Resisting the Empire:

The plucky Protagonists and fearsome Adversary now all exist.  But how do our heroes resist?  At what price is the Adversary’s defeat?

• Choose a Protagonist. Play out an initial moment of resistance against the Adversary’s empire for them.  Imagine what makes this character just say “no” to an overwhelming dictatorship and then take up arms against it.  The Protagonist will succeed at doing one of the following:
–Resist a Minion
–Resist a Symptom of the Adversary’s Keep Others in Line
–Recruit an Ally to the Resistance

[Let’s grab Dirk first.  I’m going to think of Dirk as kind of like a rogue noble turned bandit, with a gang of insectoid horsemen (knights?) who surround his roving legged palace.  Spinox has learned of Dirk’s location from the Vanishing King and heads off to the plains to capture him. He and his army have hoversleds (those are cool… and a must-have), so they whiz on over to attack the horsemen. Problem is: the hoversleds have to be relatively low to the ground, so the horsemen still have a fighting chance against them. Dirk embarks on his horse and lays into Spinox’s goons. To help him, one of his fellow knights Maraud does some crazy stunt-riding (i.e. wielding two swords on a horse) and manages to hold him off. Now I can only choose either “Resist a Minion” or “Recruit an Ally,” so I’m going to choose “Resist a Minion” to put Spinox down for now, knowing full well I’ll get a chance to “recruit” Maraud to my side later.

• Do the prior step for the second protagonist. Please choose a different option from the list, so as to create some variety, and play out the corresponding scene.

[Then I grab Botkin, who is meanwhile toiling away in the bowels of some factory. I’m going to choose “Resist Symptom” and say the Symptom is effectively the internal ‘Net within the Vanished King’s palace that keeps tabs on the robots’ programming.  As a big fan of the role-playing game Zero, I take a page from it and just have Botkin suddenly drop from the ‘Net.  Just like that, his digital mind is severed from the collective and begins to act independently using all the skills downloaded into him.  Botkin begins to actually learn the ins and outs of the palace, noting not only the patterns from his subroutines but anomalies as well. The chinks in the Vanished King’s stronghold are found.

In summary: Dirk’s looking to end the source of his misery, and Botkin’s learned how.

Also keep in mind — they haven’t met yet. Be thinking of ways to plausibly get them together now.]

• The Adversary now gets a scene of his own.  Let the effects of the two moments of resistance become abstract-but-troublesome variables with which he now must reckon.  He now will apply the pain to each Protagonist in a direct and hostile fashion.  In addition, or as part of this pressure, the following happens:
–One of the Protagonists may get a new Ally as a result of this redoubled oppression. As with other Allies, the Manipulator must decide if they see this ally fighting to the death for his Protagonist, then marking an X or O in the box on that side of the big Character Roster sheet.

[Botcruel introduces this scene by bringing a “malfunction” to the Vanished King’s attention, Botkin dangling from his arms.  The Vanished Prince orders the robot destroyed; a fairly simple proposition. To spare Botkin an early and easy death, I as the Manipulator take the Ally and claim Botcruel as my Ally. I write him down as an Ally and decide he’s a little too jaded for that mushy “sacrifice” stuff – X.  So Botcruel takes Botkin off to be “destroyed,” but actually uses this opportunity to slip him additional secret programming and has him shipped off to the Plains to gather forces for his own coup d’etat!  Botkin now has Botcruel’s eyes in the palace, and Botcruel his unknown programming variables in Botkin…

The Vanished Prince, meanwhile, summons Sinuet from his usual project of converting resistance leaders into spies and double agents to find Dirk and defeat him… with his own army – bwa ha ha ha!]

Keep tuning in!

Where I Have Been

February 4, 2010

Reality

Next week, the Berlinale begins.  Expect more posts here as I binge on films.

Hard to believe that January is already over:  I still hear the fireworks from New Year’s ringing in my ears…

This month has been marked by me getting my priorities in order in terms of my dissertation writing and other projects (which include 3 articles, 3 film encyclopedia entries, and 3 scholarly book reviews).  I have been writing more regularly and thus more absorbed in an interior world of symbols and discourses.  The month was paradoxically also one full of considerable diversions, including museum visits, film screenings and even a trip to Venice.  So I have at least something to talk about.

This is, of course, not to mention my encounter with German snow maintenance… or lack thereof.  Having grown up in Iowa and lived in Massachusetts for four years, I know what winter looks and feels like.  Blizzards, sub-zero temperatures with brutal wind-chills, icy roads – I’ve seen it all.  Or thought I did, until I confronted how little effort Berliners commit to clearing sidewalks and roads after a good snowfall.  Snow is allowed to accumulate everywhere, and is packed down with foot traffic.  This snow turns to ice, or slush when warm, and has already caused countless broken ribs and other calamities to the Berlin residents over the past several months.  The solution?  About a week after the snow, a few Berlin service guys sprinkle a dusting of gravel on the sidewalks, or maybe sand if they can afford it.  Where’s the salt?  The sand?  The obsessively ice-hacked and shoveled sidewalks?  The Americans regulate this sort of thing through 24 mandatory snow-clearing ordinances.  The Germans regulate it by patching up the injuries in the hospital.

From January 10 – 17, our friend Melissa was in town, which gave us the excuse to distract ourselves.  We saw a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Komische Oper, which interpreted the naive and gruesome (in equal parts) piece through cross-dressing, a canted stage and the creative use of monkey outfits.  I also found myself in the Filmmuseum at the Deutsche Kinemathek again, this time in the exhibit on Romy Schneider (lacking proper context for those who don’t know who she is, of course).  Our Thursday morning was spent on the English-language Berliner Unterwelten tour of the old bomb shelter right below Gesundbrunnen.  The tour was one of the best I’ve been on – the guide was well-informed, energetic and somewhat sarcastic, all sympathetic traits to me.  Friday was spent all day at the Museumsinsel, where I soaked in the hundreds of artistic treasures of the Pergamon, the Bode-Museum (my personal favorite), the Alte Nationale Galerie, and the Altes Museum.  That night, we found our way to Prenzlauer Berg to play Settlers of Catan with Kira and Hilary (a thoroughly German activity!).  Actually, I realized that the original version of the game is meant only for 4 players, which meant I did what I love most:  ran the event.  Since I apparently miss teaching and game-mastering, merely the act of serving as “banker” and moderator for a simple board game gives me cause for elation.

On Saturday, January 16, 2010, Melissa, Kat and I intrepidly boarded the S-Bahn at Berlin Yorckstrasse, getting off at the Nikolassee stop near the edge of town. There, in the middle of nowhere, was the hostel where mittelpunkt 2010, a European LARP convention, was held.  The first session we visited was a physical LARP workout on how to “convincingly act out the use of magical powers” held by the charming Helge Bruhn. We threw imaginary fireballs and battled each other’s invisible force fields.  The second session that Kat and I visited was held by Emily’s friend Martina on how to keep things interesting in a fixed-group LARP setting, like with a spaceship crew. That was the most “international” of panels, as there were people from France, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and the U.S. all having an earnest discussion whilst swapping war stories.  The third session was my playtest of the system Campbellia called “Screenwriter’s Panic” in which the players had exactly four hours to come up with a finished Hollywood treatment of a cliché-driven “hero’s journey” blockbuster film. We wound up creating a surreal love story that centered on television, drugs and the eating of an imaginary giant frog…

The following weekend saw me attending the second half of our Genre Analysis class.  We presented different Reality TV formats and discerned whether or not they constituted their own genres, sub-genres, etc.  I got “Living History” – a sub-genre of “Reality Show” – and presented on Schwarzwaldhaus 1902 and Abenteuer 1900 – Leben im Gutshaus, both series about ordinary people traveling back in time through strict rules and regulation and a little bit of “TV magic.”  The presentations were actually quite fascinating, as we got to measure casting shows against swap format shows, etc. to demonstrate what they did and didn’t ask of the viewer.

Kat and I decided to visit Venice before it’s swallowed by the Mediterranean, so we spent last Wed. through Sat. there.  I’ve never visited so many churches or seen so many canals in my life.  Stunning architecture and winding passages around every corner.  Otherwise, the experience was fairly expensive, and I couldn’t have lasted another day there.  Actually, it was great to get out of Berlin and see what another major European tourist capitol looked like before diving back into my studies.

Scholarly

Frampton, Daniel. Filmosophy. NY: Wallflower Press, 2006.

“Filmosophy is a study of film as thinking,” Frampton claims within the first few pages, and indeed that’s the case.  Just as real witnesses of 9/11 claimed watching the WTC fall was “like a movie,” so have our entire thought frameworks been entirely merged with those of films and filmmaking.  Role-playing games are designed to simulate filmic imaginaries.  Video games are designed with virtual camera angles.  The safest (and most dangerous) topics at the dinner table are opinions expressed about films.  Frampton connects all aspects of film philosophy – film theory, psychology, social expectation – into a very readable projection of our thoughts as films.  Or films as thoughts.

Fantasy

Sherlock Holmes (dir. Guy Ritchie, 2010)

Who would have thought Sherlock Holmes could be successfully portrayed as a kleptomaniac boxer?

All That Jazz (dir. Bob Fosse, 1979)

In Bob Fosse’s “autobiopic,” a philandering New York choreographer is suddenly confronted with his immanent death.   A paltry few years after this film, Fosse’s bleak vision of himself came true.  Striking visuals, including some of the best weird Fosse dances ever choreographed.  His final shots are always memorable, and this one’s no exception:  Roy Scheider being zipped up in a body bag.

Croupier (dir. Mike Hodges, 1998)

Sometimes, films come along that give you a real insight into the mindscape of people within certain professions (Hawks’ Red River just stampeded to mind).  I don’t know if Croupier is one of them, but it certainly gave me the feeling of the total disdain that dealers have toward the “punters” in a casino.  A young Clive Owen gives his role the perfect mix of sardonic misery and comfortable sophistication.

Stella Dallas (dir. King Vidor, 1938)

Suspenseful emotional manipulation on a scale rarely seen today outside of Titanic.  This is the ultimate “too late” melodrama, in which no one really is to blame but nothing really seems to work out.

Michael (dir. C.T. Dreyer, 1924)

An older painter and his young adopted son rise to fame and glory, but the latter squanders the riches of the former, betraying the painter’s “true love” for the boy.  Crisp, austere and dramaturgically intriguing to the very end.

Infernal Affairs (dir. Andrew Lau, 2001)

An undercover cop faces down a planted mobster spy in Hong Kong’s crime world.  I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this film up until now.  Tony Leung and Andy Lau complement each other very well, and the pacing is downright superb.  Go see it, and avoid Scorcese’s remake.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (dir. Terry Gilliam, 2010)

With this film, I forgive Gilliam his involvement in Brothers Grimm (2006).  Then again, Gilliam also forgave himself. This film explores the encounter of old narrative media with the modern world, pitting sensual symbolism directly against instrumental modern capital… embodied in Tom Waits’ convincing portrayal of the Devil.  Oh yeah: Heath Ledger died in real life, so Colin Farrell dies for him in the film.  Weird.

Broken Blossoms (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1919)

A tragic tale of a Yellow Man (no, I’m not kidding) from China who makes his way in the U.K., only to find a young street girl abused by her boxer guardian…  There’s something Shakespearean about the level of death at the end of the film, but I think it was largely to gloss over the “edginess” of a plot surrounding a love affair between a “person of color” and a “white woman” ca. 1919.  As usual with Griffith, a bang-up editing job.

Intolerance (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1916)

A marvelously experimental feature film overview of human tragedy across Babylon, Biblical Jerusalem, 16th Century France and 20th Century Los Angeles.  Though the latter part seemed only there to appease the cinema-goers expecting something akin to a “regular” silent narrative, the former three prove breathtaking in their scope and production design.  Would I want to have been at the editing table for this one though, I wonder?

Van Helsing (dir. Stephen Sommers, 2004)

Complete pulpy garbage mined from Universal Studios’ tried-and-true archive of copyrighted monsters:  Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man… you get the picture.  Or maybe you don’t:  Hugh Jackman in his big coat, his silly automatic crossbow blazing at the evil flying Eastern Europeans.  It is a rather basic demonstration of what most of the Hollywood Majors are doing with their prior film properties these days:  update, make redundant and franchise!  See Clash of the Titans, Tron, and The Karate Kid…

Archive of Gazes (dir. Rüdiger Neumann, 1984)

Hanover, 1984.  A cameraman sets up his camera in assorted locations and simply observes action unfold for a second or two, then cuts to the next observation.  Repeat.  Cars pass.  Boats trundle along.  People go about their business.  Birds chirp.  This is the filmic equivalent of a palette cleanser, allowing one to see the world anew through a kind of apolitical gaze.  The film screening was accompanied by a panel discussion with Heinz Emigholz and other prominent disciples of director Neumann who, indeed, held an anti-ideological position the entire time he was in the faculty at the Akademie der Künste Hamburg.

The Golden City (dir. Veit Harlan, 1942)

Gold-standard Nazi melodrama, saturated in AgfaColor (made by the folks at IG Farben who brought the world the Zyklon-B gas used in the Shoah) and mired in a maddening mythos of “Heimat” for Aryans.  A naive young farm girl is seduced to the “golden city” of Prague, only to become pregnant out of wedlock.  Rejected by her stubborn patriarchal father upon her return, she commits suicide in the same moor which drowned her mother.  Eastern Europeans have never looked so placatively sinister.  Kristina Söderbaum embodies all the psychotic expectations placed on women under Nazi Germany, as well as the tension between a state that ultimately hated simple farmers and the very simple farmers who voted the Nazi party into power in the first place.

Tschetan the Indian Boy (dir. Hark Bohm, 1972)

A rarely seen children’s film from the Filmverlag der Autoren, one of the cornerstones of the New German Cinema.  A mix of German frontier nostalgia and liberal humanist fantasies, the film tells a tale set in the American West ca. 1880 of a Lakota boy “saved” from death by a wandering shepherd who gradually sees the boy as his cultural equal.  One could see this as the West German precursor to East German “Native American encounter” films such as Blauvogel (1979) or Atkins (1985) without the political teeth of either.  After all, the shepherd ends up leaving his flock (and his means of income) behind, joining three Lakota in a voyage off to Lakota.  In debunking frontier myths, Tschetan has to create a new frontier, so that all hope isn’t lost.

Yes, I Am Busy

December 6, 2009

Reality

I figured a blog after a month was sufficient suspense for the world.  Summarized below are some of my experiences, assembled from the hazy recesses of my memory.

November 9, 2009: The 20th anniversary of socialism’s unexpected collapse saw Kat and I standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the rainy cold from about 5:30 p.m. until about 9:30 p.m., during which time most of what we could see was umbrellas.  Much of the crowd consisted of slightly drunk tourists. The orchestra played a handful of depressing modernist tunes and then the Berliner Luft song, which some people really liked. Then all the world leaders got up and gave trite speeches that amounted to more-or-less the same thing. Lech Walesa got up and struck down part of the “domino wall” they built, but got injured a split second later.  By that point, Kat was wet and freezing, so we tried to go home – to no avail! They had blocked off our subway exit, and they had barricades on every street.  Freedom without walls, my behind!  So we carefully wound our way to Friedrichstrasse to take the S-Bahn home.  The next day, I asked the Berliners at my school what their evening was like: they stayed at home and watched the events on television.

Far less mediocre was the retreat for the HFF Potsdam-Babelsberg retreat to Eberswalde.  The purpose of the retreat was ostensibly to party hard and plan sehsüchte, our student film festival in Potsdam-Babelsberg and the largest of its kind in Europe.  Needless to say, I think we did more of the former than the latter, which gave me a serious headache complex on Saturday.  Despite the aching pains from between my ears, I managed to see the absolutely stunning Brandenburg countryside, which reminded of me of Adventures of Werner Holt or I Was 19 (always DEFA films with me).

The following Friday, our sehsüchte team met at the Kino Arsenal for four hours with, oh, none other than the top figures of the Berlinale.  This seems like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of opportunity for me, so I feel like a thorough description is in order.  We first spoke with Dieter Kosslick, director of the entire festival, about financing the Berlinale via the KVB (Kulturveranstaltung des Bundes Berlin) and how one must maintain financial control to survive as an institution.  He then described the Berlinale under Moritz de Hadeln (1980-2001) as organized like a “Stalinist hierarchy” (ouch!) and bid that we spread responsibility for our festival evenly amongst ourselves.  Some fun facts about the Berlinale I learned:  from about 5,700 films submitted, only 350 are accepted for the festival (and the submission fee is non-refundable, naturally); no films between 30 and 60 minutes in length are eligible; there are over 800 official festival guests, but 21,000 accreditations given out … including those for over 4,000 journalists; the Berlinale will be converting to a full HD festival, meaning everything will be projected within 3-4 years as JPEG2000.  Then we spoke with Thomas Hailer (Program Manager), Karin Hoffinger (Program/International Relations), André Stever (Film Materials), Maryanne Redpath (Generation – kids program), Christina Szápáry (Event Management), Susanne Willadt (Accreditation) and Frauke Greiner (Press), all one after the other and regarding what their job looks like, etc.  The chief concern that they seem to have in dealing with the Hollywood majors – but also independents – these days is with piracy, namely that the festival screening copy doesn’t fall onto the Internet somehow.  These days, they have orange, satellite-controlled hard-drives that control when movies can be projected from the data held within.  Crazy stuff.

From the Berlinale meeting, I ran over to Kino Babylon on Rosa Luxembourg Platz to attend the DEFA-Stiftung Award Ceremony as the representative of the DEFA Film Library.  There, I saw everybody from the Who’s Who of GDR cinema there – Erika Richter, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Andreas Voigt, Ralf Schenk – the list just keeps going.  The awards ceremony itself was rather dry – though the great German-language film journal Revolver deservedly won an award – but included a never-before-seen hilarious short about robbers breaking into a symphony orchestra house using the timing of the music being played in the hall itself.  Afterward, I got a chance to have a long conversation with Stefan Kolditz about his father Gottfried, and other topics, and then hit an excellent Vietnamese restaurant down the street with Kat.

On Saturday morning (11/21), we had brunch in Prenzlauer Berg with screenplay author Katharina Reschke and her partner Oliver Schuette, both of whom taught at Grinnell College for a stint.  The weather was so nice that the whole population of Prenzlauer Berg seemed to be outside to enjoy the sun.  Then we followed the brunch with preparations for a dinner with Luisa Greenfield and Ming Tsao, which was both tasty and highly polemic.

The following Tuesday was the release party of HFF teaching assistant Tobias Ebbrecht’s book DDR erinnern – vergessen.  Okay, so it wasn’t so much a party as it was a roundtable discussion between Tobias, Ralf Forster, Peter Badel and Helke Misselwitz about making documentaries in the GDR.  I think the takeaway points were that they missed the kind of cohesive teamwork one found in film production under socialism, and that whatever anyone says about their work, they made films and those films are well-archived for future generations.

That Wednesday night, Moderat (Modeselektor + Apparat + Pfadfinderei) were throwing their last concert ever in the Astra Kulturhaus in Berlin … and I had to go!  I managed to get my ticket at a discount thanks to some generous scalpers, and then joined the 2,000+ throng of excited Berliners willing to sweat their way through the evening.  What a concert too – they played three encores, even though they’d run out of material!

On Saturday, the Medienwissenschaft students and I were charged with the interesting task of standing by the 3D cinema in the Zoo Palast and ask the incoming patrons why they chose to pay more for the 3D version of A Christmas Carol than simply see the 2D version.  Confronting random Germans with a questionnaire as a foreigner was certainly awkward, but somehow enjoyable.

For Thanksgiving, Kat and I actually decided to take the night off from cooking (which we do with great frequency) and went to the Ypsilon, a Greek restaurant around the corner.  We had fried cheese and mussels to our heart’s content, and it was a lovely time overall.  On Black Friday, we headed to Ming and Luisa’s for a film night – Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo (1980) and Jean-Luc Godard’s France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977) – about children.  It seemed appropriate to depart said film screening and head to the 80s Night/Terror wave Party held near Jannowitz Brücke.  Awesome music (Soft Cell, New Order and all those folks) swept us away, though we were rather impressed by the fact that Germans tend to dance as if they were in their own isolated bubble/little world… as opposed to the American “bump n’ grind” style that plagues us all.

To counteract the Goth and Terror of the previous evening, we attended the Thanksgiving at the American Church in Berlin.  Even if given the opportunity to do it again, I wouldn’t.  The event was logistically poorly organized (over 1.5 hours waited to get our food… and they ran out of many things), expensive and not at all filled with English-speakers, as it turned out.  The weekend was much improved by a visit to the Jewish Museum the following day:  the exhibits were extensively researched and completely fascinating in every way.  One might say that the architecture of the building itself speaks volumes.

I saw Volker Koepp, another DEFA documentarist, at a Humboldt University talk.  Students tried to tell him his films were obscure and needed to be better advertised, to which he responded that he was both a prolific and internationally recognized filmmaker.  It made all the work on his and others’ behalf at the DEFA Film Library seem worth it right there and then.

One side effect of the awful Thanksgiving was that it alerted us to a FREE opportunity to see the inside of the Berliner Dom:  an English/German Christmas service, complete with singing.  The Berliner Dom is certainly a monument to Protestantism if I’d ever seen one, with statues of Protestant resisters such as Luther looking patriarchally down upon the parishioners.

My first visit to the Filmmuseum Potsdam Sammlungen department yielded a wealth of information on Gottfried Kolditz – so much that I had to make another trip there the following week.  Creepily enough, I think I read his last diary entry before he died, and he died a few months before I was born. Hm?

The Berliner Staatsoper became an agenda item, so we found ourselves watching a thoroughly modern performance of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus from the 4th row after paying very little.  I was glad for this fact, because I felt like the modern staging screwed with the fantasy elements inherent in the masquerade ball, though I liked (as always) the jail guard Frosch in the third Act, especially as a former GDR flunkie.

That Friday night saw Kat and I attending the weekly shindig held at the Another Country bookstore in Kreuzberg, an English-language bookstore known by every English-speaking expatriate in the city.  We spent an embarrassingly long time glued to the projector screen, watching the second season of The Restaurant, a “coaching” genre reality show from the UK where Raymond Blanc and other judges evaluate pairs of amateur restauranteurs making a go of it.  Beautifully shot and definitely intended for foodies, there were enough characters to sustain long-term interest.

And this week it rained a lot, we held a baking party on Thursday, and Kat and I ordered our tickets to go to Prague for Christmas.

Summary finished, folks.  Was it digestible?  Can I be “digested?”  Yum!

Fantasy

Let me preface this by saying I’ve seen far more movies than this over the past month, but too many titles are swirling around in my head to thoroughly document it in this forum.  THIS is a small selection of some notables:

Dreams that Money Can Buy (dir. Hans Richter, USA 1948)

Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Ferdinand Léger, Hans Richter … the great modernists of the early 20th Century went ahead and made a film.  A work of surrealism that keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, Dreams that Money Can Buy is about a guy who can sell people dreams out of this dark apartment.  Hilarity and trippy sequences ensue.

Red Cliff (dir. John Woo, China 2009)

The best film of the year, hands-down.  A condensed 138 minute version of the four-hour epic based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms literature, Red Cliff is (despite any cuts) John Woo’s finest cinematic achievement.  Ask me more and I’ll tell you.