Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Long-Term Fictional Enmity

Following up on last week's "Montreal Screwjob" post discussing the blurred lines between reality and fiction—how the characters that pro wrestlers play are really just versions of themselves—I am reminded of a 2008 Fresh Air interview with Jenna Fischer, known for playing Pam on the The Office—a show that, not altogether unlike pro wrestling, was entirely scripted but presented in the guise of real life caught on camera. Regarding this tricky verisimilitude, I remember, there was something that just really struck me about the way Fischer put it, which I will now present out of context:
It is the strangest thing—to have a long-term fictional love interest. It's a type of relationship that is very intimate, and it's very powerful, but it's fictional. There is a part of me that is Pam, and there's a part of him that is Jim. And that part of me is in love with that part of him.

My immediate reaction at the time: Whoa. Then does this mean that there is a part of The Undertaker that really IS that character? If so, then... oh no. Oh no! Somebody needs to tell the cops to get to Hulk Hogan's place right away, because his life is in great peril!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Evo Moment #37, 10 Years Later

Evo Moment #37

Evo Moment #37. If you’re reading this site, you more than likely are already familiar with the video. It is perhaps the single most iconic moment in competitive gaming history. This past weekend, Super Arcade celebrated the 10th anniversary of “the Daigo parry” by running a throwback tournament at the original venue at Cal Poly Pomona, and by inviting the original participants to compete once more in an exhibition match in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike.

To provide some context, the year was 2004. The event was the third annual Evo, the biggest international fighting game tournament in the world (although that wasn’t saying so much back then). The competitors, Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong, were the most famous Capcom fighting game players in Japan and the U.S. respectively. And the prize, the championship for Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, was probably the most coveted in what was then not yet known as the “fighting game community.”

The Street Fighter III series originally did not catch on in the U.S. There were no console ports of Street Fighter III until three years into the game’s life, and then only for the doomed Sega Dreamcast. Veteran arcade players of the Street Fighter II and Street Fighter Alpha games did not immediately take to the “parry” mechanic, an essentially unbeatable but extremely execution-intensive technique that, if mastered, completely shattered many established fundamentals of competitive Street Fighter. With only a few scattered adherents in the U.S., the game was actually dropped from the tournament lineup from 2001 to 2002.

Meanwhile, over in Japan, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike was definitely Capcom’s most popular fighter in arcades, even ahead of newer releases, such as the Capcom vs. SNK games. In the USA vs. Japan team competition in 2000, Team USA saw just how far ahead the Japanese were in 3rd Strike, as the Americans lost by a score of 19-1.

It was clear that the U.S. had a lot left to learn about the game, and, as cross-Pacific dialogue and competition started to become more common, U.S. players began to take a renewed interest in this formerly overlooked generation of Street Fighter. In particular, the hungry new class of U.S. fighting game champions, Justin Wong and Ricky Ortiz, relished the challenge of taking on the Japanese.

Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike was added back to Evo in 2003, and a confident Ricky Ortiz, using Chun-Li, the game’s most dominant character, looked in prime position to place in the top 3 at least, only to end up humbled by Daigo’s Ken and by Japanese 3rd Strike specialist Keisuke “KSK” Imai playing the low-tier Alex. Kenji “KO” Obata, a premiere Japanese Yun player, took the top prize, and Tetsuya “Ino” Inoue, the top Capcom vs. SNK 2 player at the time, rounded out an all-Japanese top 4. Still, Ricky’s match against Daigo was probably the most memorable moment of Evo 2003. The American actually fought the Japanese legend to a draw by time over, and was only robbed of the win ultimately by some obscure technicality in the rulebook that granted Daigo an extra life. Despite the result, what the U.S. scene took away was that Ricky had gone the distance against the biggest name in the game. Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike was thereafter an Evo mainstay up until Street Fighter IV was added to the lineup in 2009.

Ricky Ortiz vs. Daigo in Evo 2003 Top 8

(Note: The fourth game is a do-over of the third, which the Evo judges ruled to scrap.)

(Video uploaded by Preppy.)

In 2004, with it becoming increasingly apparent that nobody could touch Justin Wong in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (traditionally the marquee game, in which the Japanese were a non-factor), it was the 3rd Strike competition, particularly the U.S. vs. Japan dimension, that everyone was most anticipating.

The 2004 contingent of Japanese 3rd Strike specialists at Evo was the largest yet. Among them was Toru “Raoh” Hashimoto, who was billed as Japan’s top Chun-Li player in 3rd Strike—in other words, supposedly the best player of the game's strongest character. When Justin Wong then prevailed against Raoh in the Chun-Li mirror match, not only did an ecstatic U.S. crowd dub Justin on the spot “the strongest Chun-Li in the world,” but also his victory guaranteed him a place in the top 3.

Justin Wong defeats Raoh in Evo 2004 Top 8

(Video uploaded by Joey Cuellar.)

Justin then faced off against Daigo, and history was about to be made.

Justin looked in masterful form with his aggravatingly conservative East Coast turtle style. He was controlling the pace of the match and had Daigo seriously on the ropes. Daigo’s Ken was down to only about a pixel of health, and Justin had Chun-Li’s mighty Houyoko-Sen multi-kick super combo locked and loaded. Daigo’s options were severely limited, as Houyoko-Sen could punish on reaction almost any offense he attempted. Justin, meanwhile, had been extremely patient thus far and been rewarded for it, but, this close to the end, he could not resist trying to take the easy way out. He let rip a raw Houyoko-Sen from about 3/4-screen distance.

It was not a bad call at all. Once Houyoko-Sen activated, it would be impossible for Daigo to jump over Chun-Li on reaction; the super was going to make contact. Blocking the maneuver normally would have greatly reduced the damage dealt by each kick, but that would have been no help to a character with as little health remaining as Daigo’s Ken had now; Houyoko-Sen would have chipped him to death well before Chun-Li’s animation completed, which was what Justin was counting on. 99.9 percent of the time, Justin’s play would have been a safe bet. Unfortunately for Justin, this case was that other 0.1 percent.

Daigo did, in fact, have one other option, albeit most would have considered it impractical: he could attempt to parry the Houyoko-Sen. Parrying, unlike blocking, nullifies all damage completely. However, it’s a lot harder to do than blocking. Instead of holding back, you have to tap forward with proper timing as the hit is about to connect. And, for a multi-hit move, you have to parry each hit separately.

In Daigo’s case, he needed to parry at least the first fourteen kicks of Houyoko-Sen. That is not at all easy to do, and most players on the planet can’t do it. Even the best players in the world would not be expected to be able to do it in live competition, and so, again, this should have been a safe bet for Justin. And even if a player were to practice enough to get down the specific timing for all the hits of Houyoko-Sen, the really tricky part is just parrying the first hit. At this range, it actually wouldn’t have been possible to parry the first hit on reaction. Daigo would have had to input the motion for the parry before the visual cue for Houyoko-Sen even activated. In other words, Daigo needed to foresee the exact moment when it would be coming.

But, of course, he did.

Daigo vs. Justin Wong in Evo 2004 Top 8

(Full match below, uploaded by TheShend. Skip to 2:16 for "the moment.")

And another look at Evo Moment #37:

(Video uploaded by evo2kvids.)

In an absolute do-or-die situation, on the grandest stage, and with not only personal but national pride at stake, Daigo had the near-clairvoyant read on Justin to see Houyoko-Sen coming, he had the execution to parry fourteen kicks in a row, and, finally, even though he could have begun his counterattack after that fourteenth kick, he had the presence of mind to instead jump up and air parry the fifteenth kick, so that he could initiate his own combo with a jump attack to maximize the damage and thereby close out the round right then and there.

And that was Evo Moment #37.

Ten years later, nobody really remembers that Daigo actually ended up losing in the grand final to returning champion KO, who was probably the favorite all along. Not only was the game against Justin not the grand final, but it wasn’t even the end of their set. People watch that video now and marvel at how nonchalant Daigo seems even as the crowd is going nuts all around him. That stoicism may well have been a real part of Daigo’s personality, but also it would have been premature to celebrate, because the match wasn’t over yet. He and Justin had to go right back into it with another game.

Still, it was pretty damn amazing, and has only grown more impressive over time. Not a few armchair warriors would afterward claim that they or their buddy could parry the full Houyoko-Sen with ease, and that all it took was a bit of practice in training mode. True enough, other players before and since have performed multi-parries that, on a purely technical level, have been comparably skillful. But nobody else has ever done it on as big a stage or with as much on the line. Hell, Daigo himself probably couldn’t do it again!

Or could he?

This past Sunday, at “Moment 37 Reloaded,” Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong were invited back to the original venue to compete once more in a Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike exhibition match. That stage, once upon a time the biggest in the country, now seemed miniscule—suitable for what would nowadays be a mid-level tournament. Going back to their original characters, Ken and Chun-Li, and even the same “Subway Station” level, the players too were not quite so formidable ten years later, as neither practices the game anymore. Justin still competes at the occasional rare 3rd Strike tournament and can still beat most anyone in the country without really trying, but Daigo clearly hadn’t touched the game in years and was far off his old form.

It would have been unreasonable to expect them to be able to reenact Evo Moment #37 live, but, even realizing that it was a lot to ask of the Japanese player especially, who had just flown in late the night before, still all everyone wanted was to see “the Daigo parry” once more. Even Justin wanted that, and so he went for it. And so did Daigo!

Daigo vs. Justin Wong in Moment 37 Reloaded exhibition

(Full match below, uploaded by IEBattleGrounds. Skip to 4:47 for "the moment.")

Ten years later, Daigo “The Beast” Umehara did it again! Well, almost. Everything except the win.

No, not quite the same. And, with this being only an exhibition, it’s even possible that Daigo and Justin could have staged this moment together. I’m not saying that they did, but if they were to do it, the way it happened is exactly how it would be done. As has been pointed out repeatedly, any player, given dedication and hours and hours to practice, can simply go into training mode to master the parry timing on all but the first hit of Houyoko-Sen. Parrying that first hit is not normally something you can train, as it all depends on when and where the opponent goes for it, which isn’t something you can control. In this case, however, the last action before Justin’s Houyoko-Sen was a grab attempt by Daigo, which Justin successfully broke, causing both characters to reel back. This would be the perfect way to telegraph the super, as Chun-Li will always recover off the missed throw with the exact same timing and spacing. If Daigo knew that Justin would then go for Houyoko-Sen at the earliest possible instant upon recovering, then Daigo would have known precisely how to time the parry. They wouldn’t even have needed to have discussed it beforehand. It was clear that Justin was trying to give Daigo every opportunity to attempt to recreate Evo Moment #37, as this was actually the second round in a row where Justin went for a raw Houyoko-Sen when Daigo had no health left. And high-level Street Fighter is all about “reading” your opponent—getting to know the other person, heart and mind, purely through their play, to the point where you know what they will do before they do it. In that split-second of recovery, both players could have read the shared intention—that this was the moment.

Regardless, it’s still pretty amazing that Daigo was able to do it again live and under pressure of so many people watching and hoping. Then and now, the guy truly is "The Beast."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Revisiting the Montreal Screwjob

Montreal Screwjob

Sports Illustrated published an interesting piece the other day that had Bret “The Hitman” Hart revisiting one of the most controversial events in pro wrestling history, the “Montreal Screwjob.” This was a pivotal moment in the history of the industry, which integrally shaped the five years that followed, and, arguably, even dictated the course of professional wrestling all the way to its present decline. I’ve always thought that this particular story could be the basis for a great film, on account of how much it reveals about the sickening truth of pro wrestling (such as there is to be had). Indeed, when Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler released in 2008, garnering widespread critical acclaim and accolades for Mickey Rourke’s performance, all I could think was that a more honest and more relevant pro wrestling picture should instead have focused on the Montreal Screwjob. It should have delved into what a truly dirty business pro wrestling is, defined over the last four decades by a behind-the-curtain megalomania that has always dwarfed any of the on-screen personalities.

To summarize, in 1997, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), Bret Hart’s employer of more than a decade, was not able financially to fulfill the remainder of his long-term contract, and so he was preparing to pack up and take his talents to World Championship Wrestling (WCW), WWF’s longstanding arch-rival, which had finally overtaken it over the preceding year of competition. There was one problem, however: within the scripted universe of pro wrestling storylines, Bret Hart was the reigning WWF Champion.

With the “Monday Night Wars” between WWF and WCW growing increasingly spiteful and cutthroat, WWF owner Vince McMahon did not want Hart “taking the belt with him” to WCW. Wishing to part amicably, Hart agreed to vacate the title during a farewell show for WWF. But that wasn’t good enough for McMahon, who knew that WCW would jump at any chance to boast that they had gotten the reigning WWF Champion to defect. McMahon needed Hart to lose the title in a match to another WWF wrestler.

From McMahon’s perspective, the obvious venue was Survivor Series, as it was the only remaining pay-per-view event that Hart was contracted for. Hart had two problems with this: 1) Survivor Series was taking place in Montreal in Hart’s home nation of Canada, and 2) Hart’s scheduled opponent was Shawn Michaels, with whom he was in the midst of a scripted (but truly ugly) “U.S. vs. Canada” feud. Hart did not want to lose in Canada to a guy who had spent the preceding weeks and months dissing Canada. Thus, in order for McMahon to get his way, he conspired with a select handful of his employees to go behind Hart’s back and plot a “screwjob.”

Heading into the Survivor Series match against Michaels, Hart received one script, which was supposed to end in his victory. Meanwhile, the other key actors in the ring—Michaels and referee Earl Hebner—would secretly be working from a different script. At one point in the match, Michaels would catch Hart in Hart’s own signature submission hold, the Sharpshooter. Hart understood that he would then reverse the hold, but, before he could get the chance, Hebner immediately rang the bell to signify that Hart had “tapped out” to the Sharpshooter, even though Hart had given no such indication of surrender.

An irate Hart stood up and spat in Vince McMahon’s face at ringside. Shawn Michaels grabbed the belt and was quickly ushered out of the arena, foregoing the traditional in-ring victory celebration. The pay-per-view broadcast cut off right there, and anybody watching could tell that something peculiar had happened, but the result was in the books now.

(Video uploaded by illusive255)

I wonder if Vince McMahon ever considered the possible negative repercussions of the Montreal Screwjob. Yes, he had prevented Bret Hart from taking the WWF Championship to WCW, but the manner in which he had handled it actually created more fodder for his rival and other critics to paint the WWF as a disgrace. I suppose the scheme was only as ridiculous as one would expect coming from people who made their living plotting pro wrestling storylines.

In any case, the biggest story in pro wrestling became, in the immediate aftermath and for months following, not any of the scripted feuds at all, but the controversy over the Montreal Screwjob. Discussion among fans was far less concerned with who held which belts in either WWF or WCW, and far more interested in whatever real-life animus might exist between the involved parties. And, in an industry that has never known what it is to sink too low, both WWF and WCW were eager to capitalize by integrating this real-life dirty laundry into their scripts.

WCW responded by getting “Ravishing” Rick Rude to directly reference the incident and call out both Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon on an episode of WCW Monday Nitro. This sort of explicit trash-talking across competing programs was unprecedented (not to mention risky, since WCW may have been inadvertently encouraging its viewers to watch WWF in order to catch the other side of an unintended “crossover”), but the moment was especially memorable because Rick Rude also appeared on WWF Raw Is War that same night.

In the WWF storyline, Rude was a member of Shawn Michaels’s gang. But, in real life, Rude was a personal friend of Bret Hart. So, when the Montreal Screwjob happened, Rude hatched a scheme of his own together with WCW. With his contract with WWF coincidentally due to expire right after the Montreal Screwjob, Rude made a verbal agreement to extend his stay, only to then go behind Vince McMahon’s back to sign with WCW instead. He then taped his final episode of WWF Raw Is War, where he appeared with a full beard. Then, on the very night that the episode was to premiere, Rude also appeared on live television on WCW Monday Nitro, but with his beard shaved! On the West Coast, WCW Monday Nitro aired hours before WWF Raw Is War, so Rude’s appearances completely exposed that WWF’s program, although always advertised as live, was actually taped days in advance.

(Video uploaded by WWE)

In the moment, this must have seemed quite the coup for WCW. Of course, nobody could have known it at the time, but this was the beginning of the end for WCW, and it was really WWF that would come out far ahead.

WCW tried to run with its own this-time-totally-scripted “sequel” to the Montreal Screwjob, in which a different corrupt referee was supposed to screw over a good guy wrestler, only to have Bret Hart intervene on the side of justice. Unfortunately, the intervention was so unconvincingly executed that it became a fiasco unto itself, which, naturally, also became integrated into the ongoing plot. Afterward, Hart had no other memorable storylines in WCW, where he effectively ended his career with a whimper due to health issues. Rick Rude’s tenure there was even less remarkable; he never was able to get into ring-ready condition before dying suddenly of heart failure.

Meanwhile, Vince McMahon recognized that the best move he could make was to fully embrace the image that the fans now had of him as the corrupt owner of the WWF. Originally, “Vince McMahon” the character had been only a ringside announcer. Most viewers who only followed the action on TV and nothing behind the scenes wouldn’t even have known that McMahon was actually the head honcho, which was how McMahon had preferred it. But now that he had been fully “outed” by the Montreal Screwjob spotlighting him as this tyrannical mastermind, and finding that the vitriol that fans felt for him was the biggest reaction of any kind that the WWF had gotten in a long time, McMahon shrewdly recast himself as his promotion’s chief antagonist, whom fans loved to hate. McMahon’s scripted feuds with his wrestlers proved wildly successful, as well as increasingly ridiculous, as McMahon began to wrestle himself, and also brought in his real-life wife and children as characters, who, yes, also wrestled.

WWF (later WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment)) was also, no doubt, helped financially by being able to jettison Bret Hart’s massive contract. With the departure of Hart, nearly all of the “old guard” superstars were now gone, which actually freed up WWF to cultivate and thrive off a new generation of edgier characters, while WCW began to flounder off the diminishing returns of the many aging has-been egos still headlining its shows. Less than four years after the Montreal Screwjob, McMahon was able to purchase his ailing competitor, effectively achieving a monopoly, which, in the long term, has been a victory for nobody, as pro wrestling’s cultural currency has continually declined under his absolute control. That's not a subjective qualitative assessment; WWE's stock has also been tanking over the past half-year.

Reading Hart’s thoughts on the Montreal Screwjob now, one of the weirder things, at least for anyone not immersed in the fiction of professional wrestling, might be whom he accuses of having been behind the plot. McMahon was obviously in charge of everything, but Hart believes that the other two key conspirators were Shawn Michaels and Paul Michael Levesque (AKA “Triple H”). This is surreal because Michaels and Triple H were, at the time, not executives or creative directors in charge of storylines, but were, like Hart, mere performers (in other words, actors), so why would they have been calling shots alongside McMahon? Moreover, not only were Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels bitter rivals in the fiction, but the two did not like one another in real life. As for Triple H, he was Michaels’s friend, both in the story and in real life, and, again, someone Hart did not get along with in either. So the lines between reality and pro wrestling fiction get very blurred, and you almost wonder if Bret Hart was the one having a hard time keeping things straight. Maybe he started out only being pretend enemies with Michaels and Triple H, but then he got so method into his performance that he came to despise them off camera as well. Then, when he got screwed in real life (and also in the story, I suppose), he named his pretend nemeses as the culprits only on account of their fictional enmity.

In fact, all parties’ accounts, Michaels’s included, have corroborated Hart’s suspicions, so evidently he’s not paranoid. But isn’t that even crazier? That the heel characters always scheming against him in the storyline turned out to be scheming against him in real life also? And in precisely such an underhanded manner and for precisely the same reasons (i.e. to take his belt) as in nearly all pro wrestling storylines?

Actually, I have always had a suspicion that the Montreal Screwjob was a total fiction—that is, a multi-level angle—and that all the actors, including Bret Hart and maybe even those running things in WCW, were in on it (and still are). There’s almost no way to ever know for sure, but, frankly, every aspect of it strikes me as ridiculous. But maybe that’s the point. If the Montreal Screwjob did not begin as an angle, both WWF and WCW certainly turned it into one. So maybe “real or fake” has never been the proper question when it comes to pro wrestling, and everything instead just exists in this bizarre gray area in between, where every character is but a version of the actor playing them—heightened or fictionalized, perhaps, but still that person at core. And the really insane, disturbing, and frequently tragic part is that the actors themselves cannot clearly separate fiction from reality. That includes all the wrestlers, who are sincerely competitive, even if none of the fighting is real. And it includes Vince McMahon, the principal man behind the curtain, who got swept up in his own stories and onto the stage, where his real-life business decisions, working relationships, and even family members bled into the scripted delusions.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)

Snowpiercer Movie Poster

Snowpiercer is a South Korean English-language production based on a French science-fiction graphic novel. The premise—in a post-apocalyptic ice age, the human race survives only aboard a high-speed train that perpetually circuits the globe—is certainly intriguing, but the first thirty minutes are more confusing than compelling. In the tail of the train, we see the lowest caste living in squalid conditions resembling the barracks of a concentration camp. Mistreated by the guards and fed propaganda (along with some unappetizing black protein blocks), the citizens plot a rebellion to take the train, but it’s hard to follow their hushed scheming or even to understand what all is at stake. Having seen only the inhospitable, industrial-looking cars of the back, and not knowing how or whether other sections live much more comfortably, one wonders how well the poor could truly better their lot in a space that is, by its nature, cramped and confined.

Dialogue also comes across stiff and unnatural, especially as delivered by Chris Evans as the rebel leader, Curtis. I can imagine the difficulties that writer-director Bong Joon-ho may have encountered working across language and culture barriers to convey his already offbeat vision. One suspects that Evans never actually understood his character’s motivations, and so didn’t know how to act accordingly, whether as leader, soldier, or proletariat. Classically trained English actor John Hurt, on the other hand, probably never needed to understand any of the lines he was speaking, and he remains always on point as Curtis’s derivative sage mentor. Tilda Swinton, as the mouthpiece for the train’s enigmatic engineer, gives the most memorable performance—a walking, talking political cartoon.

The film takes a dramatic turn for the better, once the rebels commence their operation, and the back three-quarters of Snowpiercer are superb. The ingenuity and precision employed in the first maneuver, as the citizens push forward through armed guards and as many mechanized doors as they can, make for a marvelous sequence. From there, both the revolt and the plot progress from car to car, rather like the levels of a video game, and the film reveals its true nature—insane, over-the-top, endlessly clever, and still somehow moody and contemplative.

Each new section of the train is its own distinct set piece, each offering a different experience within the continually refreshing whole. Some cars host fight sequences, which are nicely varied and brilliantly conceived, given the close quarters in which they had to be staged. Other sections are less action-oriented but serve to fill out the panorama of this appealingly absurd world of the train, while also providing moments for exposition on the history and characters. We see how increasingly decadent life is for those toward the front of the train, as well as all the perverse machinery that keeps the train’s fantastical ecosystem running, never to the benefit of those in the rear, according to the totalitarian vision of the engineer. Even Chris Evans’s apparent blankness in the lead role clarifies into a conflicted aloofness on the character’s part, as he finally and somewhat beautifully (in the film’s typically grotesque manner) tells his incredibly unsettling story, explaining why he knows he is but a hollow hero and not the man his followers perceive him to be.

It takes a while for the movie to pick up steam, and there remain bits of bloat even when it does—the teenage girl’s unexplained clairvoyance, the pudgy bodyguard who randomly becomes the Terminator midway through—but the bulk of the experience is forcefully and invigoratingly unique. Snowpiercer is, by its masterful design, a brutal yet beautiful wreck, from which it is impossible to avert one’s gaze.