The Sting

I have twice before used this blog to foray into the strange world of film reviewing; something that I enjoy, given that I enjoy cinema, but am usually unable to make a stable source of material since I don’t generally have the time (or, given a lot of the films that get released in my local cinema, inclination) to see too many of them. My first foray was a rather rambling (and decidedly rubbish) examination of The Hunger Games, with a couple of nods to the general awesomeness of The Shawshank Redemption, whilst I felt compelled to write my second just to articulate my frustration after seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Today, I wish to return to the magical fairy kingdom of the big screen, this time concerning something that I would ordinarily have never seen at all; 70s crime flick ‘The Sting’

The Sting is quite clearly a film from another era of filmmaking; I am not old enough to remember the times when a stock ‘thump’ sound byte was inserted into the footage every time an object is put onto a table, but this film contains such cinematic anachronisms in spades. Similarly, this is the first film I have ever seen starring Robert Redford and my first from director George Roy Hill, but age should be no barrier to quality entertainment if it’s there to shine through and thankfully it’s basic plot and premise lend it to a graceful aging process.

The plot can be fairly summarily described as uncomplicated; a young confidence trickster who ends up accidentally making a small fortune from a fairly routine con is pursued by the mob boss whose money he has now lost, so teams up with an experienced ‘old head’ to bring him down. So Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations. Where the two differ, however, is in their dedication to their subject material; whilst the Ocean’s films are generally content to follow some rather formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting, placing their emphasis heavily on interpersonal relationships and love interests, The Sting goes out of its way to be a true crime story to its very core. Set in the golden age of organised crime (1930s prohibition-era Illinois, real-life home of Al Capone) with a memorable ragtime soundtrack to match, every stage (illustrated explicitly through the use of old-fashioned title cards) of the film’s overarching ‘big con’ plot takes the form of a classic confidence trick, from an old-fashioned money switch to a large-scale rigged betting house, incorporating along the way possibly the finest played (and cheated) game of poker ever to appear on screen. Every feature, facet and subplot from the cheated cop to the seemingly out-of-place love interest all has its place in the big con, and there was nothing there that didn’t have a very good reason to be. Not only did this create a rollercoaster of a focused, central plot without unnecessary distractions, but the authenticity of the tricks, characters and terminology used built a believable, compelling world to immerse oneself in and enjoy. Combine that with a truly stellar portrayal of the seen-it-all genius conman Henry Gondorff by Paul Newman, and Robert Redford’s evident gift for building a very real, believable character in the form of naive youngster Johnny Hooker, and we have the makings of an incredibly immersive story that you often have to remind yourself isn’t actually real.

However, by putting such focus on its central con, The Sting puts itself under an awful lot of pressure, for without any extraneous components (hell, there aren’t even any proper action scenes, despite the not infrequent bouts of gunfire) it has got nowhere to fall if its central plot fails. Thus, the success of the film very much rests on the success of the con it centres around, not just in terms of execution itself but in making its execution fit its style. The Sting is not about coming up with something on the fly, about something unexpected coming up and winning through on the day- it is an homage to planning, to the skill of the con, of hooking in the mark and making them think they’ve won, before turning the ace in the hole. To turn successful planning, what was intended to happen happening, into compelling drama is a task indeed for a filmmaker.

And yet, despite all the odds, The Sting pulls it off, thanks to the extraordinary depth director Hill packs into his seemingly simplistic plot. Each subplot put into play is like adding another dot to the puzzle, and it is left to the viewer to try and join them all to formulate the finished picture- or alternatively watch to see the film do so all with staggering aplomb. Every element is laid out on the table, everyone can see the cards, and it’s simply a matter of the film being far smarter than you are in revealing how it pulls its trick, just like a conman and his mark. You, the viewer, have been stung just as much as Robert Shaw’s mob boss of a mark, except that you can walk out of the room with your wallet full and a smile on your face.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have problems. Whilst the basic premise is simple and well-executed enough to be bulletproof, its ‘setup’ phase (as the title cards called it) spends an awful lot of time on world-, scenario- and character-building, filling the early parts of the film with enough exposition to make me feel decidedly lukewarm about it- it’s all necessary to remove plot holes and to build the wonderful air of depth and authenticity, but something about its execution strikes me as clunky. It also suffers Inception’s problem of being potentially confusing to anyone not keeping a very close track of what’s going on, and one or two of the minor characters suffer from having enough of a role to be significant but not enough characterisation to seem especially real. That said, this film won seven Oscars for a reason, and regardless of how slow it may seem to begin with, it’s definitely worth sticking it out to the end. I can promise you it will be worth it.

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In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…

I read a lot; I have done since I was a kid. Brian Jacques, JK Rowling, Caroline Lawrence and dozens of other authors’ work sped through my young mind, throwing off ideas, philosophies, and any other random stuff I found interesting in all directions. However, as any committed reader will tell you, after a while flicking through any genre all the ‘low hanging fruit’, the good books everyone’s heard of, will soon be absorbed, and it is often quite a task to find reliable sources of good reading material. It was for partly this reason that I, some years ago, turned to the fantasy genre because, like it or loathe it, it is impossible to deny the sheer volume of stuff, and good stuff too, that is there. Mountains of books have been written for it, many of which are truly huge (I refer to volumes 11 and 12 of Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’, which I have yet to pluck up the courage to actually read, if anyone doubts this fact), and the presence of so many different subgenres (who can compare George RR Martin, creator of A Game of Thrones, with Terry Pratchett, of Discworld fame) and different ideas gives it a nice level of innovation within a relatively safe, predictable sphere of existence.

This sheer volume of work does create one or two issues, most notably the fact that it can be often hard to consult with other fans about ‘epic sagas’ you picked up in the library that they may never have even heard of (hands up how many of you have heard of Raymond E Feist, who really got me started in this genre)- there’s just so much stuff, and not much of it can be said to be standard reading material for fantasy fans. However, there is one point of consistency, one author everyone’s read, and who can always be used as a reliable, if high, benchmark. I speak, of course, of the work of JRR Tolkein.

As has been well documented, John Ronald Reuel Tolkein was not an author by trade or any especial inclination; he was an academic, a professor of first Anglo-Saxon and later English Language & Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford, for 34 years no less. He first rose to real academic prominence in 1936, when he gave (and later published) a seminal lecture entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving works of English literature, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem from around the 8th century AD detailing the adventures of a warrior/king named Beowulf, and Tolkein’s lecture defined many contemporary thoughts about it as a work of literature.

However, there was something about Beowulf that was desperately sad to Tolkein; it was just about the only surviving piece of Old English mythology, and certainly the only one with any degree of public knowledge. Tolkein was a keen student of Germanic mythology and that of other nations, and it always pained him that his home nation had no such traditional mythology to be called upon, all the Saxon stories having been effectively wiped out with the coming of the Normans in 1066. Even our most famous ‘myths’, those of King Arthur, came from a couple of mentions in 8th century texts, and were only formalised by Normans- Sir Thomas Malory didn’t write Le Morte d’Arthur, the first full set of the Arthurian legends, until 1485, and there is plenty of evidence that he made most of it up. It never struck Tolkein as being how a myth should be; ancient, passed down father to son over innumerable generations until it became so ingrained as to be considered true. Tolkein’s response to what he saw as a lamentable gap in our heritage was decidedly pragmatic- he began building his own mythological world.

Since he was a linguistic scholar, Tolkein began by working with what he new; languages. His primary efforts were concerned with elvish, which he invented his own alphabet and grammar for and eventually developed into as deep and fully-fleshed a tongue as you could imagine. He then began experimenting with writing mythology based around the language- building a world of the Dark Ages and before that was as special, fantastical and magical as a story should be to become a fully-fledged myth (you will notice that at the start of The Lord Of The Rings, Tolkein refers to how we don’t see much of hobbits any more, implying that his world was set in the past rather than the alternate universe).

His first work in this field was the Quenta Silmarillion, a title that translates (from elvish) as “the Tale of the Silmarils”. It is a collection of stories and legends supposedly originating from the First Age of his world, although compiled by an Englishman during the Dark Ages from tales edited during the Fourth Age, after the passing of the elves. Tolkein started this work multiple times without ever finishing, and it wasn’t until long after his death that his son published The Silmarillion as a finished article.

However, Tolkein also had a family with young children, and took delight in writing stories for them. Every Christmas (he was, incidentally, a devout Catholic) he wrote letters to them from Father Christmas that took the form of short stories (again, not published until after his death), and wrote numerous other tales for them. A few of these, such as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, either drew inspiration from or became part of his world (or ‘legendarium’, as it is also known), but he never expected any of them to become popular. And they weren’t- until he, bored out of his mind marking exam papers one day in around 1930, found a blank back page and began writing another, longer story for them, beginning with the immortal lines: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

This work, what would later become The Hobbit (or There and Back Again), was set in the Third Age of his legendarium and is soon to be made into a  series of three films (don’t ask me how that works, given that it’s shorter than each one of the books making up The Lord Of The Rings that each got a film to themselves, but whatever). Like his other stories, he never intended it to be much more than a diverting adventure for his children, and for 4 years after its completion in 1932 it was just that. However, Tolkein was a generous soul who would frequently lend his stories to friends, and one of those, a student named Elaine Griffiths, showed it to another friend called Susan Dagnall. Dagnall worked at the publishing company Allen & Unwin, and she was so impressed upon reading it that she showed it to Stanley Unwin. Unwin lent the book to his son Rayner to review (this was his way of earning pocket money), who described it as ‘suitable for children between the ages of 6 and 12’ (kids were clearly a lot more formal and eloquent where he grew up). Unwin published the book, and everyone loved it. It recieved many glowing reviews in an almost universally positive critical reception, and one of the first reviews came from Tolkein’s friend CS Lewis in The Times, who wrote:

The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology… The professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity that is worth oceans of glib “originality.”

In many ways, that quote describes all that was great about Tolkein’s writing; an almost childish, gleeful imagination combined with the brute seriousness of his academic work, that made it feel like a very, very real fantasy world. However, this was most definitely not the end of JRR Tolkein, and since I am rapidly going over length, the rest of the story will have to wait until next time…

The Hunger Redemption

Today, I wish to take a look at the subject of films. I do not make any claims to be a film buff or any expert on such things, but I go to see my fair share and like to think I know the basic principles and terminology.

Normally though, I still wouldn’t bring the topic up, but a couple of events over the last couple of days almost wrote a post for me. The first of these was a showing of The Shawshank Redemption on the TV the other day, which changed my opinion of the film from the mere Excellent ranking it had slipped to since last time I saw to up to the far more deserving Superlatively Awesome position. The other occurred earlier today, when I went to see The Hunger Games, and I saw an interesting opportunity to compare the two.

At first glance, this might seem quite an odd choice of comparison- the two films are from completely different eras of film making and have some wildly different fundamentals, but when one thinks about it they are actually remarkably similar in several aspects. Both are exactly the same length, both are adapted from highly successful books, both manage to cram a lot of film into their (admittedly still quite long) running times, and both contain a central theme of the man (or in the newer film’s case, woman) versus the system, to name but a few. The most important similarity though, is the films’ aims- neither are action showstoppers or visual spectaculars, trying to wow the audience with a show- these films are trying to appeal more on the basis of what they say and mean instead.

However, one crucial difference strikes me- my reaction to the film. Shawshank is a very emotive film for me, and it is impossible to watch it and not leave with a deep sense of the profound and the epic- the film just feels like it’s really, really good, as well as being so. The Hunger Games, on the other hand? Well, it’s certainly not bad, and is certainly above average, but something strikes me as… missing. There is nothing to elevate this film from the mundane and merely ‘good’, to the unique and exceptional- it lacks a certain spark imbued to truly great films.

But why exactly is that? What is it about the execution of The Hunger Games that makes me respond so comparatively poorly to it?

A first thing that strikes me is a lack of depth in the film’s plot. I have said already that a lot of stuff happens in the film, and I can see why they’ve done it- to drop sections would annoy fans of the book and spark web-based outrage for critics to giggle at. But then again, Harry Potter did much the same thing in pretty much every film (because how the hell do you pack 800 pages into a couple of hours screen time?) and, with hindsight, the film benefited from it. For all I know, not having read the books, Gary Ross (director & screenwriter) already did plenty of cutting but… a bit more probably wouldn’t have hurt, to be honest. So much ends up happening that is not a natural progression from another moment that it severely eats into the film’s running time without really adding anything major to it, and prevents anything from gathering any emotive weight to make it seem meaningful.

Speaking of lack of natural progression, that’s another thing- the film has a lot of thematic inconsistency that makes some sections sit very uncomfortably with others. The raw, rough nature of the District 12 opening scenes, for example, does not contrast as effectively as it should with the opulence of the Capitol and the accompanying stupid fashion sense. There is prime opportunity here to contrast the decadence and the poverty of the two and to create some real emotional hit to carry the film along with, but it never really comes. Katniss (the main character, whose name I cannot write without giggling inside) just seems to sit too comfortably with all the pomp and ceremony, which for a character who is meant to be fighting the system and even inspires a f*&%^$g rebellion, just seems odd- and yes, I know she has to make herself popular to attract sponsors, but it’s not beyond the wit of a filmmaker to at least demonstrate some emotional response to the whole business, is it? The irony is that the acting in the film is actually very good and emotive- but the screenplay and directing simply don’t allow it to come to the fore.

This lack of consistency is not only a plot-driven thing- there is a lot of it in the cinematography too. The film switches between ‘Hollywood-style’ backed off shots and more gritty, up close and personal moments- which I would applaud if this switching all happened when it apparently should. As it is… well, take a fight scene near the end. These scenes generally attempt to have on consistent camera aesthetic to get a consistent feel and allow the audience to absorb themselves in the action, rather than doing what Ross has chosen to do on this occasion and constantly switch between confusing, rolling shots between three people in black jumpsuits on a black background so you have no idea who anyone is, to sudden wide shots which tell you roughly who everyone is without giving you any real sense of immersion before throwing you back into the realm of confusion.

If I wanted to, I could go on nit-picking all day, which I don’t really means to since it demeans what is still a very good film. But my real point is that my perpetual feeling whilst watching The Hunger Games is one of a loss of direction, of there being something missing. There are lots of great elements, great camera shots, and great themes in there, but they all just appeared to have been thrown in haphazardly and mixed together without any real aim or direction. There is no real sense that this film has one consistent message, one standout theme, or one clear idea that it builds itself upon, and this just makes it feel… unsatisfying.

…And now to actually justify this as a contrast, I once again give you: The Shawshank Redemption– the epitome of a driven message ramming itself home. To understand what makes Shawshank great, only one simple fact needs to be noted- every single moment in this film is just one part of the emotional rollercoaster of up ‘n’ down of Andy DuFresne’s life. This is a film purely about one man’s life being  dragged through the shitheap, and his sheer determination and balls to pull himself out of it. It is a series of slow buildups and damning falls, of hopes being built and broken, and of the man finally coming good. Every risen hope dashed invests the heart of the viewer in DuFresne, and he becomes our collective avatar. We feel his joy when a chance of freedom or hope arises, and share his pain when it is dashed against the rock- which makes the film’s perfectly paced and beautiful finale something truly special, and something which the entire audience can enjoy and experience. Because we never get that kind of emotional investment in our characters, we are never in a position to enjoy it in the same way as The Hunger Games.

Do not take from this by any means that Games is a bad film, because it’s not, and I don’t mean to slam it so hard. I just think it’s a shame that would could have been a brilliant film has had to be compromised in such a way.

Gaming Concluded

And so I return, wiping off my smirk and trying not to laugh at anything that sounds French, back into the foray of my regular blogging experience, in an effort to conclude the topic on gaming. So far I have considered the two main complaints that non-gaming people tend to have with gamers and games themselves- today I want to get more into the guts of exactly why gaming, over so many other things, appears to be a target for particular dislike from large sections of the mainstream.

In case anyone reading is in any doubt that games ARE as much of a target as I am painting them to be, I refer you to a situation a while ago in which the American Supreme Court agreed to hear a proposed Californian state law restricting the sale of games to minors, especially ‘violent content’ Please bear in mind that these laws pop up all over the US from time to time and are always shot down for violating the First Amendment- but in this case the Supreme Court, the ultimate last line of appeal, the highest court in the most powerful nation on earth, was willing to give voice to an argument claiming, based on claims made from rather spurious studies that ‘games harm U18’s’, that games do not offer sufficient value to the world as a whole to warrant First Amendment protection. Anyone could see the law was unconstitutional- but the political voice was loud enough to get the Supreme Court to have a listen. Can anyone imagine them hearing a case proposing the restriction of film content in this way? Or TV? Or music. Of course not- but games? Whole other kettle of fish apparently.

(I could spend all day shooting this law down, but since I only know about this from an Extra Credits episode and they are going to do a far better job of it than me, I suggest you hit PATV and watch their take on it: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/free-speech)

So yeah- people and politicians don’t like games, but why? What is it that what’s basically giving a film a joystick and controls suddenly turns that film into something that everyone thinks just doesn’t matter? The reasons are, as with all such widespread emotions, many and varied, and I have certainly not thought of all of them, but here are just 3 that especially spring to mind:

1) The Social Gap

It’s no secret that gamers are a fairly predictable group of people in terms of who they are- young, often middle-class, men aged between 14 and 28 ish probably comprise at least 70% of the game-playing population (my own guesstimate, so shoot me down if you know any better figures). But, for starters, half the world’s population are female and the majority are outside the ‘game-playing’ age bracket- especially in the western world where advances in living conditions and healthcare have meant that seemingly everyone is middle-aged. Thus, gamers are something of a group unto themselves- in my social circle, for instance, just about everyone will be a gamer to some extent, but in, say, my mum’s, none of them would know the difference between Final Fantasy and Battlefield. So games become less of an all-encompassing medium, and more of a seemingly ‘niche’ product that just doesn’t seem very important to large sects of the population- particularly the small rich, white, middle aged, upper middle-class sect that dominates the western political and (to a large extent) cultural landscape. This is compounded by the fact that, unlike TV or film which have been around for years, gaming in its current, industry level, world-dominating form is really a creation of the last 15-20 years or so, so there has been little generational ‘trickle-down’- ie the more elderly sects of society will NEVER have played a game, much less grown out of them, so are even less inclined to be sympathetic towards them.

 

2) Internet Connections

As I’ve just said, modern gaming is really an invention that began gathering speed around the mid-to-late 90’s- almost exactly the same time that the internet was first invented. As such, with gaming and the web growing up to becoming the fully-fledged entities they are now almost in parallel, they have since developed a close bond. For example, a lot of internet memes, such as the whole ‘arrow to the knee’ thing, are gaming-based, and while gaming may only be relegated to a small back page every fortnight in the paper, online it has entire sites and communities dedicated to it in a way even films can’t match on the web. Unfortunately, this internet link, and especially the tie-ins the web also has to the same middle-class young men group who make up the core gaming stereotype means that a lot of the ‘bad boy’ parts of the internet that disgust big corporations and governments seem to have an inherent link to gaming- and thus gaming gets tarred with the same ‘we don’t like you’ brush. Not only that, it also gets landed with all the active dislikes people have of those sectors of the web- its juvenile and rather crude sense of humour, the potential for hacking dangers, and the generalised sexism and borderline-offensive ‘banter’. It is this, in part, which turns mere indifference to the gaming population into genuine dislike and mistrust of the medium.

 

3) Content & Style

The very nature of gaming and gameplay itself demands an action-driven plot & content style- even in the more cinematic or narrative games, what keeps the plot ticking over is you as the player actively doin’ stuff. If we make a quick comparison to films for a minute, this does happen in the film industry- action flicks for example often go for plots almost entirely driven by the protagonist’s actions over the course of the film. However, this is not the only way for a film to go- different genres, be they romances, ‘arthouse’ films, even horror movies, can push the film forward via other means, such as dialogue or even acting expression. This variety is one of the reason films are so accessible- there is something for every taste. However, the action-driven nature of games inherently limits the variety of experience delivery they can offer, which isolates large sects of the non-game playing public from giving them a chance. Basically, to a non-gamer, all games would, if they were films, have Jason Statham in the lead. Now, people not naturally inclined towards that sort of thing don’t find it so much of a problem with films because there is still space for the sort of delivery they prefer- but the image of gaming as ALL being like this makes it all seem a bit juvenile and not worth all the bother. This is a problem unfortunately compounded by the fact that the popularity of games like Call of Duty, where action is so central it seems to hide all else. This makes it seem like all modern games are about KILLING EVERYBODY- not the image that best portrays the emotion and general awesomeness that really good games can inspire. Thus, once again, an image of a medium that’s ‘just not for me’, is turned into one that is juvenile, grotesque, occasionally obscene and thus not worth the same merits as other forms of media.

This list is far from exhaustive but to me it covers the main points as I see it that make gaming a seemingly exclusive and disliked medium. What can be done about it? Well, a little just being more grown up about stuff and sharing quality gaming experiences with the rest of the world wouldn’t go amiss, as would not taking the piss constantly out of the Nintendo Wii- while it may not be a serious gaming platform, it has done more for gaming’s image than the PlayStation 50 ever could. As for any less ‘woolly’ ways out… well, do you want me to make this a four parter, cos I don’t?