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Friday, November 28, 2014

Review: Citizenfour

Citizenfour (2014): Directed by Laura Poitras.  Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum, Ewen MacAskill, and (very briefly) Julian Assange.  Running Time: 114 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            By a twist of circumstance, I had the chance to see Citizenfour the day after I saw The Imitation Game, and I was immediately struck by the parallels between the subject matter of the two movies.   Both ultimately conclude that the key to real power in this world is not, in the end, manpower, economic growth, or military strength, but information.  This can be and is heavily debated, obviously, but the cases presented here are overwhelmingly strong.  Have access to enough information, and you can win a war against all odds.  Have the means to obtain enough information, and your ability to rule, and even to oppress, can not only go unchallenged, but practically unnoticed.  Seeing both back-to-back was also a powerful reminder of the ripple effects of key events throughout history.  Even if its original purpose was to defeat Nazism, it cannot be forgotten that the modern means of spying revealed to such a stark degree by the Snowden documents would be impossible without the prevalence of digital communication, whose genesis can be found in the wartime work of Alan Turing.  The one would not, and indeed cannot, exist without the other. 

            Citizenfour is, hands-down, the most important film, documentary or otherwise, to come out this year.  Maybe in years.  It is literally watching history in the making, consisting in large part of on-the-spot recording of Edward Snowden’s first meetings with the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill (both working for The Guardian at the time).  These scenes alone will be primary source materials for years for anyone studying this particular aspect of early 21st-century history.  The issues and questions it raises regarding whether and how the relationship between governing and governed has been fundamentally altered by modern digital communication are ones that my generation especially ignores at its own peril, because events that already spin by us at top speed are only going to get faster.  It is also one of the straight-up best films of 2014, documentary or otherwise.  It can and should provoke endless debate and discussion over what Poitras chose to focus on, what she left out, how she portrays Snowden, and how bias- hers, Snowden’s, and ours- affect how each of us interprets the film’s key moments, and on top of all that, it’s quite simply an incredibly slick and expertly crafted thriller.  The use of closeups on Snowden, Greenwald, and MacAskill in that fateful hotel room in Hong Kong, smooth editing and establishing shots between scenes, and the eerie undercurrent of the film’s soundtrack can easily make one forget that we are watching actual historical events unfold in real-time, and not a mashup of the Bourne Trilogy and a David Fincher film (the comparison to Fincher is not without merit- the tracks heard were taken from a Nine Inch Nails album written by Trent Raznor and Atticus Ross). 

            The movie informs us right at the beginning that the film was already in the process of being made when Poitras was first contacted by Snowden.  One of the original main players in the film, and who is still in the final cut, is another NSA whistleblower named William Binney, who actually had his house raided in response to his leaks.  Obviously, the contact with Snowden and everything that followed greatly changed the nature and scope of the final product, which moved from focusing on a general look at post-9/11 government policy to focusing mostly on the revelations of the documents Snowden leaked and its immediate aftermath.  The title is drawn from the codename that Snowden used in his first contacts, to be able to preserve his anonymity as long as possible. A few of their most important mails, all sent via encryption programs, are read out loud by Poitras as an effective way to set a scene; the standout is her reading the mail with instructions on how she and Greenwald were to find and identify him in a restaurant near his hotel in Hong Kong.  Even without seeing what happened, we are transported into the world of a spy thriller, except this time around we know it actually happened, and just knowing that makes the viewer tense up.  But then they are in the room, the camera is on, and the first conversations begin. 

            Poitras herself is only glimpsed briefly in a mirror, but you can feel her gaze through the camera, in how close she films people and how distantly she films everything else, creating the sense of a large, immutably cold world threatening to crush the individuals on-screen.  Also of note is the use of the term “they” when describing the US government in general and the NSA in particular.  The viewer is reminded acutely of how much of our modern world cannot actually be seen or felt or heard, and yet is still there, all around us.  It is thrilling and unsettling all at once. 

            There are no new revelations contained in this film; everything discussed has been reported before.  What is important to recall though, and what makes this movie such riveting viewing, is to be reminded of how the affair played out on a day-by-day basis, and to see everything placed in its larger context, which is of course the purpose of a documentary film.  It is hard to say whether or not minds and hearts will be softened or hardened towards Snowden upon viewing this work.  It is ironic or fitting (or both) that, despite Snowden’s insistence that he does not want the focus to be on him, but rather to be on the extent of civil rights abuses he is revealing, both the film and the broader discussion over the past year have centered on him regardless.  Perhaps this was naiveté on his part, but in a way, in was also the inevitable result of any such individual reaction to a given situation.  Humans will always seek a face to place on an event, era, or movement, because it humanizes everything for us, and makes it smaller and understandable.  The Civil Rights movement was far more than MLK and Rosa Parks, but those are the figures we remember and honor the most.  Nelson Mandela was one of many activists who suffered for their opposition to Apartheid.  None of the others got a state funeral the likes of which the world has never seen.  Such is the nature of man. 

            Or perhaps he really did (or does) have a sinister agenda.  Maybe he really did just want the attention.  The respect (and some might claim adulation) that Poitras and Greenwald have for him is clear- they take him at his word.  Many others do, many do not, and some are indifferent, which is really the worst option of the three, because as the Snowden affair (and Snowden himself) makes clear, indifference is no longer an option in our world.  We must, inevitably, be either active in shaping it, or we surrender any claim to freedom and independence.  My own views on the man and his actions have been mixed, but if he is concealing some malicious intent he hides it expertly when the cameras are rolling.  Like it or not, in a world where large organizations can ever more easily oversee and control the means of communication at our disposal, we will continue to need people like Snowden, the occasional shock to the system that can tear through veils both known and unknown to allow us a glimpse of the truth. 

            I do not agree with every point the film implies, and there are sins of omission everywhere.  That hardly matters though, at least in terms of whether or not I like and respect the film.  It is, as another reviewer noted obliquely, “history written in lightning.”  Its bite is all the sharper for how clearly and unapologetically it presents itself and Snowden as something big, something important, and something necessary.  It is its biggest strength and its greatest weakness- perhaps Poitras wanted just as much as Snowden to shift focus onto the greater issues at stake, but could not resist the urge to turn him into another figure of civil rights history.  The details on how she came into contact with him are scarce, and there is no mention that she and the others had already received the bulk of the documents he had collected.  Remember, this was not like the Pentagon Papers, which had to be passed along by hand.  Every bit of this is digital. 

            One point within the film invited a greater skepticism on my part.  In a final scene between Greenwald and Snowden, they discuss new leaks by another whistleblower apparently inspired by Snowden’s example (something else he had hoped would follow from his public admittance of guilt).  Included in the new leaks is a chilling number- 1.2 million- specifying the number of people on NSA “watch lists.”  They scratch out the figures and info on sheets of paper, to avoid any eavesdropping, but a few are permitted to slide across the screen long enough to read, including a rough diagram of the line of decision-making regarding who is targeted by drone strikes.  At the top is a small box that says “POTUS,” and as Greenwald begins to rip up each sheet systematically for disposal, the camera lingers for just a bit on the torn scrap with the top box, the 5 block letters staring out like an accusation. 

            Scratch the “like” part, it IS an accusation, and its intent is clear, but is it a fair one?  To be sure, unless he takes a major shift over the next two years, the lack of action on Obama’s part to substantially reform or alter the post-9/11 intelligence systems he inherited from Bush outside of ending the torture program will go down as one of his greatest failures as President.  However, when you look at the bulk of the Snowden documents, and compare them with what we already knew or guessed and also a few general laws of physics, the picture that comes out is less that of a top-down, tightly organized campaign of terror and oppression, and more that of a bloated bureaucratic system that’s a little too used to going unchallenged that it’s developed an attitude of, “Why do it?  Because we can.  I guess.”   And like all such organizations (and the list of similar cases would be damn near endless), it instinctively seeks to protect and preserve its authority, be it actual or perceived, at all costs. 

            Not that that makes the current state of affairs any less dangerous or unacceptable.  And the importance of these events and of the threats inherent in our current system has only grown more pressing and relevant with time.  Just last week, a bill that would have ended the bulk data collection programs detailed in the leaks was defeated in the Senate by, what else, almost universal Republican opposition.  Senator Rubio (R-Florida) even went so far as to call allegations that the program was being abused a “theoretical threat.”  With the country now facing two entire years of Republican Senate control, it is to be severely doubted that any progress in this area will be made in the near future.  This makes viewing Citizenfour even more of an imperative for each and every person, US citizen or otherwise, who is not content to just be handed a future they are unable to shape or effectively take part in.  The future need not be bleak.  All it takes is our active participation.  And despite the controversy it will incite in viewers and the many points of contention that can be found within it, Citizenfour is a powerful call to attention and action.  It is one of the few films of 2014 that truly is, in every sense of the word, a must-see. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review: The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game (2014): Written by Graham Moore, directed by Morten Tyldum.  Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, and Rory Kinnear.  Running Time: 114 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

**in case you know nothing of the life of Alan Turing, and wish to see the film without knowing anything that happens beforehand, which is not the worst idea in the world in this instance, this review contains many spoilers.  No other way for me to really talk about what works/doesn’t work without being maddeningly vague.**

            Some of you may recall that I referred to Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice-over role as Smaug in the second Hobbit film as his best performance of 2013, and I still stand by that statement.  He became ubiquitous last year, appearing in nearly half a dozen screen roles, while also coming dangerously close to breaking the internet with a particularly shameless scene from Sherlock.  Sadly, many of the films ended up being not terribly good, or had a shockingly awful ending, or were just plain average, while his presence in the otherwise excellent Best-Picture-Winner 12 Years A Slave was spared the ignominy of being the film’s most out-of-place casting choice only by the late appearance of Brad Pitt’s hilariously awful stab at a Canadian accent.  This year he is testing the awards waters again, but this time around with the much sturdier choice of a historical biopic set in the Second World War, which, if the term “Oscar Bait” were a black hole, would form the singularity at the very center.  Thankfully, Alan Turing- a misunderstood and emotionally tortured yet singularly brilliant genius, whose utter lack of people skills and seeming absence of human empathy caused many people to hate him like a particularly virulent strain of the Black Death- turns out to be a much better fit for Cumberbatch’s unique talents than a southern plantation owner.  I can't possibly fathom why

            First, the story, for those of you who are not familiar with the Tragic Tale of Turing; Alan Turing, a math prodigy (or “maths,” as Britons still insist on calling it) was hired shortly after the war began to join a team of elite codebreakers with the sole task of cracking Enigma, the system used by the Germans to encode every single radio message they send involving troop movements, battle plans, etc.  The concept of cracking it is not that difficult- one merely has to test all possible combinations within the system- but since there are millions upon millions upon millions of possible solutions, and the entire system is reset every single night at midnight, there is nowhere near enough time for a team of human minds, no matter how sharp, to crack more than a few messages in a given day.  Hence the need for an alternative solution. 

            Turing had worked in the past on theories regarding the development a machine that would have the mechanical capacity to handle the calculations needed for just such a scenario, and despite opposition from others within his team (and from his constantly irate higher-ups), he pursues this objective with single-minded furor, eventually winning the respect and admiration from the others on his team and the precious friendship of the group’s lone female (to whom he briefly becomes engaged), Joan Clarke, who had to fight through her own barriers to get there.  After several years, they are successful in building the first of what come to be called “Turing Machines” (or as they are called today, “digital computers”), and are able to figure out the daily combinations of Enigma almost instantly.  It is estimated that the intelligence gleaned in this way shortened the war (the European war, that is) by as much as two years, saving tens of millions of additional lives in the process. 

            That is only part of the story being told, however.  In one of the film’s few moments of truly clever storytelling, much of the beginning is broken up between the war years, Turing’s childhood (when he was turned on to codebreaking), and his post-war years, when his homosexuality (still illegal at that time) was discovered by the law, leading to a sentence forcing him to undergo chemical castration, a process that ultimately broke him and led him to commit suicide at 41.  The edits between the different phases of his life are very well done, and will pack a decent punch for anyone who genuinely doesn’t know how the story will end

            It very is a typical historical biopic in this sense- slickly made and very well acted (the cast is excellent through and through), but very formulaic in its style and presentation, even including the scenes where Turing is first betrayed, and then stuck up for by his team of codebreakers later on, and numerous lines regarding his tastes and character there solely to be brought back as one-shot punchlines later on.  All of that was to be expected though.  What does drag are the sometimes rather random cuts to either reels of actual news footage, or digitally-enhanced flash shots of the aftermath of real battles, starkly tinted in such a way that none of them would look out of place in a Medal of Honor cut scene.  The effect is similar to if the otherwise-solid The King’s Speech had randomly spliced in clips from Ken Burns’ WWII documentary series. 

            That the scenes do not gel at all with the rest of the film is problematic enough, but they also tend to cut away the support of the biggest emotional punch the film has- as Turing points out in his narration, once they cracked the code, they then had to make the excruciating choice to not reveal even some of the most devastating attacks planned, since acting on more than a certain amount of intelligence (they use cold statistics to determine exactly how much) would quickly alert the Germans to the fact that Enigma has been cracked, and they would have to start from scratch yet again.  The first scene where they realize this is a powerful testament to how the horrors of war can stretch far beyond the battlefield, and cutting to scenes of actual battle actually lessens their effect in a number of cases. 

            However, as with any decent biopic, the linchpin is whether or not Cumberbatch is able to effectively bring across the triumphs and struggles of Alan Turing, and his performance alone is more than enough reason to see this movie.  The man can deliver a lot of emotion, and this time around, he finally has a character and script that give him the tools he needs.  And despite the expected inaccuracies, it is a welcome window onto a remarkable tale of one of the most important minds of the last century, someone who has only recently begun to receive his historical due.  It is far from my favorite film of the year, but I am grateful for its presence. 

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar (2014): Written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, directed by Christopher Nolan.  Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Billy Irwin, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn.  Running Time: 169 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Any of us who have avidly followed the trajectory of Chris Nolan’s career have no reason to be surprised at the subject matter of Interstellar.  The man has always eschewed the normal “rules” of storytelling; out of the 9 films he has helmed so far, only 3 (Insomnia, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises) follow the typical pattern of presenting the story to us straight, from start to finish.  And Insomnia was a studio-ordered remake, not one of his original screenplays.  Given his tendency to break his narratives into as many pieces as rational sense would allow, it was only a matter of time before he threw all caution to the wind and proclaimed Time Itself to be his new stomping grounds.  It was an inevitable next step in the life of a man determined to cinematically question every facet of self-perception imaginable, and the result is Interstellar

            But I am getting ahead of myself.  We open on Earth an unknown number of years in the future.  A blight, possibly-though-never-explicitly aided by global warming (kudos to the film for not going for the easy points), has wiped out all crops on earth except for corn, which is heavily harvested by a small number of farmers in the American Midwest.  Times are so desperate that teachers and other authority figures openly refer to themselves as a “caretaker generation,” blatantly lying about past space exploration to keep their children focused on how to better cultivate the Earth.  None of this sits well with Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot and engineer who tries to raise his kids, especially his preternaturally brilliant daughter Murph, to have a sense of wonder at life and at the stars.  When strange goings-on (ghostlike, according to Murph’s description) in Murph’s room seem to be sending them coordinates of some sort in Morse code, they follow them to what, it turns out, is the remaining base of NASA, forced to operate in secret after the tide of public opinion forced governments to abandon any open support for space exploration.  There he finds his old mentor Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway).  From them he learns that another blight is soon to come, one that will both destroy all remaining corn and will also consume so much oxygen that the remainder of humanity will suffocate as a result. 

            That said, a lone form of salvation has appeared near Saturn- a wormhole leading to another galaxy, where a handful of potentially habitable world circle a massive black hole.  Cooper is convinced to lead the final team, which will include Amelia, to seek out the best one (several teams have been sent out before, and a few have sent back positive return signals).  The elder Brand will stay behind to complete an equation that should allow him to solve gravity itself, thus allowing humanity to leave Earth en masse in massive space stations before zero hour hits.  Murph is obviously heartbroken by her Dad’s decision to leave, and their agonizing separation is perfectly timed with the countdown for the final lift off.  As she sobs into her grandfather’s arms while Cooper drives off, we hear simultaneously hear the launch countdown.  The crew is lifted off into the recesses of space, preparing themselves for whatever they may find through the wormhole. 

            By now, a great number of cinephiles are solidly split between those who adore the general body of Chris Nolan’s work, and those who may admire his technical prowess but loathe his seemingly incontrollable urge to explain EVERYTHING about the complexities he thinks up for each of his films (the rest, to judge by appearances, do not give half a rat’s tail either way).  This film will change the minds of no one in either camp, and if anything is likely to reinforce and harden any preconceived notions or attitudes towards the man that a particular viewer walks into the film with.  The characters are, for the most part, the same stock archetypes of stoic professionalism willing to sacrifice their own humanity for any great ideal of their choosing.  This is very often the point in his films- his stories tend to both respect or even revere such a mentality while also being brutally honest about the price that must be paid as a result.  Thankfully, much to film’s salvation, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway end up being fairly inspired casting choices; both are able to bring along more than enough pathos to overcome the clunkier bits of exposition they are handed (and was there every any doubt that Michael Caine would sell his biggest scene like DiCaprio huckstering bad stocks?). 

            I was also rather amused to see the first effort we’ve ever gotten at straight humor from Chris Nolan (of the non-pitch-black variety, that is) in the form of…...a snarky AI robot (named TARS) voiced by Billy Irwin.  Like with his decision to finally turn to time itself as a plot device, it is ironically fitting that Nolan’s first comic character is not, in fact, a human, but a robot programmed to simulate human humor and emotion.  Interpret that as you will.  And the result is a character all its own in recent sci-fi memory, one that would easily outrank all the flesh-and-blood creatures gamboling about as the most emotionally-engaging persona on screen were it not for McConaughey opening up every last gate holding back his tear ducts.  This will be another factor in the film dividing audiences, but I enjoyed TARS immensely, not least because of the unique style of movement the designers came up with for how the robots move.  I’m not sure what’s supposed to hold their various constituent parts together, but based on my experience with a certain trick wallet, I would guess magnetism of some kind. 

            There are, to be sure, stumbles other than the standard Nolan-isms on full display, ones that are harder to ignore.  Unlike in a number of my past reviews, I will not delve into spoilers for this film- like many of Nolan’s films, there are several twists built into the story’s structure that are best experienced cold- but I sadly cannot ignore one smaller twist where two of the human characters (without saying who or where or why) turn antagonistic to Cooper’s mission, in ways that very much feel as if they are only there for the purpose of adding clearly identifiable bad guys with human faces.  Given that the stakes for the entire affair were already pretty damn high, this was entirely unnecessary, and is a strange distraction from the otherwise very solid third-act, where the various plot points and story pieces Nolan has set up come together beautifully in one of the most visually and thematically interesting mashups of actual scientific theory and more mythical sci-fi wonderings we’ve gotten in….hell, I can’t remember the last time we had a big-budget movie try to push a discussion like this.  This, combined with the looming threat of human extinction, was more than adequate for the purpose of creating dramatic and nervous tension.  The fistfight in spacesuits was just extraneous.   

            And yet…for all the ways Nolan seems to inadvertently trip over his own toes in his eagerness to match the transcendent splendor of the final sequences in Kubrick’s 2001, there is a staying power in the film’s more potent scenes that it’s slower parts and occasionally punishing length can never undo.  Cooper’s final goodbyes with his family, the buildup to and subsequent journey through the wormhole, a sequence involving a spinning station, and a major third-act segment involving the giant black hole itself are all the sort of scenes that could easily become sci-fi legend, given a little time for the film to make its impact felt.  There has been a bevy of criticism leveled at the film for the ways it holds itself back, and while many complaints are not without merit, it should bear remembering that the reason sci-fi as a genre exist in the first place is to make whatever leaps, however halting, into the future of both mankind in general and the art of cinema specifically a writer or director can dream up.  Interstellar takes more than a few leaps of logic and daring, and the simple experience of watching the jumps in action is its own special treat, even when it can’t always stick the landings. 

-Noah Franc  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review: Im Labyrinth des Schweigens (In the Labyrinth of Silence)

In the Labyrinth of Silence (2014): Written by Giulio Ricciarelli and Elisabeth Bartel, directed by Giulio Ricciarelli.  Starring: Alexander Fehling, Johannes Kirsch, Friederike Becht, Hansi Jochmann, Johann von Buelow, Gert Voss, Robert Hunger-Buehler, and Andre Szymanski.  Running Time: 122 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            One of the most enduring debates in our world is how to approach reconciliation and healing after great crimes are committed, especially on a national or state level.  There is no one clear answer, no one path or set of rules that can be universally applied to all situations.  Sometimes great conflicts or crimes are maintained in an uneasy, “stable” status quo, like in Korea.  Some are only resolved when a particular side wins decisively on the field of battle, like in Sri Lanka.  Some societies choose to tackle the wounds of the past directly through formal organizations like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  And some, like the German government in the years immediately following WWII and the revelations of the Holocaust, choose silence. 

            This is the world that a young lawyer, Johann Radmann, has grown up in, experiencing only the non-confrontational post-war world of Konrad Adenauer and the German “Economic Miracle.”  Currently paying his legal dues in the rather dull world of legal traffic violations, he yearns for the chance to do something of substance, inspired by the example set by his father, himself a lawyer prior to his disappearance during the War.  He seizes his chance when an aggressive journalist, Thomas Gnielka, confronts his colleagues with a claim by a friend of his, a survivor of Auschwitz survivor named Simon Kirsch.  Having been not old enough to grasp his circumstances during the war itself, he is almost completely unaware of the true extent of Nazi brutality, and holds only a hazy notion of Auschwitz as a POW camp of sorts. 

            Despite his profound naiveté, or perhaps because of it, a senior member of the office named Fritz Bauer enlists him, another lawyer, and a secretary to fully investigate all leads that the journalist and his friend can provide regarding any surviving guards from Auschwitz that can be tried murder.  And they have to have convincing proof that the people were either complicit in or fully aware of the extent of the killing that went on, since actual murder charges are the only ones not affected by a previously agreed-upon statute of limitations.  Bauer has been chomping at the bit for years, looking for the chance to strike back at the former Nazis he knows are still free at every level of German society, but has been helpless to do anything about it due to the agreement reached among the Western powers following the Nuremberg Trials that any further members of Hitler’s government would either be ignored, or if they proved useful against the growing strength of the Soviet Union, protected.  The goal is a single, massive trial, with as many survivors testifying against as many former SS members as possible, so as to finally break the veil of silence that has descended upon the country, resulting in a generation growing up entirely ignorant of the blood on their country’s hands. 

            Johann’s lack of comprehension of the scale of the tragedy is brutally rectified in his very first interview with another survivor.  Surprised at the blasé nature of his questions, the man stares incredulously at him and asks (through an interpreter), “You want to know what crimes I saw?  Do you not realize what Auschwitz was?  They murdered hundreds of thousands of people!”  After hearing this, a look of realization can be seen striking Johann right between the eyes; an abyss of unending darkness has opened up beneath his feet, and he almost dares not look down for fear of what he may see in the void below. 

            But look he must, and he does, even as the work begins to wear him down and affect his relationship with friends and his love for a young seamstress named Marlene.  Through his interviews with survivors and his scouring of leftover records in the IG-Farbenhaus in Frankfurt (now the official offices for the US 5th Corps), he slowly develops both the case they need and his own terrifying understanding of both the extent of German atrocities and of the parallel terrors of silence imposed on the topic since then.  He learns of the experiments (and continued freedom) of Josef Mengele, aka the Angel of Death, delves into his own father’s connection to the Nazi party, and as a result begins to lose his own ability to trust anyone he knows with even tangential connections to the war. 

            Like with another German film from earlier this year, Phoenix, Im Labyrinth des Schweigens never needs to resort to explicit depictions of the sufferings of the camps to have the desired effect.  We have all seen the photos and the videos.  We have seen movies like Schindler’s List, making the horrors of Auschwitz more real to us than any book or documentary could.  Any piling on top of that would be redundant and numbing.  Instead, the director chose deliberately to focus on the people themselves, as they tell their stories, with long close-ups of their faces as they struggle to reconcile themselves with the terrible events they have no choice but to remember.  It’s almost a way to regain the humanity of those who suffered, to show them as individuals, something that can easily be lost amidst talk of the massive numbers of dead involved. 

            Johann’s emotional journey through the experience of preparing the trial, in many ways written to reflect the spiritual struggles of the entire country in its efforts to be able to face these crimes, is portrayed flawlessly by Alexander Fehling.  The man comes fully equipped at all times with a beautifully trembling lower lip for whenever a moment of pure, emotional pathos is needed.  His character is in many ways a stand-in for us as the audience.  Any of us raised with a proper understanding of history have had to experience the same moments he does: the unknowing innocence in our early years of what people are capable of, the sense of unspeakable horror when we first confront the darkness or potential in us and those around us, and the daily struggle to be able to reconcile the conflicting natures of humanity so as to not allow ourselves to be dragged down into the abyss as well. 

            Given that the film, the first feature-length work by Giulio Ricciarelli, is attempting to shed light on a crucial aspect of German social development and reconciliation during the Cold War that has been ignored up ‘til now, I do feel that it could have delved further into the legal and cultural challenges facing everyone involved in the process.  As a vehicle for conveying the evils of Nazism, it is certainly more muted in its approach than more explicit films dealing with the same subject matter, which will perhaps rob it of a deep emotional impact on many.  Nonetheless, this is also a part of the tale of Germany and the Holocaust, and is therefore every bit as much worth remembering as the chilling memories of death in the camps themselves.  It needs a place in our collective memories as an example of the little bits of good than can be done in our daily lives to counter such awful acts, to rebuild what others would destroy. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Few Thoughts On #GamerGate or Why It Needs To Die

            Up ‘til now, I had resolved to keep my silence on #GamerGate.  This was primarily because I am really nothing more than a casual gamer (with exception for Pokemon and Civilization, and a handful of gems like Portal and Gone Home), and therefore felt that I did not have the necessary depth of familiarity with the video games industry.  I had followed the general trends of events via several online presences whose intellectual and professional integrity I have nothing but the highest regard for, and noted more and more that not a single one of them had anything positive to say about it.  And over the past few weeks, with more and more tales of fear and threats surfacing almost daily, I began to feel that a turning point had been reached; #GamerGate is no longer a video games problem.  What’s more, it never was one to begin with- it’s a cultural problem.  And we need everyone to speak out against it. 

            I will not do a full recap of events, since that would take far more time than I currently have at my disposal.  For some different perspectives on this whole circus, many of which include links to further sources if you really want to wade into the swamp, I recommend taking a look at MovieBob’s most recent post on the subject, as well as a much-quoted response to the many defenses of the movement, a TIME article about the greater importance of this step in the development of video games, and the rebuttal to the movement posted by Todd in the Shadows to blog page for Nostalgia Chic’s website. 

            If you are reading this and are as of yet unaware of the general course of events over the past few months, please read the above links before continuing.  I am not concerned so much with how #GamerGate began, although that was sickening enough.  My worries center around where it is now, and the troubling signs I see in the near future. 

            As far as some have tried (some earnestly, some halfheartedly, some cynically) to turn #GamerGate from an attack on a single woman’s personal character into a general “reform movement” for gaming journalism, the primary problem with #GamerGate is this; it was and is too divided and too scattered to ever be effective in this regard.  In broad terms, the entire population of people (I won’t even bother using the term “gamers” here) who claim or have claimed support of any kind for #GamerGate or its appropriation of the #NotYourShield hashtag can be sifted into two general groups.  The far larger of the group is, most likely, people who are not bad people, who likely do not contribute to the waves of hate and threats that have sullied countless online forums, and who actually do believe that earnest efforts to reform the gaming industry are needed.  That said, actual statistics proving or disproving this are impossible to obtain, so in terms of the numbers on each side it is entirely possible that the reverse is true, and the second category of #GamerGaters are truly the majority of the movement.  Unless proof to that end is ever forthcoming, however, I will give humanity the benefit of the doubt, and assume that that is not the case.  I sure hope it isn’t. 

            The second group- the group that essentially started the movement and have been holding the reigns ever since- consists of a probably small, yet highly organized, group of racists, sexists, misogynists, trolls, ignoramuses, and small-minded, frightened man-children.  It is a group that senses the cultural and demographic shifts pushing them to minority, side-show status within an industry they have hitherto dominated.  It is a group that realizes that the true of future of games, like the true future of humanity, lies in plurality, in increasing diversity, where all stories of all kinds have the potential to find their way into games that reach the levels of high art achieved by other storytelling mediums like poetry, books, film, music, dance, and so on.  And it realizes that that journey into the realm of genuine art can only come about with the changing and, in many cases, elimination of many of the less-savory aspects of past and current gaming culture under the harsh light of public scrutiny.  And it fears this, more than it can put into words. 

            So they waited for the right opportunity to strike.  And when Zoe Quinn’s butthurt ex, whose name, if there is any justice in the world, will be lost to history, let loose his libelous diarrhea of adolescent rage, they saw their chance, and began striking out.  Not against any actual sources of questionable journalistic practices in gaming that do exist and should be dealt with, but rather against token developers and online personas who had been directly challenging for years their cherished worldview that there was nothing wrong whatsoever with the gaming environment they know and love today.  These people have acted with intent to emotionally harm, and quite possibly, with intent to physically harm as well.  Reform was never something to be taken seriously.  It was merely there to be used as a shield. 

            It pains me to use the word “they” in contexts like this, since it can easily lead one to exactly the kind of mental segregation of humanity I am so often railing against.  However, it is necessary now, as it sometimes is, to draw a distinction between those people directly (or even passively) involving themselves in the torrents of abuse, and those who have made genuine, albeit hopeless, efforts to rechannel the movements into something constructive.  We must be conscious about our use of the term, but in this case, it is necessary. 

            The result of all this- of the horridly graphic threats, the crashing of websites that refuse to bow down, the leaking of personal information of those who criticize them, and the cowing of others through implied threats of the same- has and can only be destructive.  It is a hindrance to the needed task of addressing real issues with modern video gaming.  It is driving creative, intellectual, and passionate people from the world of game design.  In a word, it is depriving this medium of exactly the sort of figures it needs to mature.  And it needs to stop NOW.  In fact, all you really need to do to fully understand what really drives this sludge is to note that the figures most often attacked and threatened in the most graphic ways….are all women.  Without exception.  That tells you everything you need to know. 

            Why care about this, if, as admitted above, I do no really consider myself part of any particular gaming community?  Simple- because I am a lover of film. 

            “And what the hell does that have to do with any of this?” you surely ask.  How can film, a form of entertainment over a century old and an indelible part of larger human culture, be compared with the new technology of video games?  Again, the answer is simple- film went through the exact same issues with sexism, racism, and general tolerance for diversity that video games are currently going through.  In fact, film is still going through it, because up until just recently the world of cinema has been blowing it big time when it comes to supporting genuine plurality.  And even now, the explosion of diversity in film we are seeing is being driven more by the levelling power of the internet than by any genuine, organized change effort.  We have had 86 Academy Awards thus far, which can roughly be used to date the existence of the film industry as it exists today, and only within the last 5 years have we seen a lone woman, a lone Hispanic, and a lone Asian (the latter two being men) win the Best Director trophy, and only this year did we finally see a film made by a black man win Best Picture.  Only within the past two years have box-office numbers statistically contradicted the assertions of big studios that action/big-budget fare starring women can’t ever be generally popular and make money.  You know that Avengers 2 trailer  everyone is gushing fire about?  How many seconds or footage are devoted to female/non-white characters?  5?  Maybe 7.5?  One of the most influential films ever made is Birth of a Nation, a morally offensive love letter to the KKK. 

            Yes sir, film has been humiliating itself big time for DECADES, if not longer.  And with all the benefits of hindsight we now have, video games are in a position to learn from the errors in the development of film as a medium.  The drivers of the industry can learn from the history of film and avoid many of the pitfalls that has led to cinema in general being shockingly regressive far too long into the 21st century.  That is, IF they can effectively push away and ignore the rants and tantrums of the petulant children claiming the shield of not being anyone’s shield.  This will be a turning point in the developing of video games either way.  It’s only a question of whether or not the turn will be positive or negative. 

            The real reason, however, why it is critical that EVERYONE understand what is happening with #GamerGate is that the real reasons why it exists, and the true forces pushing it to its horrifying extremes, are exactly same the same forces we see driving the Tea Party and the related partisanship that has paralyzed our government for the past 4 years.  While latent racism and conservative/social reactionism were not necessarily the initial cause of the Tea Party,  they were very much what kicked it into high gear once a black man (GASP!) won the Presidency and was able to push through the first piece of truly significant social legislation since Johnson’s Great Society initiative.  This, combined with the general fear within older, white, Christian voters that they are finally losing their very, very long vicegrip on American society, is what has allowed the demagogues of the movement to seize control over an entire party, pummeling its veteran leadership into acquiescing to their demands and exiling them from party leadership when they fail to comply, or simply for uttering the word “compromise.”  There is no other explanation able to bear scrutiny as to why Obama was the first President EVER to have his citizenship called into question, and why to this day a depressingly large percentage of Republican voters believe that he is either a Muslim, or the Antichrist, or both (I swear to God, I am not making this up).   

            With the Tea Party, we see this same basic dynamic- a tiny minority wholly unrepresentative of American society, terrified of seeing its influence inevitably waning, motivated by racism, sexism, xenophobia, and general fear of any form of change perceived as directly harmful to their interests, that has seized control of public means of discussion to bully as many as they can into either open support or silent assent.  A movement that employs language and ideas general and open enough to mask their real intentions and confer legitimacy on campaigns of harassment and cruelty (including, in the Tea Party’s case, vague arguments about deficits, the need to preserve tradition, and opaque claims that government in general is “bad”).  A movement that claims it wants “reform,” yet is unwilling (or unable) to provide any actual specifics about what it wants and how it wants to achieve them.  A movement that demonizes any critique or opposition to its maddeningly unclear goals, and kicks out any within its ranks that dares to disagree. 

            It is this movement that is primarily to blame for the radicalization of the Republican Party and the creation of a system more gridlocked and unproductive than any other Congress since before the Civil War.  It is the forces behind this movement that push against efforts to change cultures within sports, the military, universities, and others that encourage or passively accept sexual violence and harassment again women.  It is these forces that claim slavery was in the past, and is therefore no longer relevant in terms of why racial and economic disparity in the US is so high.  These are the forces continuing to seek ways to deny health coverage to the poor, who push for “voter reform laws” that, curiously, overwhelmingly restrict the ability of overwhelmingly Democratic groups to vote.  That claim that global warming, the greatest threat to humanity in history, does not exist. 

            But I digress.  Coming back to #GamerGate- the end result of the past few months is that the cultural development of video games has been substantially set back.  How far back, no one can say.  And as of right now, like with the Tea Party’s disgustingly outsized influence on our public debate, there is no effective counterweight to this.  All the people, including some dear friends of mine, that would like to have an actual conversation about how to improve gaming journalism have been thoroughly used and drowned out.  There is no real debate going on, just shady and half-formed accusations.  No steps have been taken or even brought forward about how to make actual, real improvement in how games are reported on. 

            What HAS happened is that websites and corporations have been virtually pummeled into submission and silence for doing or saying something- anything, really- that the organized #GamerGaters didn’t like.  What HAS happened is that, instead of inspiring the kind of open, spirited, and yes, painful and uncomfortable discussions that are essential for any change of positive consequence to occur, a climate of fear, anger, and mistrust has suffocated any attempt at real conversation.  The case of Felicia Day, one of the most positive and outspoken voices for games as a force for good, is as clear an example of this as anyone could provide; instead of voicing her own ideas about improving gaming journalism, she kept silent for months, out of fear.  And when she finally did speak, openly expressing her worries about where the movement is headed, she was punished, literally within minutes (on that note, if you haven’t, read Day’s silence-breaking post.  It is incredible, and brave, and wonderful).  What HAS happened is that women and their families have felt compelled to flee their homes, fearing for their very lives. 

            This means that #GamerGate as a social movement, as a reform movement, as a movement any different from a terrorism campaign (see this video as to why the use of the word “terrorism,” in this instance, is not without merit) is an utter failure, because from day one, the people pushing it the most were people who never cared one whit for tackling actual problems within the industry.  This is no different from the verbal assault that was rained down upon a female critic at a movie website for daring to spoil Guardians of the Galaxy’s perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomato (which prompted a pitch-perfect response from the site’s editor).  This is no different from the leeches that obtained celebrity nude photos and launched The Fappening, or the gremlins that tortured Robin Williams’ daughter with photoshopped images of her dead dad.  The exact same forces have been at work here from day one, the same forces of cultural and social reactionism that drive dreck like the Tea Party and give Fox News a reason for existing.  And with #Gamergate, they have been allowed to spread even further.  Which is, finally, why I am arguing that this is a cultural problem.  Not a gaming one.  It is a cultural problem, and we must all be part of the solution.  Because there is no excuse- NONE- for us not to be outraged into action by opening up the news and reading about another woman fleeing for her very life, simply because she opened her mouth and spoke her mind.  There is NEVER an excuse for that to happen.  I don’t care if there ever WAS a conspiracy to hijack the gaming industry (more spoilers- there wasn’t, there isn’t, and there never will be). 

            #GamerGate must be abandoned.  All decent-minded people who actually do want to improve things within gaming must truly come together, get organized, form vetted, dependable leadership, and provide a narrative and a course of action other than what the wretches and misogynists have offered us thus far.  The hashtags have to be abandoned, and new hashtags, new monikers, new mottos and new rallying cries found, because #GamerGate and #NotYourShield are tainted beyond all salvation.  The vultures have come home to roost, and they are not leaving until every bone has been picked dry.  We have to admit, collectively, that #GamerGate is a failure, and start anew.  Otherwise, the same corrosive forces paralyzing our political system and stratifying our society will poison the bright future of games as the next great storytelling medium.  And I don’t want to see that happen. 

-Noah Franc