Friday, April 24, 2009

What's It All About?

OK, another God Game (Nobody's Army) is up so it's about time I reintroduced anyone out there to the concepts behind it - what exactly IS this God Game thing anyway?

What follows is the original God Game Treatment. This was back when I intended to make a feature film, with 24 different "subjects" all woven together. That didn't happen, because the project took an unexpected turn (more on which anon), and instead I wound up with 6 separate episodes, featuring 6 of the chosen individuals, each one 24 minutes long (except Nobody's, which is 32 mins). So here's how I initially concieved it.

“God doesn’t play dice with the universe. He just plays hide and seek.” 
—Woody Allen, Husbands and Wives

The God Game is a sui generis work, that is, a genre unto itself. I call it “surrealist documentary,” a documentary on the fantasy we call life. The objective is to assemble a fantasy feature film from documentary footage, to get the actors to write the script, as it were, and then to assemble the plot in the editing room. Of course the themes will take precedence over the narrative, as in any documentary, but the form and flow of the film will be closer in feel to Buñuel than Mike Leigh. Imagine a cross between The Thin Blue Line and The Matrix, a work of cinema verité about the illusory nature of reality.

Twenty-four humans of all ages and backgrounds have been recruited. Each one will be interviewed intensively for a single day, and talk about his or her beliefs, philosophy, life experiences, dreams, goals, and views on society and religion and “the greater picture.” They will undergo imaginative exercises by which they can recreate themselves in specific ways, i.e., as a religious leader, a terrorist, an animal, and so forth. They will have the opportunity to imagine themselves as a different person altogether, living a different life. And they will each contribute to their own personal recreation of the Afterlife, depicting their view of existence beyond the body and the self, and their thoughts on how life looks to them from this new, transpersonal perspective. The film will set out to portray each of these very distinct, charismatic humans as but masks or windows onto the gestalt Human: a single, unified and collective consciousness, of which we all are but fleeting manifestations. The idea of death, then, is used not as a morbid dampener on the life experience but, on the contrary, as what drives us and inspires us to attain ever higher states of consciousness in our brief time as individual beings. It is what finally unites all these separate entities into a single, continuous energy or Life Force. 

To clarify this point: the acceptance of the movie is that in death, the illusion of selfness is shed, along with the body or “skin,” and consciousness “returns” to the primordial, formless energy from which it emerged. Whether this once individual consciousness is then dispersed into the Universe, recycled into a new form, or something else altogether, is entirely up to the individual, and depends on just how far s/he has developed his/her awareness, knowledge, and imagination, while alive. 

The God Game will consider the possibility that in death we are hurled into Eternity and there left to create our own reality. It will posit the notion that, if so, this is also the case in life: that we are each one of us creating our own reality through the acts of perception and interpretation, but that we have gotten lost in details. When death comes to tap us, the curtains close, the angels and demons and unborn and dead souls applaud, and we realize that this world was but a stage, our life but a performance, of such verisimilitude that we were wholly lost therein. At that point the Grand Director says, “OK, lovely, let’s try it one more time,” or, “Perfect! That’s a wrap!” or any number of alternatives we can imagine (including that there is no Director besides ourself). 

The question the film will ask is, If in death we find that our world and reality is but an extension of ourselves, and the creation of our own consciousness, might it not be possible to realize this in life?

The God Game is about perception. It’s about illusion, identity, and the masks we wear to hide from the terrible, wonderful truth of ourselves: that we are the sole creators of our reality. Imagine, then, twenty-four players, twenty-four lives, interwoven into a single Tapestry. Imagine razor-fine editing that will create a musical cadence to the images, until each life/personality merges with the next and all are revealed as sharing a common Identity, an Identity which is accessed by us all through death, but might equally be accessed in life, through sex, madness, or other methods. This Identity is what we have called, in our confusion and our isolation, “God.” It is Who were really are.

The film will be an intricately woven quilt, a magik carpet, a collage or montage of moments, scenes, images, ideas, descriptions, words. The twenty-four players (plus assorted supporting players) will come and go throughout the film. They will not be showcased in separate segments, nor will they be named until the final moments. They will stand out only through their physical attributes and individual characteristics, their charisma, their ability to shine. If there is to be a structure to the film, it will be based not on individual persons but rather on specific themes or subjects. For example, there will be titles throughout, say, “Sex,” in large white letters on black screen, followed by ten or fifteen minutes of images, thoughts, and impressions upon the subject, all woven into one another. Depending on the footage we get, I expect that most spoken word sequences will not continue for longer than 20 or 30 seconds, and some for no more than 2 or 3 seconds. The players’ thoughts will be woven together thus as part of some strange, telepathic template. For example, one player begins a sentence, another continues it, a third finishes it. Or one player begins a story, another takes over telling a different but similar story, and so on, finally back to the first player. This way, various stories are being told simultaneously, and all are connected by the final “realization” shared by all. (For example, a paranormal experience which convinces us that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in our philosophy.)

The film will take the form of a Map of the Hologrammatic Universe, the “Body of God,” and present the argument that Reality is made of Language. Each Player or Soul will be a path or doorway on this Map, a character within the Myth, or Game. The humans and objects and symbols presented within this context will be as it were the thread of pearls by which we navigate the Labyrinth. The interview questions will be designed to help the Player define him or herself in such archetypal, mythical (not quite personal) terms, for example, asking them to imagine themselves as an animal, a color, a body part, a planet, a natural disaster, and so forth, and juxtaposing the various responses. The God Game will proceed like so, as a partially obscure, largely surreal, wholly mysterious and absorbing stream of consciousness movie. Moving from one subject to another, returning to the same faces again and again, we will gradually come to know the players, even as they become more and more mysterious and enigmatic to us. Towards the end of the movie, perhaps in the last third, we will begin to segue into the death sequences. These will be visually distinguishable from the life stuff, either by being in black and white or else via digital effects, to create the sense of being in another world. In this world, the death world, Eternity, all is energy, all is perception. Each monad soul creates its own reality. The only limits are those of the Imagination. Everything is intensified here to a maddening degree. A grain of dust is infinite, a moment lasts forever.  

 To recapitulate, The God Game will consist of the following basic ingredients:

1) Players talking in their home environment, in close-ups, medium shots, long shots, from a varying assortment of angles. This will be intercut with (often using voice over):

2) Players in motion, on the street, their place of work or at play, in the pub, public transport, dancing, and so forth, basically out and about, living their lives. Some of these images will be overlaid with the actors talking; on other occasions, the player will be talking to the camera while in the scene, in the style of certain movies (Alfie, for example).

3) Abstract shots of articles, objects, and things from the player’s home and life environment, shot in extreme close ups so as to be unrecognizable, at least initially. These objects represent extensions of the Player’s personality, the things they cannot take with them. “I surround myself with things that look like me,” as the Michael Gira song goes. As such they will form part of the individual tapestry of each player’s persona/soul/universe.

4) Shots of things, objects, animals, events, relevant to a given monologue. E.g., shot of a bird flying for “I felt as free as a bird.” Beyond such rather obvious inserts (which will be used in the fast, almost subliminal editing style which Oliver Stone employed for Natural Born Killers), there will be more subtle, free-associative images, the meaning of which will be more obscure (e.g., person talking about frustration, shot of a hamster on a wheel or a man trying to get a chair up some stairs; for these shots we will go to stock footage from TV, anything in the public domain) 

5) Digital effects. Impressionistic images and scenes from the Afterlife.

6) Titles. Since The God Game is to be an extremely impressionistic, free-flowing, non-liner, “right-brain” work, in order not to overly confuse or alienate the viewer there will be sporadically placed title cards, white letters on black screen, stating subjects to be covered; we will also be inserting relevant quotes, from the Bible, philosophers, and so forth (rather as in Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog). These may even be read aloud by the players, who will be asked to come up with some of their favorite quotes. This technique will provide relief whenever the viewer is starting to feel swept away in the rising tide of images, ideas, and associations.

7) Graphic images depicting specific symbols, such as the Arcana Mayor from the Tarot, the sephiroth of the Tree of Life (Kabbalah), astrological signs, sacred geometry, chakras, and other occult and/or religious iconography by which we give structure to the formless.

The desired effect of The God Game will be to create a sense of vertigo at the overwhelming nature of the human experience, the myriad, mutating points of view that make up the collective human experience and our multi-faceted, only partially consensus perception of “reality.” This reality, we will show, is by no means as fixed and final as we are inclined (and programmed) to believe. The film will strive to create an affinity between the audience and the Players, since we are all sharing a common experience, that of “the ship-wrecked,” hopelessly (if happily) lost in this sea of free associations. It will illustrate the manner in which each of us assembles and holds fast to his own meanings, her own truths, and that these truths are always relative, never absolute. They are like stepping stones that shift whenever we tread upon them. Finally, it will be seen that the personal search for “identity” is impossible until one accepts that there is no identity outside of this search. The fool rode his ox in search of oxen. The means for seeking and the thing that is sought are one and the same. Who, at last, is seeking this elusive “self”? God hides, and God seeks.

The Quest is all.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Finally, after seven years procrastinating, The God Game series is going to be viewable online. Here's part one of Part One, "The Rebel Within "(with special thanks to an aeolian psychonaut, or two!). Alternatively you can watch all three parts in widescreen here

Monday, April 20, 2009

Fragmented Self

Here's a recent interview I did as part of a Guardian project with the artist Mark Titchner

It covers various subjects, including schizophrenia, the environmental crisis, multiple personality disorder as relating to our moods, the personal self as Frankenstein's monster, Matrix Warrior, Fight Club, the primal self, mythic narratives of moden movies, and other juicy titbits.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Agents of Chaos: Alan Moore's Alchemical Workshop, and an Authentic Miracle of a Movie

Warning: the following review is likely to be somewhat “biased”: When I first read Watchmen in my early twenties, it affected me as deeply as any work of fiction ever had—it changed my life. So my responses to the movie—as described below—are going to be more than a little colored by a highly personal connection to the source material.

Watchmen, the movie, directed by Zack Snyder and adapted by David Hayter and Alex Tze, sticks remarkably close to the source material, the ground-breaking graphic novel written by visionary author Alan Moore (whose name isn’t on the film) and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Moore is a self-confessed magician and uncontested genius of comic books, and his twelve issue, 300+ page superhero epic is a stupendously ambitious work, not merely one of the great accomplishments of comic book writing, but an outstanding work of fiction in any field. (It made Time magazine’s 100 greatest novels—what more do you need to know?!)

When I first heard about the Watchmen movie, I was skeptical—to put it mildly. In fact, I was indifferent. And when I saw the first stills from the movie, I knew, absolutely knew, it was a bust, that they were turning it into something gaudy and noisy and messy and dumb—what Hollywood does best. Beyond all doubt, “the visionary director of 300”—a mind-numbingly vacuous live-action cartoon cum commercial for Spartan warfare—would debase the material by catering to the lowest sensibilities of the mass audience. 

But within ten minutes or less of the movie, it’s clear that something else is happening. The film, like the graphic novel, starts with the murder of the Comedian. The perfect pre-credit sequence, it sums up the delicate resonance of the story by both keeping to genre conventions (for an opening action set-piece and plot-starting murder) while adding a whole new layer of emotional nuance and poignancy. The Comedian’s weary acceptance of his fate speaks volumes. He has been waiting for this moment, and he’s secretly relieved that it’s finally come. If he puts up a token resistance, it’s only because he doesn’t know how not to. He keeps up his end of the mythic narrative to the bitter end. 

This is followed by the lovely, eerie frozen images of the credits, by which flesh and blood becomes comic book image, or vice versa. The credit sequence is inspired: both delightful—enchanting—and wryly amusing, it lets us know that we are in good hands and can settle back to enjoy the most fully satisfying and morally complex superhero enactment in the history of movies. Watchmen is an authentic miracle of a movie—the best of its kind (the philosophical action fantasy) since The Matrix came out ten years ago. (Plot wise, Watchmen is less ingenious than The Matrix, but morally it’s far more sophisticated.)

What’s really astonishing about this movie is that, in under three hours, it manages to capture not only the spirit of the novel but the full, epic breadth of its storyline. I’ve read the comic book at least a dozen times and yet I couldn’t even say which parts the movie misses out (except for the obvious, the parallel story within a story of “Tales of the Black Freighter”). The odds against a big budget Hollywood adaptation of a fiction masterpiece being almost 100% faithful, and at the same time managing to translate it whole into a new medium, are truly phantasmagorical.

Yet therein may be a problem: Watchmen is so completely true to its source that anyone not already enamored of the comic book may be unable to fully grok it. The storyline is straightforward enough, but the peculiar blend of social realism with the pulp roots of comics, and the idiosyncratic, poetic, magical genius of its creator, make Watchmen utterly unlike any superhero movie, or any movie, we've ever seen before. It’s a freak in the best sense of the word: a creature of unfathomable beauty so unique that some people may mistake it for ugliness. It creates its own aesthetic.

What’s perhaps most unusual about the film is its complete moral ambiguity, the way in which it steps entirely outside of the usual mythic paradigm of good and evil, spins off a parallel reality, and weaves its very own mythic narrative. Just as the graphic novel did within the comics field, Watchmen creates a new paradigm for the superhero movie. It’s a paradigm which I highly doubt other filmmakers will be willing, or able, to match, much less develop. There are no heroes in Watchmen, and no villains either. There are rather extraordinary (and extraordinarily flawed) human beings, struggling to make sense of a world in chaos, wrestling with their own complicity in that chaos. These are easily the richest and most affecting characters to ever grace what is ostensibly a fantasy movie. They are not just functions of the plot, as Neo and Morpheus are functions of the plot. As in all great writing, Watchmen’s story develops out of the characters and not vice versa. And these characters are nothing if not ambiguous.

The most dislikeable of the characters, Ozymandias, is driven by a seemingly pathological, philanthropist desire to save the world, and this he succeeds in doing. But we don’t admire him for it—we can’t admire him, because no end could justify these means. He’s an elitist, driven by intellect and a sense of his innate superiority, but devoid of heart. On the other hand, there is much to admire in the murderous vigilante Rorschach—who is all heart. His code of no compromise, his ruthless implacability, his deranged sense of justice, beneath which is a strange tenderness and a deeply wounded soul. Rorschach simply cares too much not to cause mayhem. Like Travis Bickle, his pain, rage and confusion spills out into the world—and he matches it atrocity for atrocity.

Dr. Manhattan, on the other hand, cares little for humanity’s plight: he’s moved beyond that. Was ever a god this chillingly disconnected, a superhero this utterly disaffected? Yet, as Billy Crudup (the only recognizable face in the movie) plays him, Dr. Manhattan is deeply touching. He’s human despite himself, and in his way he’s as lost a soul as the rest of these characters, because he is so utterly, completely alone. As written by Moore, Dr. Manhattan is the first fully believable depiction of a superhuman being—a god—in movies.

On the face of it, the Comedian is the most sheerly unpleasant of the characters: a rapist and child killer, the puppet of the military industrial complex (in a beautiful twist added by the moviemakers, he’s also JFK’s actual assassin). Yet, loathsome as his actions are, he doesn’t ever become hateful to us. None of the characters are defined—or limited— by their actions; they are far too alive for that. Moore’s genius is that he uses the very limited and limiting genre of the superhero comic as an arena—a sort of child’s playground, but also an alchemical workshop—to work through his philosophical themes and develop flesh and blood characters—like forging gold from lead. With Watchmen, he created a kind of feedback loop that expands the story from genre melodrama, into infinity—the realm of archetypes, of true myth. Paradoxically, by turning superhero archetypes into ordinary, believable human beings, ordinary beings are transformed into something extraordinary, something magical, transcendent. 

Moore creates a world of impossible possibilities, and the movie recreates that world with breathtaking fidelity—the kind of loyalty and integrity that seems unimaginable in Hollywood, but that has somehow come to pass. Admittedly, the film does fail in one crucial area: that of mapping the endless series of synchronicities between images, words, events, that form the texture of the graphic novel, and that in a sense are what it’s really about. More than the story, or even the characters, Watchmen describes the texture and flow of mystery that living in a quantum universe entails, and what’s lacking in the film is the necessary plethora of fine details, of recurring motifs and themes. Besides that smiley face, I didn’t notice any repeating phenomena, and so the scenes aren’t woven together at this subtler, more esoteric level. The result, for those who aren’t familiar with the original story, may seem to be an almost straightforward, though complex, action movie; they may well miss the finer undercurrents moving beneath the gloriously gaudy surface. 

There are other minor flaws: the sex scene to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is something we could certainly have done without; perhaps more seriously, the extreme violence seems out of place here, largely gratuitous—it doesn’t add anything and may even detract from the dreamlike quality of the story (though with the Rorschach scenes a degree of savagery is probably intrinsic to the material). And sometimes what works in the graphic novel can seem mannered and contrived on screen (such as Night Owl’s question, “Whatever happened to the American Dream?”). Moore’s dialogue is often self-consciously clever, loaded, and this works better when we can hear it in our heads and give it our own inflexion. Actors can be all at sea with these multi-layered lines. There are also areas, such as Rorschach’s revealing the abyss of his soul to the liberal-minded psychiatrist, that need more time to be developed, that are rushed and hence diminished, and the film would probably have worked better, been less choppy and more textured, if it had been allowed an additional ten or twenty minutes of screen time.

But despite these flaws, the sheer joy and originality of the source material fills every frame. It animates every performance with an exuberance, audacity, and poetry, that is unique to the genre. I haven’t even begun to analyze the schizophrenic subtext of this film—perhaps another day?—but I can honestly say that, in thirty years of movie-going, I have never been so pleasantly surprised by a movie. Watchmen has every imaginable reason to crash and burn. Yet somehow, against impossible odds, it takes flight.

Footnote: perusing some of the other reactions to this movie, it seems fair to say that it was made expressly for people who have read and loved the graphic novel, and to hell with everyone else. Right there is the real miracle

But - if you haven't read the source material, it may not work for you.