Monday, October 11, 2010

Fantastic Fest Part 1: The Indie Films of Fantastic Arcade

This year, Fantastic Fest debuted “Fantastic Arcade,” a new wing of the festival focusing on independent video games and all their heavenly glories. Rather than giving you a rundown of the festival, I’ll just direct you to the article I wrote for The Escapist covering the event.

Unfortunately, 1,500 words just isn’t enough to talk about everything that happens during a four day event, especially if you’re writing a travelogue rather than doing straight-up events coverage. As a result, I didn’t really get a chance to talk about the films I saw during Fantastic Arcade, some of which really deserve attention – so consider this an appendix to my article.

NERDCORE RISING (U.S., Available on DVD)

What the hell can I say about this movie? Nerdcore Rising was by far my favorite film of the Fantastic Arcade portion, indeed, one the best music docs I’ve seen in years – which is saying quite a bit, since the Mötorhead RockDoc Lemmy was one of my favorite films of this year’s SXSW Film Festival.

Unlike Lemmy, which is more of a celebrity profile, Nerdcore Rising follows an identifiable story arc. As the film opens, we find then 32 year-old Damian Hess, a man with a Bond villain’s name and a line coder’s body, preparing for his first national tour. Hess works in the rap subgenre of Nerdcore, a term he himself coined. Nerdcore rappers like Hess – stage name MC Frontalot – perform rap and hip-hop music that expresses geek culture experiences like playing collectible card games and pining over goth girls. It’s a fun, often hysterical mash-up that leads to some extremely clever and unexpected lyrics. The chorus of one of his headliner songs, Braggadocio, runs: “Now it’s time for a little braggadocio / While I swing my arms like Ralph Macchio.”

Thankfully, Nerdcore Rising doesn’t make the same mistake as the other music film of the festival Reformat the Planet by focusing too much on the music. Though the concerts are one of the highlights of the film, Nerdcore Rising succeeds because it gets you invested in the characters. Frontalot and his bandmates are a mish-mash collection of hyperactive band geeks, RPGers, and Star Wars nuts. They’re oddballs, but amiable and supremely likable oddballs. As they yammer at each other in British accents on the tour bus, quote Reservoir Dogs, and practice their Wookie screams as a voice exercise before concerts, I couldn’t help but feel like I wanted to hang out with them. One scene, where the bassist tries to teach the film’s director to play Magic: The Gathering, is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a documentary.

And that, for me, is what separates a good music doc from a mediocre one. In a good music doc, the music itself takes a backseat to the artists who make it. It gives the audience something to latch onto and care about. There’s real drama on display in Nerdcore Rising. Frontalot was taking a major leap of faith with a nationwide tour, leaving his freelance programming work and gambling his savings on something that could’ve very well turned out to be an enormous financial error. That tension reverberates beneath all the gags and performances like a just-strummed guitar string. It lends meaning and sincerity to the action, and lets the audience share in highs and lows of the tour, as MC Frontalot and the Minibosses play packed bars, injure themselves, lose equipment, and pick up their first groupie (who repeatedly insists to the camera crew that she’s not a groupie).

Capping things off, Frontalot was there for the screening. He played the opening night of the festival – one of the perks of attendance.

RED VS. BLUE: REVELATION (U.S., Available at
Strongly Recommended

If, like me, you haven’t seen the hit Halo Machinima series Red vs. Blue since the early seasons, Revelation feels like being smashed in the face with a thirty-pound graphics card. What sold the series originally was its clever writing, but now the visuals are, well, there really isn’t any word for them other than “beautiful.” The Halo 3 engine looks incredible, and on the big screen it’s eerily close to theatrical-quality, especially when the Reds and Blues launch into all-out CGI action scenes that are awe-inspiring yet still hold onto the series’ unique brand of humor that shifts from highbrow to lowbrow and back again in the time it takes to reload a Battle Rifle.

Honestly, with action scenes this inventive I’m not sure why anyone’s still holding their breath for a Halo movie. My overall experience with Halo is shaped less by interacting with Cortana and Master Chief, and more by BSing with my friends while running them down with the Warthog. Frankly, Red vs. Blue captures the vibe of playing Halo like no cannon-correct film possibly could.

The plot is a little beyond me. After missing something on the order of three seasons, I kept up with what was going on alright, but don’t feel like I could describe it without extreme generalizations and factual errors. I’m not sure if Revelation is the last of the series, but it wraps the plot up nicely enough that it easily could be. If so, it’s a fitting sendoff for the little show that could, a true indie success story the likes of which Fantastic Arcade was created to celebrate.

If you are interested in videogames GO SEE THIS RIGHT NOW

Playing Columbine could easily be characterized as the most important film of Fantastic Arcade. Currently, it stands as possibly the only seminal film about videogame controversy.

In April 2005, indie game programmer Danny Ledonne released a self-made game titled Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, allowing it to be downloaded free from his website. The game is a sprite-based top-down RPG similar to the Zelda games, with simple SNES graphics. The game itself is an exploration of the motives behind the Columbine shootings, and places the player in the shoes of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to show what Ledonne believes led to the tragedy – namely lack of parental oversight, social isolation, and easy access to guns. The game is chilling, informative, never shows a gun being fired or a student being killed (when they’re clicked on they disappear) and is an extremely strong piece of rhetoric suggesting that the media and the American public would rather blame violent outbursts like Columbine on scapegoats like videogames, metal, and horror movies than address questions of gun control and absent parents. The game is not fun, and can’t be classified as entertainment.

Of course, you can’t make a game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! without causing an enormous stir, and a story-hungry media picked up the story and ran with it without ever playing, or even viewing, the game itself. The issues brought up by the controversy are still central topics in the games-as-art and the games-as-self-expression debates: Are games protected under the 1st Amendment? Do violent videogames promote violent action? Are games a legitimate medium for exploring sensitive, and even tragic topics? Do the detractors of videogames have a point, or are they using the debate for political capital? You’d be hard pressed to find any film that engages this wide a range of questions, and does so with as much finesse as Playing Columbine does. The debate is framed through a series of interviews with the game’s creator, the game’s detractors (including recently disbarred attorney and longtime videogame opponent Jack Thompson), school shooting victims, professors, and judges from the Slamdance games festival. Slamdance plays a large role in the story of Playing Columbine, since the game was pulled from competition at the height of the controversy, causing a mass walkout of other indie game participants and event sponsors.

There are certainly problems with the film, however. The most glaring issue is that Playing Columbine was both produced and directed by Danny Ledonne, the creator of Super Columbine, a fact that’s not made explicit until the end of the film. It’s a sneaky tactic, and makes you call into question every point the film makes, even the ones you agree with. The film also frames Super Columbine in a manner that’s slightly dishonest. Watching the film, you’d think that the game ends with the shooters’ suicides, and a slideshow of crying victims and destroyed infrastructure, finishing with a photo of the shooters’ bodies. In fact, the game goes on after this point, as both Klebold and Harris go to hell and fight demons. The section is supposed to be a satirical treatment of news reports that insisted the shooters’ proclivity for Doom led to the shootings, but the hell section muddles the overall message and just seems in poor taste. (Some would argue that the whole game is in poor taste. I might be on board with that, but I would argue that at least the portion in the school uses poor taste to prove a point.) While Ledonne has always resisted people’s calls to remove this portion of the game, arguing artistic integrity, it appears that his artistic integrity is fine with editing around it if it makes it easier for him to prove a point.

Playing Columbine is a must see for anyone interested in the future of videogames and ethics in the age of interactivity. Agree with it or not, you’ll be talking about the issues it raises long after you’ve ejected the disk.

See It If You’re Interested

As stated above, there are basically two ways to go about making a music documentary. The first is to make the movie about the musicians, and the second is to make a movie specifically about the music. Reformat the Planet is of the second stripe, and it carries the same risk that all documentaries about music do: namely, if the viewer isn’t interested in the music, then he’s not going to be interested in your film. Unfortunately, I didn’t fall in love with Chiptunes during Reformat the Planet, and as a result felt a little lukewarm about the movie as a whole.

Chiptunes are songs played on vintage videogame equipment, most popularly played on the Nintendo Game Boy but also on the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis. Contrary to what it looks like during the performances, the Chiptunes DJs don’t actively play songs on the equipment. They compose the songs in advance and essentially press “play” onstage, then create a show by dancing, using colored light displays, and modulating the sound output of the electronic equipment. As a spectacle, it’s mesmerizing; the problem is the music itself.

It’s not bad, really. It’s highly danceable, often high energy, and has a good beat, but it’s too much like Techno for my liking. Songs tend to be extremely repetitious, so that you’re bobbing your head to a good beat thirty seconds in, but start tiring of the song at the one minute mark. Ten-second riffs tend to get used over and over for minutes on end, and after awhile everything just starts to run together.

This is a problem because Reformat the Planet uses New York’s premier Chiptunes event, the Blip Festival, as a microcosm of the larger worldwide movement. As a result, a substantial part of the film showcases one festival act after another, with little respite to let the audience process the music in between songs. Speaking for myself, it was just too much. I staggered out of the theater not being able to tell the difference between any of the acts I saw, except two that were headlined by women and one that was a more traditional guitar band with an NES backing them up. The flashing lights and bleep bloop music had wiped out everything else.

Which is a shame, really, since the movie is perfectly interesting during the interview portions, particularly when the artists are demonstrating how they modify their hardware in order to turn a 20 year-old electronic toy into a sophisticated sound synthesizer that produces extremely catchy music. I only wish that these portions were more interspersed with the later performances to give the audience a little breathing room, rather than bombarding them with one seizure-inducing show after another.

On balance, I liked Reformat the Planet. The pacing was off, but it was a cool exploration into a subgenre I knew almost noting about. It also sports what is hands-down my favorite film title of Fantastic Fest, and that certainly counts for something.

PS: I was unable to see Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission because of scheduling, but I’ve heard really good things about it, and Garriott’s such a fascinating guy that this basically counts as a sight-unseen YOU MUST SEE THIS recommendation.