Archive for July, 2010

Because Bob spelled backwards is still Bob

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The first in a series of posts I’m calling “Trailers For Films You Probably Haven’t Watched For A While, And Really Should Have Done.”

The age of indifference

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

They call it the ‘information age’. In a week that’s seen Wikileaks release the Afghan War Diary, a compendium of over 91,000 US intelligence reports covering the war in Afghanistan, and a hacker compiling a torrent of personal information ‘belonging’ to over 100m Facebook members – one fifth of the total membership of the site – we’re starting to see exactly what that means: the age of secrets is coming to an end.

It’s harder than ever for our governments to keep things from us, or to keep us from each other.  For most of the 20th century that was the de facto approach to government – what we didn’t know couldn’t hurt us.  At least, not until it was too late for us or anybody else to do anything about it.

Nowadays anything and everything is only one faulty or functioning conscience away from the public domain.

Information can travel further and faster than ever before – huge quantities of information, instantly available to a worldwide workforce of have-a-go analysts and armchair commentators.

All of which means that plausible deniability isn’t going to cut it at the gates of St Peter.  We’ll need to be able to explain just how it was we came to know about the atrocities, the human rights violations, the lies and savagery of those to whom we willingly defer the ugly business of taking control of our lives, and did nothing.

Did nothing, that is, but salve our pangs of conscience with the kind of armchair protests that have become a depressingly tedious formality.  Spreading the hashtags and signing the petitions, doing the absolute minimum in support of fashionable causes that flare up and die down on an almost daily basis.

We infer the effectiveness of these protests from the occasional small victory. We #freethe guardian, or #save6music, or get Rage Against the Machine to Christmas number one. Who knows, we may even manage to #SaveTheUKFilmCouncil, without the vast majority of us knowing precisely what it does.  Or how much money it costs us.

And, in the process, the nature of the act of protest changes.  It becomes more passive, a button pressed, a box ticked.  None of us have to go out and get involved in the bloody business of revolution, we just watch it on YouTube, change our Twitter location to ‘Tehran’ and pop out for coffee in Primrose Hill.

They call it the ‘information age’.  We may come to know it as the age of indifference.

To sleep, perchance to snore.

Monday, July 26th, 2010

So, it’s official. INCEPTION is My New Favourite Movie™.

It joins a distinguished (if not altogether that exclusive) list of movies upon which this honour has been bestowed, going all the way back to COBRA (1986), a film that prompted a 10-year-old me to start dressing in black and chewing a matchstick.

To celebrate this not particularly extraordinary development I set about trying to write my first film review for over a decade.  The result was a pathetically earnest attempt to encapsulate INCEPTION within the confines of a long-forgotten critical methodology, all of which soon threatened to become incredibly boring for all concerned.

So I dumped all the pre-amble, and made a good old-fashioned list instead.  It’s a list of films that are like INCEPTION, but different.  After looking briefly at why each film is like INCEPTION, but different, there’s a little video clip, and a sublimely arbitrary verdict on which film is best.  All in all, it’s a bit of a shambles.

Needless to say, the rest of this post is up to its rapidly moving eyeballs in spoilers.  If you haven’t seen INCEPTION, I should look away now.  Even if you have, you probably have something better to do than carry on reading.

___

1. VERTIGO (1958)

Like INCEPTION because…

It’s a study of a man ready to put everything at risk, including his already fragile grip on reality, for the sake of rediscovering lost love.

Not like INCEPTION because…

Hitchcock eschews dialogue in favour of the film’s haunting score to guide us through a series of spell-binding sequences leading up to VERTIGO’s dizzying conclusion.  Nolan does not eschew dialogue.  Nolan has dialogue coming out of his ears. Which, when you think about it, is quite an achievement in itself.

Also, Hitchcock’s dream sequences are much shorter.  And a good deal odder.

Verdict: Don’t look down Chris.  INCEPTION is no VERTIGO.

___

2. WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968)

Like INCEPTION because…

A crack team, on a daring mission behind enemy lines… a snowbound fortress, built to protect secrets men will lie, scheme and kill for… an action-packed and unrelenting finale, beginning less than halfway through the film and not letting up until the credits are practically rolling.

Not like INCEPTION because…

It may have happened when I popped out for a wee, but I don’t remember the bit in INCEPTION where Arthur gets hold of two submachine guns and mows down a battalion of heavily-armed Nazis.  Whereas, of course… (skip to 5:55 for the gunny shot)

Verdict: INCEPTION is unabashed in the homage it pays to the gun-toting grandaddy of action-adventure. WHERE EAGLES DARE wins every time.

___

3. HEAT (1995)

Like INCEPTION because…

It’s a seminal one-last-job heist movie, featuring a pivotal sequence in which besuited men engage in a running gun battle through the busy streets of a major American metropolis.  It even has the same(ish) music playing in the background.

Not like INCEPTION because…

It’s not raining.

Also, HEAT is infused with moral ambiguity, as we find ourselves willing the outlaws to get away with it, even as we watch them mowing down the innocents that stand in their way.  Whereas, well, it’s much easier to side with the ‘bad guys’ when people in their way are just gun-toting figments of some rich kid’s imagination.

I couldn’t find the right clip, but I found the trailer. Watch it, and feel yourself making plans to watch HEAT again at the first available opportunity.

Verdict: Yup, HEAT takes INCEPTION down too.  Takes it down to Chinatown. And leaves me starting to seriously question whether INCEPTION is actually half as good as I thought it was.

___

4. HAMLET (1995.  Or, if you prefer, some time between 1599 and 1601.)


Like INCEPTION because…

It gives us the play within a play.

Not like INCEPTION because…

It doesn’t give us the play within a play, within a play, within a play. Within a play. Maybe.

Ok, so a little spurious.  Probably listed here as much because it gives me all the excuse I need to include a clip of Charlton Heston in his pomp, allowing me to forget for a moment that he was such a massive wanker.

Verdict: It’s HAMLET, for fuck’s sake.  Of course it’s better than INCEPTION.

___

5. THE MATRIX (1999)

Like INCEPTION because…

It’s comprised of a series of jaw-dropping action sequences, including ground-breaking gun-play and hand-to-hand combat, made possibly only by the suspension of the laws of physics as we would otherwise commonly expect to encounter them.

Not like INCEPTION because…

INCEPTION establishes these familiar mechanisms of action and adventure as a cogent and compelling reality, anchored in the all-powerful faculties of creativity and imagination, and the limitless reach and ambition of the dormant human mind.  THE MATRIX establishess the same familiar mechanisms of action and adventure as a considerably less cogent reality, anchored in a load of clever-sounding codshit.

Of course, THE MATRIX has this scene, meaning that all other sins are forgiven (even if someone somewhere has decided that I don’t get to embed it in my blog).

Verdict: Nolan spanks the Wachowskis.  INCEPTION is THE MATRIX for grown-ups.

___

6. BATMAN BEGINS (2005)


Like INCEPTION because…

It introduces a handsome but troubled central protagonist on a journey of enlightenment and self-discovery, mentored along the way by a sagely Michael Caine.  It was directed by Chris Nolan.  And it has Ken Watanabe in it, who’s really quite good.

Not like INCEPTION because…

Its handsome but troubled central protagonist dresses up like a bat.

Verdict: Nolan spanks Nolan, INCEPTION takes it.  The world needs all the original ideas it can get.

___

So there it is.  If there was any doubt that INCEPTION is My New Favourite Movie™, this has surely put it to bed.

Which is where I’m going. Got a date with Kim Novak, in the dungeons of Schloß Adler. It was her idea. I think it was the matchstick.

Playing with firehoses

Monday, July 19th, 2010

TOY STORY 3 opens today in the UK.

Yes, that’s right. On a Monday.

Used to be that movies opened on Fridays. That was before the studios figured out that if they ran nationwide paid previews on a Thursday, maybe even Wednesday, they could game their first week figures and get their movie the best possible start in life. Now it appears even Monday and Tuesday are fair game when it come to achieving that all-important, record-breaking, box-office-shaking opening ‘weekend’.

Bottom line is that it’s more important than ever for big movies to open big, and that films are more than ever finding themselves made or broken by the web, specifically the real-time web, more specifically Twitter, Facebook and various other social networks built around high-frequency refresh rates and status updates.

With that in mind, it definitely made a lot of sense for Disney to get on board with Twitter and bring us the world’s first ‘promoted topic’ (see right, grab care of Techcrunch).

Coming hot on the heels of ‘promoted tweets’, this saw Toy Story 3 listed at the bottom of Twitter’s trending topics – a list of the ten words and phrases being used most often at any given time.

This feels like a win-win for Disney – as the first ever promoted trend they were able to capitalise on all the additional attention being given to Twitter’s second experimental foray into paid-for placement, as well as netting all those eyeballs drawn instinctively to an unfamiliar new smudge of yellow nestled below the ubiquitous top ten.

Since the debut of promoted trends it seems to have been all film releases occupying this spot – four or five different ones to date.  At one level it’s no surprise that studios are falling over themselves to ‘trend’ on Twitter.  Only recently two researchers at HP Labs hailed Twitter the most accurate available method for predicting a movie’s overall success.

If, as they say, Twitter mentions equate directly to box office return, trending topics are money in the bank – they show evidence of widespread existing awareness and word-of-mouth, and have the capacity to amplify it into a self-fulfilling prophesy of free publicity and bums on seats.  Provided, of course, it’s good publicity.

Except that what Twitter are offering with ‘promoted trends’ is something completely different – it’s an opportunity to line up alongside whatever’s genuinely capturing their users’ imagination at any given time, and to hope a little bit of that topicality and ‘talkability’ rubs off.  They’re trying to build that same self-fulfilling prophesy out of nothing more than media spend.   And I’m not sure you can do that.  I’m not sure it’s even all that good an idea to try.

Because what does it actually say to me-the-movie-goer if your movie is sat at the bottom of that list as a promoted topic, and there at the top another movie, a competitor title even, is trending organically, on its own steam, completely unassisted?

It says something bad.  It says your movie needs help, that maybe it isn’t popular or interesting or important enough to be worth tweeting about in its own right.  It says you can’t cut it on the level playing field of perr-to-peer referral and recommendation, and have had to resort to trying to buy back your advantage.

Even when you put aside the potential presence of a competing film release, it’s still worth thinking about the wider company a promoted trend will likely end up keeping.

These days trending topics seems to be comprised of a who’s who of the UK’s least-wanted, and a what’s that of puerile and incoherent memes and hashtags.

At the time of writing the number one spot is being held by ‘Scrotal Implosion’ (see right), with TV’s ‘Jeremy Kyle’ also trending, the daytime king of polygraphs and disputed paternity having become pretty much a permanent fixture.  This is with Geordie nut-job  Raoul Moat only recently departed, after a solid stint rubbing shoulders with Gazza, Take That and the current board of British Petroleum.

Of course ‘Inception’ (down there in 8th) doesn’t suffer by association.  But that’s because it hasn’t paid to be there in the first place.  It’s a legitimate part of the story of Monday July 19th 2010, which is all trending topics really is, told through a prism of pithy humour and narcissistic self-infatuation.

If it proves compelling that’s because it gives us a live, unadulterated snapshot of what’s currently occupying the hive mind, be it the question of who’s leading the Tour de France, or that of why flying ants are terrorising Wandsworth.

It’s a torrent of something somewhere between breaking news and absolute nonsense, washing along all the flotsam and jetsam of bots and blaggers thrown from their boards as wave after wave of transient topicality crashes against the shores of actual relevance.

It might have the air of a total clusterfuck, but it’s stuff that genuinely matters, to somebody or other.  And spending money pretending to matter is never going to be a good look.  Especially if you don’t even really need to.

(Yup, you’re right, this isn’t the official Toy Story 3 trailer. You can find that here.)

Prologue to Inception

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Sizemore Ollie Relph and I are off to see Inception at Stratford East Picturehouse this evening. Fuck knows how they managed to secure a members-only preview two days ahead of release, but that alone was worth the (eminently reasonable) price of an annual membership.

As regular readers will be aware, this is probably my most eagerly awaited movies of 2010. I’ve been dodging spoilers left, right and centre, but also trying to keep a close eye on what I’ve already called out as one of the year’s best movie marketing campaigns.

So, with just a few hours to go, this is exactly the kind of thing I want to find online – a comic book prologue called The Cobol Job. (Anyone reading this on an iPad struggling to access the flash version of the comic can download all 25MB of PDF version here.)

It’s pretty timely really, given that the guys over at BBH have just posted the first of three installments of a conversation we had a couple of months back about all things transmedia.

BBH’s Mel Exon and Ben Shaw are both in the enviable position of having the mandate and the resources to really get to grips with this space, so I imagine they will be as interested as anyone to see that our first vaguely coherent glimpse of Inception comes in the form of a digital comic, exploring a strand of storyline which seems to lead seamlessly into the events of the film.

This is by no means the first time this kind of thing has been done – Warner Bros gave us a 3-part ‘digital graphic novel’ to tease us obliquely into the disease-ravaged world of I Am Legend, and there are numerous other examples of transmedia prologues and branching narratives delivered ahead of release.

I guess I just like the fact that, as will all things about the Inception campaign, this shows an acute understanding that less is more. And that timing is everything.

Because this is how a movie fan ought to feel six hours ahead of taking their seat in a cinema. Intrigued. Excited. Ready for a ride on the ultimate ghost train, into the inviting darkness of a world dreamed up by maybe the most exciting big money director plying his trade today.

See you on the other side.

They called me Mr Glass

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

In the thirty years I have now been without sight in my right eye never once did it occur to me to make it my life’s work to develop my own bionic equivalent, so that I could come up with a catchy name and style myself as a kind of first generation Six Million Dollar Man.

Damn.

I did once contemplate asking my ocularist to make me a novelty glass eye, but it felt a bit like asking Leonardo Da Vinci to paint the bathroom ceiling. The man’s spent his life perfecting the art of concealing the fact that people have broken eyes, it seemed a little churlish to ask him to help me draw attention to the fact.

I like this Eyeborg fellow though. Hook that puppy up to the optic nerve, mix in a little augmented reality, and he might be onto something. Then all I need is a name.

Except that I already have one. I was given it at school. I think it was supposed to be hurtful, but I kind of liked it.

Cyclops .)

Games without frontiers

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, `When I grow up I will go there.’”

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

When, in the late nineteenth century, Joseph Conrad embarked upon his literary exploration of the darkest recesses of the human condition, he can scarcely have imagined that, just over a century on, the ‘blank spaces’ would have been replaced by little green squares, and the new frontier would be called FrontierVille.

With the news, however, that Zynga’s new ‘western-themed Facebook game’ has enjoyed the most successful launch in the company’s short but spectacular history, comes the realisation that the New World is now a digital one, with people from all walks of life migrating en masse from one virtual land-grab to the next.

Take FarmVille, forerunner to FrontierVille, and Zynga’s signature title.  It currently boasts in the region of 80 million monthly active users worldwide, 30 million of whom log in at least once a day, ploughing mind-boggling amounts of time and effort into the cultivation of virtual crops inside this unlikely agrarian cornucopia.

It isn’t just time people are investing – there are innumerable opportunities for players to part with real money in exchange for a plethora of premium crops and agricultural accessories.  In commercial terms FarmVille is just one big walled garden – any value associated with your investment exists only within the context of the game, and the pleasure you take from playing it.

It’s a prize-winning irony of FarmVille that this proving ground for virtual goods revolves around something so exquisitely useless in its virtual form – food.  In one sense it can seem perverse, to think of all that care and attention invested in the cultivation of notional produce, while millions of people in the real world go hungry.

At the same time, maybe people’s time is better spent harvesting the benefits of a virtual small holding than it is mowing down innocent civilians in a Russian airport.  It’s vaguely satisfying to think of a proportion of FarmVille’s players extending the game-play experience into their real lives – less so the droves of angry young men playing Modern Warfare 2.

I’m not here to judge though.  I’m interested in the question of whether virtual goods can be genuinely useful.  And, more importantly still, whether they can actually go one up on their corporeal equivalents.

Consider, if you will, the greetings card.


Think about how many greetings cards you’ve sent and received over your lifetime.  Then consider the life-cycle of every one of those cards.

Following a resource-intensive fabrication process the card was likely transported by plane, train and/or automobile to whatever street corner its aspiring retailer resided on.  Here it occupied precious display space within serviced premises, conducting a patient vigil in anticipation of whatever personal milestone or festive landmark it was designed to idiosyncratically evangelise.  With each day that passed, it grew fractionally more fearful of failing to catch a consumer’s eye, and fading – literally and figuratively – into actual and cultural obsolescence.

Then its moment arrived – somebody bought it.  It was ecstatic.  All the other cards in the rack sent it meta-greetings-cards congratulating  it on the prospect of being lovingly inscribed with its very own hand-written message, before being borne once again on wing, rail and wheel unto its esteemed raison d’être, the recipient.

Who opened it, read it, smiled, waited a bit, then threw it away.

At a push, it might have got to sit on a shelf for a week or two, but that was likely little more than a stay of execution.  If it was really lucky, it got turned into a bookmark.  Which assumes, among other things, that it arrived in the hands of someone who still owned books with paper pages.

Now consider its virtual equivalent.

‘E-cards’ have been around for over a decade, some iterations far better engineered and executed than others.  For the purposes of this argument the most pertinent example is one of the most recently popular – the Facebook ‘gift’.

Introduced in February 2007, Facebook gifts are small themed images available to buy at a cost of US $1.00.  Once you purchase a gift you can then send it to any of your friends, along with a personalised message.  In January 2008 Facebook was reported to be selling gifts worth US $15m per year.  By November of the same year this had risen to $50-60m.  I can’t find any more recent figures, but I think it’s fair to assume that this number has continued to grow.

Crucially, and in spite of the fact that they could produce unlimited numbers of each gift for virtually no increased overhead, Facebook applied their own arbitrary limit to the quantities of each gift, ranging from 15,000 to 10 million.

In doing so, they were applying the principle of perceived scarcity.  Understanding that successful economies rely on finite quantities – of land, of raw materials – they recognised that in a virtual world, where these no longer naturally occur, they must be artificially imposed.

I’ve never given a Facebook gift, and I probably never will. The idea of parting with one whole dollar for the luxury of sending somebody a lurid little picture of a balloon seems every bit as risible as that of spending it on the paper and ink equivalent. If I send you one, it’s probably meant as an insult.

But then I, being the kind of self-absorbed, anti-social curmudgeon who regards greetings cards, gifts, flowers, chocolate eggs and the rest as a bit of a waste of time, am not the point.

The point is that the demand exists, that it will continue to do so, and that both these approaches appear to have the potential to satisfy the core consumer urges that drive it, manifested as the pleasure of the recipient, and the corresponding satisfaction of the sender.

Sure, the virtual version lacks the physical tactility of the traditional one, and therefore some of the tangibility.  But is the gesture any less tangible?  In both cases the actual transaction serves only to facilitate a social one.  Everything else is largely immaterial – except of course that in the case of the traditional card, it isn’t.

There are those – James Governor being one of them – who will tell you to go and do some research into the respective carbon footprints before you start waxing lyrical about the virtuosity of virtual goods.  James points to the fact that the electronic devices rendering our virtual lives consume energy with a ferocious intensity, not to mention the servers and network infrastructure bringing it all to our digital doorsteps.

Even so, I believe we’re looking at a paradigm with the potential to revolutionise the market for a growing variety of consumer goods, as we invest ever more time and effort into the pseudo-material enrichment of virtual lives.  I also believe that this continuing shift will have an accompanying economy of scale, in terms of the diminishing carbon footprint of each tiny server-side transaction, and the small burst of light required to bring it to life onscreen.

It’s a paradigm built on the principle of creating products that are 100% perceived value, promising all the pleasure of acquisition and the pride of ownership minus any of the commercial and ecological baggage of physical production, distribution and disposal.

It’s the capitalist’s Kool-Aid, and the environmentalist’s – all marketing and margin, nothing wasted along the way.  Nothing, that is, unless you subscribe to the view that it’s all a complete waste of time.  In which case look on the bright side.  If FarmVille proves anything, it’s that people still have plenty of that going spare.

Still here.

Monday, July 5th, 2010

(Updated 08/07/10: I’ve updated this post to omit my shamelessly derivative pithy one-liner, and to include the cartoon it was inspired by, which is far more apt, and was eventually located on the very excellent xkcd.com.)