Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Greatest Video Games of All Time, Part III: 2000s

10. Eternal Darkness (2002, Denis Dyack)

The first Nintendo title to be rated ‘M for Mature’, Eternal Darkness marked a new phase in interactive horror. Taking his cue from the invasive methods of Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy VII, Dyack represents the protaganist’s deteriorating sanity by interfering with their control pad, and limiting or inverting the desired action. As the narrative progresses, these peculiar ‘Sanity Effects’ become progressively further removed from the artificial world, and start to enter the ‘real’: the television channel might accidentally ‘change’, or the screen abruptly warn that the ‘controller has been unplugged’. Manipulating the real-life fears of the hardware user becomes increasingly unexpected, and distressing: most memorably in the sadistic moment photographed above. It is in bizarre instances such as this that Dyack’s experimental debut work truly earns its faintly camp, gothic subtitle: Sanity’s Requiem.

9. Scribblenauts (2009, Jeremiah Slaczka)

Following on from his original but flawed debut, Drawn To Life (in which the DS user was expected to create the key graphics from scratch), Jeremiah Slaczka and his team at 5th Cell went in a new direction with their second title. If their debut was a fundamentally empty title, awaiting user input, Scribblenauts is a contrasting monument to designer excess: over a period of two years, the developers trawled through their dictionaries, loading over 10,000 items into the ‘Objectnaut’ engine. One of the most ambitious projects in digital history, the basis of the puzzles can be summed up by the slogan ‘Write Anything – Solve Everything’: the player is encouraged to write the most non-literal, creative solutions to the onscreen challenge. Your character needs to enter a tunnel on the other side of a river? Try summoning a Kraken, a helicopter, a shrink ray, and a pirate ship… A magnificent example of the near-infinities that can be contained in a well-designed toy.

8. Ōkami​ (2006, Hideki Kamiya)

Of recent videogames, few have been as explicitly inspired by an artistic-movement as Hideki Kamiya’s Ōkami​ (indeed, only Mizuguchi’s Rez, with its huge debt to Wassily Kandinsky, comes close). An homage to classic Japanese watercolour painting, the cel-shaded 3D aesthetic was quite unique in 2006, and remains so (despite imitations) today. The art concept is also boldly incorporated into the interface, as key actions are performed by the using Zen calligraphy motions with the Wii controller, painting ideograms in the air. Kamiya stands out as one of the few genuine auteurs in modern design, heavily visually focused, but able to draw together an incredible range of elements into a warped whole. His bizarre genius was glimpsed again in his 2010 follow-up title, Bayonetta, which fused together folk music, Renaissance religious art, disco, European architecture, and a terrifying heroine to make Quentin Tarantino proud.

7. God of War (2005, David Jaffe)

The most successful films based on Greek mythology – Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1949), Disney’s Hercules (1997), or the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – have always strayed from their source material, either resituating the familiar stories in different eras and continents, or undermining the grim seriousness of the original altogether. Only the various Ray Harryhausen epics have ever really come close to recasting the ancient mythical world as cinema, and the less said about the cringe-inducing Laurence Olivier-dominated Mount Olympus in Clash of the Titans (1981) the better. It comes as no small surprise, then, that the most compelling visual realization of this literary tradition came in 2005, with David Jaffe’s operatic God of War, a vast depiction of a battle between a Spartan and Ares, that has been followed up by two (even vaster) sequels. The world of Hades, the awesome scale of the gods, the physical enormity of the Titans, the terror of the gorgons: none of these things have ever been portrayed more vividly, or more accurately... Over the sublime trilogy, we encounter almost every character in Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, from the famous (Theseus) to the obscure (Euryale), and every leering, terrifying monster. A huge, encyclopedic achievement, Jaffe’s trilogy shows the Homeric vision that has eluded a century of cinema.

6. Psychonauts (2005, Tim Schafer)

Guided by an inspired concept – a sort of mental InnerSpace – Tim Schafer’s follow-up to Grim Fandango applies the subtle storytelling, unsettling environments, and brilliant comedy of his masterpiece to the apparently unrelated genre of the console platformer. Inspired by a one-off peyote experience, the psychedelic idea of exploring another character’s brain allows for a uniquely unhinged environment, as our hero ‘Razputin’ undergoes training at a US government lab (disguised as a children’s summer camp). Far more inventive than anything from the Pixar studio – let-alone Dreamworks – the work as a whole suggests that Schafer is among the leading animators of the decade (perhaps joined now, by Ron Gilbert, with DeathSpank). These two artists are using their cartoon-inspired design to tell some of the most ambitious and hilarious stories ever told in the medium.

5. Resident Evil 4 (2005, Shinji Mikami)

The most purely terrifying experience in any interactive medium so far, Resident Evil 4 takes its place proudly alongside The Blair Witch Project, Evil Dead 2, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Wicker Man as one of the great rural horror stories of the modern era. Departing from the familiar zombie-infested interiors of the first three titles in the series, Mikami’s masterpiece takes us to a remote Spanish village and its surroundings, in which a Cronenberg-style parasite known as Las Plagas (‘the plague’) has infected the majority of the farming inhabitants. Unlike traditional ‘shooter’ games, the 'survival horror' framework allows for only an extremely limited amount of health and ammunition, leading for a virtual reality world of unusual vulnerability, compared to Half-Life, or Doom. All of this, of course, makes the experience even more terrifying. If things all get too much, however, it is (thankfully) possible to follow in the steps of Sam Raimi, up the camp-level and grab the chainsaw. Groovy.

4. Portal (2007, Erik Wolpaw)

With a stunningly original physics concept, a bleak-comic script by Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts co-writer Erik Wolpaw, and a masterfully gradual revelation of the Kubrick-inspired scenario underlying the entire simulation, Portal is a work of near total perfection. In any artform it is preciously rare for any combination to work so precisely: in few films, for example, is the balance of event and storytelling matched so skillfully, and no previous title challenges with the logical grace and aesthetic beauty of Valve’s masterpiece. Where Half-Life 2 was content to repeat the basic successes of its predecessor in high definition, Portal invented something entirely new. The designers explore the basic realities of ‘Space’ in a manner impossible in any other previous medium, matching and surpassing the non-Euclidean geometry explored in Echochrome, and the non-linear sense of time in 2008’s Braid. Ultimately, it is perhaps worth leaving the ‘last word’ on this 21st-century Escher-derived masterpiece to the brilliant Steve Meretzky. Watch his hilarious hymn to the world of Portal here.

3. Heavy Rain (2010, David Cage)

Comparing the history of interactive storytelling with that of cinema, we soon hit the striking fact that the videogame medium is only 38 years old (considering 1972’s Pong as a starting point), the narrow sliver of time that separates the first films of the Lumière brothers from the original King Kong (1933). For such a young medium, the maturity of a work such as Heavy Rain is quite astonishing, showing the fully absorbed sense of quasi-ethical ‘choice’ that is central to the interactive experience, separating it from cinema as much as the spectacle of Kong was separate from the world of the theatre that spawned it. A work of unprecedented subtlety, David Cage’s interactive narrative follows four everyday characters with realistic motives: a father, a drug addict, a lonely woman, and a noirish detective. Some of the most impressive moments are those which draw the player into their most mundane moments, exploring the sense of melancholia surrounding an old amnesiac lady in a hospital ward, or the dizzying terror of losing a child in a crowded shopping mall. Through the sense of expanded time that the interactive medium enjoys over cinema, it is possible to let these moments linger, to leave a character in the company of another, to dwell in the wash of passing moments that shape their lives. Praised by artists as diverse as Terry Gilliam and Nicholas Roeg, David Cage’s tragic story is the first masterpiece of the new decade.

2. Shadow of the Colossus (2005, Fumito Ueda)

Released in the winter of 2005, eight months after God of War, Fumito Ueda’s Shadow of the Colossus takes place on an unprecedentedly large canvas, even more epic than David Jaffe’s: a lone rider (with the Schubertian name of ‘Wander’) crosses a vast deserted mountainscape, seeking out, and murdering, a series of rather god-like titanic forms. There are no linking tasks at all, creating a deliberate sense of emptiness as we travel through the natural world, and the moral justification for the occasional acts of violence is never provided. This sense of doubt, combined with the awesome scale of the nemeses, creates the dawning suspicion that the series of ‘boss’ battles is a part of a deliberate ethical reflection on the role of goal-orientedness in modern interactive narratives, and on the connection between this and theological stories in general. The expanse of Nature, and sense of scale, links with the philosophical Sublime first explored by Edmund Burke in 1757, confirming the unexpected but crucial intellectual overlap between Fumito Ueda’s work and the cinema of his most comparable artist, Terrence Malick.

1. Fallout 3 / New Vegas (2008, Todd Howard; 2010, Chris Avellone)

There are all kinds of excursions and digressions that you can choose instead of the big story... the macro story. That really interests me as a storyteller, because I've always thought that one of the things that the gaming world permits as a narrative technique is to not tell the story from beginning to end – to tell stories sideways, to give alternative possibilities that the reader can, in a way, choose between."

These comments, made by one of our greatest living writers, Salman Rushdie, confirm the importance of videogames to any conception of storytelling in the 21st century. “Digression, alternative possibilities”, and “telling stories sideways” are techniques that have remained central to mainstream and experimental literature from Homer’s time to today, and the three categories apply to some of the most significant novels in history, including Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, and Moby-Dick. It is in today's ‘interactive’ narratives that they are most richly explored, however, and in the past couple of years graphical worlds have at last expanded to accommodate this level of authorial ambition. It is perhaps unsurprising that the greatest 3D world of all has been designed and populated by the writers behind the largest (and arguably most literary) verbal worlds of the 1990s – namely Chris Avellone and his team, who created Planescape: Torment and the original two Fallout titles. The enormous dialogue trees and narrative digressions of these three classics were met, in 2008, with a virtual world to match. Fallout 3, a work of chilling retro-futurism, reveals the year 2277, as seen through the eyes of the first nuclear age – the 1950s. This inspired aesthetic juxtaposition has run throughout the series (and was famously copied by Ken Levine for BioShock), but reaches its apotheosis in the 3D world of this third title, as the unsettling future made possible in the test sites of Alamogordo and Nevada is brought into full digital life. The music, coming through the protagonist’s portable radio receiver, reveals the disturbing fixation the popular music of the era had with the apocalyptic weapon, as the Andrews Sisters look hopelessly at western civilization (“they have things like the atom bomb / I think I’ll stay where I om”), and The Ink Spots declare that they “don’t want to set the world on fire”… This use of unexpected cultural debris (one storyline concerns a Stradivarius violin and a Bach-obsessed widow of the Waste Land) elevates the apocalyptic narrative to the level of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, whilst the underlying sense of humour hints at the pitch black comedy of Dr. Strangelove.

The huge map of Washington D.C. was gradually expanded (through download) to include the remains of Pittsburgh, Alaska, and the Maryland swamps, and subsequently (in a 2010 disc) Las Vegas and the Mojave desert itself. This combined vision of apocalyptic America, seen through 1950s eyes, is haunting and unforgettable, a world with far more emphasis on dialogue than combat (as in Resident Evil, the protagonist is fundamentally more vulnerable than in a ‘shooter’), and with the staggering range of “excursions, digressions, and alternative possibilities” that so impressed Rushdie. The story encompasses the entire range of human experience, beginning with the character’s onscreen birth (viewed in the first-person), passing briefly through adolescence, and leading inevitably into the fallen world outside. An ongoing cycle of day and night (borrowed from Oblivion, Todd Howard’s previous work) combines with the limitless juxtapositions of the 3rd-person camera (unique to the player’s companions, attire, and location), making for arguably the most expansive literary world ever produced, in which it is possible to walk alone through a deserted casino at dawn wearing a 1950s space suit, or to swim through an empty battleship wearing a cowboy hat at night, or to explore a ruined village of atom-bomb worshippers accompanied by a loyal canine companion, sporting the tattered uniform of the Vault. These retro-futurist images feel uniquely personal to the individual experiencing them (and are), but also recall throughout the peculiar work of Thomas Pynchon, most of all Gravity’s Rainbow, rivaling even his imagination for outlandish, but weirdly profound, imagery. An inspired breed of science-fiction storytelling, infused with satire and politics, Fallout 3 surpasses anything similar in American culture since the peak of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, fifty years ago. Welcome to the future.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Greatest Video Games of All Time, Part II: 1990s

10. Riven (1997, Robyn Miller)

In 1994, writing for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein mused, “I am standing in a garden, lulled by the sound of waves from the nearby ocean. The light is eerie, crisp and slightly unreal. In the midst of this pastoral paradise there is a sense of surreal antiquity, recalling early science fiction.” At the end of the ensuing 3,000-word piece, praising the new work of virtual reality, Rothstein concludes: “Myst defines a new genre, which moves beyond cinema.” If this article slightly pre-empts mainstream acceptance for the new art-form, then just three years later, the Texan brothers Robyn and Rand Miller truly earned it, foregrounding the subtle surrealism of the world that Rothstein admired, and removing the clunkiest puzzles that marred their debut, with the masterful follow-up CD-ROM, Riven.

9. LSD: Dream Simulator (1998, Osamu Sato)

The only title ever to really approach the madness of Herman Serrano’s Weird Dreams (1989), Osamu Sato’s LSD: Dream Simulator stands alone in the history of digital culture. Released exclusively onto the four-year-old Sony PlayStation, Sato’s project was a sort of interactive diary, documenting his own (frequently chemically enhanced) dreams and nightmares. Divided into ‘Days’ rather than levels, the player wanders into each simulated dream with no instruction (like an unfortunate character in a Kubrick film), trying to find their way through giant tongues, fields populated by deformed lions, and terrifying deserted houses. If this wasn’t all bizarre enough, the experience is occasionally interrupted by inexplicable ‘real-life’ videos, such as this

8. Flashback: The Quest for Identity (1992, Paul Cuisset)

In this ambitiously-titled French classic, Paul Cuisset takes us to the year 2142, introducing us to an appropriately named wanderer ‘Conrad’. Through meticulous hand-drawn backgrounds, we take a journey into a metaphysical Heart of Darkness, as our jungle-stranded hero struggles to regain the various memories which he has stored on a holocube. Flashback is a key example of early graphical rotoscoping, for which the animators copied their body movements directly from film negative… This technique dates back to early masterpieces such as Cab Calloway’s dancing spectre in the Fleischer Brothers’ 1933 masterpiece, Snow White. Here the revolutionary approach provides a powerful realist edge to Cuisset’s thoughtful sci-fi.

7. Yoshi's Island (1995, Takashi Tezuka)

A decade (precisely) after Miyamoto released Super Mario Bros, the plumber-franchise reached its 2D apotheosis with the stunning Yoshi’s Island. Departing completely from the graphical style of the original titles, Miyamoto allowed director Takashi Tazuka to adopt a strange, crayon-drawn style, which fits perfectly alongside the new mechanics of the game. Mario is reduced to a helpless baby, while the player guides him through a warped world using a relay-series of dinosaurs (Yoshis). This colourful title represents Nintendo at its finest, even though it would soon prove to be a swansong for the 2D medium.

6. Final Fantasy VII (1997, Hironobu Sakaguchi)

Featuring vast Wagnerian steam-punk locations (including ‘Nibelheim’), an epic score by Nobuo Uematsu, and glorious painted backgrounds (such as the four seen to the right), Final Fantasy VII was the title that finally sold the PlayStation to the world, and put an entire generation under the spell of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s epic imagination (much as Hayao Miyazaki would achieve in the Ghibli films of the following decade). More than just a carefully crafted cinematic world, however, Sakaguchi’s seventh Fantasy also revolutionized the role of interactivity in storytelling, most unforgettably in the moments in which the villain Sephiroth assumes control of the player, forcing against their will, and directly inverting their actions, causing irreversible harm to more sympathetic characters. Never before had a designer thought to challenge interactive control to such a disturbing degree, and the influence would be seen throughout the following decade.

5. Super Mario 64 (1996, Shigeru Miyamoto)

Recalling the first unveiling of Nishikado’s Space Invaders almost 20 years earlier, Miyamoto’s release of this game, in the summer of 1996, granted audiences a previously-unimagined glimpse into the future. A decade and a half later, the sound, colour, and glorious motion of the title are still hypnotic, an open world of star-locked doors, and 64-bit beauty. Within days of the release, nobody could recall the masterpiece that was Yoshi’s Island… 3D, apparently, was here to stay.

4. Half-Life (1998, Gabe Newell)

Half-Life remains, in its bang-boom way, one of the most revolutionary titles in the history of storytelling. Where previous ‘first-person shooters’ (such as Quake II, released only months earlier) had provided a series of violent ‘levels’, through which the player progressed, surviving if possible, and obtaining a score at the end, Gabe Newell succeeded in crafting a truly interactive narrative. From the opening titles, scrolling across New Mexico’s ‘Black Mesa’ monorail, to the mysterious close of the game, there are no scoreboards, cutscenes, or interruptions. Instead, working alongside author Marc Laidlaw, Newell delivered an unprecedented, immersive, 12 hour movie. Given that Laidlaw apparently extrapolated the entire work from a 1963 episode of The Outer Limits, that is quite an achievement.

3. Grim Fandango (1998, Tim Schafer)

In Mexico every year, on November 2nd, falls the Day of the Dead. Haunted by the grotesque paper calveras and calaca-skeletons that line the streets throughout the festival, Tim Schafer set to work on this, his second solo game (following his work alongside Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman). In the wake of Miyamoto, of course, the game needed to be made in 3D, and the resulting graphical work was the most sophisticated of any Schafer game to date, fusing the grotesque language of the carnival with the Noir stylistic idiosyncrasies of films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941). The aesthetic was (and remains) unlike anything else in the genre. Alongside the visual flair, Schafer delivered an epic four-year narrative, following the journey of a dead soul through the afterlife, from the city to the petrified forests, and even to the bottom of the sea. Informed throughout by his conversations with the late Alan Dundes (folklorist at Berkeley), Schafer’s world is filled with precise details from Aztec mythology, alongside an inspired 1940s set-up. Our hero, after all, is a lowly travel agent in this crooked Land of the Dead.

2. PlaneScape: Torment (1999, Chris Avellone)

Following the acclaimed Fallout (1997), and its stunning sequel, the Scottish/Californian Black Isle team moved into the unlikely territory of fantasy. Disliking the escapist ‘high fantasy’ of elves and goblins that Tolkein favoured, director Chris Avellone famously took to calling the work-in-progress an “avant-garde fantasy.” Viewed on a large monitor (ideally with the various mods installed), exploring the gigantic Planes is like stepping into a moving panel by H. Bosch. And alongside this visual scale, as with the two Fallouts that preceded it, Torment turned out to contain an enormous text-based narrative, stretching to 800,000 words of dialogue – almost three times as long as Melville’s Moby-Dick. This linguistic excess has led to some rather grand claims for Avellone’s work in subsequent years, including Kieron Gillen’s assertion that the title was “worthy of real literary consideration; the videogame equivalent of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.” As far-fetched as that sounds, Gillen is perhaps on the right track – although, as a bleak comic study of the curse of immortality (and the terror of amnesia), Torment is surely closer to the work of a more modern writer than the Russian epicists: the paradoxical allegory could have sprung straight from the twisted imagination of Jorge Luis Borges.

1. Monkey Island 2: Lechuck's Revenge (1991, Ron Gilbert)

If there was a division in the 1970s/80s between visually driven work such as Nishikado’s, and the exclusively verbal creations of Steve Meretzky, that artificial barrier collapsed in the early 1990s. In the second Monkey Island title, Steve Purcell’s magical hand-painted background designs are matched with the endlessly absorbing, subtly comic strangenesses of Ron Gilbert’s writing. The world is profoundly realized, with everything from a swamp to a library card catalogue being minutely detailed and visually magnificent. More unnerving, perhaps, are the frequent (and rather Brechtian) assaults on the ‘Fourth Wall’, as the veracity of the 1720 setting is repeatedly undermined. Recalling the anecdotal account of the work’s inspiration (Ron Gilbert’s desire to leap from Walt's ride, and remain in its imagined Caribbean), the narrative constantly hints at a more modern ‘real’ world outside the simulation, most awesomely Lynchian at the moments (below) in the final tunnels. A haunting, hilarious masterpiece, Monkey Island 2: Lechuck's Revenge is the supreme accomplishment in the history of the medium.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Greatest Video Games of All Time, Part I: 1970s-80s

10. Populous (1989, Peter Molyneux)

At the end of the 1980s, just months before the release of Will Wright’s Sim City (and two years before Sid Meier released the first volume of Civilization), Peter Molyneux, a thirty-year-old programmer from Guildford, delivered the original ‘God simulator’. Taking the radical step of allowing the player to build an entire landscape, Molyneux also managed to anticipate the expansive worlds and elaborate moral dilemmas of his later materpieces, Black & White (2001), and Fable II (2008).

9. Midwinter (1989, Mike Singleton)

“'A modern Midwinter’ is a phrase you hear regularly on the lips of wishful gamers,” wrote Jim Rossignol in 2009. “Some day it will happen.” Such hype, twenty years after it appeared on the Atari ST, shows the grip that Mike Singleton (a former English teacher) still holds over the imagination of certain audiences. His greatest game, the 3D-pioneering Midwinter allows the player to explore a huge post-apocalyptic world of ice, following a cataclysmic meteorite strike. In 1989, on the Atari, this was the beginning of 'virtual reality' storytelling.

8. Little Computer People (1984, David Crane)

Released 26 years before LittleBigPlanet, 16 years before The Sims, and 12 years before the Tamagotchi, David Crane’s Little Computer People is the obscure ancestor to a number of more famous miniature-world/life-simulator experiments. While Will Wright admits that he was a fan of the title, no subsequent artist has managed to capture the underlying strangeness of Crane’s original. The packaging insisted that the character inside the disk was real, and alive... Insert the disk, and a stark, empty house appears. After a while, a character appears from off-screen, and begins to inhabit it. That's it. In a key sense, though, they are a unique organism, as explained here at the Software Preservation Society – each title did indeed contain a unique, randomly generated digital character, a binary being, unlike any of the others on the shelf. And after a time, once settled in, they start to communicate with real humans, outside their screen-world...

7. The Oregon Trail (1971, Don Rawtisch)

Don Rawtisch’s 1971 history-class illustration, The Oregon Trail, demonstrates the incredible narrative appeal of interactive storytelling: created with Integer BASIC, the programme simulates the forbidding westward trek of the 1840s, made by so many hopeful Americans. The work was completed a year before Pong, and often falls outside official narratives of ‘video game history’. It remains, however, a truly engrossing experience: the linear stretch of the trail is created largely in the mind’s eye, rather than on screen, but there is still an uncanny sense of distance. Hoping to shoot dinner, or ford one last stream, hundreds of miles from safety, is oddly harrowing, and the resulting mishaps (almost simultaneously) often darkly hilarious.

6. Super Mario Bros. (1985, Shigeru Miyamoto)

An early highlight for the great Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario Bros. is purely a Game (unlike so many other titles) and like any great game, it encourages us to play, play, and play again. The physics are flawlessly designed, and the visuals remain perfectly simple and effective today. Chosen by Game Informer as the 2nd greatest game of-all-time, this is a celebration of the unique fun (ideally two-player) to be had within a well-designed digital playground.

5. Weird Dreams (1989 Herman Serrano)

A truly unnerving lost-classic from the Commodore 64, Herman Serrano’s Weird Dreams seems more at home alongside the psychotic comedies of Gilliam and Lynch than standard cartridges such as Rat Race or Frogger. The opening scene greets us with a man etherized upon an operating table, and almost immediately tumbling into space – entering his own unconscious. Packaged with a 64-page novella detailing the events prior to the ‘simulation’ (the character is undergoing brain surgery to stop his nightmares, apparently), Serrano’s strange cartridge was unlike anything else in 1989 (or, with one bizarre 1998 exception, since). The ‘life’ counter is a heart-rate monitor shifting between 75 and 170 bpm, while the ‘levels’ range from a giant candy-floss machine to a horrible desert, via a ‘hall of tubes’. Never has a football seemed so terrifying.

4. Maniac Mansion (1987, Ron Gilbert)

A masterful parody of B-movie horror, Ron Gilbert’s first work throws together a Victorian mansion, a mad Doctor, a rogue meteorite, and a cheerleader named Sandy Pantz. The first game designed with the SCUMM engine, this epic horror-comedy was an early hit of the graphic adventure genre. With playable characters including a New Wave musician, a novelist, a surfer and a punk, the whole thing overflowed with page after page of witty and imaginative dialogue. Despite this fecundity, the title appears uncut as a game-within-a-game on a computer in Tim Schafer’s awesome 1993 sequel, Day of the Tentacle. As miraculous, if you think about it, as the entire manuscript for Billy Budd turning up in a locker among the pages of Moby-Dick.

3. A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985, Steve Meretzky)

The title of Steve Meretzky’s greatest work refers to a description in Wordsworth’s 1805 epic, of “Newton with his prism and silent face, the marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.” Released for the Atari ST and the Commodore 128 at the height of the Infocom interactive-fiction phenomenon, Meretzky’s disk is a science fiction experiment, casting the player as a disembodied computer intelligence, trying to negotiate a physical world it cannot properly inhabit. The scenario is a brilliant inversion of the actual experience of any video game, in which we remain removed from the ‘virtual’ world, able to interact with it only at one remove, finding our way through the ‘strange seas’ of binary data. Highlighting the intellectual element of such interaction, this game is pure text and has no graphic element at all. As with the other great Infocom masterpiece, however (Brian Moriarty’s nuclear-holocaust tale, Trinity), the created world is utterly engrossing, and Meretzky captures the imagination in a way that few visual artists have ever achieved.

2. Space Invaders (1978, Tomohiro Nishikado)

The polar opposite to Meretzky’s masterpiece, Space Invaders is a purely graphical experience, made up of a black background and a series of floating lights. The purity of the end result is astonishing, given that the medium was only six years old when Nishikado developed his arcade machine. Space Invaders was the single game that inspired Shigeru Miyamoto to become a programmer (thus inadvertently giving us Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda and Starfox), but it also remains unnerving and unique in itself. The tentacled menace (made up of just 46 pixels, less than the standard mouse cursor) looms out of the blackness as indelibly as the phantoms summoned by H.G. Wells, or the bombers that coursed into the skies above Nishikado’s own cradle in 1945. And the Invader remains as recognizable as Mickey Mouse today, appearing in graffiti, on clothing, and even rogue crop circles. In 1985, Steve Meretzky made a strong case for the interactive medium as a cerebral, textual one, but at the end of the previous decade, Tomohiro Nishikado had already established – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that it could also be a medium of pure image.

1. Deus Ex Machina (1984, Mel Croucher)

Released a few months before Mario’s debut on the Nintendo Famicom, Deus Ex Machina was an experimental Orwellian art-piece, a million miles from Miyamoto’s mushroom kingdom. Based on Shakespeare’s conceit of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ (the floppy disk was packaged with a cassette of semi-ambient music, featuring Jon Pertwee and Ian Dury reciting text from the 1599 play As You Like It) Croucher’s short masterpiece follows the life and death of a “defect” in a social machine: a magnificent blend of Jeff Wayne and Classical seriousness. (A mere 26 years on, a sequel is in development, this time apparently starring 'Lord Summerisle himself', Christopher Lee.) The first genuine art/game crossover, Deus Ex Machina remains unexpectedly moving today, culminating with perhaps the most memorable recitation ever of Prospero's "baseless fabric" speech, as we're warned, as at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, that this "screen shall dissolve... being such stuff as dreams are made on". With this forty-minute wonder, that claim seemed at last to bear some weight... In 1984, thanks to Croucher's wildly overreaching ambition, a new medium had defiantly arrived.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

RIP Static King: Mark Linkous (1962 - 2010)

On Saturday, March 6th, in an alley off Irwin Street, Knoxville, Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart.

Writing for Popmatters on Monday, Mehan Jayasuriya lamented the loss of “one of the most distinctive American songwriters of his generation”, singling out that vein of “surrealist imagery of near literary quality” that ran through his songs, evoking “both the pastoral beauty and expansive loneliness of the American Southeast.”
Today, tributes from collaborators such as The Flaming Lips and Radiohead have begun to appear, with Colin Greenwood recalling Linkous as a kind of rural gentleman, “softly spoken, with an Old South courtesy I had never heard before”, and his last producer Steve Albini reflecting that “he was as open, sincere and unaffected a person as I've ever encountered”.
David William Sims, of The Jesus Lizard (from Austin, Texas) wrote that he was "crushed to hear that Mark Linkous took his own life Saturday. I had the great honor of playing with Sparklehorse on a 1999 European tour… That tour will always be a highlight of my career. His songs have an aching emotional intensity that still leaves me gasping. I love the way he sang, tuneful but free of ornamentation. Our world is sadder and less beautiful without him."
These tributes, and more are sure to come, are a fitting reminder of the high regard Linkous’s peers held for himself, and for his Sparklehorse project, which had occupied him since 1995’s Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. That album remains (as Jayasuriya rightly points out) “ one of the greatest, most overlooked alternative records of the 1990s”, but also represents a very conscious return on Linkous’s part to a locale and an aesthetic he had left behind him during the 1980s. In many ways, his all-too-short artistic career describes again and again this embrace, and abandonment, of an imagined Virginian coal-mine, from which his ancestors hailed. The ‘heart of darkness’ in nature, to which he was continually drawn.
Generation after generation, the Linkous family had laboured in the coal-mines of Arlington, Virginia (still today the site of the US Government’s Coal Mine Safety and Health Administration), and in 2006 Linkous told Verity Sharp (on the BBC Culture Show) how his father, brothers and uncles “would come home from the deep mines, and everything was black from the soot, except for their eyelids, or their teeth. I knew I didn’t want to do that, and thought it would be a great way to stay out of the mines, if I tried music.”
His first ‘escape’ was with the early-80s underground NY band The Dancing Hoods, who boasted an urban post-punk sound that made them a great favourite with influential admirers The Replacements. The opening track of their debut LP 12 Jealous Roses demonstrates the poppy escapism of the band:
The song seems well-suited to the NY club scene, offering ironic references to Johnny Cash’s Wild West murderer (“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die – you think this is pain, well honey this is pleasure…”), and a great scoop of New Wave pop thrown in, reminding us, for just a moment, that one of Linkous’s first loves was, in fact, Blondie. The Dancing Hoods released two albums and one EP between 1984 and 1988, before imploding, at which point the 26-year-old Linkous (reluctantly?) returned to Virginia, moving into a rented farmhouse at Bremo Bluff.
A tiny rural community 130 miles south-west of Arlington, much deeper in the 'sticks', Bremo Bluff was another escape from the coal-mines, but in exactly the opposite direction. With just a tiny village post office, the community was far removed from the titanic metropolis he had just abandoned. The wooden buildings, dating back to the time of Herman Melville, have little in common with the glass towers of Gotham City...
In one of these small farms, Linkous constructed his own shed-studio, in the scrub. Christening the building ‘Static King’, he set to work on his own music, entirely his own, this time (devoid of the assistance of the Hoods’ Bob Bortnick), playing all instruments, layering piece after piece down on multi-track tape, a lo-fi process indebted to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and to Daniel Johnston’s renowned early recordings, yet more texturally ambitious than either.

In early 1995 (seven years after his return to Virginia), the first of Linkous’s Static King experiments was released on vinyl, by Slow River Records – Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. The album’s cover, a grainy nightmare of a clown-face, was the kind of image that would crop up in Harmony Korine’s Gummo two years later, or even in his Trash Humpers (2009). Here, combined with the hilariously expansive title (a one-word summary of a fever dream), it was enough to provoke the interest of the American underground and, fortunately, of John Peel, who played the mesmerizing ‘Spirit Ditch’ on his BBC show on Saturday 1 July, 1995.
The lyrics of this song, filled with such apocalyptic, southern gothic imagery (“the moon it will rise with such horse laughter, it’s dragging pianos to the ocean”), belie Linkous’s whispered, melodic delivery, and organic, rotting sound. The depth of the sound-world is unlike any prior lo-fi music, and the lyrics are hauntingly poetic (“the owls have been talking to me, but I’m sworn to secrecy”), whilst also remaining wittily parodic. Where Neil Young wakes up “in a burned out basement, the full moon in his eyes”, Linkous wakes up to find, with quiet horror, that he has “metal hands”…
This fusion of literary (and popular) parody with sonic depth is present from the opening lines of the album, as he mimes Shakespeare’s Richard III, desperate to escape from his battlefield. For Linkous, inevitably, the horse is a machine, and it rambles “on magnetic fields”. After all, in this mechanical wilderness, what is a ‘Sparklehorse’, if not a motorcycle?
The whole album was a triumph, and showed Linkous's rediscovery of the rural roots that were either mocked or obscured in the Hoods’ songs... a slow return to the mossy heart of darkness.
In 1996, thanks to Peel’s interest, Parlophone released the album in the UK, and Linkous was promptly invited to tour with Radiohead. It was at the start of this tour (at the very moment he should have been celebrating the ‘big-break’ that had always eluded his Dancing Hoods), that Linkous took a massive overdose of Valium, collapsed with his legs beneath him, and clinically ‘died’ upon being discovered found 14 hours later (the potassium released stopped his heart). In what is now a difficult read, Linkous was asked by the Guardian’s Amy Raphael whether he “was trying to kill himself.” “I don’t think so,” was the reply.
Hospitalised in St. Mary’s, London, then wheelchair-bound for over half a year, Linkous wrote and – immediately upon returning to Static King – recorded his awesome follow-up album, Good Morning Spider, named for the gigantic arachnid that lurked in his studio-shed (and would run and hide from him each morning). With these sessions, Linkous began to dig deeply into the folk-traditions of the South (claiming to be a distant relative of the banjo-player Ralph Stanley), and, more importantly, waking up to the unnerving density of the natural world in a place such as Bremo Bluff. Listening to the album as a whole, it is worth reflecting that it was recorded in the very same rural Virginia that Terrence Malick would film years later for The New World (2005)...
Indeed, looking at an image of the James River at Bremo Bluff, it is easy to imagine that one is looking at a still from Malick's transcendental film:

Good Morning Spider, captured in the heart of this landscape, remains one of the most original recordings of the decade. For me it was a singular, life-changing disc, introducing a rural aesthetic like none I had ever encountered, with its wonky baroque lo-fi arrangements, gargling drum machines, and broken microphones, overflowing with lyrical imagery far richer than that of (rivals-for-affections-in-1998) Thom Yorke, Spiritualized, Mercury Rev or Neutral Milk Hotel. The entire record seemed to be situated at a threshold, on the graying margins between Linkous’s joy at survival, and a hypnotic fear of what was glimpsed beyond: between numbness, terror, and the burning desire to be back in the woods. The disc remains today the only musical equivalent to the modern folk-art nightmare that was The Blair Witch Project, released only six months later.
The weird glam rock glimpsed here (and elsewhere, on tracks such as 'Cruel Sun') is no longer an attempt to endear Linkous to NY audiences. It is an explosion in the backwoods, a faintly camp hallucination of Blondie and Bowie from the rotting forests of Virginia, by an injured man who “wants to be a shiny new baby with a spongy brain”… And before that strange joke, prioritizing his collapsed physical health over his mind, sinks in, the song ends.
'Saint Mary', on the other hand, is a vision of the London hospital as Kubrick's 'Overlook Hotel', from which Linkous desires to be set free, to "taste the clean dirt in my lungs, and moss on my back..."
Following this masterpiece, Radiohead again came calling, and in 1998 Thom Yorke and Mark Linkous collaborated on a cover of Pink Floyd’s Syd-elegy ‘Wish You Were Here’. Thus began a long string of collaborations, in which Linkous again 'left the sticks' behind (as he had with The Dancing Hoods), and attempted to impact the mainstream. As well as singing with The Flaming Lips, he produced tracks for Daniel Johnston, Beck, TV on the Radio, Teenage Fanclub and Mercury Rev.
This eclectic resumé, an impeccably tasteful who’s-who of ‘alternative’ music in the 90s, extends even into the belated follow-up to Good Morning Spider; 2001’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In 2002, Linkous told Alexander Laurence (at The Portable Infinite) how "the guy at Capitol who had signed me left. The new guy came and wanted me to work with a producer. My studio is literally a one-room shack... I didn't want to get tunnel vision, so I agreed to work with other people." In its released form, the first half of the album is filled with collaborations: featuring Tom Waits, P.J. Harvey, Adrian Utley (of Portishead), and Nina Persson. Inevitably, the resulting disc is far less focused than its predecessors; even if ‘Piano Fire’ is better than anything on P.J. Harvey’s contemporary album, and ‘Dog Door’ (subsequently included on Orphans) turns out to be the most experimental Tom Waits track for years. It is very hard, despite the quality of the music, not to miss its predecessor's underlying otherness. The title track, at least, attracted the attention of Guy Maddin:
None of this disc, it is worth noting, was actually recorded at the original Static King studio/shed. Linkous had been forced to move to another rented farmhouse, in nearby Enon, Virginia, recording a few tracks at 'Static King II' (the "one-room shack"), and the rest at Dave Fridmann's Tarbox studio in Richmond, VA. The new project was intended to be a much more adventurous affair than the released version, expanding on the instrumentals, drum machines and distorted vocals of Good Morning Spider, an album that had anticipated R.E.M.'s Up, and inspired Kid A. The nameless "new guy" at Capitol Records disagreed, however, and (in addition to pushing forward the collaborations in the sequencing order, and attaching a 'featuring P.J. Harvey' sticker to the front cover), insisted that the most unconventional tracks were removed. As a fatigued Linkous remarked a year later: "the American label thought [the original version] was inappropriate. By that time I was tired of arguing."
Just thirty-four days after the release of this uncharacteristically 'compromised' album, the World-Trade Center attack plunged him into a second bout of depression, physical sickness accompanying the recurrent image of people falling from the towers. This inability to forget the mass suffering of others, even though it occurred many miles away, recalled a lyric from the third album's title track: “I’m full of bees, who died at sea…”. Diagnosed with a chemical imbalance in his brain (a condition that perhaps explained his reluctance to fight with Capitol), Linkous disappeared from the limelight for almost six years, only emerging for occasional brilliant experiments. Particularly memorable were his live soundtrack to Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari at the LA Film Festival, and his bass-playing on MF Doom's hip-hop album The Mouse and the Mask (2005):

During this period, Linkous moved house once again, transporting the conceptual 'Static King' studio even deeper into the wilderness: Theseus's ship disappearing at last into the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Here, on the shores of Lake Chatuge, he was (on at least one occasion) unable to leave the recording shed for a whole day, as a bear prowled about outside it… Like Don Van Vliet, perhaps, he had at last found a cave, and was talking the bears into taking him in.
The first album to be released from Static King III was, like its predecessor, not entirely recorded there. Dreamt for Light Years was a grab-bag of material from various sources, with four already-released tracks dating back as far as 2001. At its best, however (i.e. the eight new tracks, a 27 minute E.P. Linkous originally intended to title Fear of Pop), it offered a further glimpse of Linkous as the Brian Wilson of the sticks, evidenced by the gorgeous haze of the opening track:
In December 2007, having recorded the backing tracks for the as-yet officially un-released Dark Night of the Soul (an eclectic disappointment featuring David Lynch, Iggy Pop, Frank Black and The Shins), Linkous travelled to the Netherlands with Christian Fennesz. There, they visited the village of Nederhorst Den Berg (outskirts pictured below), and spent 48 hours recording an inspired album for the Konkurrent label.

In the Fishtank, the final Linkous album to be released in his lifetime, turned out to be his strongest album in almost ten years. Hinting that the 2000s were just a quiet decade, this album-length improvisation opened up a new sound-world for both himself and Fennesz, a wintry decaying landscape that recalled the Ghosts in the Machine that had made his first two Sparklehorse albums (and the extended, original version of the third) such masterpieces…
Saturday’s tragic news inevitably cuts short this newest development, and ends an artistic career that seemed to be barely midway. The Anti label reportedly holds the tapes to his final record, and it has already been suggested that there are plans to release the album at some point in the future… In what seems to be his final interview, he described the tapes to Pitchfork's Dave Maher:
Mark Linkous: Well, I'm working on what I hope will be my next record and writing a lot of new songs that are sort of atypical of a lot of Sparklehorse stuff we've been doing. I've been trying to write really simple songs to make them sound like they're coming out of a satellite that's crashing into a gas giant or something.

Dave Maher:
[laughs] Where did that image come from?

I don't know; I tried to imagine if you were in another satellite or if you were floating in space and you heard these amazing pop songs that were short and really simple, not unlike Buddy Holly songs, but you wanted to fuck 'em up in a way, but not gratuitously. So I don't know, you know those sort of suicide probes that absorb as much information as they can before crashing into the sun or some kind of other unfriendly atmosphere.
With this, we reach the final post on his gradual trip west, a thirty year journey into an open space, encompassing the 1960s coal mines of Virginia, New York City, rural Virginia, the Netherlands in winter and, finally, the Smoky Mountains. These tapes, the last to hail from his sad and beautiful world, were also the first to be recorded entirely at Static King III. Out there, among the bears, by the shores of the Lake Chatuge: the sound of Buddy Holly disappearing into a gas giant. One last beginning.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Princess and the Coelacanth: Back to the Future

Sitting in front of Avatar (or, even, sitting ‘within’ it), goggles strapped on, the IMAX screen yawning open 50 feet away like the Stargate, was quite a memorable end to the cinematic decade. After 10 years of Hollywood becoming a grim sequel factory, here was an industrially-produced film with no pre-release recognition, and an original storyline (pace Poul Anderson). Its subsequent rise to the Most Successful Film Of All Time seemed inevitable, but justified: the film was doing something far beyond the norm.

The most intriguing thing, however, was the manner in which it delivered this ‘new’ experience. The audience was deliberately allied with Corporal Jake Sully (as we sit immobile in our cinema seats, he in his wheelchair), trapped in a grey almost-2D world. But then, he slipped into his headset-Avatar-wire-getup, just as we'd slipped into our goggles, and we escaped away with him into the gloriously eye-popping dreamworld of PANDORA, a 3D paradise. No other film has so self-consciously dramatized the transition between two cinematic media since (at least) 1939, when Victor Fleming swept Dorothy out of monochromatic Kansas, and into the Technicolor land of Oz. Dorothy Gale and Jake Sully are two classic audience surrogates, holding our hands as we enter a new world.

This transition towards the ‘New World’ of cinema has been apparent for some time. And nowhere more so than in the North American animation industry: ever since the release of Toy Story in 1995, 3D CGI has been leading cartoon audiences away from cel-animated flops such as The Emperor’s New Groove, and Treasure Planet, and into endless franchises, such as the infamous Shrek. The gloomy situation was summed up by Guy Adams, in The Independent:

By 2006, Hollywood, the birthplace of Mickey Mouse, hadn't a single hand-drawn department left. Some of their former employees were simply sacked; others retrained in the new-fangled computer technology. Thousands of creative careers hit the scrapheap. An entire art form seemed to be heading for extinction.”

John Musker tells Adams “they even decided to scrap the desks we'd worked on, and throw away the paper that we used to sketch”, at which his co-director Ron Clements points out that animation has always been a “craft passed on from generation to generation. [My] apprenticeship was under Frank Thomas, one of Walt's 'nine old men’. If we'd left things idle for too long, connections like that would have disappeared. I'm not sure we'd have ever got them back.” Clements, once apprenticed to the man behind the ‘pink elephants on parade’ in Dumbo, appears here stranded in a wilderness of scrap-paper, as Avatar, a 3D goliath, stomps onstage to conclude short process of extinction, just as The Wizard of Oz once did for black-and-white.

Yet on Friday February 5th, a new Disney film was released in the UK. It is resolutely 2D, and has been created by the greats of lo-fi yesteryear (Musker and Clements, with their ‘sacked thousands’), painstakingly reinstated by John Lasseter, the former head of Pixar. This is an act of humility, but also of historical reverence: The Princess and the Frog is set at the exact time that Walt Disney founded his first animation studio: on October 16th 1923. The film is locked into a very deliberate historical age and place… not the ‘fairytale’ no-time of Snow White, but a segregated South, an uneasy world in which our African-American heroine is first glimpsed sitting at the back of a bus, with her mother.

Musker and Clements take advantage of this historical setting, the most precise of any Disney film to date, and range through the music and culture of the Jazz-Age South. Instead of the glib pop-culture references throughout Dreamworks’ Shrek and Shark Tale, we first meet Louis the Alligator as he plays the opening of his namesake Armstrong’s 1923 hit ‘Dippermouth Blues. These characters are moving through a New Orleans painted according to Tennessee Williams (with a character called ‘Big Daddy’ calling for his ‘Stella’, and an alligator named after Marlon Brando), huddled beneath a star named for Longfellow’s Cajun ‘Evangeline’ (the titular character in a poem dating from 1847). Running throughout, Randy Newman’s music is – at last – relevant, the biting satire and New Orleans detail of his solo work employed in a far more meaningful way than in Toy Story’s pleasantries (‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’).

This precise and ambitious framework, ranging from Longfellow to Williams, through literature and music, underlines the directors’ awareness of cultural context, and emphasises the boldness of their choice of a segregated world (with its glimpses of undercover-drinking during prohibition) for the first African-American leading character in the ‘Disneyverse’ since 1942’s Song of the South. As Guy Adams notes: “away from the White House, America has rarely seen a more potent symbol of change in recent times than Tiana.” She is a princess of the future, a feminist, far more self-reliant and able than the prince: a heroine it is possible (for once) to believe in.

Perhaps as surprising as all of these up-to-date cultural/political signals, however, are the constant references by Musker/Clement to the history of their own ‘extinct’ art form, references that dominate the film from its opening sequence, in which the young Lottie’s shelf is seen to boast figurines of Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’. These scenes are set in the pre-WWI era (prior to Walt’s earliest dream of owning Laugh-O-Gram Studios), yet our heroine already has dolls relating to films released during the height of the Cold War.

The Princess and the Frog is, in fact, a painstakingly reconstructed work of prophecy, a vision of the entire legacy of the hand-animated film, set in the year that Disney was working on his first masterpiece, Steamboat Willie (glimpsed in the opening logo, newly designed by Lasseter). Just minutes into the film, with Lottie’s dolls, it is apparent that we are watching a work of careful anachronism, as deliberate (and as strange) as the use of Wagner’s Rheingold in Terrence Malick’s ‘New World’ of 1607, or of Ennio Morricone’s 1970s Rabbia E Tarantella in Quentin Tarantino’s WW2.

These references, as the two directors (trained by Walt’s ‘nine old men’) take stock and remember their almost-extinct art form, proliferate to a gradually overwhelming degree. In one viewing, the following references stood out:

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: adrum-solo’ prompted by trying to hit animal with sticks (a fly in SW, a frog in PF)
Pinocchio: wishing on a star
Dumbo: pink elephants dancing (lit green and pink) evoked during the frogs' underwater dance
Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty: dolls on Charlotte’s shelf
Peter Pan: Dr. Facilier’s shadow, with a mind of its own
Lady and the Tramp: tongues as spaghetti, pulling them to kiss

The Jungle Book: Fireflies light up Louis as Baloo with pineapple on head and grass skirt, and his song evokes King Louis’s (‘I Wanna be like you’)

Robin Hood: Hiss the snake appears as Mama Odie’s snake
The Rescuers: musical aligators
Basil The Great Mouse Detective: Dr. David Q Dawson (‘Watson’) as Lawrence, Naveen’s servant
The Lion King: idea that stars are fireflies (originally Timon’s idea)
Pocahontas: raccoon at funeral

Having a quick look through the various reviews posted online so far, two other (even more obscure) references crop up:

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad: Mr. Toad’s horse, Cyril Proudbottom, is glimpsed outside a shop
Aladdin: a woman is seen cleaning the distinctive Magic Carpet in the street

And the most obscure of all:

Firefly Five Plus Lou: Louis’s band is a reference to the 1950s jazz band ‘Firehouse Five Plus Two’, in which the animator Frank Thomas (Clements’s original mentor) played piano

These references span three-quarters of a century of animated films, and creep into almost every sequence. It seems, given the sheer number that can be glimpsed on just one viewing, that Musker/Clement have almost certainly embedded references here to every film in the canon, as our off-screen Walt ‘prophesies’ his own future, in 1923.

In doing all of this, the film manages to provide a vision of a thrilling artistic future, through an exhaustive understanding of a cultural (and national) past. The filmmakers rely on a cinematic tradition that began with Walt Disney’s five films prior to America’s entry into WW2 – Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi – a 'run of five' unmatched by any other filmmaker in history (with the possible exception of Kubrick, over the much longer period of 1964-80: Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining).

If Musker/Clements’s deliberate nods to these classic Disney works, combined with the ingenious ‘prophetic’ framework of the film, does indeed signal a Renaissance, then the once-sacked animators need not be unduly worried by the rise of Avatar, or by the sad death of Roy E. Disney (only weeks before the film was released). Indeed, anyone who'd given up on the 'extinct' medium by 1996 (a year after Toy Story), would have missed the greatest Disney film since Pinocchio – the dark masterpiece that was The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Especially in its formidable musical sequences, The Princess and the Frog offers us more glimpses of this delight in painterly animation, of image-by-image invention and originality completely lacking from the action sequences that define a much lesser film, such as Up. Perhaps these images, and the deliberate historical focus of the film, hint that we can look forward to something very special, soon: an artistic Coelacanth, lurking in the shadows...

‘Cos remember, just two years after The Wizard of Oz announced the end of black-and-white cinema, Orson Welles released Citizen Kane.