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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Quick Note: Upgrades
Due to some recent unpleasantness, I'm upgrading several software packages used on the site. Most notably, the software that runs the Forum and Movable Type (which powers this here blog). So if you notice anything out of the ordinary, don't worry. It's probably part of the plan.

Update: We apologise for the fault in the website upgrades. Those responsible have been sacked.

Update 2: We apologise again for the fault in the website ugrades. Those responsible for sacking the people who have just been sacked, have been sacked.

Update 3: The directors of the firm hired to continue the website upgrades after the other people had been sacked, wish it to be known that they have just been sacked. The website upgrades have been completed in a entirely different style at great expense and at the last minute.
Posted by Mark on October 31, 2007 at 11:33 PM .: link :.

Happy Halloween
I don't have a lot of time, as I've spent the night watching movies, giving away candy, and destroying my friend in Halo 3 (and getting my arse handed to me online). So here's a quick recap of recent horror moviage. Happy Halloween! This has been fun, and I'll have to do the same thing next year... though I'll hopefully have time to write about more than just movie posts. Anyway, here goes. As you might expect, I've saved my favorites for last:
  • If you haven't been playing along, check out the 4 weeks of Halloween: Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4
  • Army of Darkness: This isn't really a horror movie, but it does use horror elements for great comedic effect. Bruce Campbell's performance is perfect, as he delivers an endless stream of one liners and manages to evoke the ghosts of the Three Stooges in several physical comedy sequences. It's a great movie, one that I don't think got as much attention as it should have (in the mainstream that is - I'd bet most readers of this blog have seen this multiple times).
  • Phantasm: Inexplicably one of my favorite horror films of all time. I used to watch this movie all the time. In many ways, it's not an especially good film. Bad acting, stilted dialog and awful special effects... but director Don Coscarelli has a good eye and manages to craft some genuinely creepy scenes, including a bewildering ending that's been copied several times (most notably in the ending to A NIghtmare on Elm Street). I've already talked about this film several times, so no sense in rambling on about it.
  • Halloween: My favorite horror movie of all tiime. There's not really much to say about this - it's a brilliant film, and it holds up well even after all these years and repeated viewings.
  • Save it with the music: Old post wherein I discuss the role of music in horror films.
  • Horror: Old post wherein I blather on and on about more obscure horror films and novels.
That's all for this year's Halloween horror movie marathon. I've got a lot of stuff in the pipe, including some new anime posts and a couple technology posts. Stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on October 31, 2007 at 10:13 PM .: link :.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

4 Weeks of Halloween: Week 4
Coming down the homestretch, this week's lineup:
  • Slither (trailer)
  • Halloween Awakening
  • Tremors (trailer)
  • The Host (2006): This Korean creature feature garnered a lot of critical praise earlier in the year, so I was looking forward to catching up with this when it came to DVD. Unfortunatly, my expectations were thwarted by an uneven, poorly integrated mish mash of horror cliches. The monster movie portions of the film are fun enough to watch, but it's the other elements the filmmakers attempt to weave into the story that ultimately sink this film. There's a strong social/political commentary subplot that's poorly developed and boring. There are several awkward attempts at comedy that don't seem to fit with the other elements of the film. The disfunctional family united by a crisis shows promise, except that none of the main characters are particularly likeable (especially the dimwitted father of Hyun-seo), nor are any of them three dimensional. Hamfisted attempts at slapstick don't help advance any of these plot elements. Add a lackluster ending into the mix, and I have to admit that I'm just not seeing why this movie has such a good reputation.This movie is certainly ambitious; it's trying to do a lot of things... unfortunately, they seem to conflict with each other. The movie isn't awful though. Fans of the genre will like the monster sequences, and the scenes in the monster's lair are the best in the film (shades of Tremors and Godzilla, though not as good as either). The film is energetic and fun when the monster is on screen... but it grinds to a halt when the monster isn't. I'm guessing that there are some cultural things that I'm just not getting here or that are lost in translation. Probably only worth it for fans of the genre. *1/2
  • The Evil Dead (trailer)
  • Hostel (trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV: Bart Simpson's Dracula (1993)
  • The Devil's Rejects (2005): Rob Zombie's second film is... not especially good. I liked it better than James Berardinelli, and I think there are flashes of talent in this film, but it's still not that good. The primary problem with the film is that none of the characters are even remotely sympathetic and the ones we're supposed to be rooting for (I think?) are the most vile of them all (The titular Devil's Rejects, a family of murderers). There's not much of a story going on here, and the characters are all kinda boring cardboard cutouts (the most developed character is Sheriff Wydell, whose brother died trying to apprehend the Devil's Rejects and thus is looking for revenge - a tired plot device if I've ever seen one, though it works well enough I guess). Zombie seems to be in love with his characters though, and sometimes that helps... but it also means he lingers a little too long on just about everything. Zombie is also in love with the horror films of the 1970s, and so we get a lot of cheesy grindhouse effects like grainy hand-held film and freeze frames. In a movie with a more rousing story or protagonists we could get behind, these 70s throwback techniques would probably work well. As it is, they're not enough to overcome the lack of interesting characters. Hell, the Rejects aren't even that badass. They seem to coast by on luck half the time. The other thing that bothers me about the film - it's not scary at all. At no point did I ever feel any tension or suspense. I guess there are some good gore bits, and there is a place for anti-heroes in horror, but this didn't click for me. There are some hints of talent in Zombie's filmmaking, but hints of talent do not a good film make. *1/2
  • Scanners (trailer)
  • Dawn of the Dead (2004) (trailer)
  • Pickman's Model by H.P. Lovecraft (short story)
  • Halloween (2007): I actually saw this a while ago (and before I saw Devil's Rejects), but my impression here is that Zombie has grown considerably as a filmmaker... but I wish this wasn't a remake. In a vacuum, this could be a decent movie. However, it being a remake demands a comparison to one of the greates horror movies of all time, and this movie absolutely pales in comparison. Compared to other remakes, this isn't terrible... but it also seems to be striving to destroy everything that made the original Halloween special. In the original, Michael Myers is simply evil. There's no explanation for it, but it's clearly there, and it's horrific. In the remake, Myers is given an ample backstory. He exhibits the steriotypical signs of a serial killer (tortures animals, etc...) and lives in a broken home with a horrible drunk father and constantly gets bullied by other kids at school. His homicidal exploits are thus explained away by his environment and that removes a huge element of fear from the film (in all fairness, this is a mistake made by all of the sequels to the original Halloween as well...). In the original, the ending is brilliant and mystifying, with hints that Myers is driven by supernatural forces. In the remake, the supernatural abilities seem to come earlier and are more explicit, thus nullifying the ambiguities of the original. In the original, Dr. Sam Loomis is a almost a raving lunatic, but he's positive that Myers is evil and must be stopped. In the remake, Loomis is low key and conflicted. The original slowly built to a tension filled climax. The remake opts for more gore and Boo moments. Here's the thing, if this wasn't a Halloween remake, it would have been a fine homage to the slasher film. The thing that really bothers me is that it really didn't need to be a Halloween remake... it could have just been a movie about a crazy kid with a mask fetish who grows up and returns home to kill again. The only things you'd need to change? Characters' names, no shatner mask (he could have just kept using one of the many other masks he makes for himself in the movie), and different music (this film takes advantage of Carpenter's eerie theme). It wouldn't have been a great film, but it would stand much better on it's own than as a remake. As a remake, it's passable, and Zombie does a reasonable job establishing tension and even though he's ramped up the sex and gore, the film is still worth watching. Just don't expect anything even remotely close to the original Halloween. **1/2
Posted by Mark on October 28, 2007 at 02:07 PM .: link :.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Bride of Friday is List Day
It's been months since I've posted one of these, and even Roy isn't doing this anymore, but I figure, why not?

Random Ten
  • The Secret Machines - "Road Leads Where It's Led"
  • Yoko Kanno - "Too Good Too Bad"
  • Guster - "Red Oyster Cult"
  • Mike Oldfield - "Tubular Bells Part One"
  • UNKLE - "Bloodstain"
  • Weezer - "Hash Pipe"
  • The New Pornographers - "The Bleeding Heart Show"
  • Modest Mouse - "People as Places"
  • Steroid Maximus - "Aclectasis"
  • Jimi Hendrix - "Machine Gun"
5 Underappreciated or Unknown Horror Movies
  • Mute Witness: Perhaps not strictly a horror film, but it's a very tense thriller, which is close enough in my book.
  • Bay of Blood: A great openeing sequence, lots of inventive death sequences (most of which were lifted by American films, notably the Friday the 13th series), and an ending so absurd that I'm still not sure it actually happened.
  • Parents: I haven't seen this in years and it probably doesn't really count as horror, but I think I'm one of about 6 people who've ever seen this. It plays it's story straight, but it's almost kinda funny.
  • Bubba Ho-tep: I don't know if this counts as overrated, but Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis (who had faked his death) fighting a mummy in a Texas old-folks home (alongside a black JFK). What more can you ask for?
  • Manos: The Hands of Fate: Heh, just kidding.
Posted by Mark on October 26, 2007 at 11:11 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Funny Recommendation
My friend Roy and I were chatting about horror movies on some message boards we frequent, and he listed out some of his favorites, including a movie called A Tale of Two Sisters. What he said intrigued me, so I went to add it to my Netflix queue. A quick search yielded two results. The first was a 2004 Korean horror film that was obviously what he was talking about (and it had a pretty good rating too). The other one was a 1989 film described thusly:
Narrated by Charlie Sheen, Tale of Two Sisters is a dreamlike, seductive vision based on Sheen's poetry.
Say no more. This film sounds much more horrific than anything I've been watching recently.
Posted by Mark on October 24, 2007 at 10:19 PM .: link :.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

4 Weeks of Halloween: Week 3
And the horror movie marathon continues (Week 1 | Week 2). This week's program:
  • Robot Chicken: The Time of the Great Pumpkin
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV: The Devil & Homer Simpson (1993) "Mmmm, forbidden donut..."
  • The Call of Cthulhu By H.P. Lovecraft (short story)
  • 30 Days of Night (2007): Modern books and movies seem to romanticize the vampire. They're all erotic, brooding, and emotional. So it's nice to see a movie where they're portrayed as, well, monsters. The vampires in this movie are brutal, cold blooded killers. They strike quickly, going for the jugular, then walk around with blood caked on their faces. They seem more like fast, intelligent versions of zombies than the modern whiney vampire. All that said, this movie doesn't quite hit all the notes it needs to. It's very well made, and I'll give director David Slade credit for crafting some excellent sequences (particularly the overhead shots of the town as it is set upon by vampires towards the beginning of the film), but the high concept story (which is admittedly a cool idea) has plenty of holes and the ending is a bit of a letdown. This sort of thing doesn't usually bother me, but I got the feeling that Josh Hartnett was wrong for this role. His character's backstory didn't have much time to percolate, so a better actor may have been able to establish something more with simple looks and body language. Again, cool villains, a neat idea, decent execution, but a story that leaves something to be desired. **1/2
  • Phantasm (trailer)
  • Phantasm II (trailer)
  • In the Hills, the Cities by Clive Barker (short story from Books of Blood)
  • High Tension (Haute tension) (2003): This French horror film is certainly a bloody affair, but there's a lot to like about it and the film's title has some merit to it. Everything that happens in the movie is completely unoriginal, but this isn't just a splattery gore-fest. The filmmakers do attempt to build tension, and are reasonably effective at doing so. Sure, it's derivative, but it's very well made. Good acting, sharp art-house cinematography, and taut, suspenseful music are just a few elements. These filmmakers wear their influences on their sleeves, and for the most part, they get away with it (see this spoiler laden post for a bunch of side by side screenshot comparisons, and a pretty good discussion of the film). As with a lot of horror movies, there are a fair share of improbable events or decisions, but the astoundingly absurd twist towards the end of the film torpedoes what would have been a really great movie. The twist is a source of unending controversy and while I admit that there's something neat about it, it is also totally reliant on the fact that the filmmakers are pretty much lying to you for 80 minutes. With such a flawed ending, it's difficult to judge this film. I think it's still worth watching for fans of the genre (it's definitely not for the timid, as it's quite gory) but I can't decide how much the ending really takes away from the movie. After all, there's not much of a story (plus, it's a story we've seen a hundred times before (it reminded me a lot of Dean Koontz's Intensity, for example)), and the main attraction is the suspense and horror established by what is essentially an 80 minute chase scene. I think I'm probably cutting it too much slack, but I'll go with ***

    High Tension
  • Halloween (1977) (trailer)
  • In the Mouth of Madness (trailer)
  • The Thing (trailer)
  • "Masters of Horror" John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns (2005): I was recently wondering what happened to John Carpenter. His last few films (Ghosts of Mars and Vampire$) were unbelievably bad films, and the best that could be said of his work in the 1990s is that it was uneven. This is a guy who had an incredible run in the late 1970s and early 1980s, making two of my favorite all time horror films (Halloween and The Thing) amongs several other good films. Anyway, I'd heard good things about his work on the Masters of Horror series, so I checked out this episode, summarized well on IMDB: "With a torrid past that haunts him, a movie-theater director is hired to hunt for the only known print of a film so notorious that its single screening caused the viewers to become homicidally insane." It's an intriguing mix of The Club Dumas and Carpenter's own In the Mouth of Madness (probably his best film from the uneven 1990s). It doesn't quite live up to it's potential, but it's entertaining enough, and it's got it's fair share of chills (and some effective extreme gore). It's flawed, but another solid effort from this series and despite the fact that I don't love this, I think I am now looking forward to Carpenter's next film (two are apparently scheduled for 2008). He's still able to craft truly creepy imagery, even if he may have lost his touch overall. **1/2
Update: Heh: Open Letter to the Aliens Who Kidnapped John Carpenter and Replaced Him With a Pod Person

Posted by Mark on October 21, 2007 at 04:05 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Spinning Silhouette
This Spinning Silhouette optical illusion is making the rounds on the internet this week, and it's being touted as a "right brain vs left brain test." The theory goes that if you see the silhouette spinning clockwise, you're right brained, and you're left brained if you see it spinning counterclockwise.

Everytime I looked at the damn thing, it was spinning a different direction. I closed my eyes and opened them again, and it spun a different direction. Every now and again, and it would stay the same direction twice in a row, but if I looked away and looked back, it changed direction. Now, if I focus my eyes on a point below the illusion, it doesn't seem to rotate all the way around at all, instead it seems like she's moving from one side to the other, then back (i.e. changing directions every time the one leg reaches the side of the screen - and the leg always seems to be in front of the silhouette).

Of course, this is the essense of the illusion. The silhouette isn't actually spinning at all, because it's two dimensional. However, since my brain is used to living in a three dimensional world (and thus parsing three dimensional images), it's assuming that the image is also three dimensional. We're actually making lots of assumptions about the image, and that's why we can see it going one way or the other.

Eventually, after looking at the image for a while and pondering the issues, I got curious. I downloaded the animated gif and opened it up in the GIMP to see how the frames are built. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure this thing is either broken or it's cheating. Well, I shouldn't say that. I noticed something off on one of the frames, and I'd be real curious to know how that affects people's perception of the illusion (to me, it means the image is definitely moving counterclockwise). I'm almost positive that it's too subtle to really affect anything, but I did find it interesting. More on this, including images and commentary, below the fold. First thing's first, here's the actual spinning silhouette.

The Spinning Silhouette

Again, some of you will see it spinning in one direction, some in the other direction. Everyone seems to have a different trick for getting it to switch direction. Some say to focus on the shadow, some say to look at the ankles. Closing my eyes and reopening seems to do the trick for me. Now let's take a closer look at one of the frames. Here's frame 12:

In frame 12, the illusion is still intact

Looking at this frame, you should be able to switch back and forth, seeing the leg behind the person or in front of the person. Again, because it's a silhouette and a two dimensional image, our brain usually makes an assumption of depth, putting the leg in front or behind the body. Switching back and forth on this static image was actually a lot easier for me. Now the tricky part comes in the next frame, number 13 (obviously, the arrow was added by me):

In frame 13, there is a little gash in the leg

Now, if you look closely at the leg, you'll see a little imperfection in the silhouette. Maybe I'm wrong, but that little gash in the leg seems to imply that the leg is behind the body. If you try, you can still get yourself to see the image as having the leg in front, but then you've got this gash in the leg that just seems very out of place.

So what to make of this? First, the imperfection is subtle enough (it's on 1 frame out of 34) that everyone still seems to be able to see it rotate in both directions. Second, maybe I'm crazy, and the little gash doesn't imply what I think. Anyone have alternative explanations? Third, is that imperfection intentional? If so, why? It does not seem necessary, so I'd be curious to know if the creators knew about it, and what their intention was regarding it.

Finally, as far as the left brain versus right brain portion, I find that I don't really care, but I am interested in how the imperfection would affect this "test." This neuroscientist seems to be pretty adamant about the whole left/right thing being hogwash though:
...the notion that someone is "left-brained" or "right-brained" is absolute nonsense. All complex behaviours and cognitive functions require the integrated actions of multiple brain regions in both hemispheres of the brain. All types of information are probably processed in both the left and right hemispheres (perhaps in different ways, so that the processing carried out on one side of the brain complements, rather than substitutes, that being carried out on the other).
At the very least, the traditional left/right brain theory is a wildly oversimplified version of what's really happening. The post also goes into the way the brain "fill in the gaps" for confusing visual information, thus allowing the illusion.

Update: Strange - the image appears to be rotating MUCH faster in Firefox than in Opera or IE. I wonder how that affects perception.
Posted by Mark on October 17, 2007 at 10:42 PM .: link :.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

4 Weeks of Halloween: Week 2
This week's lineup features all British made horror:
  • Hellraiser (trailer)
  • The Legend of Hell House (trailer)
  • Count Magnus, by M. R. James (short story)
  • The Wicker Man (1973): This film is usually labelled horror, but it's not your typical horror film. For one thing, there are several musical sequences (this isn't just scenes that heavily feature music, it's the actual use of music and singing to further the plot - like in a musical). For another, there isn't any blood or gore (lots of nudity though). The deaths are few and far between. On the other hand, the entire movie is overshadowed by an ominous tone, and it's got a fantastic and haunting ending. The story follows a mainland police officer who goes to an island village in search of a missing girl. The locals are none too cooperative, most denying that the girl even exists. The island's inhabitants have many unusual beliefs and religious customs, much to the chagrin of the devoutly Christian police officer. This is psychological horror film. A slow burn that grows into a hell of a fire in the end (literally and figuratively). I haven't seen the remake, but after watching this, I'd say it was probably unnecessary. It's very unusual, and probably not for everyone, but I liked it. ***

    The titular Wicker Man
  • Severance (trailer)
  • The Descent (trailer)
  • Twilight at the Towers, by Clive Barker (Short Story from Cabal)
  • Dog Soldiers (2002): Writer/director Neil Marshall's debut is about British soldiers on a routine training mission that encounter a pack of werewolves and must fight for survival. It never had much of a theatrical bow, but has picked up a lot of steam on DVD. It's certainly not a perfect film, and there isn't anything really new here, but it's well executed and fun to watch. The film mashes two sub-genres, the werewolf film and the war film, quite effectively. The focus is more on the soldiers, and it helps greatly that the talented cast turns in excellent performances. The film could have easily slid into camp, but Marshall doesn't overcorrect and make it too earnest either. It's still a little cheesy. There are some rather stupid horror movie moments (We're in a house, surrounded by werewolves. I think I'll stand by this window here.) and other cliches (for instance, one of the soldiers is bitten by a werewolf, and we know where that's going - but this is at least well crafted) and the story slides into the realm of the unprobable as it progresses, but by that time the film had built up enough goodwill in me that I didn't mind. An entertaining, well done B-movie. ***

    Dog Soldiers
  • 28 Days Later (trailer)
  • 28 Weeks Later (trailer)
  • Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman (short story)
I didn't even realize the two films I got from Netflix this week were British, but it worked out well for this post. I meant to have a third film in this post, but ran out of time this week (also, it probably wouldn't have been British)... More to come next week. I have tons of horror films in my queue, but if anyone has any suggestions, feel free to leave a comment.
Posted by Mark on October 14, 2007 at 08:19 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cartographie lovecraftienne
This is a couple weeks old, but I've been busy and haven't gotten to post it. Someone has posted three detailed maps of Lovecraftian locales: Arkham, Innsmouth and Kingsport. The post is in French, but the maps are right there, and they're great. The best one is Innsmouth, which almost looks like a member of the Lovecraftian Bestiary in itself.

Seaport of Innsmouth

Awesome. I'll have to be sure to put some Lovecraft into my 4 weeks of Halloween. [via NeedCoffee]
Posted by Mark on October 10, 2007 at 10:25 PM .: link :.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

4 Weeks of Halloween: Week 1
Blatantly stealing this concept from Kernunrex's Six Weeks of Halloween, here's my week 1 schedule:
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: The Shinning
  • Shining (fake trailer)
  • Black Sunday (trailer)
  • Tre volti della paura, I (1963) Mario Bava's trio of short stories is a little tame by today's standards, but his ability to use atmosphere and sound to create tension is undeniable. The first story tells the tale of a beautiful woman terrorized by her ex-boyfriend. It somehow manages to pull off two twists in a short time, and it's the best of the three stories. The second story is a plodding vampire tale, probably the most famous of the three, as it stars Boris Karloff, but it might be my least favorite. The third story follows a nurse who makes a bad decision when her patient dies in the midst of a seance. It's the shortest of the three stories, but it delivers on it's straightforward premise. All in all, an enjoyable experience, if a bit cheesy (and if you don't mind subtitles). **1/2
  • The Exorcist (unused trailer) - This trailer is awesome - light years ahead of it's time though. Previews from the era were... lame. To put it lightly. This is great though.
  • Mary Poppins (recut trailer)
  • Horror Friends (YouTube short)
  • Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (2005): Directed by Kaedrin favorite, Don Coscarelli (of Phantasm fame), this was one of the first Masters of Horror short films. Adapted from a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, this 1 hour story isn't tremendously brilliant or groundbreaking, but it is well made and has a couple decent twists. It's got some gory touches and the relationship the protagonist was in (told in flashbacks) is a bit rushed, but overall it's not too bad. Very entertaining and certainly worthy of a watch, but it's rather straightforward. (Note to Netflix users, a lot of the Masters of Horror series are available on their Watch Online service, including this one and probably a bunch of others I'll watch in coming weeks) **1/2
  • Alien (trailer)
  • Evil Aliens (trailer)
  • Robot Chicken: Horror Big Brother
  • Friday the 13th (1980): Taking it's cue from John Carpenter's brilliant Halloween, this film ratcheted up the gore... and the implausibility. Alas, more gore also meant less scares. It's got some inventive kill scenes (notably Kevin Bacon's, though it was pretty much stolen right from Mario Bava's even more implausible Bay of Blood) and a great twist ending (you could probably make the argument that this steals from the twist endings of films like Halloween and Phantasm, but this was at least well constructed on it's own. It's also worth noting that A Nightmare on Elm Street does the same thing, so at least this film is in good company.), but is otherwise pretty pedestrian. I've watched all the Friday movies (er most of 'em, they tend to blend together), but remember very little about them, which is why I decided to revisit this. I'll probably take in a couple of other ones over the coming month as well. **1/2
There you have it. I hope I didn't just use up all my favorite of the shorts & trailers... The trailers for The Exorcist and Alien are the best, and they're amazing because they're way ahead of their time. As I mentioned above, most trailers of the era are just excruciatingly bad. Anyway, this was a reasonable start to my little horror marathon. Look for more next week.
Posted by Mark on October 07, 2007 at 04:01 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Groping and Probing
So a few recent installments of Shamus' new comic, Chainmail Bikini, has created a bit of controversy. The comics in question are actually a series of 3 (the fact that there are 3 is a key part of the controversy, but we'll get to that in a moment). Here they are: The controversy stems from the fact that there is a malicious groping in comic #6. Perhaps due to an ill-advised punchline ("improved stamina"), the discussion turned from one of groping and larping and into one of rape. And we all know how funny discussions of rape can get.

To be honest, I didn't find this particular arc in the comics very funny. However, I didn't find it very offensive either (though I can see why some might think so). Also, while I didn't find it especially funny, I do think it makes an interesting statement about gaming in general.

I don't tend to read web-comics the same way I read blogs. I tend to let several installments build up, and then read them all. So I didn't read this particular story arc until I knew about the controversy, and I must admit to a little bit of observer bias. Knowing there was a controversy colored my reading of the comic, and two things immediately struck me.

First is that while there is an element of one guy antagonizing his buddy, there is also an element of probing. By probing, I'm referring to exploration of the limits of a game and its possibilities. Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good for You has a chapter on Video Games which covers this concept really well, and I recently wrote about it:
Probing is essentially exploration of the game and its possibilities. Much of this is simply the unconscious exploration of the controls and the interface, figuring out how the game works and how you're supposed to interact with it. However, probing also takes the more conscious form of figuring out the limitations of the game. For instance, in a racing game, it's usually interesting to see if you can turn your car around backwards, pick up a lot of speed, then crash head-on into a car going the "correct" way.
Now again, in comic #6, one character is clearly attempting to antagonize his friend for choosing to role play a woman. However, I find it interesting that he chose to do so in such a way that is consistent with his character (who is a Chaotic Neutral barbarian) and followed the rules of the game (rolling die, etc...). According to the notes that accompany this arc, this sort of thing tends to happen when a campaign is not going well. If the players aren't having fun, they're going to make fun, and in if you're in a role playing game, they're going to do so by making their characters do something a little extreme. They don't do this because they are really extreme people, but because they want to see what happens. In short, they want to knock the game off it's boring rails. In this case, one player's character player groped another player's character. And from the aftermath in comics #7 and #8, you can see that things certainly got interesting. However, you also see that there were indeed consequences for the groping (one player physically assaults the other), and the comments that accompany each comic clearly attest that this is, in fact, a bad thing. To me, it's clear that the character in the comic is engaging in probing, but the comic also makes it clear that in a game that is as open-ended as D&D, it's possible to take things so far, which is why you saw a "real-world" reprisal (scare quotes due to the fact that this is a fictional comic, after all).

The second thing that struck me also had to do with the consequences. The situation immediately reminded me of this post from my friend Roy's feminist blog. He found this german poster which has a picture accompanied by this text:
Warning! Women defend themselves! If you leer at, catcall, or touch a woman, take into account that you might be loudly ridiculed, have a glass of beer poured over you, or be slapped in the face. Therefore, we strongly advise you to refrain from such harrassment!
This is exactly what happend in comics #6 - #8. Well, not exactly. The comics actually take the consequences even further, while further abstracting the situation. Let me elaborate. The poster that Roy is pointing to is talking about real life situations. If you grope some woman at a bar, expect to be slapped in the face (or worse). What happened in the comics? An imaginary character who was role playing his own imaginary character groped another imaginary character that was being role played by yet another imaginary character. No one actually exists in this scenario, and yet there are indeed consequences for the groping. In fact, the consequences were the entire point of this character arc. So when I read comics #6-#8, I immediately saw them as a demonstration of Roy's poster. (Ironically, you could even read into this more, saying that the consequences have actually broken free of the imaginary world of Chainmail Bikini and taken root in the real world - in the form of a long comment thread and multiple blog postings like this one).

Now, if one were so inclined, I can see why this arc would be grating. Personally, it doesn't bother me, but I've never been groped (er, against my will) and I can certainly understand how that could be off-putting (I suppose an argument could be made that there are some other gender issues as well). And as an astute commenter at Shamus' site points out, a lot of why this comic doesn't work as humor is due to the structure of the story:
A lot of why this doesn't work well as humour, and why it's ended up annoying people, is to do with the structure of the comic. I think Shamus really struggled with fitting a potentially amusing gag into the three-panel format, and ultimately didn't manage it successfully.

Here's what I mean. Comic 6 Panel 1 has the line "I'm exploring gender roles within the context of a roleplaying environment". The barbarian's player throws these words back in comic 7 panel 2. It's the punchline of a five-panel gag split over two comics. Structurally, this is a mess. It leads to a lame second gag to fill the rest of comic 7, but more importantly it means some sort of not-quite-a-punchline has to be contrived for the end of comic 6. That's where "improved stamina" comes from. Whatever is said in subsequent comics, it is really hard to read comic 6 in isolation without inferring that the barbarian's player intends to have his character vigorously sexually assault the female character. Because this is the last line of the comic, the additional implication is that we are meant to find this funny in itself. No wonder some people got offended.

Now, imagine doing the same thing over a slightly longer single comic of four or five panels. You would cut the "improved stamina" line for a start - it would serve no purpose any more. Instead, the comic ends on "I prefer to think of it as exploring gender roles within the context of a roleplaying environment". The first advantage of this is that it's a lot funnier. The punchline is where it's supposed to be, not buried half-way through the next comic. The second advantage is that the potential for offending readers is greatly reduced. It no longer reads as though we're meant to find rape or sexual assault funny: the humour is in the elf's player having his pretentiousness deflated in a basically harmless, if tasteless, way.
Shamus himself has noted that this explanation is not only accurate, but a good explanation as to why people are offended by what he essentially saw as a harmless joke. This makes sense to me. He wrote a strip that touched on a controversial subject in a humorous way, but then he was forced to cut it up and insert artificial punchlines, one of which implied more than he thought. From his point of view, the comic is basically the same as before, but just split up a little. All the sudden people start talking about rape and unsubscribing to the comic. I can see why he'd be a bit perplexed by even a reasonable objection to the comic.

I've never been a particularly great writer. When I was in high school, I always excelled at math and science, but never did especially well at english or writing. By college, I was much more comfortable with writing, and part of the reason for that was that I realized that writing isn't precise. Language is inherently vague and open to interpretation, and though there are some people who can wield language astoundingly well, most of us will open ourselves up to criticism simply by the act of experessing ourselves. One of my favorite quotes summarizes this well:
"To write or to speak is almost inevitably to lie a little. It is an attempt to clothe an intangible in a tangible form; to compress an immeasurable into a mold. And in the act of compression, how the Truth is mangled and torn!"
- Anne Murrow Lindbergh
Unfortunately, this simple miscommunication seems to have gotten lost in a thread of almost 200 comments. Some people have quit reading the comic altogether because of some perceived malice or ignorance on Shamus' part, others have taken to turning this into a divisive debate about rape. I don't want to start a holy war here, but when it comes to controversial stuff like this, I tend to give the creators the benefit of the doubt.

I think this whole controversy has brought up some interesting ideas, even if most have reduced it to a debate about rape. For instance, probing in games often takes the form of doing something extreme. My seemingly innocuous example above was turning your racecar around and driving the wrong direction to see what happens when you ram into another car. In real life, such an action would be catastrophic and could result in multiple deaths. Now, does doing something like that speak ill of me (the player)? How does wanton vehicular homicide compare to imaginary groping?

In my limited D&D gaming career, I played a Chaotic Evil thief who stole from his own party (i.e. one of my friends). Why did I do that? In real life, I'd never do such a thing. Why would I be interested in doing it in a role playing game? At a later point, I certainly suffered the consequences for my actions, and I think that's the rub. Playing games is all about setting up a paradigm, and sometimes half the fun is attempting to pull it down and find the holes in the paradigm, just to see what happens. I think that's a big part of why open-ended games like Grand Theft Auto are so popular. It's not the act of stealing a car or murdering a stranger that's fun, it's the act of attempting to derail the game. (Again, I touched on this in a post on game manuals.) In a recent discussion on what people like about Role Playing Games (also at Shamus' site), one of the most prominent answers was that good RPGs "...must give the player lots of freedom to make their own choices." One of the things I really hated about God of War (an otherwise awsome game) was that the character I was playing was a real prick. At one point, he goes out of his way to kill an innocent bystander (something about kicking him down into the hydra maybe? I don't remember specifically.) and that really annoyed me. What happened didn't bother me so much as the fact that I didn't have a choice in the matter. I don't really have an answer here, but I like games that give me a lot of freedom, because once I get bored by the forced or scripted aspects of the game, I can probe for weaknesses in the paradigm, and maybe even exploit them.

Update: I just noticed that Roy has tackled this subject on his blog. He seems quite disheartened by Shamus' post, though Roy wrote his post before the comment I quoted above was posted... My perception was that Shamus just couldn't understand why people were objecting... but once someone actually pointed out, in detail, why the humor doesn't work, he seemed to be more understanding (not only of why people were complaining, but of what people were suggesting by their complaints). But that's just me. I don't want to put words in Shamus' mouth, but as I already mentioned, I tend to give creators the benefit of the doubt.
Posted by Mark on October 03, 2007 at 07:55 PM .: link :.

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