Violence, sexual violence, and film: another perspective

Drew McWeeny’s recent article about the (over)representation of violence – particularly of sexual violence – in film is an important read for anyone who is tired of seeing the same, recycled tropes used over and over again in the movies. In this case, the societal disease that is rape has been turned into a plot device that is often tossed into a film to give it more gravity, to exploit, or to simply shock, without much regard for the imagery’s true effects or meaning.

While I agree with much of what McWeeny has to say, I offer a counterargument to one specific comment he makes regarding the abundance of rape imagery in media:

What I’m talking about is the idea that this imagery is commonplace, devalued in a world where you’ve got terrible violence, much of it sexual, raining down on young women in the “Law & Order”s and the “CSI”s.  So much awful sexual violence has already been done by the time the opening credits roll on those shows that it ultimately loses its impact.

Certainly, the more that such images are shoved in our faces, the more we become desensitized to them. But we also must acknowledge that, whether by design or not, these representations reflect the unsettling reality that sexual violence is a lot more common than we would like to think. Sexual assault, sexual harassment, molestation, rape – acts of sexual violence of every degree imaginable occur far more often than even the most accurate of statistics report.

The terrible truth that we live in a world where horrible things happen to the left and right of us, although we are often not aware of what is happening just beyond our line of sight. Your neighbor may be raping his wife every other night. Your best friend might have been the victim of a sexual assault in college. Your co-worker might make suggestive comments towards other co-workers at lunch breaks. Such incidents tend to pass below our radar because they are not held up to our eyes in the way that similar events are when portrayed on film. Sure, we hear about the worst of them on the news or in non-fiction books, but it is only on film that we really get up close and personal with the perpetrators and victims. In film, emotions run high, and there is a sense of urgency that is lacking in after-the-fact news reports.

I would also like to address McWeeny’s issue with the rape of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which he did not find essential to the film as a whole. In fact, the rape is a vital moment in Salander’s trajectory, both in the book and in the cinematic adaptation. As we see in the book – perhaps not so much in the movie – she has been taken advantage of by the “system,” by bureaucracy, and by men due to her being labeled “incompetent” for most of her life. Although she has generally been able to fend for herself thanks to a hands-off guardian, her new guardian Nils Bjurman’s legal and eventual physical domination over her seeks to put an end to her independence.

Some minor book spoilers ahead that clarify the rape scene a bit:

In the book, Salander goes to see Bjurman after the first encounter with the intention of catching him on video doing something – she figures receiving just another blowjob. But the sadistic rape occurs instead, and it forces Salander to seek retribution outside of the law due to the abuse of the system, which Bjurman and his behavior quite literally embody. More importantly, the rape pushes Salander to accept Blomkvist’s offer to go after a murderer of women to whom she has no connection. If she did not have such hatred for men who take advantage of women, perhaps the stand-offish, wary Salander would have shown Blomkvist the door when he came to her apartment.

I am inclined to agree that the film had a difficult time making these connections clear, but they are absolutely there in the book. The rape, I argue, is essential to Salander’s character, and the brutal nature of it is a necessary component of the story’s representation of the harsh abuses of powerful men.

I do, however, agree with McWeeny in his belief that artists need to be cognizant of the power these images have, as well as of the potential they have to desensitize us when we are pummeled with them in inappropriate situations. Perhaps a rape is truly essential to the apocalyptic, hellish nightmare of Xavier Gens’ The Divide, but maybe a graphic scene depicting the attack is not. On the other hand, the sadistic rape of Lisbeth Salander in Dragon Tattoo is such an integral part of her character and of the plot that I can’t imagine not showing it in some form on screen.

Ultimately, it is up to both filmmakers and audiences to be responsible. Filmmakers must be responsible with the images they choose to show, and audiences must be responsible about how they consume what they see. I am against outside censorship in any form, but I suggest this to filmmakers: like with the interplay of silence and notes in music, sometimes, what is not shown is more powerful than what is shown. Maybe that is the key to certain representations of sexual violence.

David Fincher’s obsession with finding meaning in chaos

Last night, I went to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was completely blown away by it – by the bite of the script, by Rooney Mara’s cagey yet powerful performance, but above all, by an idea that began to formulate in my head and which has stuck with me even almost 24 hours after the house lights first went down. While marveling at Fincher’s direction – you have to admit, the man really is one of the greatest directors of our time – I began to think about his vast oeuvre of acclaimed films. A pattern soon emerged, particularly in four of them: Dragon Tattoo, Se7en, Zodiac, and The Social Network. Ordinarily, these four films wouldn’t be grouped together save for the fact that Fincher directed them all, but I have noticed a tie that binds them together.

These films are about a character’s (or characters’) obsession with an overwhelming amount of data, whether it be in the form of literature (Se7en), criminal evidence (Zodiac, Dragon Tattoo), or personal information stored in a computer (The Social Network). The data with which these characters work is an extraordinary amount, a chaotic amount, that consumes their attention to the point that they sacrifice other aspects of their lives in order to make sense of it all. Zodiac’s Robert Graysmith loses his family because of his obsession with the Zodiac killer case; in Se7en, Somerset does not have much of a social life to begin with, but he hits the books hard in order to puzzle out the mystery of the serial killer; similarly, Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network does not endear himself to his classmates, but his creation of Facebook, which stems from his desire to be accepted, ironically ruins his relationships with his closest companions, especially Eduardo; Blomkqvist and Salander literally, and figuratively, isolate themselves in a tiny cottage in order to solve the mystery in Dragon Tattoo, finding companionship only in each other.

Fincher seems to be interested in how these obsessive people, whether they are so due to their personalities (Zuckerberg) or due to circumstances (the rest, I would argue), struggle to find meaning in the anarchy that is information. Even in the computer age of Zuckerberg and the Dragon Tattoo characters, it remains a difficult process, perhaps even a more challenging one due to the overabundance of data available from all corners of the earth. The two pre-computer age films in this grouping seem to have a more insular feel in that sense, since the information available to the characters comes from a smaller data set. On the other hand, Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network cast a much wider net, with the characters in the former literally jetsetting to other countries in order to mine for more information while Zuckerberg, in the latter, is gathering data from people who live on the other side of the globe from the comfort of his living room.

I’m not quite sure what this all means, aside from the fascinating thematic link among these films. Maybe Fincher just has a thing for obsessive people. Or, maybe Fincher is speaking to a greater issue of making sense of the chaos that is this crazy world we live in. What is true in any case is that we, as viewers, become complicit in this process. Our involvement makes for an intense, thoughtful moviegoing experience unlike any other.

It feels good to be bad, but it isn’t easy

I always play as the good guy and I tell myself that I’ll play through a second time as an evil person.

It never happens…

In LA Noire, the game’s morality system is noticeably rigid, forcing you to play the role of the law-abiding detective to a “t.” You can ram into cars and attempt vehicular manslaughter all you want, but a little message will always flash in the top left-hand corner, reminding you that such behavior is unbecoming for a member of the LAPD and will reflect poorly on your fitness report (a seemingly hollow threat, until you look at your case review at the end of each sequence). The truth is, you have no choice but to play the good guy in Noire; there is no bad guy, or even a “bad cop,” option.

Games such as Red Dead Redemption and InFAMOUS, on the other hand, have what are referred to in-game as honor and karma systems, respectively. You can play as a wholly good or wholly evil character, or land somewhere in between. The game’s story will unfold differently depending on which path you choose, automatically warranting multiple play-throughs. Which is where that quote from above comes in.

Although many have bemoaned the fact that Noire is fairly linear and lacks the same open-world feel as its predecessor, Red Dead, the game is a godsend for those of us who identify with that quote. As that comment and others like it demonstrate, players often have trouble getting their hands dirty, even when they have already played as an absolute angel in one play-through. As fun as it looks to be bad, it just isn’t easy to let loose and actually do so. Since Noire doesn’t give us the option to be evil, we’re not missing out by sticking to the good guy routine.

This “good guy” phenomenon is a testament to the verisimilitudinous morality constructed in each game by the developers. If a player can’t be brought to blow up Megaton in Fallout 3, even on a second or third run through the game, it signals a sense of obedience to the mores of the game world – a reflection of our own world. Although there are no consequences in reality to committing such an act, the in-game consequences are drastic enough to be concerning to the player. Ultimately, the player projects his or her own behavior into the game, which functions a model of the real world’s morality structure.

There are, however, some games in which it is fairly easy to be bad. Grand Theft Auto comes to mind as an example. But the difference between GTA and other open-world games is that, in GTA, being bad is the point. You must do heinous things in order to complete the game. Carjacking and murdering prostitutes doesn’t seem like that far of a stretch when you’re already committing pretty despicable acts according to the game’s storyline. GTA’s morality is inherently skewed, therefore allowing such behavior to occur without much psychological penalty.

So how does one break out of the “goody two-shoes” bubble? Just remember that there’s a whole other game to experience by being evil. If you’ve already played through the game once as the good guy, you won’t get anything new out of it by remaining with the same exact choices. Only by being evil will you get to experience the game in greater depth.

And really, being bad – even virtually – does feel pretty damn good.

Hostility towards women in geekdom

It’s something that I’ve been trying to ignore for a long time, but two recent reddit threads have stirred up old feelings once more. If you read closely, both threads devolve into an argument over authentic geek girls versus those who use their sexuality to market to geeks. The more I think about the issue, the more I realize that geekdom, in general, appears to be very hostile towards women.

Women in geekdom tend to be grouped into one of two categories: genuine female geeks or those who pretend to be into nerdy things in order to attract geek guys, whether it’s part of a marketing campaign or for one’s own personal benefit. Usually, those women classified as “hot” are lumped into the latter category, as it seems impossible that attractive women would actually be interested in science fiction and D&D. Whenever a genuine geek girl who is also physically beautiful comes along, she is met with suspicion until she can prove herself – in which case, she blows everyone’s mind.

My question is, why is it seemingly impossible for a conventionally attractive woman to like geeky pursuits? I can understand why the Olivia Munns of the world have left a sour taste in geeks’ mouths and force them to suspect all beautiful geek girls, but shouldn’t the reaction be a more positive one when women like Adrianne Curry and the Team Unicorn girls roll around? Isn’t it more natural, and better for the geek community as a whole, to welcome such women with open arms rather than meet them with hostility?

I realize that geeks are very protective of their culture, and understandably so, as geeks have historically been ridiculed for their interests. I do sympathize with their desire to protect their egos. But the truth remains that geekdom is entering into a new era of acceptance in mainstream culture, thanks in part to cons, comic book movies, and, most importantly, the Internet. It’s finally okay to be a geek – and proud of that fact. With this new age of geek pride, I think that a lot of beautiful women who thought that the world would have shunned their geekiness are finally coming out of the woodwork and being more open about who they truly are. This is a great thing that ought to be encouraged. I fear that geekdom’s knee-jerk reaction to attractive female geeks may prevent some women from engaging with the community. When they see other women being tested and suspected, who can blame them for remaining closeted geeks?

Are there still beautiful women who aren’t authentic geeks? Of course, and it’s usually easy to tell when they’re just being used as marketing tools or are trying to recommend themselves to geek men. But there are even greater numbers of beautiful women out there who are genuinely geeky and should be welcomed into our world, not interrogated like suspected criminals. No one wins in the status quo.

Is 3D on its way out? Let’s hope so.

Crossposted at GeekWeek.com.

According to The New York Times, the novelty of 3D is beginning to wear off for American moviegoers- and Hollywood executives who put all their chips on the gimmick are shaking in their boots. Both Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Kung Fu Panda 2, expected to draw in 60 percent of their revenue from 3D ticket sales, generated less than 50 percent from 3D showings. Analysts say that 3D simply does not have the draw it once had.

This makes perfect sense, as 3D has a history of failing to stick around when it is introduced. Why anyone thought that this time would be different is beyond me. As the Times points out, ticket prices are far too high to sustain the trend, and moviegoers have lost interest in putting on the “funny glasses” required to make the on-screen images pop. As I’ve said many times before, the gimmick of 3D will eventually wane. It was only a matter of time before it began to hurt Hollywood studios where it counts: at the box office.

While the high ticket prices and ridiculous glasses certainly contribute to the recent lack of interest in 3D films, the Times article overlooks one more reason why moviegoers forgo 3D for traditional 2D showings. 3D is simply an unnecessary distraction, and I think that consumers are starting to realize that as well. It is difficult to become engrossed in a film and appreciate its visual beauty when there are images poking you in the face. It becomes frustrating after a while to have that constant poking when all you want to do is watch a damn movie. Perhaps American moviegoers are seeing the merit in watching a film as it should be watched, as opposed to watching it in a format that merely thirsts for extra dollars and adds nothing but distraction to the theater experience.

It is important to note, however, that 3D movies are doing enormously well internationally, where 3D is far newer. And with studio tentpoles generating 70 percent of their total box office revenue overseas, the Times wonders if American tastes even matter in the minds of studio executives.

While the Times is quick to mention that one (or two) movies do not a trend make, it is vital to be aware of this apparent rejection of 3D as more and more big-budget blockbusters and genre films are released in the format. If 3D is on the verge of death, I want first-row seats to this momentous occasion.

Rockstar uses real Social Security Number in L.A. Noire

What happens when you search for the Social Security Number Detective Phelps comes across while gathering evidence for a case in L.A. Noire? You’ll find that the number exists for a real person – and has been used over 40,000 times! Talk about identity theft.

A quick search of that SSN number shows it to be an actual SSN number of a wallet manufacturers’ secretary! He made up a fake SSN card with her real number on it to demonstrate SSN cards fit in the wallet.

The Social Security Administration reported that over 40,000 people eventually claimed that to be their SSN number, making it the most used SSN number ever.

Rockstar is known for putting easter eggs in its games (such as John Marston’s hat, which you can find in L.A. Noire), so this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But it’s still a neat attempt at verisimilitude from the masters of it.

Theaters scamming moviegoers out of the 2D experience due to 3D needs

Crossposted at GeekWeek.com.

Allow me to begin with a simple statement: I do not like 3D.

I do not see any movie in 3D, regardless of whether it was shot in 3D or post-converted. I hope that it is a fad that will fade away with time, so I try not to have anything to do with 3D movies.

Unfortunately, the demands of a 3D-inclined industry and market are actually beginning to infringe upon the desires of those of us who wish to see films in only two dimensions. Boston Globe reporter Ty Burr recently uncovered an infuriating trend in Boston area theaters, where projectionists fail to remove the special 3D lens on Sony digital projectors when projecting 2D films. The result is a significantly altered picture: the film is darkened up to 85 percent by the improper lens.

Why do projectionists keep the 3D lens on the projector even when projecting 2D movies? The short answer is that the process of changing lenses is too complex and time-consuming. It requires several hours of time and technical know-how, neither of which the average projectionist possesses. So theaters are content to leave the 3D lens on, even at the cost of the projection quality. Furthermore, a projectionist on reddit noted that some theaters intentionally dim the bulbs in the projectors in order to save money.

As an avid moviegoer, I am enraged by this practice. Theaters are deliberately engaging in improper projection of 2D movies while still charging an arm and a leg for admission. Why should theaters compromise my viewing experience for the sake of convenience and the demands of a technological fad? I admit, it may seem as though 3D movies have overtaken 2D in popularity, but the truth is that the high prices of 3D tickets actually turn consumers off; 3D has not, in any way, completely replaced 2D. It is maddening to think that the needs of 2D film projection take a backseat to 3D, which I believe will soon be on its way out due to such exorbitant ticket prices.

I understand theaters’ desire to cut costs, but budgets need to be trimmed in areas other than the actual movie-watching experience for which people pay. Otherwise, moviegoers will soon find that their $10 is better spent elsewhere. Indeed, at these Boston theaters, it seems to be a waste of money on a movie that is not even properly screened.

Video game greed

Let me announce that all our DLCs will be FREE. All of them. If anything will be for purchase, those will be expansion packs.

Ah, that is music to my ears. This comes from a spokesperson for CD Projekt, the Polish studio behind The Witcher 2, who has clarified once and for all that DLC for the game will cost absolutely zero dollars.

So let’s do a little arithmetic. The full game ($49.99) + all future DLC ($0) = $49.99.

Let’s look at a typical console release. You have to pay $59.99 for about 85% of the game; that’s standard these days. Then there are 5-10 downloadable additions for anywhere between $5-15 a pop. Plus, if you pre-order at a certain location, you get a special bonus unique to Gamestop, or Amazon, or wherever you placed your order (and you’ll have to cough up if you want the others later on, when they are released). So the total amount you spend on the game ends up being a lot closer to $100 than $50. And that’s for a single game!

The industry is clearly cutting corners in a way that is not unlike filling up a bag of chips with fewer chips: it’s the same size bag and the same price, but you get a lot less at first. But unlike a bag of chips, you can get the complete game if you choose – you just have to pay for it. This model is definitely getting too greedy for my taste, but it appears to be mostly set in stone. Only a handful of companies, such as CD Projekt, seem to be willing to go the simpler route and produce a full game for a set price, without a desire to rip gamers off. It is those companies to which I would like to pledge my loyalty and my dollars, but they are few and far between. The industry is monopolized by the DLC model, which benefits everyone but the gamers themselves.

What can we do about this? We can simply not buy games and let the distributors’ pocketbooks suffer as ours do. But what’s the likelihood that enough gamers will become fed up and boycott the large companies? About as low as the cost of The Witcher 2 DLC.

Martin’s treatment of women in A Game of Thrones

Since the premiere of HBO’s A Game of Thrones has earned mostly positive, if not rave reviews, I was surprised when a friend of mine and fellow geek girl told me that she didn’t enjoy the show. When I pressed her to offer reasons as to why she didn’t like it, one in particular struck me. She was uncomfortable with the treatment of women in the show, specifically with what she viewed as the marital rape of Daenerys Targaryen by her new husband. Certainly, the prelude to the consummation of their marriage was uncomfortable to watch, but it did not occur to me to think of it as rape upon my first viewing. My friend’s thoughts got me thinking a bit more about the treatment of women in general in A Game of Thrones, both in the show and in the first eighty pages of the novel, which I have now read. I began to notice a dichotomy in the way in which George R.R. Martin (and the series, which pretty faithfully recreates the novel thus far) portrays the various roles of women in this universe. On the one hand, women are chattel and sexual objects designed for the pleasure of men, while on the other hand, women can achieve highly powerful political and social roles, albeit often through dubious means.

The women in the former category may be the most numerous. In the upper echelons of the political world, we have Catelyn Stark, whose marriage to Ned Stark is arranged when his brother, her betrothed, is killed. Her hand in marriage is effectively traded from one brother to the next, and Catelyn’s ability to determine her own path plays little to no role in her future. Similar to Catelyn is her daughter, Sansa. It should be noted that Sansa and her sister, Arya, embody this dichotomy within the House Stark: Sansa is very much of the former category, while Arya, as I will discuss in the next paragraph, exemplifies the latter. At any rate, Sansa is being groomed to marry Prince Joffrey and bear his children as the perfect wife and perfect queen of the realm. Once again, self-determination plays no part and she accepts her fate willingly. In the lower ranks of society we find Ned’s mistress, who bore his bastard son, Jon Snow. All that is known about her is that she was a wet nurse serving House Dayne, but Catelyn, King Robert, and others often remark upon the nature of Ned’s relationship with his one-time mistress. What is fascinating here, however, is that Ned implies that he truly loved Wylla. She was not merely a good time to him. He treated this woman with love and respect, and yet, ironically, the only link we have to her in the present is a bastard who is not legitimized and who is treated cruelly by others. Perhaps this is Martin’s comment on how romantic love is not highly valued and is a problematic variable in the world of the novel; indeed, it seems that love does not quite work out in anyone’s favor, as Ned’s sister whom King Robert passionately loved is killed, setting into motion the events that precipitate the entire game of thrones. If the only products of romantic love are illegitimate sons and untimely deaths, perhaps love does not have a place in Westeros. Perhaps women in this world are destined to simply be their husband’s property and nothing more.

In the second category, we have a couple of distinguished members. Of the House Stark is Arya, the mirror opposite of Sansa. Unlike her sister, Arya has no interest in becoming a lady. She likes direwolf pups and swordfighting and all the things that grant her physical power and a hint of tomboyishness. Her father humors her, but there is a sense that Arya must outgrow her childish whims at some point in order to become a true woman. Then there is Cersei Lannister. She is an ambitious woman in a powerful political position who uses it in very morally shady ways. She engages in incest, is complicit in the attempted murder of Bran Stark – is there anything that this woman will not do to satisfy her own desires? Unfortunately, it seems that we only have Arya as a shining example of a confident woman who does not appear to be morally bankrupt, but she is already under pressure to conform to the feminine ways of the lady.

Interestingly, Daenerys Targaryen occupies both categories of women. She begins the novel as a meek young girl, a piece of property traded by her brother Viserys in exchange for access to the Dothraki army. Yet, she learns to use her new role as the khaleesi to find confidence and power, and eventually she is able to stand up to her brother, “the dragon.” In the HBO show, Daenerys grows into her sexuality and wields it to win over Khal Drogo, and while I have not yet encountered this part in the novel, such behavior would put Daenerys in the manipulative end of the second category. Daenerys is one of many women in this world to use her sexuality to her advantage in the pursuit of power.

Despite many of these unflattering portraits of the women in A Game of Thrones, it is important to note that Martin has a great deal of sympathy for all his female characters, perhaps with the exception of Cersei Lannister, one of our antagonists. While some of the women in the novel may be used and abused, Martin does not allow it to go on without good reason. Indeed, every woman has her purpose in the narrative. I would argue that the women in A Game of Thrones play integral roles in the novel’s intrigue, either by supporting their male counterparts or by taking matters into their own hands completely. But that is a supplementary discussion for another day.