Showing posts with label Noir. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Noir. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Donnie Yen's Dragon (aka Wu Xia): Watch It

Donnie Yen's latest martial arts film was recently released in the US under the relatively uninformative title DRAGON, a title that brings to my mind thoughts of Bruce Lee and his many classic kung fu films.  It is also a title that does a disservice to the film.  As awe inspiring as Bruce Lee was as a performer, using any of Lee's major works as a reference point is completely off base as the vast majority of Lee's films were of a different film genre than DRAGON.

DRAGON follows in the wuxia tradition in which martial artists live in the world of jiang hu and are inexorably trapped within an epically tragic tale, often a romantic tale.  Think CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and you are on the right track.  But DRAGON, directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan, brings in elements of American Film Noir to the traditional tragic fantasy elements of a typical wuxia film.    DRAGON begins as a murder mystery of a kind, a murder mystery that reveals that Liu Jin-xi (Donnie Yen) is more than the humble paper maker he appears to be.  It is a mystery that ends in proper wuxia tragedy.  It is a heartfelt film with fine emotional beats, even if the martial arts themselves don't quite live up to the remarkable high standards Yen has set of late.  This isn't to say the film isn't beautiful, it is, rather that this isn't a rapid paced actioner.  This is a film of investigations, fear of the loss of a mundane life, and tragedy.  It has some echoes of the Shaw Brothers classic ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, but is entirely its own creation.

Given the narrative tensions of the film, I wouldn't have marketed the film under the title DRAGON.  I would have based the title on the original title Wu Xia, a term that literally means "martial hero."  Given the connotations of honor in the phrase, I would have called the film AN HONORABLE MAN.  The title would then echo the tensions in the movie and provided context for potential viewers.  Is Liu Jin-xi an honorable man?  Has he always been an honorable man?  Will he leave the tale an honorable man?  These are the questions the audience faces as they watch the film.  They are questions worth asking and the investigations of Takeshi Kaneshiro's character answer only one of these questions.  The answer to the others are revealed through the subtleties of Donnie Yen's performance.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Character 'Death' in Fantasy Role-Playing Games

One of my best friends, and a regular at my gaming table, Eric Lytle wanted to share his thoughts on role playing games and character deaths. He's a great asset at the table, and I thought his observations might demonstrate some interesting differences underlying game play for modern gamers versus "grognards."

Illustration Copyright 2011 Jody Lindke

I HATE character deaths in fantasy Role-playing games, for the most part. I certainly think death has a valid place in the milieu. I can't recall ever running away from an encounter, ever. And for this reason I've had many characters die on me. The most telling example is 1st edition Basic D&D where this is pretty much the norm. Even printed adventure expect DMs to be killing characters left and right. I've rolled up at least 10 characters for a level 1 adventure in basic D&D. As a result the cast of characters for our campaign include a cavalcade of boring faceless dead. I just stopped putting any effort into developing them. They were ammunition in a gun. Not the richly developed characters;with character links to other players, emotional ties to NPCs, well developed back story that creates good heroic motivations for actions, that I usually enjoy playing. When the first basic D&D came out and there was nothing else to be had on the market I'm sure that I would have been fine with it. My introduction to the RPG scene was much later. I started really heavily playing paper and pencil role playing games with Star Wars D20, which is a cinematic role-playing game about being awesome(read Jedi Knight). It's certainly not the wild west days of RPGs anymore.

As a member of the RPG 'new school' it is my expectation that character death is not an imminent threat. Party level balanced encounter design is the norm for new school RPGs and I think this is a good thing. It takes a lot of headaches away when the maths is all figured out for you. Game expectations are to tell a collaborative story and not an antagonistic one. GM and players are working together to have fun and tell cool stories. There is no sinister villain behind the DM screen trying to kill the player characters anymore.

As a player I want character death to have meaning. I get attached to the characters create and unless it's a character I was provided for a 4-6 hour convention game I'm looking to create long story arcs with them because I sure as heck have imagined an entire back story for them even if it's not written down or well articulated to the other players. And even when I'm playing a 'con' game I want the death to be meaningful. I didn't pay money to have some GM bully me for six hours and finish the story with "I'm sorry you died".

As a GM I don't want to frustrate my players or have them feel like I overwhelmed them. The goal is to tell a heroic story. If the high critical zombie minion takes out the Dragonborn paladin with a lucky shot its not that heroic of a tale. PC death can be an interesting part of the story but it should come organically from storytelling not from opposed tactics and lucky dice rolls. Sure the villain should be trying to stop the PCs from interfering with their plans. But there are many ways to be 'taken out' of a situation that aren't lethal. Setbacks are great in these kinds of games. But having to develop a new character in an established game because of chance shouldn't be a goal or a byproduct for fantasy RPG play.

This is specific to Fantasy RPGs (i.e. D&D and its clones). I can see the value in having disposable characters for other types of role-playing games. Character deaths in a gritty noir story or a Lovecraftian horror story make a lot of sense to me. Check out Sean Preston's discussion of Grittiness in Savage Worlds in regards to Bennies at Reality Blurs. Although to be honest I'm lying about this point. I still hate character death unless it serves some story purpose. Rob Donoghue talks about character death in Fantasy over at his Some Space to Think blog (with Game of Thrones spoilers), which also touches on how it adds that gritty feeling to the genre. It is unthinkable to kill your characters in other genres too. Doc Savage and friends aren't going to be biting the bullet in your pulp RPG.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Hope and Terror: Denise Hamilton Hit My Literary Radar

"Genre fiction is addictive," so wrote Joyce Carol Oates in her introduction to Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (P.S.). This simple maxim explains why so many fans of SF and Fantasy have piles upon piles of books that they will never read. It also explains why I didn't know who Denise Hamilton was when I saw this blog entry on the excellent LA Observed this morning, and why the name seemed hauntingly familiar. Five books down on my "noir pile," just under The Dain Curse, lies a book with the simple title Los Angeles Noir (Akashic Noir) edited by -- you guessed it -- Denise Hamilton.

If not for that aforementioned blog entry, the name may never have become a highlighted name in my mind. Her introduction in LOS ANGELES NOIR -- as well as her story -- are quite good, but neither would have left me gasping for more by this local modern noir author. But the blog entry had me rushing over to my local independent bookstore, The Village Bookshop, in the hopes of picking up her latest novel The Last Embrace. And it wasn't because of the time travel restaurant tour the author went on with the blogger at EATING LA. Which isn't to say I wouldn't like to do such a tour, just that a restaurant tour isn't going to get me to buy a book...unless it's a restaurant tour book.

What struck me was the phrase, from the EATING LA post quoted in the Observed piece, "But she also incorporated a fascinating plotline about stop-motion animation, inspired by the work of Ray Harryhausen." I re-read that sentence no fewer than five times. I am a huge Harryhausen fan, as anyone who read my November 2005 post stocking-stuffers or this comment on stop motion animation knows. So hearing that a book, taking place in 1949, featured a plotline involving stop-motion animation instantly set my interest-o-meter over 9000. (It's posts like this Hamilton piece that make LA Observed the first place I look for news about Los Angeles.)

Denise Hamilton's most recent book, the one discussed in the blog entries, is THE LAST EMBRACE. The author's official website describes the book as follows:

Lily Kessler, a former stenographer and spy for the OSS, is asked by her late fiance's mother to find out what happened to his sister Kitty, an actress who has been missing from her Hollywood boarding house. Although the aspiring starlets at the house insist that Kitty is off somewhere furthering her career, the next day her body is found in a ravine below the Hollywood sign. Unimpressed with the local police, Lily investigates on her own. As she delves further into Kitty's life, she encounters fiercely competitive actors, gangsters, an eccentric special-effects genius, exotic denizens of Hollywood's nightclubs and a homicide detective who might distract her from her quest for justice.

By this description alone I would likely have eventually stumbled onto the novel. I like reading Noir stories about the city in which I live. I have made a trip to the Glendale train station merely see the depot from the film version of DOUBLE INDEMNITY. In my eight years in the Los Angeles area, I have come to love this most noir of cities -- okay...if you're a die hard Hammett fan it might be San Francisco, or Butte if you think all Hammett except RED HARVEST is trivial -- and I am constantly looking for more fiction that points me into the "shadows created by the Hollywood sign." Or to put it like Denise Hamilton did in her introduction to LOS ANGELES NOIR, "Writers like James Cain, Dorothy B. Hughes, Nathanael West, Chester Himes, and Raymond Chandler understood both the hope and the terror that Los Angeles inspires." I might even have picked the book up at some time during the next few months to place on the bottom of the pile of books I mentioned earlier. But after reading her website's description of the things that inspired the book, it's going right on top. I'll be reading it as soon as I finish NIGHTMARE TOWN. Reading the inspirations was like seeing a collage of many of my favorite obsessions.

  1. Then one day while researching Hollywood's Golden Age, I ran across an L.A. Times story by Cecilia Rasmussen about Jean Spangler, a Hollywood starlet who vanished without a trace in October of 1949. (Who that loves LA stories doesn't like tales of vanished starlets?)
  2. She'd partied in Palm Springs with two associates of LA gangster Mickey Cohen who also disappeared mysteriously that fall. (Gotta have that local mob connection)
  3. It soon emerged that Jean had just filmed a movie with Kirk Douglas.(Star of ACE IN THE HOLE, a noir classic)
  4. I had the great good fortune, around this time, to meet the legendary Ray Harryhausen. With his mentor Willis O'Brien, Harryhausen pioneered stop motion animation. Harryhausen was 86 and hale and hearty when I interviewed him at Dark Delicacies Bookstore in Burbank and learned what the special effects world was like in 1949, the year "Mighty Joe Young" came out.(I had to read this sentence twice...interviewing Harryhausen over food? How cool is that?)
  5. Thanks to the generosity of Chiodo Brothers Productions, especially Stephen Chiodo, I also toured an animation studio and watched stop-motion in progress and was greatly impressed by the painstaking detail, dedication and artistry involved.(I would certainly do a happy dance if I were able to watch the animators of the stop motion animated sequence in ELF at work...oh and they are also working on the sequel to the amazing LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA entitled THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN.)

This perfect storm of interests made this a must read for me. I only hope the book can live up to the hype my sub-conscious has produced. The reviews of the book have been positive, though Booklist asks the absurd question "Ellroy meets women's fiction? Why not?" Has the reviewer at Booklist never heard of Leigh Brackett -- co-author of the screenplays to THE BIG SLEEP and RIO BRAVO and author of the screenplay to THE LONG GOODBYE, not to mention quite the pulp writer herself.