SSC: mind games

I’m not an expert on ‘mind game’ films.  Most of the time, I watch movies to wind down or relax (or procrastinate) and that usually involves an easy to follow, feel-good story.  So although I don’t watch many of this genre myself, what I am interested in is how they can truly mess with your mind – specifically television series, considering that they are much longer than a two hour film, the effects of the ‘mind-fuck’ can last much longer and have a greater effect.  Elsaesser and Hagener discuss that films don’t disappear right after you watch them. They “continue to live in us and can haunt and influence us in much the same manner as past memories or actual experiences”(Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses, pg 151).  They stick with you for a while – sometimes just an hour or sometimes for your whole life.  One T.V series that came to mind while we were discussing this in class is the 2012 anime Shinsekai Yori or ‘From The New World‘.  I don’t make a point to watch films or series that will mentally confuse the heck out of me but sometimes you stumble across one without knowing what’s in store.  And this was one that certainly messed with my mind and still has has a small lingering effect on my brain to this day.

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The story is set a thousand years from now, where people have developed telekinesis and similar powers that once caused war and havoc, until the small population who are left create a peaceful society.  However what seems like a utopia actually turns out to be more borderline dystopia.  The plot follows a group of kids who face various coming-of-age trials but also start to question how their society came to be the way it is.  And this is where the mind-fuck happens.

What puts From The New World officially on the ‘mind game’ list is that the story is super complicated and there are a lot of mysteries to be solved that cause the characters to question their reality, have different levels of paranoia and survive though traumatic experiences (that I as an audience member also found quite traumatic).  The plot is linear in the way it is told and it’s not particularly hard to follow, however it’s the concepts the story deals with and how the characters deal with knowledge and lack of knowledge that makes it such a mind game.

Right from the start, a student from the kids’ class struggles with her powers and suddenly disappears and is never seen from again.  This already had me questioning what sort of messed up things were happening behind the scenes of this world – but it got so much worse.  To summarise the biggest ‘mindfuck’ moments, the kids find a database of info about their society’s bloody past and are confused, disturbed and horrified by what they hear, which the audience also feels after being empathetically aligned with these characters for a few episodes.  They get captured by monsters, have their powers sealed away, become involved in the monster’s war, yet somehow manage to get out of it all – and eerily enough, don’t ever discuss what happened.  A couple of years later, one of the 5 main characters seems to know things that the others don’t, warns them about punishment for what happened in the past and drops out of school.  They try to find out what’s going on, but it’s almost like some higher force is trying to make it like he never existed – with every authoritative figure they have being forbidden from telling any truth.  They are hunted down and almost killed by mysterious creatures that eradicate troublesome kids (finally an answer to what happened in the first episode).  What got to me the most, is that this boy is sent to live in isolation so he won’t hurt anyone with his powers, but was really being set up to be killed by this creature, and his friends efforts to find him were in vain as his uncontrollable power causes his death.

This is all only halfway into the series and it just gets worse with their memory of their now-deceased friend being erased and what happens after they try to remember him.  There is politics, uprising and betrayal with monsters who are equally as intelligent as humans but are treated like slaves, and it becomes a struggle to attain cultural freedom and equality.  The characters keep suffering and being put through trials until only two of them are left alive.  I was watching intensely to try and understand what on earth was going on, I felt confused, disturbed and found myself crying all the time because the events happening on screen were so upsetting.  Yet the point is that the series was doing something right if it was making me feel this way and I was still watching it – it was successfully playing with my mind, and I wanted answers.  (Although I do get really involved in series I watch, and am known to be emotionally on par with the characters so it may have affected me more than it would others).

I watched all 25 episodes over two days – the second half marathoned  with my friend.  When it was over, we just looked at each other and had nothing to say because we were both speechless by what we had witnessed.  Thankfully, there was a happy end and the narrative was relatively closed off.  It wasn’t on the same level as the mind game films that leave you completely bamboozled and questioning reality as you know it – however I’d still claim it to be part of this genre due to how it affected my friend and I as we were watching it.  Also because I was a mess for about a week afterwards.  To quote myself from three years ago ‘this anime destroyed me’, and I haven’t gone near a single ‘mind-fuck’ series since.

SSC: Scary sounds

I’m bringing the topic back to video games to discuss this week’s topic of cinema as ear: acoustics and space.  You really can’t have a complete discussion on the art of atmosphere and surroundings  in visual entertainment media without bringing video games into the picture.

I mentioned in my previous post that I can’t watch horror films at all, so before I start this discussion and sound like a liar, I actually can play certain horror games.  It’s probably mostly because horror games are relatively new to me, so it’s not the same as that deep-rooted irrational fear of horror films that started in my childhood.  So despite the fact they’re the same genre, horror games and films are just not the same thing – however, they use sound in very similar ways.

From my experience, playing a game is not the same as watching a film in terms of immersion.  Although the job of the film maker is to make the audience feel like they are a part of the film’s world, it can never be quite as immersive as physically playing a character in a game and navigating your way around the landscape.  You’re not watching the events take place, you’re living them – however this is only when a game is actually done right.  It’s easy enough to detach yourself from both games and films, which is why sound and atmosphere is so important at drawing the audience in and keeping them there.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a 2010 indie survival-horror game that I would consider an ’embodied’ soundtrack experience.  The visuals of Amnesia honestly aren’t super amazing.  They’re certainly not bad, but it’s a lot of the same sort of imagery throughout the game and they’re not exactly cutting-edge graphics, yet it’s a terrifying game.  There is eerie silence followed by slow, subtle droning that repeats over and over until it drives you mad.  You can’t always see a monster at first, but you know it’s seen you and it’s coming when you hear the unsettling ringing crescendo.  Sometimes something as small as a sudden gust of wind flinging a door open can freak you out because it’s such a juxtaposition to the silence.  The miscellaneous sounds like rats squeaking or bugs crawling or chains rattling that remind you of the disgustingly creepy, old castle you’re trying to escape.  Not to mention the screams of tortured souls that emerge out of nowhere.  You occasionally get a slightly lighter mood of music that plays when a puzzle is solved correctly, but that all flies out the window and is replaced with ominous, echoing songs and nerve-wracking chase music.

Amnesia does such a good job of mesmerising its’ players, and it’s mostly thanks to the sound and the fact that it’s always disturbingly dark.  The darkness of the game makes the player subconsciously rely on their ears more than their eyes.  Even though they may be squinting at the screen trying to desperately see what’s in front of them because god-forbid they use their lamp and attract a monster, when one of our senses are blocked off, the others are heightened – and automatically sound becomes the number one fear factor.  The player feels the pitch blackness loom over them and hears the droning booming in their ears, reflecting their own heart beat which is probably beating slightly faster than normal considering the monster that’s around the corner.  The sound surrounds the player from all directions – and if they’re anything like me, they can feel it in the pit of their stomach.  It’s where I believe the fear is coming from.  Not from the story or the visuals, but from the soundtrack.

This is why sound is so important in video games.  An independently-made, low-budget game from 6 years ago that I have played and watched so many times, still gets my heart beating fast and my palms getting sweaty.  I’ve seen the visuals over and over, I know what the game holds in store, but the soundtrack still keeps me on edge.

Literally as I was watching the above video just now before putting it in this post, I heard a sudden noise come from my window and I actually jumped in my seat.  Given, it is night time and my house was silent, but it just emphasises the point that sound makes all the difference.

SSC: Body genres and rabbits.

I’ve always hated horror films.  And by ‘hated’ I really mean I have a legitimate fear of them.  It’s that awful gut-wrenching feeling in your stomach that makes you want to cry and throw up at the same time.  The horrible feeling that despite the fact you know it’s not real, you’re scared and nervous and you can’t shake the feeling.

Everyone reacts physically and mentally different to films, especially when it comes to body genres (horror, pornography and melodrama).  I don’t know if anyone else ever feels or felt the same way I do, but horror films really get to me.  I was always a total pansy as a child and every time my mother said ‘bedtime!’ I would get that slightly nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Bed meant darkness, and sleep meant nightmares.  This feeling stayed with me even when I got older, but it was limited to a particular medium – horror films.  I never watched many as a teen, mainly because the first few I watched gave me that sick feeling and caused me to have nightmares for literal months.  Afterwards, just thinking about horror films in general was enough to give me that sick feeling, and only after studying films at university has it started to lessen a little.

The point of this background info is that it comes down to how we mentally place ourselves inside a film (usually by feeling empathy for a character), therefore react a certain way in response to what we see happening.  It is all relevant to this week’s topic of skin and touch in cinema.  However, this isn’t even at the point where I can discuss how horror forces you to cognitively and physiologically respond to fiction as if we can feel it ourself.  I’m physically reacting before I even watch the film.  This is how deeply body genres can affect people – and as much as it’s obviously not fun for me, I do find it super interesting and truly impressive that cinema can have such an impact.

I’m going to use a very recent example to further discuss this.  I’ve sworn off horror movies for life (clearly) so it’s not about a horror film, but rather a 1978 children’s film called Watership Down (based on the well-known book).  A quick disclaimer: I don’t believe the film was created purely for children, as the book was actually made for an adult audience, however being animated, a lot of people mistook it for a children’s film and still refer to it as so, therefore that’s the label I’m sticking with.

I saw a few tumblr posts about the film airing on Easter Sunday and parents complaining so I decided to watch it for myself a few days ago.  It follows the story of a group of rabbits that flee their home in hope to find a safer place to live – however it is not all fun and adventure.  The whole film has this overlying feel of dread and doom, you constantly feel like something bad is going to happen, then suddenly there’s all this violence and gore.  Bunnies – a seemingly happy and harmless species – are turning on each other and fighting to the death.  You get a few happy, calm moments during the film but it always goes right back to being a straight-up thriller (except the rush of adrenaline you usually get from a thriller film is replaced with bewildered thoughts of ‘man, this is messed up’).  At all times someone is being chased, someone is going to die or someone has a premonition that something evil is coming.  Now it may seem ridiculous that I am talking about an animated ‘children’s film’ here, but this is honestly how I felt whilst watching it.  As a 20-year old, I found the movie horribly eerie and disconcerting.  The creepy, dark, old animation style mixed with the dramatic orchestrated music are definitely a big part of the whole experience and part of the reason I find this film so uncomfortable to watch.  It obviously wasn’t at the level of horror-movie-sickness, however this is where the plot thickens.

My grandmother used to record  television shows on video tape for me and my brother, and I have this distinct memory of one show in particular I was terrified of and refused to watch each time it came up.  It had rabbits and other animals in it.  That’s all I could remember.   A quarter of the way into watching Watership Down, something felt so familiar to me, but I knew I had never seen the film so I did some research.  Lo and behold, there was a TV-series based on the same book, made 20 years after the film – which was the same show I was terrified of as a child.  The TV show was no where near as dark and gruesome as the film, however if it was based on the same book, it’s no wonder I was afraid of it.  It most likely contained that same sense of dread and doom that the film contained.  Thrillers may not be explicitly discussed as a ‘body genre’ like horror or melodrama, but I believe in some ways it definitely is.  Not only do they keep you on the edge of your seat, but they can cause a panic in your stomach, a nervousness that doesn’t go away until the problem is solved or the time is up.  Watership Down may be tame, but for a child (or an adult who is a total wuss – aka, myself) it can elicit those physical reactions.

Despite that I find Watership Down interesting to discuss, I wouldn’t actually recommend people watch the film, as it’s not particularly interesting, the voice acting is oddly quiet and there is hardly any exposition at the start to give you a sense of the characters and setting (it begins with a fable, then is straight in with a premonition of death).  Above is an example of the film’s darker moments.  All I have left to say is that I am extremely happy I didn’t watch the film as a child, because if the much tamer television show affected me like it did, I don’t know how I’d have survived the film.

SSC: Gaze

This week’s topic is woman as image and man as the bearer of look in cinema, and whether or not this still exists today.  I’m arguing that yes, although it isn’t as blatantly obvious as it was in the past, modern texts still contain the tropes that make up this theory.  I’ll be discussing this in terms of video games, seeing as the industry was (and still partially is) a boy’s club, and although they’re getting better, many video games are still blatantly sexist and position women for the male gaze.

For so long, the roles of women in video games have been limited to tropes like damsel in distress or evil seductress.  The woman functions as an erotic object for both the characters in the story and the player playing the game.  Thankfully, we’re seeing a little more diversity in recent games and we’re getting more realistic NPCs as well as female protagonists, however the way they are created is not on an equal level to male playable characters.  There’s endless topics to cover in terms of how woman are presented in video games but one in particular I find interesting, is what Anita Sarkeesian (pop culture critique) calls ‘strategic butt coverings’.  Often the way the character is positioned on the screen and how the camera moves around her is created to keep her bum at the centre of the screen.  It’s also not uncommon for a player to be able to move the camera under the protagonist’s skirt if she’s wearing one.  For male characters however, there are great lengths in place to avoid their behinds being looked at – by only being able to adjust the camera above or to the side, or by costuming with a cape or long jacket.  This is proof that women are still presented for ‘visual pleasure’.

In many modern films, this trope is used by the female characters themselves to gain an advantage (aka in teen movies like Mean Girls and Easy A).  However since the player is in control of the game and the protagonist, the character is being positioned against her own will, purely for the player’s viewing pleasure.  It is similar to the cinema trope of a camera pan or tilt of a lady’s lovely figure from a male character’s POV.  The difference is that the audience is not just watching, they’re controlling what they see.

I’ve noticed a similar deal with video game posters, cases and promotional art where there seems to be a trend of getting the female character’s boobs and butt in view at the same time.  One might think that it’s just a dramatic way of posing, however the male equivalent is far less revealing.  It’s rare to find a male character stretched around at a ridiculous angle to get their front and back in view at the same time – but when it does happen, it’s not in a hypersexualised way.  They are shown to be ‘badass’, but female characters are shown to be ‘badass and sexy’.  This isn’t restricted to video games though, it’s common for action films, tv shows and comic books as well.  The images below will hopefully speak for themselves and justify that women are still indeed the subject of ‘male gaze’.

 

Edit 1/4/16:
Since writing this post, Anita Sarkeesian has created a video on Body language and the male gaze in gaming, and discusses Laura Mulvey’s theories as well as her own observations.  It’s an interesting video that takes the themes from this post further.

SSC: Misleading trailers

The first few moments of a film that we witness is what draws us into the film’s world.  The same goes with TV, theatre, video games etc – the world is opened up to us and we step inside for the first time.  More than often, the first glimpse we get of a world is in a trailer or other promotional content that are released before the text at hand.  Usually they fill the audience in on how the text’s world is set up and give a sneak peak into what the text’s content is going to be.  We see who the characters are, when the time period is, where the location is, what the story is (vaguely) about and occasionally why the narrative has taken place with a bit of backstory.  However sometimes trailers can lead us astray.

In class we discussed the occasional times where a trailer for a film either misrepresents the film or misleads the audience – or even when footage from a trailer doesn’t end up in the film at all.  This immediately made me think of cinematic video game trailers.  For a lot of recent large-budget games, a cinematic trailer is released with footage or scenes that are created separately to the game’s actual gameplay and cutscenes.  Often they are of higher quality or different animation style to the game itself, so there is a chance the audience could be let astray in thinking this is how the game is going to look.

Now I’m not suggesting the games’ marketing teams are purposefully misleading their audience, as these trailers are often released along side a gameplay trailer which shows content from the game itself, as well as the fact that most gamers understand this trend and expect that the cinematic trailer is not going to accurately represent the game.  Also sometimes a trailer is made before the game to get funding or to raise awareness for how the game could potentially look.  However I still find it interesting that this can be seen as an audience member’s first step into a world that turns out to be nothing like they expected.

Above is both the cinematic trailer and gameplay trailer for Bioshock: Infinite so we can compare the difference. The cinematic trailer captures the essence of the game very well, however the art style is quite different from the game itself.  Elizabeth (the girl in blue) hardly even looks like she does in the game at all (although I personally like her game-version a lot better so it works backwards this way).  So if one was to only watch the first trailer before playing the game, would they feel a little betrayed or confused that it wasn’t like they expected?  Possibly.

There’s a similar deal with the Alice: Madness Returns advertising.  The first video shows a style completely different to the actual game content.  I personally saw both trailers before buying and playing the game and didn’t know quite which style to expect, as I thought maybe both were incorporated in the game.  Of course I wasn’t disappointed at all to find out it was only the latter because the game is beautiful and creepy and fits what I generally thought it would be – however the fact stands that the ‘misleading’ trailer DID skew my initial reaction on the game and it’s world when I started playing it.

The first Dead Island trailer brought tears to its’ audience’s eyes with a super emotional wordless story animated beautifully, but the game that came out was allegedly nothing like what the fans expected from the trailer.  The actual game had little to no emotional story-driven content and instead was more a simple beat-em-up zombie game.  I think this is a perfect example of false world-building.  A trailer should be accurately representative of the game/film/tv show as it’s the first glimpse the audience gets of the world within the text and sets their expectations.

SSC: Windows

I’m starting off this subject’s blog posts by discussing a favourite photographer of mine: Andreas Gursky.  I remember studying his work for an assignment in high school so seeing him on a third year uni lecture slide was a bit of a blast to the past.  Gursky is a German photographer known for his large-scale landscape and architecture photographic compositions.

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Many of Gursky’s works are beautifully composed of a large quantity of subjects that are placed together to create a bigger, structured piece.  What I mean by this is that there are two ways of looking at his work – as the big picture, the overall neat, aesthetically pleasing composition; or individually moving your eyes to all the interesting sections of the photograph.  In the image above (Mayday V, 2006), you can see the entire building as a whole, or you can look in each and every window.  (And this is where Screen and Sound’s themes of window and frame come in.)

Although I honestly don’t one hundred percent understand the concept (or the importance of the concept, for that matter), I believe his images are both windows and frames.  This photograph in particular is framed by black above and below, so we are looking at what is in the frame – the artificial, very obviously artistically constructed building.  At the same time, we’re looking through the many windows in the building and seeing genuine instances of life.  We see people standing, sitting, talking, moving – living their lives as we view this still moment of time.

Now a point that we discussed in class is that whatever is beyond a window is ‘real’, and what is inside a frame is ‘fake’.  We believe photography to represent a certain truth – especially when it depicts people, places and objects of the real world.  So are we supposed to look at Gursky’s work and see reality within the windows?  I believe there is a certain amount of truth beyond the windows, however all I can think about is the time and effort that went into setting up the photo this way.  Sure, what’s behind the windows are real people doing real things (and what is art if not a representation of real life?), but they would all be positioned so nicely if it weren’t for Gursky and his camera.

So despite the point that the actual building in the photo had four levels, and it was later edited together to appear like 18 levels, makes me feel like we’ve been lied to.  But I suppose that’s much beyond the point.  (When you question what’s real and what’s not real for too long it starts to get to you.)  If it’s a window in a frame, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much truth is beyond it.  Regardless, Gursky gives us a lot to look at through his windows.

REM: Final Video

I went through a lot of trial and error for this last assignment. The general idea I had was to use 25 well-known blockbuster films and turn them into something completely different and original. The first thing I decided to try out was placing them all over the top of each other with varying degrees of opacity so make one crazy overlapped film. This was a pain to get right, however I really liked how it looked. I could have spent the full 2 hours watching the video as there was something very mesmerising about it, however I knew straight away that it wasn’t original enough to be called my own. It’s uploaded here, because I think it’s really interesting to watch.

I decided to take a different approach and sped up each of the films as much as Premiere would allow. Each 2 hour long film was reduced to about a minute, but it was still very recognisable, so I exported it and sped it up again. This didn’t help much, as regardless of how short a film has been compacted to, if you pause at any moment, you will still see the original work.

I thought I’d try to blur it so that I could get rid of anything that is recognisable. It was successful, however it ended up being a blinding video of flashing colour and light. It was awful to watch, so I decided to go back to the drawing board. Both of these progressions are uploaded here.

Somewhere along the way I decided to play around with sound. I used a song from a video game soundtrack and slowed it down to 20%. I thought it sounded really cool, but there was still a chance it could be recognised as what it was originally, so I played with the pitch and lowered it down to 20% of what it was also. The result was creepy, dark and menacing sounding, which I was very impressed with considering it sounds absolutely nothing like the original.

I decided to completely flip my idea on it’s head, and instead of using popular films, use my own creations. I’ve been editing videos (for school and for fun) since year 9 of high school, so I thought it would actually be really interesting to show how they’ve progressed. The old videos are truly embarrassing – which made me think, ‘how can I make this not totally cringeworthy?’. I tested out ideas and used inspiration from my other remix assignments, and ended up trying to make my crappy old videos into a horror film. There is a very loose, general sort of plot or chain of events that follows: the lost, the stalked, the strange and the death. However, I didn’t want anyone to watch the film and understand it – what I like about it now is that it doesn’t really make much sense. It’s a conglomeration of horror at first look, but underneath it is embarrassing videos from my teenagehood.

In order to get the videos to fit the mood I wanted, I generated a circle to darken the edges and used a bleaching filter. I kept the same sound as I had created, as it was what gave me the horror idea in the first place – except I also decided to keep the audio of each video in, but slowed down, pitched and quietened.

~

“This video is my own. It is all original content. The only part I did not create from scratch is the soundtrack, however it has been edited to a point that it is no longer recognisable and does not bear any similarities to the original.”

REM: Innovation (or lack thereof)

“The system is designed to promote innovation, but the consequence of granting a limited term monopoly [as is done in both patents and copyright] is that restrictions are put on what others can do.”

This is a really interesting point made by Ian Heath, director of IP Australia, that I believe has a lot of truth to it. We are all told that we should be creative, innovative and original in everything we do. All the way from primary school to tertiary education, we are assessed on our ‘originality’, yet the kids that read lots of books, watch lots of films and study lots of art, are the ones who come up on top. And why is this? Because they’re learning from other people’s work. We improve every day by watching and learning how others do things. This may mostly seem to apply to ‘creative’ subjects like art or english, however when you think about it, it’s the same deal with maths and science. We’re given formulas and theories and told to solve equations with them, and we need ‘proof’ to back up scientific arguments. There is hardly any room for innovation when it comes down to it. So, it is completely contradictory to both promote ‘creativity’ and ‘originality’, but praise those who stick to the mould and copy what has already been done. Which comes back to the restrictions of patents and copyright. We’ve always been told that in order to succeed, we must copy and replicate those that were successful, but suddenly, copying other people is illegal? I’m starting to see why we have a remix culture in the first place.

“To say copyright stifles creativity is ridiculous. If you put those two things together, copyright is the end process, it’s what protects creativity. And to suggest that copying is creating is ridiculous.”

Simon Lake, CEO of Screenrights has a point as well. If we do want to be truly creative, we should come up with our own, individual content. However, the way we have been raised, the way we have been put through school and the way we have watched people succeed or fail in society, simply doesn’t allow us to do so. We’ve been brought up in a culture full of remix, regardless of whether we realise this or not. We have been remixing our whole life – piecing together essays, writing history reports, applying formulas and just learning from other people and applying their knowledge to our own work. Remix has been there throughout our entire lives, from the very first time we sung ‘twinkle twinkle little star’, so it only makes sense that we’re continuing to be what can be described as ‘unoriginal’ and ‘uncreative’.