rather than independent, critical and deep thinkers.

As someone grappling with something akin to Internet addiction (okay, let’s just say I am addicted), it spoke quite a bit to my own experience.

After about 2009, I began to lose the ability to apply my attention to any long task when the Internet or other social media were available. On any big project, it has become an absolute necessity to shut off my connectivity to get any work done. Whole days have been lost to aimless wandering of forums, reading of digital newspapers, blogs, and the like. Though I’m a film scholar, I probably spend the least time on YouTube of anybody, preferring instead the back catalog of Film Philosophy or The Forge for my reading to distract me from all the pressing projects on which I need to focus. Nevertheless, pressing issues and deadlines do not impact my consciousness as they used to, convincing me the web has some kind of narcotic effect.

McLaren goes further to state that this shortening of the attention span and the sudden total equivalency of information has had noticeable political consequences, i.e. a certain docility and conformity as subjects no longer need to construct radically individual, deeply conceived opinions of anything to continue to spread their impact on the world.

How do I unchange my mind, so I reach a pre-2009 level of focus, attention and memory, themselves perhaps the most critical items necessary for my political consciousness?

As I move toward the summer, one of my most productive working periods, I caution myself against spending too many time trawling the Internet for novelty, and will consign myself to my stack of books and films I haven’t consumed while my brain drifted through the Internet’s networked isles.

Here’s acknowledgement of the irony that I feel compelled to blog about this topic, and encouragement for anyone to take the same occasional intense hiatuses I do. For intellectual survival, you understand.

The Herzog Swoon

April 24, 2012

Today, Werner Herzog spoke at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, later at Amherst College.

Here he is, explaining how he gingerly treated the Treadwell material used for shooting Grizzly Man.

Facebook and Twitter were ablaze with enraptured students and faculty, trying in vain to capture their vertiginous experience of seeing him in words/images. After all, he’s at the very least that German director about whom someone made so many viral videos. Celebrity cults have the tendency of rubbing me the wrong way though, so consider this blog post a measured response to the enthusiasm.

I attended because I am a German film specialist, and was pleasantly surprised that the talk at UMass was much better than the conversation he had at Amherst College back in 2006, when the privileged male students there thought they could “beat” him in rhetoric about fiction/reality in his films. (BTW: They lost.)

Topics of discussion included, but were not limited to:

• How fairly he deals with his subjects, particularly those who are borderline personalities (Treadwell, Kinski)
Into the Abyss as an American Gothic
• His romantic sensibility about the emergence of filmic moments
• His ruthless pragmatism regarding a tight editing schedule (“within 2 weeks” is his motto) and a low shooting ratio
• Virgil’s Georgics and the importance of thick description
• His own personal, evil style of acting
• How most people don’t survive in the film industry unless they can find a fast-paced rhythm to events/timelines/finances as he has
• How he doesn’t like art, nor the term “artist,” but rather surrounds himself with maps
• How students should “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read” (Incidentally, he sounded like a liberal arts college professor at this point.)
• How aerobics, yoga, art installations, and an excess of pain relief are all abominations with which society should reckon

In essence, Herzog shares the quality with Slavoj Zizek that he is one of the rare crowd-pleasers who can cater to students’ desire for “profound messages” and professors’ desire for academically grounded wit with equal aplomb. At the same time, however, one also notices that – beyond the hype for the man and his films – he has made his career as a filmmaker by keeping both his feet firmly planted on the ground (except in White Diamond, of course). Over and over again, he reiterated crude existential truisms: shoot your next damn film, don’t agonize over anything, meet your deadlines, if your footage is good – it’ll fit together, and so forth. This is advice that even his ideological arch-enemy Mike Figgis could not deny, and constituted almost the same thing that DEFA director Jürgen Böttcher communicated to us in the fall.

That is to say: don’t look to Werner Herzog for a message or even an inspiration. Look to your own subjective experiences and your pathos-filled reading of the world. Look to the subjectivity found in his films, and take a stand for or against or alongside it. This is a man whose oeuvre you must watch anyway, and his apparently enchanting presence should encourage you to look at more of his films. But Herzog knows no more secrets behind his films than you do. The viewer really is the missing link in his world.

Wild Blue Yonder is mostly long-winded crap with a few brilliant moments in a space capsule.
Woyzeck was made in such a short amount of time (8 days) that its spontaneity captures the fragmentary nature of Büchner’s play.
Stroszek remains his best work and will never be trumped by any of his other documentary-informed features.
Heart of Glass has inspired me in terms of larp and game design.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams hinges on his voiceover and our meta-level interpretations thereof.
Cobra Verde begins as a narrative about plantations and slavery, and ends as a musical.
Nosferatu shows us how small vampires can be in our big world.
Grizzly Man has something to do about Humans and Nature. I think it’s about Humans and Cameras.

…and so forth.
Watch his material.
Have an opinion.
If your opinion’s strong enough, make a piece of art in response that expresses it.
Or at least express it over coffee with friends.

Today’s event was called A Conversation with Werner Herzog. In my mind, Herzog exists only in conversation.

For more information about the director as well as interpretive aids, I suggest Brad Prager’s book or recent edited companion. If you read German, try Chris Wahl’s Lektionen in Herzog.

Watch the movies, but also read, read, read, read, read, read…

2012: Cryptic

January 2, 2012

Ever stared a year in the face?

Ever tried to manage your expectations about a year?

Ever attempted to come up with a coherent plan for a year, only to watch it crumble inexorably?

Though these are all yes/no questions, a year should not pose answers – only more questions.

Like this hazy Google Images search, if you will:

 

 

 

As with every year, I begin to blog again as my thoughts coalesce once more.

Short reviews of all that I consume shall soon commence again.

People of the United States, let me be brief:

The battle on the streets of Wisconsin was and is for the very future of America itself.

Why?

In the 1970s, there was an organizational revolution among the military, business and religious sectors that let them erode protections erected between the 1930s and 1960s to keep Americans alive, healthy and productive no matter what the circumstances of the “market.”

It was a reactionary revolution, but a revolution nonetheless.

In 2008, it finally succeeded in the form of a financial coup d’etat.

The world moved on, of course, but now under different terms.

Wolves no longer had to wear sheep’s clothing.

The New was now to be sacrificed on the altar of the Old.

Today, we are experiencing its full repercussions in the form of austerity measures which are, in fact, a form of class war against everyone who’s not a multi-millionaire or, dare I say, multi-billionaire.

That’s right: everyone.

You, even.

You, the single individual, who is in many ways at the heart of this battle.

Do you get to be, as the position goes, an individual in a karmic exchange where you live and die based on how much “hard work” you’ve done in a system stacked against you, or just one of a collective obliged to improve the lot of all mankind?

The people who believe in the former help some capitalize profits for short-term gain, and socialize losses for long-term social disruption.

The people who believe in the latter now ostensibly pose such a titanic threat to this system that even the remotest support mechanisms that imply a collective sharing of wealth and power (collective bargaining rights, education, healthcare) are being dismantled by the multi-billionaires.

So you may be surprised, however, to note that what we’re now seeing isn’t capitalism.

What we’re seeing is outright theft.

The disbelief in the so-called public good, the idea that we must force freedom from  collective welfare programs on the citizens of the world, these are mere positions to mask unadulterated greed.

But belief in the public good is communism, isn’t it?

Possibly.

But it’s also encoded into Christianity, Hinduism, Keynesian economics, most remaining indigenous societies, traffic signals, kindergarten, restrooms, and our biology itself.

Adult humans strive for the common good, and have to be continuously disciplined into thinking like a child:  prioritizing selfishness and avarice and instant, short-term gratification.

State-led Communism with its largely ineffective five-year plans attempted to condition populaces into long-term thinking without letting them becoming adults themselves.

It didn’t work.

This form of communism collapsed in 1989 thanks to its inability to effectively maneuver within the information economy.

After the Soviet Union collapsed at the center of it, a few thieves took all the spoils and left the people to fend for themselves.

Many citizens of Russia now miss the Soviet years.

They miss partial adulthood over perpetually conditioned and enforced childhood.

Capitalism, however, is as faulty of a system as communism:  it has to battle continuously falling profit margins.

In short, everything becomes worth less over time.

Crises must be perpetually introduced into the system to produce value.

Crisis also destroys most value (look at the earthquake in Japan), leaving a few valuable goods left over.

Finance capital collectively decided that in order to combat such a pernicious loophole in their lives of reflexive avarice, one can do no less than to seize everything, including time itself.

We didn’t believe they would do it.

But they did.

They do not want to seize power; they already have it.

Now it becomes a matter of breaking the remaining resistance: us.

Now they fear not only communism, or the so-called “naked wealth transfer” from the rich to the poor, but even the informal and formal networks that have helped us sustain each other against each financial onslaught:  Catholic charity, net neutrality, soup kitchens, low-income heating programs, public education, supportive families, team volunteer efforts, squatting, scavenging, repurposing, recycling.

But now that anxiety clouds their vision, courage and fortitude should animate our bodies.

What we will institute will not be called “communism,” but what we want is not so dissimilar – the equitable distribution of resources among those who deserve it.

This turns out to be everybody.

You.

Film Binge

September 23, 2009

Reality

On Saturday, I visited the Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Potsdamer Platz.  It is now a place with which I am thoroughly familiar:  after 5.5 hours of me poring over every inch of every exhibit, they had to kick me out since they were closing.  Of certain interest beyond original documents associated with films I know and love such as Joe May’s Asphalt, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, etc., was a giant wall with nothing but TV screens containing post-war German directors and buttons one could push to see a sampling of their work.  I loved it – I was able to get to know one or two new directors and their work in such a short time span!  It’s quite clear, however, that the museum is primarily concerned with Marlene Dietrich, her legacy and her estate.  They even had the Negerpuppe and the Chinesenpuppe that were featured in Sternberg’s The Blue Angel which she brought around with her for good luck.  That’s going into my dissertation somewhere…

On Monday morning, I took a trip down to Potsdam-Babelsberg just to see what it was like.  The film school itself blew me away:  a giant four building structure encased in a cocoon of glass and bound together with assorted stairwells and catwalks.  Of course, I was looking for a bureaucrat in that labyrinth, so I suddenly felt like I was in Brazil or something (don’t you know we imagine in movies now?).  I would go up a stairwell and only reach half the offices on a floor, because the others were on the other side of the catwalk.  In addition, you can check out films from the library and watch them in these weird little space-age pods that slide around in the lobby…

The only downside to the earlier part of this week?  No Fulbright money yet to speak of, no good opportunity to get a Visa until after I register for classes (which I need a Visa to do ironically…), and with no money, little travel in and around the city.  This should all change within a week or so, one hopes.

Fantasy

Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970, dir. Gottfried Kolditz)

I watched this East German stylistic riff on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey late at night in the States, and I don’t remember finishing it then.  Since it forms a core part of my dissertation research, I sat through it again and probably will do so once more in the future.  Though I am a fan of Gottfried Kolditz and have seen most of his oeuvre, this film is one of his least successful productions by far.  The plotline is this:  the Ikarus spaceship is hit by an asteroid cluster and his badly damaged, such that the Laika has to mount a rescue mission to save the ship’s crew.  I remember East German critics bashing this picture on account of it being a “space adventure without excitement,” and now I fully agree with them.  The editing of the film is outright terrible, such that one has little orientation between assorted effects shots and where characters are positioned.  And speaking of effects shots – these largely consist of the camera spinning like in 2001 and leaving it to our imagination that we’re in OUTER SPACE.  For my dissertation though, the multicultural starship crew is a prime example of what I’m talking about in terms of the establishment of race hierarchies amidst an “equal” set of crew members.  It is also interesting that the African-American expatriate Aubrey Pankey turns up as he did in Osceola: The Right Hand of Vengeance, again in a strange bit part.

Whisky mit Wodka (2009, dir. Andreas Dresen)

A thoroughly delightful film that also thoroughly references film history as well as the exigencies of filmmaking.  Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s script is elegant in its simplicity:  an alcoholic, aging film star Otto Kullberg (Henry Hübchen) proves unreliable in the eyes of the producer, so another actor Arno Runge (Markus Hering) is brought in on the set to shoot all of Kullberg’s scenes right after him in case the celebrity flakes out.  Using a similar formula to Grill Point (Halbe Treppe, 2002) or Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon, 2005), Dresen latches onto the complicated interpersonal relationships between not two but five main characters (the two actors, two actresses and the director) and explores those relationships to their logical conclusion.  It does not matter what film material is used in the final cut – a question posed by the film and never answered – nor should the audience care.  There are also some special moments for us East German film scholars in there, as Dresen cites Solo Sunny in a piano riff played by none other than the DEFA composer Günther Fischer, and there are several moments where Runge is asked about being from the East – even though he’s one of the few main actors NOT originally from the East.  I felt fortunate to be one of four people in the theater to take it in, since the film isn’t that popular at Potsdamer Platz, apparently.

Read or Die OVAs (2001, dir. Kouji Masunari)

A recklessly paced set of three anime episodes if I ever saw one.  Read or Die is part James Bond-style thriller, part superhero film, and part sci-fi: A secret organization associated with the British Library is charged with retrieving a lost Beethoven score before it is used to destroy the world.  Fast-paced and drawing a great debt from the grandiose silly action foregrounded in my favorite anime of all, Giant Robo, the Read or Die OVAs are very cleverly staged and executed, with paper-manipulating hero The Paper performing dozens of neat superhero feats on her quest to save the world.  My major criticism is, as I said earlier, in the pacing.  The first two episodes establish a kind of pattern for what one thinks is a longer series, and then the plot is ramped into overdrive to resolve in the third episode.  I’m thinking it was budget-related…