30 June, 2012

Max Payne: The Post-Modern Shootmetheus

Max Payne 3 is a mighty fine video game. It's been a long damn while since the last installment of this series has come out

This entry really isn't going to be about that. It's really just going to be about things that it reminds me of. I'm going to glaze over things I learned in my film classes and I won't nearly have an appropriate amount of references. If that sounds fun, then let's go! Let's do it!

 Lost in a Payne Hole--

This game triggered something deep inside of me. It is something that I can't even put exact words to. I can only ramble. . . but rambling has taken me this far, so I figure I'll just figure out where it wants to take me. With a lot of things ans with this game in particular, it's practically subconscious and I can testify to this because it has made me pine for Michael Mann films, which are films that I have complained about again and again ad nauseam. It's also made me think of a lot of other nonsense.

If that's what you want to read about, then come along! Seriously! Last warning!

What it's made me think about, though, are mostly subjects that are just on the periphery of the game. Everything from the storyline to the tone to the setting to the game play reminds of me a heap of movies an TV shows (and those things in turn remind me of other TV shows and movies). Most specifically Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days (at least in some ways, but I'll get to that in a moment.).

The Max Payne series has always been over the top and self-aware. It's a hard-boiled game series that knows it's in a hard-boiled game series. Not only did the creators know that its audience had their heads chockful of Sin City and Pulp Fiction (not hard-boiled, but you know what I mean), but Max did too. Referencing past works is in the DNA of Max Payne. It's why he moves in slow motion and holds two pistols at once and talks in overwrought metaphors.

While the third installment has been made by a new team and it has stripped away its old comic book noir sensibilities, it's now published by Rockstar, a company that has never felt shame over wearing its influences on its sleeves. If anything, in this case, they want you to remember the things that inspired it.

This game picks off years after the last installment in the series came out and, predictably, the years of murder, mayhem, and drug abuse has not done Max any favors. He's a wash-out and a self-hating addict with a very narrow set of professional skills. In short Payne is exactly the sort of character that I love best.

(Why couldn't they just make that game?)

The Case of Lynch V. Payne--

What Max Payne 3 is what Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days should have been. Where Kane and Lynch 2 is a monochromatic, senseless game with poor controls and almost no plot to speak of, Max Payne 3 has great art design, an entertaining combat system, and a plot that is about as edifying, but much better written (CONTRADICTION) it has greater depths than "LET'S GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE!"

Despite being a man of no little education, I like  Kane and Lynch 2. I know I'm alone on this and I know that I shouldn't. It's a complete mess.  From top to bottom it is an unworthy game. Its a shooter where shooting barely works. It takes place in an exotic location that you can't see. Calling the main characters two-dimensional would be an insult to cardboard and worst yet its last boss is literally a dog.


Payne's boss is a much more impressive encounter, even though both of them take place on an airport. If I had to put my finger on what differentiates these games is that Max Payne 3 is Jack Bauer and Kane and Lynch 2 is just Jack Bauer torturing people.

Don't like these guys? Tough shit.
And yet, I still really like the stupid game.

I cannot think of a game as unapologetic and brutal as that game. One of its trailers revolves around the titular characters running naked from police attack dogs. One of the men is attacked and his partner picks up a plastic fast food tray and starts hitting the dog. Top that off with the "Bowling for Shangai" video, I realized that this is a game that I want to play (plus the demo wasn't terrible. It had potential and some of the guns had the kind of kick that guns in a gritty game like this should have. Unfortunately the finished game is not the demo).

Where it goes a bit pear-shaped is that it's entire aesthetic seems to have been crafted to have been off-putting. From the washed-out You Tube-esque digital grain to the nihilistic storyline and its scumbag main characters seems to have been crafted to get people to not want to play it. Well, IO Interactive succeeded. They wanted to make a game that is as unpleasant and mean as the world the titular wallows in and they hit the bullseye. Good for them, I guess. But maybe they should've wrapped a better game around that whole concept.

Max on Fire--

But general harshness isn't the main thing Max Payne 3 (or the games before it, really) shares with Dog Days.Max Payne 3's non-gameplay sequences is complete with digital distortion and neon blow-outs and every other kind of 21st century film making technique. It's a technique they both use in various ways and to various effects. It's not a direct stylistic aping and it might be that if they both weren't crime-centric third-person shooters I wouldn't have ever thought of it, but here we are.

The one piece of art that's most similar to the third Max Payne is the movie Man on Fire, which not only lends a big, bloody chunk of its plot, but also its frenetic on-screen aesthetics. It's worth noting that Man on Fire is also the only Tony Scott movie where Tony Scott's recent manic style isn't completely terrible.

But it isn't just the odd crime game or Tony Scott movie that's been doing this sort of thing, I've also seen it appear most recently in the second episode of the second season-- 'scuse me, guv, the second series-- of Sherlock. The You Tube era's version of distortion has supplanted my generation's TV snow. I doubt that kids today even know what the hell snow is (And I know they do not appreciate the pleasure of scrambled pornography. We lucky few). In that case I think that was specifically a decision to be clever, but it's Sherlock-- That whole show is a showcase for clever.

In most of these cases, they aren't They aren't statements, they just look cool.And art is in a position where instead of making things look better and have higher fidelity, we're trying to find ways to make things look wonky. In fact, new technology seems to exist specifically to make things look less like regular ol' reality.

Without getting into stuff like indy lo-fi bands or vinyl collecting, I think the best example-- and really the most fun example-- is the newest Star Trek movie.

To Boldly Mess Things Up For a Lot of Money Like Nobody Has Before--

Well, at least the trailer didn't have any Inception sounds.
There probably isn't a single shot in Star Trek that doesn't have some kind of computer effect in it. Not including the green screen, even, what was shot on the set is not the movie that we saw and enjoyed. That movie wasn't made until it was built months later. It's funny, because the Star Trek is a movie that was never actually shot. (I guess in the same way that people say that the Gulf War wasn't ever actually fought).

Fifty years ago a lens flare was considering a flaw in filming. A lens flare is a result of the light of the Sun (or a similarly bright projection like a lamp or a key light) hitting the back of the film stock and projecting back into the camera. Film isn't supposed to work that way and traditionally that was a fuck up. It meant that you filmed a scene poorly, after all, nobody wanted to watch a scene with Humphrey Bogart with these optical spirits dancing around the camera. In still photography that also meant that you would pray to whatever saint was relevant that you had images on your test strip to cover you.

It wasn't until Lawrence of Arabia came around that lens flare actually became an artistic technique. That film had long and important sequences about the Sun and about the heat of it and these flaws in the filming because the means to show the audience just how terrible this Arabian sun was-- After all, we'd never seen a sun so bad before that it distorted a camera, had we?

And that was then. Lawrence of Arabia is considered one of the best films of all time and with reason, so it's funny to see the reboot of Star Trek take that lesson and apply it, not as a reference to Lawrence of Arabia, but because lens flare means the future. It's made a full circle. It isn't an error, it isn't even really an artistic choice, it's ubiquitous.

(I guess it's also worth considering that color opens up the film to a lot more techniques like that, where as in black and white, which is binary by definition, it is a far more glaring flaw.)

There are plenty of other problems that come up with digital filming, but every single piece of lens flare that appears in JJ Abrams' Star Trek has been artificially placed there. What you have then is a film that has spent millions of dollars to artificially mar a film that would have been a disaster only a generation or so ago. What was once a flaw has turned into a stylistic choice and now has just become standard operating procedure. I wonder what David Lean would think.

Hey, Larry? That's a fire hazard, buddy.
Grain Pain and Payne Grain--

And to bring it back to video games this sort of absurdity is only heightened. Digital distortion is now just an aesthetic choice as much as anything. For whatever reason war games have globbed onto this style, as well, because nothing says visceral like static and buzzing noises (and a vaguely disguised Terminator theme, apparently).

(Ghost Recon: Future Soldier also has supertext and words projected onto the world in the same way that Splinter Cell: Conviction, but, again, where Max Payne uses it to get across the concept of grit, Ghost Recon does it because pop-up words means the future. So: More static to think about.)

And the list of games that use the same techniques as Max Payne 3 and Kane and Lynch 2 to get their tone across goes on and on.

Mass Effect 2 naturally had a false film grain effect on it, which naturally kicks it back to the kind of 70's and 80's science fiction films that it's a product of (Aliens, Silent Running, Outland, Enemy Mine). I guess that's another slight break between Alien and Prometheus, which is that one is super sharp and the other is a low-budget genre flick from the 1970's.

Resident Evil 5 allowed you to put multiple film grain effect over the game once you beat it (Since it's a horror game, I don't know why that isn't simply the default. I know it's an HD game, but come on, film grain is cool!). Silent Hill uses the same technique, as well, which is a case where I'd appreciate them taking it out, because, fuck, man, I couldn't even finish Silent Hill 2 I was so upset by it. Tone it down, Silent Hill 2, I just want to play you!

In science fiction seeing film grain makes you think of the future and in horror it's there to instill a sense of something being off (or, again, maybe you just want to reference Evil Dead 2 or something). With fake film grain you can have it all!

(And that isn't anything new either. I remember that the final shootout in Taxi Driver was purposely given a grainy look in order to tone down the brutality. Apparently it worked. Again, you have a director purposely making his film look worse, but in this case instead of it being for fun aesthetic reasons, Scorsese did it to get his movie and R-rating. The same goes for Kill Bill Vol.1. In that case Tarantino made the big sword fight black and white in order to tone down the gore. In both cases, I guess it worked.)

Then, there are video games that now have lens flare a la Star Trek and Lawrence of Arabia or whatever else, but, again, like there being no film to have grain there isn't any lens to have a flare. There isn't even a sun or light. It's all made up!

Putting Dog Days Down--

Alright. Back to Kane and Lynch 2-- Because I have to get this out somewhere--

"Here's looking at you, shitwad."
As dour and on-the-rocks as the whole of Max Payne 3 is, it does allow you to have a good feeling every three hours or so that doesn't involve shooting bad men in the face ten times.

I mean in in that it allows room for actual good guys and maybe lets some people to not be tortured to death. It's not much, but there is something more to this game than Dog Day's main statement on the human spirit than "We're all cocksucking scumbags or Chinese. Or dead." It's depressing.

Max Payne 3 has a discernible story arc as well as an incredible design, and what is more is that is plays like a good video game. There is something that is simple and appealing about diving at people whilst holding two guns that I just can't explain. It's just awesome. It doesn't work as well as it does in the first or second Max Payne, admittedly, but it is a much different kind of game.Thematically Max Payne 3 also works far better as a Michael Mann homage than does Dog Day's (the first game, Dead Men, has a whole level that apes the club scene in Collateral).

The visceral appeal of Mann's movies are that they revolve around men being experts at a sort of obscure art. Whether that be a behavioral psychologist, a thief, a frontiersman, another kind of thief, a cab driver, cops posing as thieves, or cops fighting thieves, he makes movies about men being men in very specific ways. I love that. And where this game goes its own way is that Max isn't a professional, he's a fuck up who has been cursed with having professional skills. His skill set is more a curse than a boon and you couldn't say that of somebody like Ali.

None of Mann's character's are cursed (except for in The Keep, but since when has The Keep ever counted for anything?). They execute until they cannot execute any more. Payne is a character who has to execute because he isn't much good at anything else, especially being alive. I like that. I like a down and out character and I especially like that being rammed into the digitally perfect styling of Michael Mann. As much as this game is indebted to Mann (in addition to Man on Fire and Elite Squad and, of course, John Woo) it is also shirking these associations and going its own way. It is being honest with its influences without being a copycat.

I also appreciate that Max Payne 3 had the good taste not to force America through another parkour sequence through a favela (see: The Incredible Hulk, Fast Five, and Modern Warfare 2). At least video games have made some progress with this thing.

To mangle a Joseph Campbell quote, he was once asked why what he studied and talked about mattered and he replied that it didn't matter. He then said that a dog is happy, but it doesn't know about anything that we care about or any of the things we study. But, he added, "It's a dog's life."

Which Brings Us To The End--

So, what's the fucking point? I don't know: If you're going to do something weird, make sure you do it well. I don't see a sense in mucking it up any further than that. I already used the term "post-modern" and that's unforgivable enough without me becoming an even bigger jerk.

I guess, in general, though, I like being reminded of good things. It's more than just that pleasure of recognizing something, which is the kind of thing that Dane Cook thrived off of, I just like seeing and knowing that the thing I like also likes other good things. Knowing that the Coen Brothers love Raymond Chandler makes me like them more and it makes me understand them more as artists. I also like seeing where something as simple and as generally invisible as intentionally grainy footage goes. That's fun to me. If it wasn't I wouldn't have become a media studies major.

Now, okay, I guess that's what makes me the jerk in this scenario

If you've got any input, please let me know. I won't assume that anyone will make it this far down this article, but it is always nice to hear from other people. That sort of thing keeps me sane. My friend Andy said some interesting things about my Prometheus post, so maybe I'll present my rebuttal when it comes out on DVD. I wish I had gotten back to him on that. Anyways, good on ya, I'm off to watch Body of Lies.

Anyways, apropos of very little, here's the best bit of dialogue in the movie Thief--

* I think it's pure laziness on the part of the Max Payne 3 writers that there's a gang called the Comando Sombra and nobody connects the dots and calls them "cocksuckers." Get it together, guys.

* While Kane and Lynch 2 is almost uniformly regarded as garbage by both the public and the critical community, the new Hitman looks pretty hot even with stupid shit like videos about killing battle nuns.

* I'll back away from falling any further down the reference hole, but you all should watch Elite Force: The Enemy Within, Mandala Bala, and Senna as soon as humanly possible. They are great, great films about Brazil for completely different reasons.

* Thinking about t now, I realize that Kane and Lynch 2 has one advantage over Max Payne's third outing which is that you can pick up gas canisters and fire extinguishers and chuck them as bombs. That's the kind of weaponization that I'd like to see more of in video games.

*Oh, you can also take human shields in Dog Days. I like that. You can't turn them into bombs though as in Gears of War 3, though.Two steps forward, one step back. . .

* Life imitates art. . . But in Spanish, not Portuguese.

* Here's a link to something better about this game.

* Also: This image kind of perfectly sums up the tone of Kane and Lynch 2.

* I love how many costume changes Max goes through in this game. His hair changes with just about every level, as does his clothing and his various wounds. It's great. It'sa big macho game of dress-up the psychopath. What's more is once you beat the game you can dress him up as Max from the first two games as well as the model from the ending, which includes Max in full-blown tourist wear right down to the flip flops.

* Not to bring up Prometheus again . . .again (again), but while looking for Lawrence of Arabia images, I remembered that movie was featured in Ridley Scott's sci-fi film after stumbling upon this blog.

* I could have totally used the term "mis en scene" to describe the various styles, tones, and aesthetics of these movies because, but I didn't. Because I care about you the reader.

* Also my next entry will be shorter and more coherent then this one so, as you may have guessed, it will be about Chinese history.