Monday, January 26, 2015

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)


When I first heard the concept of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood described to me—chart a boy character’s coming of age through scenes shot across a twelve-year period using the same child actor—I was certainly curious about the process and intrigued at the audacity to take on such an impractical project. On the other hand, being apathetic toward coming-of-age boy stories, I was not so interested as to go out of my way to see Boyhood. At the Golden Globes this year, however, the film took home several awards, and that was when it really got my attention.

When Patricia Arquette got up to accept the first of Boyhood’s three Golden Globes (for “Best Supporting Actress”), I recognized her as “the lady from that Medium show.” I never watched Medium (2005-2011), but I understood it to be a typically uninspired Middle America-courting junk procedural. And so I was surprised to see Arquette even nominated for a major film award. I thought, she must have really turned things around, if she was now being honored as a legitimate film actress (notwithstanding that her work on Medium had earned her several Golden Globe nominations over the years in the TV category). Then I recalled the story behind Boyhood, and I quickly turned to the Internet to research the answer to a question that had struck me right then.

Sure enough, Patricia Arquette had already begun filming Boyhood a few years before she was cast in Medium, and she was still working on Boyhood a few years after Medium ended its run. That realization kind of blew my mind. The film’s production actually spanned three stages of Arquette’s career, from pulp B-lister to small-screen A-lister to post-prime Law & Order: SVU guest star (as a working girl, not a defense attorney, for what that’s worth). Now she has a Golden Globe and is the safe money to win the Oscar as well. The accolades earned through Boyhood may well elevate her career to a new stage, and yet an Oscar for Boyhood would not signify her late arrival, so much as it would affirm that she had been an award-caliber actress over the entire chunk of her career that her performance in the movie encompassed.

Boyhood is remarkable to watch for this way that it manages to put twelve years in perspective. The long, hard struggle that Arquette’s character goes through is given weight, not just by her acting, but by the real aging that the actress visibly undergoes over the course of the film—a dimension that no conventionally made movie could ever match. But even that dimension does not add so much to the experience as does the knowledge, external to the film, of how much of Patricia Arquette’s life is in this movie. I was awestruck as I watched Boyhood with the realization that the actress, like her character, was definitely not in the same place by the end of filming as she was at the outset. In nearly a literal sense, I was witnessing the performance of a lifetime. It certainly gave me pause and encouraged me to reflect and consider the passage of time in a different way than I normally process it.

When I was first told about Boyhood, it didn’t actually strike me that twelve years was such a long time. I operate with a warped sense of time, I now realize, which I mostly measure in terms of “distance to the next Avengers movie.” In 2008, when Iron Man first teased Avengers with a Nick Fury cameo, the latter movie was still four years off. But 2012 arrived in what felt like no time at all. I’m sure Avengers: Infinity War, Part 1, scheduled for 2018 (i.e. four years from now), will arrive just as quickly. So, twelve years, I figured, is just three of those—not such a big deal. It is only when I see twelve years presented as through Boyhood—flashing by from one defining moment to the next—that it really hits me.

A nice touch is the use of real cultural touchstones to frame scenes. Characters line up to catch the release of the latest Harry Potter book, for example, and they also speculate on where future Star Wars films can go post-Revenge of the Sith. Amusingly, both the characters and director Linklater evidently never anticipated the shock announcement, with two years to go before Boyhood’s release, that there would be a Star Wars sequel trilogy. (And I’d like to point out that that was incredibly naive on their part, considering that a new Star Wars movie, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, actually came out in the very year (2008) of that Boyhood scene, and, moreover, the scene was reportedly inspired by the boy actor’s experience playing the aggressively-marketed-as-“canon” Star Wars: The Force Unleashed video game (also from 2008), which indicated how increasingly open George Lucas was to high-profile direct sequels/prequels to his works by other creators, of which there were a never-ending number lining up with dreams of taking the reins. But I digress.) For those of us alive during the years covered, these elements add yet another layer to the experience of the passage of time, prompting us to revisit and reflect upon those years in our own lives. (Me, I remember, in 2008, I was having those exact conversations about Star Wars. Of course, I also had those conversations last week… and today. Ugh. Guess I know where the years went.)

For me, the most amazing moment in the entire movie was the baseball game that the boy and his father attended in 2006. Linklater and crew shot live game footage for this moment (although they actually collected footage from two separate Houston Astros games and spliced it together). A serendipitous home run makes for the perfect cinematic shot and the perfect father-son bonding moment, and the scene is several times more striking when you realize that the hit was real and not scripted. But the most real part is the father’s praise of Houston Astros pitcher Roger Clemens as an unhittable wizard. Clemens was absolutely a legend in his own time, but that time came to an abrupt and disgraceful halt once he was exposed as a cheat. Since around 2007, just a year after that scene in Boyhood, Clemens has been one of the most hated men in baseball. It’s hard to remember a time now when anybody had anything but venom for Clemens, but the naive sincerity of this scene in Boyhood innocently reminds us that we did indeed once feel quite differently. It struck me because I did not find myself laughing at these characters for being such fools, but rather I felt a little ashamed to remember that I was just as foolish. Mostly, it goes to show how swiftly and dramatically life can turn.

Other elements, notably the political talk (Boyhood spans both George W. Bush U.S. presidential terms and both Barack Obama terms), feel like a long time ago AND just yesterday. Hearing the father in the movie get all passionate with anti-Bush and later pro-Obama rhetoric, I again felt a bit of embarrassment at the foolishness on display—foolishness because, now that we can look back on those twelve years in hindsight, there is nothing so much to be gotten but the sense of one single era that never truly ended, or one that never truly began. The passion and the optimism, however—those surely do feel long gone.

So the political argument is actually still ongoing, as is the featured Star Wars discussion, while the Roger Clemens moment only somewhat accidentally ended up dating that scene. Ironically, the more deliberate “time capsule” moments in Boyhood are among the least effective. Linklater has the characters playing on different video game consoles and remarking on how ultimate the immediate technology is. It doesn’t take a lot of prescience on Linklater’s part to predict that those words will be proven very foolish by the next technological leap. He’s basically trying to manufacture the effect that the film accidentally achieved with the speculative “there can’t be any more Star Wars” moment. But the way he handles it here feels forced, inauthentic, and overly cute.

There’s also the matter of the soundtrack to Boyhood. The songs featured in the film are not always taken from the year of the scene in which they appear. But it is interesting when, for example, 2011’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” kicks in. This is one of the most recent songs featured in the film, yet already, just a few years later, it is not on anybody’s rotation anymore, and most people no longer even know or care who Gotye is. Even so, the song is instantly recognizable, on account of how ubiquitous it was for that good year or so on the radio. To hear it now inspires an ambivalent mix of derisive "haha, remember when we used to know who sang this song?" along with a compulsion to sing along with that voice in your head. I suppose, as a commentary on the transient trendiness of pop music, it works, in a similar way as the Roger Clemens moment captures our embarrassing history, although I don’t know if this was Linklater’s intention.

The Beatles also feature prominently in Boyhood, and this is an element that now, in a post-1960’s context, practically exists outside of time. Indeed, as the film progresses, the later years have fewer date-specific real-world elements and take on more of a timeless quality. There is a legitimate reason for this—like a lot of youths, the boy grows a distaste for his own generation's culture as he enters his teen years—but I personally find it disappointing, because the movie consequently feels more generic as it goes on.

If you return to the foreground high concept of Boyhood, the grand technical achievement is the dramatized documentation of a real boy really growing up before audiences’ eyes. Six-year-old Mason, twelve-year-old Mason, and eighteen-year-old Mason are all played by the same actor, Ellar Coltrane, as are all the other ages. There can be no denying that this was quite a feat that the cast and crew were able to pull off. So much could have gone wrong—with everything in the movie, true, but especially with Coltrane. For example, what if he had grown up to become fat a la Haley Joel Osment? Surely, the teen years of Boyhood would consequently have had to go in a different direction. I must say, I think this high-wire act of a movie would actually have been made more interesting, if such an unanticipated turn had taken place to test Linklater's resourcefulness. Alas, when the boy instead develops into an artsy heartthrob, it feels sadly predictable, like it was all according to script—a script with nothing especially interesting to say. If you didn’t know or didn’t care how the movie was made, then I suppose this wouldn’t even matter to you. But then what you have left, when you remove considerations of how the movie was made, is a fairly unremarkable story—exactly the coming-of-age boy story that I initially thought Boyhood was going to be, and which I had little interest in going to the theater for.

Not strictly a movie of 2014, Boyhood was nevertheless a remarkable movie specifically for 2014. Its exploration of the passage of time has at least four layers, all of them quite novel: 1) the narrative structure presenting a story continuously from one year to the next, 2) the filmic process authentically capturing the actors as they visibly aged one year at a time, 3) the life experiences that the cast and crew brought with them as they grew alongside the production, and 4) the documentation of specific dates that resonate with audience members who lived through those years. The 4th point will become less effective as time goes on. It will still serve as a time capsule of the early 21st century, but I don’t know that it will as poignantly resonate with viewers as a twelve-year journey. Decades from now, the distinction between, say, 50 years ago versus 45 years ago won’t so much matter, and everything in the movie will just together be “a long-ass time ago”—not so different from any movie made and set in the 1960s today (all the more so for anyone born after the film's release). The 2nd and 3rd points are less impactful if you don’t know or don’t care how the movie was made (and why should audiences be expected to?). The 1st point remains but is not enough on its own to hold up Boyhood as purely a great story, as opposed to an achievement in filmmaking. Therefore, it is hard to rate Boyhood against films that may be more conventionally made but which tell more original stories. Still, it works for me in the here and now, and if the sum of it eventually ages as poorly as so many of the pieces it observes, then perhaps that is only fitting (and also reason to see it sooner rather than later).

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Street Fighter vs. Street Fighter


Super_Street_Fighter_II_Poster recently posted a translation of an old Japanese interview about the making of Street Fighter II. A vintage postmortem of sorts, the interview with designer Akira Nishitani dates back to 1991, the year that Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was released, and it’s full of interesting trivia about the seminal fighting game’s conception, bugs that plagued development (some of which infamously remained in the finished product), and ideas that didn’t make the cut.

Nishitani did not work on the original 1987 Street Fighter. He got the job on the sequel after first designing Final Fight (1989), which itself was at one point planned as a sequel to Street Fighter, beginning life in development as “Street Fighter ‘89,” before Capcom decided it had diverged too significantly from the original game. Many hardcore series fans have probably heard that story before. New to me, however, is the revelation that Nishitani was never much of a fan of the first Street Fighter:
After that some time passed, and I was relaxing, not doing much after having finished Final Fight. At that time management approached me and talked with me about doing a sequel to the original Street Fighter. I had all these ideas [...] but what management wanted was a straightforward sequel to Street Fighter I. They didn’t want me to change the basic elements of the game. [...]

I realized I had hardly played the first Street Fighter at all (maybe once or twice at the game center). Final Fight, though, I had played a lot of. Since I had so much Final Fight experience, I actually won the in-house Street Fighter I tournament at Capcom. It then occurred to me: why didn’t I play Street Fighter I at the game center? Because it wasn’t a very good game. “That’s it! I’m going to make a game so good, it will make the original Street Fighter look like a knockoff! I’m going to make a GOOD game that satisfies ME!” With that pledge in my heart, I began work on Street Fighter II.

Sure enough, Nishitani’s game far eclipsed its predecessor in design and influence. Despite being a sequel, Street Fighter II is widely regarded, much more than the original, as a landmark first in the fighting game genre. I remember, when Street Fighter II first landed, quickly becoming a phenomenon, many young gamers (those who started with Nintendo and not arcades) scratched their heads at that number in the title, because they could not recall ever having heard of a "Street Fighter I." Some even thought that Street Fighter II was the sequel to Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight (1990) for the Nintendo Entertainment System. That was how relatively insignificant the first arcade Street Fighter was—that even this obscure series sidebar for the NES was more readily recalled.

But the most interesting bits in the interview deal with the scrapped ideas. Dhalsim’s backwards drills are especially intriguing in hindsight. The forward drills have always been more useful for mobility than attack, and, while it had never occurred to me before, reverse drills now seem like an obvious tool that the character has been badly missing the last twenty-plus years (well, not really… but still it would be cool!).

Many ideas didn’t make the final cut due to time or technical limitations, but it’s curious that nobody ever thought to bring them back in later editions. The one that really caught my eye was M. Bison/Vega’s “Deadly Throw”:
Finally, there’s Vega’s Deadly Throw. Being the Evil Emperor and all, we wanted to have him grab your fist and say something like “is that all you’ve got?” before he threw you. I really wanted that to be in the game. But it proved too difficult to actually show all that in-game, so we abandoned the idea.

This immediately stuck out to me, because it sounds an awful lot like the “Atemi Nage” technique used by Geese Howard, the archvillain in SNK’s Fatal Fury games. This is the move where Geese blocks the opponent’s incoming punch or kick, then counters by grappling them to the ground in one fluid motion, traditionally accompanied by him shouting his signature line, “Predictable!” (or sometimes “Too easy!”). Similar “counterattack” moves did make their way into the Street Fighter series eventually, examples being Dudley’s “Cross Counter” and Gouken’s “Kongoshin,” and it’s just a commonly recognized type of technique across 2-D fighting games in general now. But Geese Howard’s was definitely the first and most memorable. Anybody who ever fought against the final boss version of Geese in any SNK fighting game surely remembers that first time having your jump attack intercepted by Geese throwing you to the mat.

When similar moves showed up later in Street Fighter, some fans considered that to have been one of the few cases where Street Fighter borrowed an idea from SNK and not the other way around. This interview suggests, however, that maybe Capcom did independently conceive of the idea way back before Street Fighter II even came out. But what makes it all so fascinating is that, although SNK’s many 2-D fighting games have often been considered among the most unabashedly derivative of Street Fighter II—what with their fireballs and uppercuts, their circle motions, and their similar Japanese manga aesthetic—the truth has always been more complicated than that.

The original Fatal Fury: King of Fighters (1991) for Neo Geo was actually in development at the same time as Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. And guess who designed Fatal Fury. It was none other than original Street Fighter co-creators Takashi Nishiyama and Hiroshi Matsumoto. So, all along, perhaps any similarities between Capcom and SNK’s games have not so much been due to the latter copying the former, but rather on account of both having a common ancestor in the first Street Fighter—a Capcom game that SNK could not rightly be said to have ripped off. Since Fatal Fury was just Street Fighter’s actual creators following up their own work, to call it a knockoff would be rather like calling Street Fighter I a knockoff of Street Fighter II! If you go back and play the first Fatal Fury, it’s even in many ways a lot closer to the original Street Fighter than is Street Fighter II. Fatal Fury has a similar stiff, floaty feel, and, like the first Street Fighter, it was clearly designed as principally a single-player game.

So, Street Fighter and Fatal Fury have always truly been brothers, in a way, though that does not make them rivals any less. From the beginning, as we saw in that earlier quote, Nishitani approached Street Fighter II with an attitude of wanting to outdo the original. Of course, many other designers have since presented their own takes on both Capcom and SNK’s fighting games. Street Fighter III was certainly its own beast, quite a bit different from the games by either Nishitani or Nishiyama and Matsumoto, none of whom are still at the same companies.

Akira Nishitani was minimally involved with the revisions to Street Fighter II and left Capcom before Street Fighter Alpha (1995) to found his own company, Arika. Arika developed Street Fighter EX (1996), arguably a not-so-graceful first attempt to translate Street Fighter II’s 2-D fighting gameplay to 3-D polygonal graphics. The Street Fighter EX games were not bad at all, although they were never as well-received as the contemporary and purely 2-D “main” Street Fighter Alpha and Street Fighter III titles. Again, here was a game that, although considered apocryphal to the series, was actually, in some ways, more directly related to Street Fighter II than were Capcom’s own sequels.

As for Takashi Nishiyama and Hiroshi Matsumoto of the original Street Fighter? They went on, sometimes together and sometimes separately, to create most of SNK’s celebrated fighting game series, including Art of Fighting, The King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, and The Last Blade, before leaving to found Dimps in 2000. Dimps was the studio that, wouldn’t you know it, Capcom contracted to co-develop Street Fighter IV (2008), when the series was resurrected after a long dormancy. Thus, things came full circle, as it fell to the almost-forgotten creators of the original Street Fighter to help relaunch the series some twenty years later.

Fittingly, Matsumoto had this to say about the project in an interview for the SF25: The Art of Street Fighter book in 2012:
We had initially planned to create a sort of sequel to “Street Fighter I,” but since most fans considered “Street Fighter II” to be the series’ origin, it was decided that we would design a game that took its cues from “Street Fighter II.” As you know, “Street Fighter II” wasn’t our game, so there really wasn’t a lot of opportunity for us to be feeling nostalgic about anything. [...]

Personally, I wanted to evolve the series beyond what fighting games had accomplished up to that point. [...] Unfortunately, the rest of the team had grown up on “Street Fighter II,” and seemed less willing to make major changes. It took us a while to find a happy medium in terms of evolution and change.

Matsumoto and Nishiyama may not have been able to get out from under the shadow cast by Street Fighter II, but they did get to one-up Akira Nishitani in another way. Successfully marrying classic 2-D mechanics to modern 3-D graphics, Street Fighter IV was arguably the game Street Fighter EX was supposed to be, much in the same way that Street Fighter II fulfilled the promise of the original Street Fighter.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Call of Commercialism

This Chinese Call of Duty Online promo starring Chris Evans is nothing especially new or unusual—not as Call of Duty commercials go, nor in the realm of bizarre foreign ads utilizing American celebrities. Even so, I find it unsettling for a couple reasons:

1) It's Chris Evans—Captain America himself—shilling for a version of Call of Duty that is exclusive to China, the United States of America's greatest rival as a world power.

2) Actually, even though it's a China-exclusive release, it's still an American-produced game, which dramatizes a principally American conflict. I don't know if Chinese players will explicitly be taking on the roles of U.S. soldiers (and they certainly won't be fighting against Chinese villains), but still it brings to mind that awkward anecdote of the Japanese gamers who gleefully took to gunning down their ancestors in Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (or, for that matter, Capcom's 1942). It makes me wonder, when was the last time a video game asked Americans to play as representatives of a real-life present-day government agency of any nation other than the U.S. or UK? I don't know the answer, but I'm guessing it happens infrequently and, in any case, not with a lot of earnest eagerness.

3) All of the Chinese characters in the ad are in awe of the one white guy. Maybe if Chris Evans were actually appearing as himself, the Hollywood actor, this would be a perfectly understandable case of them being starstruck. But he's here playing some unnamed "foreigner" who randomly joins the Chinese team's session, and immediately it's just "understood," both by the characters and by the audience (via cues that I suspect are racial), that he is the badass in the room. We see how the skewed white American media colors perceptions of race even in foreign, fairly homogeneously non-white countries, such that the universal image now of the "badass soldier type" is a white guy.

4) Ultimately, the most unsettling aspect is that it's Call of Duty. As mass market as these games are, the series has long posed an ethical dilemma, not altogether intentionally. The games excel in all technical facets, and are not devoid of narrative ambition. Still, I don't think there's anybody who can play through the single-player campaign in a Call of Duty and not feel that there's something a little distasteful about the experience. Here, we see that it goes beyond jingoism, as the games really exist to serve not the U.S. but Activision, wherever they can find a market for their almost peerlessly mercenary glamorization of war.