Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why is Trent Reznor Scoring Call of Duty?

I've often said, in regards to my ambitions of becoming a record producer, that Mike Shinoda is the reason I do what I do, and Trent Reznor is why I keep doing it.  In short, Reznor may be the single greatest musical visionary of the last 25 years.  His potent, enigmatic blend of pop sensibility and no-compromise attitude have yet to be matched since the release of Pretty Hate Machine in 1989.  In addition, he's also done a fair amount of film and video game composition, the latest news of which being that he will be writing the theme song to the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops II.


Maybe it's just me, but I can't help but to be slightly irked buy this news.  Reznor has always admitted that he is an FPS fiend (he even scored Quake and nearly Doom 3 before it fell through due to time constraints), but I feel he's like me in that sense.  He's a 90s FPS guy.  He's an FPS guy for a cultural landscape that had video games tucked deep into a niche market with the FPS's released during that era brimming with imagination and innovation.  They were truly entertaining to play.  I still play Doom to this day when I need to blow off some steam.

However, things have changed since the days of yore, and the landscape now consists of the same exact grey-brown eye-in-sight barely-controllable corporate-homogenized set piece, with online multiplayer that doubles as a mind-numbing time-waster, and platform for xenophobia, all of which has blown the doors open into the mainstream, so much so that games have become a consistent talking point for the media and politicians alike.

Not a single noteworthy innovation has permeated the surface of the series, or really AAA mainstream FPS's in general since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007.  That was five years ago.  Stagnation like that just doesn't seem like the kind of thing that Reznor would put his name on.

Sure, Black Ops II changes the setting and antagonist, but so did the first one, and it still sucked, the one new primary idea being, "Infinity Ward is killing Russians in the present, but come buy our game and you can kill them in the recent past ZOMG".

Ugh.

Not to mention what these games are starting to stand for could not be farther from Reznor's wheelhouse.  What used to be a tightly focused, insightful rumination on the true consequences of nuclear war, has degenerated into nothing more than disaster porn which the worst kind of politician is turning into their newest version of fear-mongering propaganda.  I mean, Christ, they got Oliver North as a spokesperson.  Oliver Fucking North!  What, was Glenn Beck sick that day?

It's not like we don't know where he stands on the issue.  This is the guy who produced the uber-insightful, culturally defining masterpiece that was Year Zero (soon to be an HBO TV series, I believe, in related "awesome" news), so to see him involved with the same big budget production as the Iran Contra Guy just doesn't sit right with me.

Listen, I know that Trent has grown up, and I could not be happier for him for it.  In fact, I'm of the mind that he has put out some of his best work since he ditched the tortured, perfectionist, alcohol and drug induced, weird for weird's sake persona he began to portray in the late 90s.  I'm certainly not one of those insular, toxic, unstable fans who believe he needs to go back to those days to truly regain his "rock star" essence and perspective of pain, because "real" artists aren't allowed to be happy.  For example of that, see Marilyn Manson.

Seriously, as a musician myself, fuck those guys.

The fact is, sober or not, Reznor always stood for what music could be when you truly expressed yourself, raw and real, out-of the-box, no filter, no empty suit telling you what to do.  He is a banner of artistic integrity.  He's damn near a demigod to guys like me who wish to make it on their terms; Proof positive that if you have the talent and drive, it can be done.

Even his previous forays into other mediums have been for Id Software's line of 90s game-changers (DoomQuake), and unconventionally over-the-top films about angst-ridden killings, identity crises, and erotic exhibitionism (Natural Born Killers, Lost Highway), which, polarizing though they may have been, is exactly what Reznor embodied musically at that time with Broken and The Downward Spiral, so both artistically and aesthetically, it made perfect sense.  I mean, come on, Natural Born Killers was basically a cultural satire of the media by way of mass murder.  To deny Reznor's name being written all over that is to deny John Hancock's on the Declaration of Independence.

And I feel as if his two recent scores for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo need no introduction or historical perspective except to say, "awesome, off-beat companion pieces to cinematic masterworks (well, at least the former, the latter is just damn good)".

So, given all of this knowledge, I have to ask: Why is he doing this, again?  I can't help but think that on any other day, what Call of Duty has come to represent is everything that Reznor has steadfastly stood against his entire career.  Nothing about this project with Treyarch gels with anything he's done before creatively, nor does it lie within his own artistic perspective.

Perhaps I'm passing judgement too early, and I'm sure whatever music he does put out will be as high a quality as we have come to expect from him, and perhaps I'm making way too many assumptions on his character, given that I don't know him and make no claims otherwise.  After all, what am I getting so worked up about?  Its just noise injected into a collection of zeros and ones.

Except Reznor never looked at it that way...

-VMA


19 comments:

  1. Nice post

    It's hard to really know "celebrities" (for a lack of a better word). You may have read interviews, enjoyed their work and followed their projects but it's still hard to really know someone from a distance.

    I don't know. While I don't know Reznor's work well enough, I sympathize with seeing an artist you like next to a project you despise, and boy is Call of Duty 2 shaping up to be despicable...

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  2. For starters you mention the series stagnation. I'll have you know that the Black Ops II is innovating the series in big ways. It's introducing a choice mechanic that sounds similar to the set-up present in Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy. Choices you make dictate how the story is told, what characters live or die etc. It's also introducing what sounds like lite RTS based parts, wherein you control a squad of soldiers. The IW games are what devolved into a series of Michael Bay blockbuster action stories. But even still there's a layer under the franchise that discusses the casualties that war can cause and the moral ambiguity of both sides. Albeit not as up front as in the original Modern Warfare, most topical war discussion happens during death screens where various famous quotes on the matter of war are presented to the player. Forcing us to at least think about the consequences of something with such a destructive nature.

    The original Black Ops focused less on war itself, and told a story instead focused on government conspiracy, brainwashing, friendship and one man's psychological trauma following the events of imprisonment and unwittingly becoming a terrorist sleeper cell for a group of German and Russian agents with hidden agendas involving a toxic gas known as Nova 6. And contrary to the idea that the games are all "GO AMERICA GO!" a Russian friend by the name of Reznov (who was in the previous game, which also focused less on America's efforts in WWII and more on the Russian's efforts in WWII to stop the Reich) questions the morality of his own government and forces the player through Mason to question whether or not our government will do the right thing like we're lead to believe.

    I can't say much concerning the story to Black Ops II but it looks to instead, much to Bob's chagrin, attempt to tell a story about a man who rises up the 99% but has ulterior motives in mind. In other words it's the story of a man who exploits the cultural and political beliefs of a people to pursue his own agenda. You seem pretty educated but like Bob you don't seem to know much about Call of Duty beyond superficial elements that you glean from Bob and previews.

    The fact that they use Oliver North does nothing, considering he fact he's a war historian and all he's actually credible in terms of this kind of game. Sure he did what he did but it's past, let it go, using someone with that history says nothing about the story or the beliefs of the people involved in the story or production of the game. It's a bad move to use such a controversial figure yes, but it's no worse than saying Free Willy isn't a credible movie because Michael Jackson wrote the film's theme.

    I must also disagree with saying Reznor is the single greatest music visionary in the last 25 years. Maybe one of the single greatest mainstream music visionaries but I can't help but say broaden your musical horizons a little. Shinoda and Reznor are both very talented and I highly respect them, especially Reznor's perception of the business practices in the music industry and both deserve condemnation for their vision, but I wouldn't put either as the top, maybe top 5. But I digress, just my opinion.

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  3. Aping a widely-overused gaming mechanic such as moral choice is not innovation. It just speaks to the level of "broad" appeal the series is going for, which just means more homogeny. Indigo Prophecy is one of my favorite titles of all time, and the game was built around such a mechanic. This is just window dressing to line a few more pockets. In fact, it will most likely make the barely existent campaign even worse because it will lose focus. But I'll have to reserve judgement on such things. I haven't heard about any RTS elements, but if the previous titles are any indication, it will be nothing more than the sequences from BLOPS one where you protected your squad from above. A welcome change of pace, but extremely short and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Call it, "Jack of all trades"syndrome. Like I said, window dressing for a series that claims to have it all when it can't figure out that its all spectacle and no substance. Not to mention the actual gameplay of the game has become so hand-holdingly scarce it's hard to believe any addition will be worthwhile.

    I understand the story, my point was simply that aside from setting and minor details, you are basically telling the same version of the same impossibly far-fetched story with the subtlety and finesse of a cement block. Not to mention the pace is so frenetically awful it makes me want to get back on ADHD meds.

    I'm not so much saying it's GO AMERICA GO(though it is), so much as it has morphed into a disaster porn where all the weight and credibility of it's subject matter and themes have been tossed out the window in favor of more whooshes and booms. I mean honestly, doesn't anybody realize that you can't have ground wars between first world countries?! We have NUKES! This is what COD4MW1 understood, and subsequent entries failed to.

    I really fail to understand how you can simultaneously tout Oliver North as being a War Historian, yet in the same breath ask me to forget his ACTUAL WAR HISTORY. Really? Oliver North does nothing? Using someone like that says EVERYTHING about the kind of game you are producing, or it says you are way to stupid when it comes to vetting. That's the very essence of why we use public figures as walking testimonials! Would you buy a skyscraper-building simulator endorsed by Timothy McVeigh? Maybe your metaphor would hold weight if you were saying that Michael Jackson was doing a commercial for someone's middle-aged sleepover day-care, which would be more analogous to what's happening here (also, Jackson was found innocent of his charges, a claim I can't make for North). Your not just using a guy who committed WAR crimes to promote your WAR game (which warrants comparisons with past events right there), but you are downright EXPLOITING them for the purposes of fear-mongering propaganda. It's shameful any way you look at it. The franchise lost much of its credibility way before North came along for the reasons above. His presence only exasperates the situation. And saying he's a war historian is like saying Hitler was a ethnicity historian. Just because you write books doesn't necessarily make you an authority on the subject. (1/2)

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  4. I don't know how you can gain any subtext through games that don't even take a moment to stop and look around. You practically need a guide to decipher the impenetrable plotting, and even then any moral weight is kicked in the gut because the game would rather marinate in its own romanticism of military fetishism than offer a dose of real honest human genuity or introspection. I don't know how you care about characters who's dialogue are basically variations of "woo-rah"!

    For real moral ambiguity, I recommend Spec Ops: The Line. Not a perfect game by any means, but it actually makes you give a shit about your actions instead of holding your hand through the next barely interactive set piece.

    I'm no COD fan, but I have played most of the games, and if it sounds like my arguments are superficial, it's most likely because the games are superficial by design. I could go on for hours making that case, from a narrative, gameplay, thematic, etc. standpoint.

    I don't take Reznor's popularity into account, though the fact that he was able to use his sensibilities to break into the mainstream, and consistently reinvent himself while remaining relevant his entire career when others failed should say something. As an amateur record producer, I can assure that my iPod is fairly diverse, but if you have any competing artists you'd like to mention I'd love to hear them. It's all a matter of taste, and I respect your disagreement.

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  5. Oh, and thanks for calling me educated. A guy like me needs all the validation I can get :)

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  6. It's innovation in a shooter franchise. Indigo Prophecy was not the first game to use that sort of mechanic, it was however one of the first 3D adventure games. It's not a cheap attempt to line more pockets because frankly Treyarch unlike the new team at IW still care about franchise quality and pushing it forward rather than keeping it in a rut. I won't disagree that the gameplay for the series has become nothing more than a linear corridor shooter but again Treyarch is attempting to push the franchise forward. Those choice sections, according to Treyarch won't lose focus of the main narrative, we also have to realize David Goyer is penning the script to this game and he's thus far been a pretty focused writer who has crafted some very strong compelling plots; Dark City being my favorite work of his. I must also say the RTS gameplay will be different than those help the team out via Blackbird sections, as Treyarch has said it's small skirmishes where you can choose to be on the front lines with your group or hang back and control from there.

    I felt the story in the original Black Ops was strong and paced nicely. The reason it jumps around so much is because we're revisiting the memories of a brainwashes soldier who doesn't entirely remember.

    Even the Infinity Ward games aren't GO AMERICA GO! considering the American military in those games were the cause of the nuke in MW, the cause of the Russian US war that started in MW2 and did relatively nothing of major significance in MW3 save for die so Price and Yuri could escape. The primary protagonists of the MW series is two British SAS operatives and a Russian helicopter pilot. They're the ones who save the day, they're the ones who's deaths have the most impact. WAW and Blops focus more on Russian's than anything else. Sure the main character in Blops is American, but one who has closer ties with his Russian friend than he does with anyone else in his country. WAW's extreme patriotic moment takes place during the planting of the Russian flag after the take over of Berlin. None of which screams America. I don't mean to sound rude, but you come off as a guy similar to Bob and Yahtzee who thinks anything that has to do with war is somehow all pure American. Battlefield has more patriotic American appeal than CoD and the only reason for that is cause DICE is a Swedish company who thinks American's won't play their games if they aren't glorifying the American military.

    I tout him as a war historian because he has a series. That's more than likely the only reason Activision chose him, because they think it's credible. You make some weighty points but I don't think it's for fear mongering propaganda, chances are the bigger majority of the CoD fanbase don't even know who North is. It's also of note that Activision does the commercial campaigning not Treyarch. In film and gaming the developer never gets much say when it comes to trailers, the publisher does. Because the publisher is the one putting money into the product and wants to promote it in a way that they think will get them the most money. I don't think Bobby Kotick (don't quote my spelling there) or anyone over at Activision are smart enough to realize the sort of political backlash this'll cause. These are the same idiots who let go of the original creators of Call of Duty and managed to run Guitar Hero into the ground when the series was still big.

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  7. I never said I cared about the characters, the biggest amount of text in the franchise has been relegated to quotes after death like I said. The character's in Black Ops are not overly romanticized military fetish characters. You're basically using the Infinity Ward games to use the argument that there's no depth. And while CoD 4 didn't have much character depth the nuke scene was a stunningly realized sequence that displays the horrors and destruction of war. The original IW team who created the series were never simplistic and wanked to military fetishism. The original Call of Duty games were in line with the Medal of Honor series in terms of historical accuracy and a reflection of the horrible things that happened during WWWII. These reasons are validated even more considering IW original worked for MOH with EA, who then like Activision screwed IW over by trying to push out too many entries in the franchise.

    Spec Ops was a fantastic game and brought the moral ambiguity of it out much better. The original MW, WAW and Blops occasionally questions it but doesn't do it in the way that Spec Ops does. That game seriously made me sick to my stomach with some of the things I did.

    I don't think the games are superficial, I found their stories really easy to understand in the beginning. The truth is the near impenetrable hard to follow stories are actually closer to reality than you think. War and the politics around it are that complicated. Now don't get me wrong I'm not praising the storyline, especially the story to the MW series. I still enjoy it but not in the same way I enjoy the story to something like Silent Hill 2.

    Like I said I highly respect Reznor, Year Zero is a genius record and you do make a nice point that as often as he's changed himself and as not so commercially appealing as his music is it is something of a miracle that he's stayed relevant. I'm a big fan of progressive rock so I'd say Symphony X or Dream Theater. Dunno how you feel with music that has some death metal sensibilities but Eluveitie is a great Gaelic folk metal band.

    SkySaw, Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, Transatlantic, Flying Colors, Poe, Martina Topley-Bird, The Chameleons, Chroma Key and OSI. Also I'd say Akira Yamaoka would be up your alley, he was heavily influenced by Reznor.

    And no worries, please take no offence to anything I say. I really enjoy debate so I may sometimes come across as a jerk and will play Devi's advocate just for the sake of debate.

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  8. Sorry for some of my misspellings, I just woke up lol

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    1. Saying that it is innovation for a shooter implies that shooters must be judged separately from everything else, which speaks to a rigidity of genre convention that is rather worrying. It's not the type of mechanic used that makes a game innovative or not, or in any way good, it's the implementation of such mechanics. Indigo Prophecy built itself around quick time events, so it had time and the perspective to implement it properly. If COD does something akin to Mass Effect, I'd be listening, but we both know that won't happen. It will be a shallow addition to a game that enhances nothing just so they can add a blurb to the back of the box.

      I will agree with your assessment that I'm mostly citing the MW series, though Treyarch has had similar problems to a lesser degree. It's interesting how the two devs have switched places, as Treyarch realized after COD 4 came out and they had their latest WWII sim WAW that they needed to get their shit together, while simultaneously the lead devs in IW grew tired and left to form Respawn, leading to that series' stagnation.

      Goyer is good when he has someone like Nolan as a filter. Seen FlashForward lately? Didn't think so.

      The reason I say Go America Go, is that the game never adds any thematic weight to the story regardless of the US' affiliation as good or bad guy. It's all the same attitude on the ground.

      Absolutely the publisher Activision(who sucks about as much as EA) is responsible, though I would disagree that it is not about propaganda. In the ads, he is applying how what goes on in this sci-fi (at this point) game applies to real life, and how we need to watch out about Obama's evil "drones" before they take over. It's the same BS they used in the sixties with nuclear warfare, which was as despicable then as it is now. The whole thing just stinks to me.

      Just because a storyline is complicated in reality doesn't give you free reign to abandon structure and the very tenants of storytelling. Things must be shifted for the sake of plot and structure. It's like saying I'm going to film a biography of my life and just roll the cameras for a year, no edits, no purpose. Real? Yes. Boring? As hell. Nothing should be so obtuse as to not be adequately explainable in the narrative. You are just making excuses for a poorly told story. And again, saying you don't care about the characters is basically an omission that the story is not up to par. A story is not about what happens, it's who it happens to, and if you can't care about that, your story doesn't matter, no matter how big it may be. You can never substitute scope for character.

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    2. Which rings me to the temporal jumps. Saying that it's simply to introduce character, given what I've just explained, is not nearly enough justification for its existence, not to mention the tired, cliche amnesia beat. I love parallel narrative as much as the next guy, but there needs to be an emotional and narrative through line connecting everything together, which Blops sorely lacks, and the fact that it never slows down to bring some much needed juxtaposition is a point against its pacing, exasperating the triviality of the story. I mean, be honest, did you really understand that story the first time through, or were you in a shooty trance from all the explosions? If you did, bravo, you're a better man than me. But again, it's all a matter of taste, and it's hard to speculate, but I imagine you're enjoyment stems more from that type of gameplay being up your alley that anything the story had to offer.

      I do enjoy the artists you've mentioned, particularly Dream Theater, and you read my mind with Yamaoka man. Silent Hill 2 is, bar none, my favorite game of all time, and I own every soundtrack. I frequently keep it in the background when I write. Genius.

      And don't worry, I take no offense, I have the same issue as you in that my passion can be interpreted as anger. I think it's an Italian thing.

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  9. [SLIGHT EDIT] I didn't mean that it's just innovation for the shooter genre, I meant innovation for the franchise. It's not much but at least it's going forward you know which is a lot more than can be said about the last five iterations. I've yet to know whether or not it will be as deep as Mass Effect but I agree that Treyarch probably isn't going to push it that far.

    It is kind of odd that the heads of the franchise are the ones being pretty much outmatched by the franchise spin-off devs. Wouldn't have happened if the original staff members of IW wouldn't left for Respawn.

    I think he's made some pretty good films without Nolan, again I mention Alex Proyas's Dark City, which is very much like The Matrix, ironic considering The Matrix came out a year later. Although Dark City's philosophical treatment wasn't as heavy handed and pretentious as The Matrix films.

    That's a good point, but I still don't feel it's praising the American military, not to the same levels as Michael Bay at least.

    That is a good point about that trailer of his. Still though I'm not so much blaming Treyarch as much as I am settling it on Activision. But it is still sickening either way. And agreed, them and EA are terrible companies with some equally terrible business practices. I mean how can they be two of the biggest AAA publishers and lack any innovation whatsoever? It's the game equivalent to Hollywood, why make new interesting things when we can keep releasing the same crap every year? It's as much their fault as I'd say it is the consumers, maybe if everybody stopped buying the same brown and grey super ultra gritty shooter games we'd see some newer stuff.

    That is one of the best examples I've heard regarding that. It actually got a laugh out of me so very nice. I can be bought off on spectacle a bit, I'll admit it. That's the biggest reason I enjoy the franchise because it's fun and has some pretty awesome set pieces, though the entire end-game in MW3 really jumped the shark for me. It was so over the top that I was instantly taken out of the game and thought, "are you serious with this?"

    Again some good points as it is very true the game doesn't give you any time to give a damn about anybody, save for Dimitri during the Nova 6 experiment. But that's only because he was the same guy you played as in the previous game, it's less character and more player attachment so that's still not saying much. I did understand the narrative of the game the first time through and I am being honest, the only thing I didn't get was the purpose of the numbers, I think it's more cause I'm used to CoD's way of storytelling. I do enjoy that sort of frantic gameplay so it can be relegated to taste. I'm a fan of strong narratives and artsy or abstract stories but I can also appreciate the kind of popcorn entertainment that the CoD franchise is. The campaigns aren't that long and aren't as deep as a shooter like Metro 2033 but I find its spectacle entertaining, sometimes all I want is explosions and spectacle, small minded as that seems.

    I thought you might. Dream Theater is personally my all time favorite band, I forgot to mention one called Poets of the Fall. They're an independent Finnish group who I wholly respect for the fact that they literally sold everything they had in the pursuit of making music. It's refreshing to see that kind of inspiring story and they're music itself is top notch. I had a feeling you probably already knew who he was. And I must say you have good taste in games, SH2 may not be my all time favorite game(though thinking of it I'm not sure what really is) but it's definitely on the list.

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    1. You're a writer? Do you write novels or anything, if so what kind of stuff do you write?

      Maybe it's a Latin thing cause I'm Hispanic myself. Glad you don't take offense though, I'm not really the kind of guy who enjoys it if I offend someone.

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  10. Mostly screenwriting, for web and TV. Well at least I'm working on it. I don't have much to my credits at this point. I also pursue record production. And I've also been a huge fan of Poets ever since I was exposed to "Late Goodbye" in Max Payne 2.

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  11. Hmm very nice, did you write those youtube videos on your channel the Master's of Prose ones and is that you in the videos?

    I myself am an aspiring filmmaker and novelist, I've also got two self-published books of poetry. And that's awesome, I discovered them the same way as I think most fans did.

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    1. Yes, Masters of Prose was all me. I also directed Confessions of a Guido. There's some media and links on the sidebar of some things I've done (some media links have been breaking on me, working to fix that). I checked out your blog, lot of nice poetry over there. I've been toying with the idea of a novel, but I'm so busy honing my craft in screenwriting/filmmaking and music that its pretty much a down the road thing for me. You can follow this blog if your interested in any updates on my various projects, which will all be posted here. Trying to get the word out as best as I can, I'm relatively new to this while "networking" thing. Not to mention I need to start making some money, I'm fucking starving lol.

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    2. Well Masters of Prose was some pretty good stuff, got a good laugh out of me that's for sure. I'll have to check out those links see your other work. And thank you, did you check out my blog On Everything? I've got a few articles posted and I wanna try and get the blog out there, maybe see if I can get a column on critique and social/political commentaries something like that. It'll be getting weekly updates from me on things I'm interested in writing about.

      Since we're both aspiring filmmakers who really need money and are both kinda new to this "networking" thing and we're stuck spending too much time honing our craft to follow our dreams I can definitely relate to your situation. I'll support you and your work as best I can. And on the topic of film do you have any favorite films/filmmakers and a particular genre?

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  12. Appreciate the support.

    Favorite Film: Fight Club
    Favorite Genre: Film Noir & Subsequent Subgenres
    Favorite Director: Too many to judge.
    Favorite Writers: Joss Whedon & Aaron Sorkin

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    1. No worries, always gotta support people with some integrity.

      Definitely a good film, mine would have to be Out of the Past
      Noir is also my favorite genre, followed by psychological horror/thrillers.
      I'd say too many to judge myself, but it was David Lynch who inspired me to pursue film so he holds a special place on the list.
      Writers would be Clive Barker (more so cause he's my favorite novelist) and again David Lynch. If it's not obvious I'm a really big fan of abstract and metaphorical films.

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