Monday, November 19, 2012

Gaming the System: "Wreck-It Ralph" (Rich Moore, 2012)

by James Hansen 

In what is surely the most welcome surprise of the cinematic year thus far, Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph, the latest release from Disney Animation, ingeniously combines the central conceits of both animation and gaming into a thrilling and heartfelt animated film. Moreover, it does so with a regard to history as simultaneously an aesthetic and technological question. If Disney has lagged behind its younger brother Pixar in recent years, Wreck-It Ralph usefully shifts the dynamic back to the kind of risk-taking Disney once took and Pixar overtook before it began inundating itself with useless sequels alongside overconcentration on technique and naturalism, threatening to turn the form against itself and mutate into something “accomplished” yet hyperstatic (a la Peter Jackson). Thankfully, Moore (and co-writers Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee) allows Wreck-It Ralph to ponder where it came from and where it will go next. 

That this all works so well is in large part due to the delicate balancing act of Moore and his screenwriters. Wreck-It Ralph, a Donkey Kong like figure, is the villain of the arcade game Fix-It Felix. After 30 years on the job, Ralph, distressed by his bad guy status, goes on a mission to win a hero medal in order to be seen as a good guy and, thus, welcomed by the rest of the villagers of Fix-It Felix. Here, the rest of the games in the arcade stand-in as a networked world in which characters navigate through electric portals into other (sometimes newer) game spaces. The majority of the film takes place inside the game “Sugar Rush,” seemingly a Mario Kart version of Bratz. Here, a young girl, Vanellope, takes Ralph’s hero medal to cash in for a coveted spot in the Sugar Rush race. Vanellope, a character identified as a systematic glitch, has been banished from racing (thus the space of the actual game) by King Candy. Meanwhile, Fix-It Felix teams up with a Halo-esque female commander, Calhoun, to break into “Sugar Rush” and bring Ralph back before the arcade manager says game-over for the game, unplugging it from the network, leaving homeless characters wandering the portal.

Though this falls into a familiar story of outsider characters finding their place within their changing worlds, Wreck-It Ralph approaches this with a supreme tenderness as it slides between the worlds and the characters come to realize their outdatedness, their glitchy quirks, and their inability to assimilate with their coded, networked spaces. Making ongoing references to strictly defined game code as something to overcome, there remains a tension between the character’s desires and their technological constraints. Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t quite go all the way with its aesthetic – the old, 8-bit game characters are more natural inside their game space and, therein, more alike other characters than different. (This is something of a practical question, as it is unlikely anyone would respond to 8-bit, talking characters versus more natural ones, but it really would have been something if Moore and company would have tried and fully committed to the aesthetic question, actually allowing for the 8-bit world and the modern game world to collide. Can’t have it all...) 

 Nonetheless, the films remains reticent to updating and regenerating as a means of staying alive. Here, Wreck-It Ralph picks up where Enchanted left off. Whereas Enchanted negotiated the ambivalence between reality and fantasy, the real world versus the princess, the two-dimension versus the three-dimension (see my full Enchanted review for more on this), Wreck-It Ralph operates within this interstitial space, brilliantly conceived as a gaming question, where the villain manipulates code to deny the avatars freedom – the very thing that “avatars” supposedly provide the user. This doesn’t suggest, as one may think, that the coded game is seen as pure, manipulable loss, hence reiterating the old analog versus digital, but rather is an embrace of the glitch, of the code as something which can break down, of the individual who embraces assimilation (or, at least, connection) through difference.

Thus, Wreck-It Ralph denies the input/output logic of the coded network and looks instead for a territorializing glitch which can code, de-code, and re-code. The character Vanellope is key here. Befriending both the destructive forces of Ralph and reconstructive help of Felix, she builds, breaks, and rebuilds her car, her code, and herself. Wreck-It Ralph moves through these concerns with great sincerity, delicacy, and heart. Not merely a technological game, the film packs a serious emotional punch, emotions which underly the very issues of individuality, building and rebuilding, deforming and reforming, which are at the core of the character’s (the the film’s) concerns. Moore may still be navigating an undecided space, but, here, it is one that incorporates its history – both good and bad – as it moves along to a new game. Wreck-It Ralph, you may just be our hero.

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

by James Hansen 

In some ways, this shift is precisely how Holy Motors functions as an ambiguous narrative – one which maintains investment, sincerity, and demands “belief” while at the same time explicitly directing itself toward its own detachment, its irony, its artificiality. These things are never certain, but its all part of the game, part of how culture marks time, part of how we live.

A beguiling hit at this year’s Cannes Festival, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors opens, somewhat unexpectedly, in Columbus today. An ever-playful, generous, and loving celebration of all things cinematic, Holy Motors verges, at the same time, on a mournful, melancholic death drive, which has uselessly dominated discussion of film’s transition to digital technologies. Its incorporation of images from early motion experiments, however, should indicate that this not a movie singularly about the death of celluloid. While it is unquestionably concerned with death, its constantly reshaping temporalities suggest an ongoing reformation – of the image, of the body, of life itself – through performance, recorded motion, and, thereby, cinema. 

Yet, this is already much too academic and gets away from the joyful pleasure of watching a showcase for actor Denis Lavant. Starring as the shape-shifting Monsieur Oscar, Lavant gives the performance of the year, not just because he effectively plays so many roles, but because of the almost primal physicality invoked through each character. While the acts occurring during his “appointments” become increasingly violent as the film progresses, Lavant ceaselessly maintains an extreme energy with each characters, so much so that it comes as no surprise when the events spill over into purposefully flagrant excess. One appointment involving motion capture has been used to discuss Carax’s recognition of the shift from indexical film to binary 1s and 0s of digitally manipulated code; still, it has to be said (and seen) that this remains tied to a body, Lavant’s body, as he sways above, under, and around the body of his female partner. This extraordinarily physical dance is the marvel of the act which transposes itself onto another screen, in another mode, for another purpose. In some ways, this shift is precisely how Holy Motors functions as an ambiguous narrative – one which maintains investment, sincerity, and demands “belief” while at the same time explicitly directing itself toward its own detachment, its irony, its artificiality. These things are never certain, but its all part of the game, part of how culture marks time, part of how we live. 

Going far beyond a bifurcated structure, Holy Motors uses Monsieur Oscar’s appointments as constant disruptions and narratival ruptures, which nonetheless become absorbed in the film’s “reality” as it plays out. Holy Motors has a kind of plasticity allowing it to expand into new places yet always retracting back into Lavant, into the body, into the film. Who were we? Where are we? Who will I be now? Who will I be next? Considering these questions and structure, Holy Motors follows up by Joe’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and transports it into a different type of holy territory – one of flashing lights in the sky (or the back of a car), speaking to each other, waiting to take on a new, angelic, yet earthly forms. Indeed, if the final moments echo back to the beginning of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, then the circle Holy Motors makes isn’t a retread over well-worn surfaces, but an expansive tailspin into new riches. Amen. 

Grade: A
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