Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Q. I have read more than one review mentioning Tim Blake Nelson's "brilliant" speech about corruption in "Syriana." The speech has been compared to Michael Douglas' speech in "Wall Street" (1987) that defends greed. I haven't seen the movie yet but I'd love to just be able to read the speech.
Greg Nelson, Chicago
A. The speech is the work of Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer and director of the film. Nelson plays Danny Dalton, a Texas oilman, who is speaking to Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a lawyer investigating a merger of two oil companies. Gaghan supplies this transcript:
Danny: Some trust fund prosecutor, got off-message at Brown, thinks he's gonna run this up the flagpole, make a name for himself, maybe get elected some two-bit, no-name congressman from nowhere, with the result that Russia or China can suddenly start having, at our expense, all the advantages we enjoy here. No, I tell you. No, sir. (mimics prosecutor) "But, Danny, these are sovereign nations." Sovereign nations! What is a sovereign nation, but a collective of greed run by one individual? "But, Danny, they're codified by the U.N. charter!" Legitimized gangsterism on a global basis that has no more validity than an agreement between the Crips and the Bloods! (Beat) ... Corruption charges. Corruption? Corruption ain't nothing more than government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That's Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption is what keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around here instead of fighting each other for scraps of meat out in the streets. (Beat) Corruption ... is how we win.
Q. Thank you for jump-starting a discussion about the relative artistic and critical merit of video games as compared to film and books. I do take issue when you argue that video games can never have the merit of a great film or novel. You say: "There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control."
Where you see a flaw, I see promise. Arguing that games are inherently inferior because books and movies are better at telling stories and leading us through an author-driven experience is begging the question. It's like saying that photography is better than painting because photos make more accurate visual records.
The invention of photography sparked a crisis in the world of painting: "Why should we paint if pictures can do it better?" But then painters figured out that there were lots of other things that they could do, that cameras can't. Now we see an enormous explosion of creativity in the world of painting. And another different explosion in the world of photography.
We agree that games are inherently different from films and books. I believe they are at their worst when they try to mimic films and books, and at their best when they exploit this difference to create experiences that films, books, and all the other art forms cannot. No one criticizes sculpture for failing to tell a story as well as a good movie.
Many people would agree with you that there aren't yet any games that rival the best films or books that you care to list. Game makers are only just beginning to understand that games are not films/books with action sequences. I think that you'll see that the more we work that out, the more we will find ways of creating meaningful artistic works that are unlike anything anyone's seen before.
Tim Maly, designer, Capybara Games, Toronto
A. If or when that happens, I hope I will approach it with an open mind. This debate has taken on a life of its own. In countless e-mails and on a dozen message boards, I've found that most of the professionals involved in video games are intelligent and thoughtful people like yourself. A large number of the video game players, alas, tell me "you suck" or inform me that I am too old. At 63, I prefer such synonyms as "wise" and "experienced."
Today I received a message from Professor David Bordwell (retired) of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who is generally thought of as the leading scholarly writer on film; the textbooks he has written by himself and with Kristin Thompson are used in a majority of the world's film classrooms. What he said was intriguing on a practical level:
"The last dissertation I'm directing is on video games as they compare to film. The guy is bright, so we let him do it. But he brought his games and game platform to my house to give me some experience on this medium. I lasted through 15 minutes of 'Simpson's Road Rage,' largely because my coordination is so poor. Even if I got good on the controls, what keeps me away is the level of commitment. The idea of spending hours at this boggles my mind.
"My student told me that the most sophisticated games require up to 100 hours to master. In 100 hours we can watch 25 Bollywood films or 50-plus Hollywood/ foreign features or 80 B-films or 750 Warner Bros. cartoons. Depending on how fast you read, in the same interval you can probably finish reading 20-30 books. Not to mention 25-35 operas or 100-120 symphonies. And that's just for one game! On the basis of my very limited experience, and given my tastes (a big part of the issue here), the problem with video games is that they're too much like life -- too much commitment for thin and often frustrating results."
Q. Here is a quick answer to the question in your "First Descent" review ("How do snowboarders know where they're going?): I asked the same question when my son Jeremy was riding as a professional in British Columbia back country, the U.S. Rockies and the Andes, and competing in World Cup competition. The answer is that they scout their drops beforehand. My son also told me about a couple of video shoots where he was guided over the lip of a cliff by a spotter in a helicopter who had a full view of the "drop."
Bill Atkinson, Courtenay, British Columbia
A. This is good enough for your son, who is a professional at the World Cup level. But in my mind, when a "drop" is more than, oh, say, about 50 feet, I take away the quotes and italicize it.
Q. I think there's confusion in your latest column with regards to Gong Li's name. Her family name is Gong, her given name Li. The West knows her as "Gong Li" but this is in fact the correct Asian order. Same with "Zhang Yimou."
Mengmeng Zhang, South Bend, Ind.
A. Copy editors, please note. Now I am wondering, is your given name Mengmeng and your family name Zhang? Which order should we use in the West?
Here is a useful answer from Jason Ishikawa of Honolulu: "I would recommend calling them by whatever name they are known as. Most Hollywood celebrities use fake names, anyway, so I wouldn't consider it insulting either way. 'Gong Li' is Gong Li and 'Zhang Yimou' is Zhang Yimou, just as 'Kurosawa Akira' is Akira Kurosawa. However, 'Zhang Ziyi' is beyond me, because she has been billed both ways."
Ebert again: I applied the Google test, and searched for her both ways. There are 3 million hits for Ziyi Zhang and 2.990 million hits for Zhang Ziyi. Flip a coin.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...