Thursday, March 17, 2011

Glimpsing the Future with Felicia Day and Kudos for a Fine Fencing Blog Post


There are moments when current events allow you to glimpse the future. One example took place on May 21st, 1929 when Charles Lindberg landed at Le Bourget field in Paris having crossed the Atlantic alone in the Spirit of Saint Louis thus presaging an age of international travel and catapulting himself into instant celebrity, one of the first. Another such moment , was in September 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland using highly coordinated massive air, artillery, armor in their strategy of lighting warfare or “blitzkrieg.” The highly coordinated use of overwhelming force was not only a defining aspect of World War II but remains a viable strategy as the US demonstrated in its “shock and awe” campaign against Bagdad.

I have the sense that two recent events, of vastly different scales, in very different areas of human experience may prove just as prophetic albeit in a very different way. The first, and most obvious, is the nuclear crisis in Japan. It’s hard to imagine a more clear and terrible demonstration that statistically highly unlikely events must be planned for and managed at an international level. It’s an expensive and unpleasant realization, but the plain truth is that the world is too interconnected, the technologies are too potent and the potential consequences of indifference are too terrible for us not to do so.

The other example, has to do with business. Not too long ago, the movie rental giant Blockbuster was forced into bankruptcy by Netflix and their inability to adapt to Netflix’s online/mail delivery based model which eschewed late fees. For their part, Netflix always saw that innovation as a bridging strategy and now it’s battling against Amazon et al, for online streaming delivery of entertainment content.

My sense is that even if one of them wins that war it may be a pyrrhic victory. That surmise follows from the other recent event I alluded to: the announcement by Bioware/EA that they had begun production of a web fantasy series with Felicia Day. Ms. Day is perhaps best known for her project “The Guild,” an indie web series about the fortunes of a group of people playing a massively multiplayer online role playing game akin to World of Warcraft. The DVD of season 4 of “The Guild” has just been released to DVD and, according to Ms. Day in a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon, the series has had over 100 million viewers online. I consider it a seminal event because it’s hard to imagine a more clear demonstration that financial power in entertainment is flowing inexorably from distribution organizations to content creators such as Ms. Day. Bioware/EA’s new project with Ms. Day could be seen as a clear recognition of that fact. I suspect Netflix realizes it as well as they are in negotiations to produce and develop Kevin Spacey’s project, a remake of “House of Cards.”

On an entirely separate topic, there’s a fencing tournament in Park City this weekend which I’m going to try to make even though I’ve had to miss my last two weeks of open fencing practice as well as class. I must admit to being inspired to do so by Fencing Bear’s decision to compete in Detroit last weekend in spite of much greater obstacles. And I should mention that her blog of March 15th contained one of the coolest and sharpest descriptions of what goes through your mind while fencing that I’ve yet read. It’s definitely worth a read, Why that last bout really sucked

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Good Stories are Hard


A day ago, on the Guardian site, Jonathan Jones took critics to task for criticizing Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” for its lack of historical accuracy and pointed out that many historical films, including last year’s “The King’s Speech” also were less than completely accurate. All true, but alas historical verisimilitude isn’t the issue at all. Finally, "Robin Hood" wasn’t a good movie because it wasn’t telling a very good story. Script writer Brian Helgeland gave us a character who was not particularly clever or interesting and nothing particularly clever or interesting happened to him. Who cares if the medieval world may have actually had something like a Higgins boat, as Will Mclean cleverly pointed out, ,so that the final scene was not nearly as anachronistic as it seemed?

Two interesting counterpoints are Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” Neither had particularly strong stories either but both immersed the audience in a world that was surprising and new and which alluded to central historical truths about their respective times. For example, the beginning battle scene in Gladiator illustrates the power of technology, organization and discipline even in a relatively primitive world, a key aspect of historical Roman success. Of course it is also relevant to the kind of real warfare we see on the news at the moment. In that context, it’s interesting to compare “Restrepo,” Sebastian Junger’s documentary about a US platoon in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, with "Gladiator" which suggests that very different kinds of stories about the Roman invasions of Gaul and England could be very interesting indeed.

Good stories are hard.

But they always have been. Very occasionally, I find myself musing that in spite of the sea changes in media at all levels, we’re becoming worse at it as a culture. Certainly, the immediacy of things like Facebook pose interesting obstacles to the creation of suspense, a vital narrative element.

Unfortunately, a couple of experiences this week have only served to support that rather gloomy opinion. Lynn and I watched the first episode of the Camelot miniseries on Starz. Like, Michael Hirst’s previous production, “The Tudors,” it seems to have no idea of what it’s about. The first episode gave me no reason to watch a second and even if we do I fear I may be unable to keep with it due to severe, aggressive apathy.  Ironically, one of the six word stories from the New York Times,, serves as a perfect review:  "Note to self:  no more surfers."

More interesting and possibly more sadly, Bioware has released a demo of their RPG "Dragon Age II." "Dragon Age I" was one of the most successful computer games of last year and was particularly interesting because a story with strong ironies, difficult choices and well-realized characters was one of the central and unique elements. I’ve long felt that computer gaming, still relatively young, was waiting for its “Birth of a Nation” and "Dragon Age I" suggested that moment might be very close indeed. Alas, the demo of DA II suggests that those elements have been forgone in favor of developing an anime-styled game to appeal to fourteen year-old ADD console players of FPSs, a caricatured demographic I suspect is actually microscopically small. I have fingers crossed in hopes that it was no more than a terrible demo.

I’m going to go reread some Borges and Lovecraft.