Sunday, December 21, 2008

Cheese



This is not an entry about the delicious milk based food product called Cheese. I do love it, I was born in the American Midwest, famous for Dairy farms, cold winters and liberal politics. SO I am a fan of cheese. But that isn't what I am going to talk here about.



What I am here to talk about is Movie cheese.

Perhaps you believe that the only good movie is a bad movie. Or perhaps you believe that anything short of a masterpiece isn't worth your time. I occupy the middle road, wherein I appreciate very well done thoughtful work, but, sometimes, there is just nothing better than a cheesy monster movie. This resort to lowbrow entertainment isn't a statement about my intelligence, it is a statement about my state of mind.





You see, when I am tired, or depressed, or worried, I do not want to think. I want to NOT think. And watching movies that matter cause me to think. Monster movies on the other hand, especially giant monsters as the central feature, require you to watch and feel, but rarely think.



When I am depressed I resort to comedy, such as The Little Rascals or The Three Stooges. Twice when I had lost a loved one, and the funeral and sadness still stuck in my mind, I did not find humor in anything or joy in anything until I watched a Little Rascals film. It was pure, innocent humor.



So how are animals so large as to destroy cities innocent? Well, nobody dies in these who you get to know, unless they are evil, or a military or government type official. And really, when they do die, which is rare, you see it from a distance and never have to worry for the reality of it all. These movies paint scenes and tell stories using a giant brush, and broad canvas.

So the movie posters and stills you see here are from some very fun films. However silly the story, or unbelievable, for the hour or hour and a half it takes you get to escape. Different people use different sorts of cheese films. Some people, like me like giant monsters, or silly comedies, others like sappy patriotic or romance stories, but we are doing it all for the same reason, we want to sit, watch, and think later.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Of Simpsons and Samurai

What makes something that is popular part of culture, and the reverse, what makes anything that is part of culture more popular to point of being commonly understood than other portions? The United States has long been said to be suffering from a lack of cultural literacy. But what is that? Definition from Wikipedia “Cultural literacy is the ability to converse fluently in the idioms, allusions and informal content which creates and constitutes a dominant culture. From being familiar with street signs to knowing historical references to understanding the most recent slang, literacy demands interaction with the culture and reflection of it. Knowledge of a canonical set of literature is not sufficient in and of itself when engaging with others in a society, as life is interwoven with art, expression, history and experience. Cultural literacy requires familiarity with a broad range of trivia and implies the use of that trivia in the creation of a communal language and collective knowledge. Cultural literacy stresses the knowledge of those pieces of information which content creators will assume the audience already possesses.” So, in order to be fully conversant you need to know the roots of a cultural idiom and the icons of culture, but also you need to understand it and be conversant with it in the modern language.

An example is The Simpsons cartoon. In an episode called “Homer Loves Flanders” Homer Simpson has driven Ned Flanders a bit mad, and in his dreams Flanders dreams of shooting people from a bell tower, only to have one of the possible victims, a postal worker return fire with his own concealed firearm. However much one laughs at the top layer of Homer going so overboard that he drives kind Ned mad, we have an example of cultural literacy. Ned’s dream reflects two moments/episodes of American cultural history that entered common thought. On August 1, 1966 Charles Whitman ascended the top floor of the UT Austin admin building, with an open observation deck, and murdered 14 people and wounded 31 others. When Ned shot at the Postal worker who returned fire it was use of a then common worry of Postal workers going mad and shooting people, or going postal. My son being 10 has no concept of either event/episode but laughed uproariously at the humor of the story. He didn’t get the whole multilayered joke because he wasn’t and rightly, couldn’t have been culturally literate enough yet to understand it all.



So we have symbols in culture, words, iconic images, that tell us clues how to feel, think or respond. I spoke to Arthurian Legend being a keystone of English culture. In Japan a very different cultural region from England/UK, the cultural touch point is more a romanticized era than a set of stories. The Japanese have made great strides, became modern despite having a medieval system as late as 1870. But they never forgot the Samurai, Emperor, Shogun, and more who peopled their stories, who lived in the era, when violence and a vital caste system allowed for a great and powerful cultural story book. The Japanese could hardly forget moments from their past because however modern they are as a people, they can still see the Emperor’s castle and residence, the castles from the Tokugawa and earlier regimes. The very aspects of the world they left by becoming modern were never lost to them, for they simply developed a culture that kept the keystones, and never ignored them.

The arts that have grown since are vibrant and varied, but also, they still cling to the aesthetic of “Chrysanthemum and Sword”, being beautiful and unique, at the same time as stark and often simple. Japan’s legends and lore are vital to their being. Much like the American image of Cowboys and the Frontier, Japan’s memories of Samurai and court intrigues make their world go round.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Black Friday

For those of you who don't know, I work night shift at the local Wal-Mart Supercenter. Blitz is our term for "Black Friday Sale". It should be called the "Banzai Charge Sale".

You know that small part of the brain that tells you "maybe I shouldn't act like this in public"? Yeah, you know, the "social network" part of the brain?

Well, that part stopped working for about 400+ people this morning.

There really is no words to describe what I saw. But I shall try. Because people need to know. They need to know that they look completely idiotic when they start rushing for things.

We had people shoving, kicking, and grabbing things out of people's hands. We had two sheriffs at each door, plus two or three in electronics to guard stuff. The sale started at 5:00 AM, and people were not allowed to touch the merchandise until the prescribed time.

Being my first Blitz, I was sent to guard the jackets and hoodies. I was like, "Oh, okay. No big deal. It's just jackets. I won't have a ton of people to watch."

Oh. My mistake. Around midnight, some people started showing up. Two or three people. Nothing big yet. I could look down the isle and see people setting up lawn chairs in front of some TV and computer pallets. That was expected.

What wasn't expected was the 40 women who all gathered around the coats and jackets. Around 4:30 AM, we had gathered quite a crowd. And they all started to get closer to the jackets and I had to keep them off of 'em. Here's how a typical conversation went. Stuff in italics are what I thought but did not say.

"Ma'am, I'm sorry, you can't touch the merchandise before five." Can't you see the five signs that I hung up that clearly say "No Merchandise Before 5:00 AM"?

"Oh, I was just looking at the sizes."

Sure you were. I saw those grubby fingers getting ready to snatch it off. "I'm sorry, but you can't even look at the sizes. You can look all you want after 5."

"Well, she was touching it!"


Are you kidding me? We've resorted to name calling? Kinda like a two year old. "I'm sorry ma'am. I can't watch everyone at once. If I see anyone touch it, I will tell them not to."
At 4:55 people were literally starting to press in on me. I prepared to cut the tape around the section and run.

4:57. People were reaching their hands out to hover over what they wanted. I eyed them and they pulled their hands back.

5:00. Think piranhas and a chicken bone.

5:10. Half of the jackets are gone.

5:20. The jackets are gone.

It was wall-to-wall of people. Literally. We had all 25 cash registers open, plus the four scan-your-own isles. People were backed up from the registers to the merchandise (about 5 or 6 buggy widths), plus more waiting that were lined up to the garden center. You just could not get through the electronics section. I had to use an employee door and walk through the back rooms (they run the length of the floor) just to get to the time clock to clock out.

I heard about the Long Island, NY Wal-Mart this morning. A 34-year-old employee was trampled to death. And somewhere else, a pregnant woman lost her baby from being trampled.

Have any of you gone shopping during Blitz before?
Were you ever caught up in the actions of "snatch and grab"?
Have you ever been hurt or hurt someone accidentally?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Is It Really a Deal?

I sit in my high tower, staring at the people below. It is dark, and all I have is the red glow of neon to comfort me. And the green glow of greed to amuse me.

You see, this game was designed with people’s greed in mind. I laugh to myself each time I offer an amount higher than the last, and yet, people still continue. They want more. Much more. Whatever they want, it needs to be more. These people are fascinating.


Only the host and I know this game. Really know it. He laughs along with me, though I am amused more, for I don’t have to deal with the greedy roaches. And they are roaches—scurrying around, taking what’s not theirs, trying to get more of what’s not theirs. And almost succeeding…if only they didn’t run into the mist of bug spray first.

And that is the same sort of effect that opening a case of high numbers has on the greedy person. They’re all hyped up, hoping to get that last bit of low numbers, when, the pesticide can in the shape of 1,000,000 million dollars gets opened in a case. When everyone else groans, I laugh, knowing that the greed overcame them in the end.

They don’t realize what’s happening. Every now and then, I’ll mess with their heads and offer them really hard choices, knowing that they probably won’t get the money. And if they do, all well and good for them; I still have more money than they do.


I am the banker. The people don’t play the game.

The game plays the people.


Author’s Note: I was at my grandmother’s house a long time ago, flipping slowly through the channels on the TV, when I came across a game show called "Deal or No Deal". The way to play was a bit fuzzy, but what I did gather, was that one player tried to eliminate the low numbers, while trying to keep the high numbers. It’s all based on money. After every round, there is a man hidden behind tinted windows called the banker, who makes the player a deal of hard straight cash. The player must then decide whether he wants to keep the straight out money, or keep playing the game to go for a million dollars. The odds of the person picking the case of the high numbers increases as the game goes on, for the cases are eliminated one by one, and of course, the person usually chose No Deal, and then lost in the next round and went home with nothing. I  realized that it was completely based on people’s greed—and human nature. So I thought of this little contemplation in the viewpoint of an important person.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembrance



In the history of humankind many wars have been fought, and many have served their country. Today, November 11th is Veteran's day and we should not forget all who served. We celebrate the service by all who served, and remember that and the lives lost in service to their country.

Some movies (with writers and directors most notably considered) have falsely portrayed war, others have so realistically portrayed it that nobody wants to see it again. Whatever the factual accuracy, I've created a general list of war films to watch today, and for about three or more weeks following.

Please feel free to add to the list in the comments, and to, of course, correct any mistakes.

ANCIENT WARS

Gladiator
300
The 300 Spartans
The Seven Samurai
Kagemusha
Braveheart
El Cid
Kingdom of Heaven
Alexander Nevsky
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

1700-1900
AMERICAN WARS

Last of the Mohicans
The Patriot
The Alamo
Cold Mountain
Glory
Gettysburgh
Gods and Generals
Gone With the Wind

COLONIAL WARS

Khartoum
Zulu
Zulu Dawn

WORLD WAR I

Sergeant York
Gallipoli
The Lost Battalion
African Queen
Wings
All Quiet on the Western Front
A Farewell to Arms
The Blue Max
Lawrence of Arabia
Paths of Glory

WORLD WAR II

Soldier of Orange
Enemy at the Gates
Band of Brothers
Schindler's List
Saving Private Ryan
The Longest Day
A Bridge Too Far
The Desert Rats
Patton
Das Boot
The Great Escape
The Guns of Navarone
Letters From Iwo Jima
Tora! Tora! Tora!
The Thin Red Line
The Bridge On the River Kwai
30 Seconds Over Tokyo
Flags of Our Fathers
Where Eagles Dare
MacArthur’s Children
Kelly’s Heroes
The Dirty Dozen
Black Rain
The Big Red One
Run Silent Run Deep

KOREA, VIETNAM, AND CAMBODIA

M*A*S*H
Pork Chop Hill
The Bridges at Toko-Ri
Platoon
Full Metal Jacket
Apocalypse Now
Born on the Fourth of July
The Killing Fields

RECENT WARS

Salvador
Black Hawk Down
Jarhead
Hotel Rwanda

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

SYMBOLS of popular culture

That we recognize symbols in culture is not amazing, we seem to be hard wired to recognize symbols and symbolism. Whether we understand the symbolism or not is not the point. When we look at culture it is filled with images that tell us what we are supposed to connote some message from the work. In the movie BLACK RAIN with Michael Douglas a plane leaves the United States airspace of red sun, white sky and blue ocean (The US Flag: Red White and Blue) to land in Japan, with a largely white sky and blazing Red rising sun (The Japanese flag of the Rising Sun.) It is not necessarily important but it adds to the layers of symbolic information, and the viewer may or may not understand it more than just feeling something, but, it is there.



Some symbolism retains power and value throughout human experience. The story of Saint George killing the Dragon is powerful, but a mythic story that arose from a person who did something very much the same in terms of choices made. Saint George comes from a historical figure who chose not to convert to a different religious faith in the face of a demand from an Emperor. He was executed as a result. The mythic story follows a Knight who slays a dragon, but the mythic root is that in our lives we are able to make heroic decisions, and the dragon, that beast of conformity and hate can be slain. The Christian metal band Demon Hunter has an image of a slain Demon skull as the symbol of their band. They do not linger over lyrics of killing demons, they speak about choices and morality, they slay demons with words. The symbolism here is unchanged, and there are many many other instances I could show for the same sort of usage.



Death itself is symbolized by a Skull. In the past the use of a skull in imagery meant very clearly that death was near, that a portent of danger was evident, and that one should be careful, exhibit fear, or wariness. But lately in many forms of culture, you see the skull being used not as an omen of horror, or danger, but of empowerment over such a thing. Whereas Skeletor from He-Man and Darth Vader of Star Wars were given skull like faces, you can see skate boarders wearing clothing with skulls on it to show they are brave in the face of danger. You can see it in the Christian metal band AS I LAY DYING, who uses the skull to symbolize that Death is a doorway to a different existence, and that being slave to the flesh rather than the spirit is death itself. This usage of imagery can cause confusion, as clearly when symbols change meaning people from before and after do not connate the same thing from the symbol. When I see a pirate flag and the Skull and Cross bones I do not necessarily think I am about to die, or be in danger, but I certainly don’t see Pirates of the Caribbean as being about men who are evil and wishing to plunder.



Finally some images we create might have no greater meaning (although Abbey Road does have a number of symbolic images and meanings, which I might discuss in future articles... although I am no expert regarding it) but enter into culture due to the widespread popularity, notoriety, and importance. The Beatles were very much a famous, powerful, important band, and everything they did had a place in culture, that was revered and examined. Whether they were meaning to do so was really not the point. They were considered at the edge of culture and you can see from album covers and personal statements and music lyrics from the band and members, they were a cultural movement. The album Abbey Road was very important, lovely to listen to, and musically valuable. But the impact it had can be seen in the numerous parodies of it. Many dozens of bands, individual artists and popular culture mediums utilized the familiarity and fame of the image, to portray themselves in the same important light. The image enclosed shows just the tip of the iceberg of people imitating the image.

Symbolic information exists whether we understand it or not, but is the symbol used a constant, or has the culture changed it, what band, author or game is so powerful and important to become part of the imagery of popular culture?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Trauma Center Second Opinion

Trauma Center: Second Opinion poses as a sequel, when it is really just the original with a fresh coat of paint. The storyline (still) follows the emerging medical career of one Derek Stiles. Stiles is an up and coming surgeon with a lot to learn about surgery, and about life. He and his plucky young assistant Angie fight to save lives and punch disease in the face.

The story is rife with melodrama that would not feel out of place on daytime soaps. Themes weave through suicide attempts, bio-terrorism, euthanasia, and inter-office canoodling. While the storyline itself feels current and topical, the delivery is quite dated. Static images accompany scrolling text like an RPG for the SNES. The pain of reading is exacerbated by the fact that the game is almost too chatty. Before each surgery there is dialogue with storyline development. There is also a longer dialogue scene between each surgery. This means that for each minute that is spent with a scalpel, two more are spent reading about it. Just give me something to suture already. Moreover, the themes are very dark, even with a T rating.

All of this obnoxious discussion and medical mystery magically disappears when the mission starts. The gameplay is (big surprise) the best part of the game. The mission will begin with a senior resident explaining the procedure to Stiles. It is important to pay attention, because they will not be helpful during the surgery, and Angie only seems to chime in when the good doctor makes a mistake.

The game uses both the remote and the nunchuck. The analog stick on the nunchuck is used to select the appropriate medical tool, such as a scalpel, syringe, or ultrasound. After grabbing the correct tool, the player simply points to the screen and uses it. With this simple control scheme players can master time-honored medical techniques such as the connect-the-dots cut and the zig-zag stitch. Believe me, nothing is more rewarding than pulling a shard of glass out of a man's heart and then using a needle and thread to clumsily stitch it shut.

The controls are very precise, which means that they precisely demonstrate how imprecise I am. Though the objectives such as connecting the dots are clearly laid out, my clumsy hand can't seem to complete them without mangling the patient. The worst mechanic in the game is the defibrillator. Every now and then, Angie decides that the only way to save a patient is to electrocute them. During these times, players must hold their wiimote and nunchuck like handles of a defibrillator and push them toward the screen. This simply does not work. I just ended up shaking the controllers back and forth, and hoping it would work.

Most of the missions are some derivation of the first one. The formula is as follows. Wipe the wound with an all-purpose healing gel. Then cut along the dotted line. Once inside, locate, laser, tweeze, and cut out the problem. If the patient's vital signs should drop, simply fill a syringe with more gel, and give them a warm blast of life before continuing to work. When finished, sew the cut up with your needle and thread. Then wipe it with gel and place a bandage. Just like new.

The early stages feel very "medical": healing wounds, excising tumors, removing foreign objects. As the game progresses, however, the challenges begin to feel more arcade-like. A few puzzles, and abundant use of the laser to fight disease, make it clear that the designers ran short on "medical" ideas after a while. 

The graphics are, thankfully, unrealistic. The characters are all hand-drawn in anime style. The bodies and vital organs are rendered in three dimensions in soft, muted tones. There is little to no blood, and nobody ever dies. If a player fails a mission, a senior doctor simply takes over. Overall the game looks very nice.

Despite the few downfalls, Trauma Center Second Opinion is absolutely a game worth playing. It provides a surprisingly developed story with fun game mechanics that offer a glimpse of what is possible on the Wii. Hopefully, this game will usher in a new generation of medical simulators.

Bottom line? Rent it before buying it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Very Happy X-FILES Halloween

December 1998. The Great Lakes Mall. While working at Electronics Boutique – back before it was GameStop or, even, EB Games – and forced to wait, as usual, for the punctuality-challenged manager to roll his ass out of bed, I was stuck on a bench in front of the store, surrounded by Christmas sale signs and decorations and the ubiquitous mall walkers (who, incidentally, like all of their elderly brethren, never ceased to stop staring at a scruffy, long-haired kid). It was a frustrating experience, compounded by the persistent tardiness of those who called themselves my bosses, but, while waiting there, stuck in that environment, something happened. Irritation dissolved into… something else. Wonderment. Appreciation. Contentment.

You see, contrary to popular belief, fall is the most wonderful time of the year. Changing leaves, the smell of the air, the hints of Christmas and beautiful snow landscapes just around the corner – it’s a wonderful, magical time.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that fall is the most holiday-saturated period of the year; it’s a celebratory condensing of epic proportions. Chief among these, before the anniversary of my wife’s and my first date, before, even, my birthday, is Halloween, that mischievous and mysterious day on which children dress up as adults and adults act like kids. It's always been my favorite holiday – well, it’s just behind Christmas, to have full candor – and it’s one that my wife and I have always looked forward to celebrating (except for the year we lived in Japan; the only celebrations to be had there, beyond some generic store sales, were in the form of a bunch of gaijin getting drunk while riding the various subway lines of Osaka [and getting hauled off by the police]).

The only problem with Halloween, in specific, and fall, in general, is… well, it goes by too quickly. One waits some nine or ten months to start the festivities – only to have it shoot by in the blink of an eye. It’s the quintessential dilemma of the human condition: to be aware of the passage of time, and to be aware that our awareness of it affects the dynamics of its speed.

The lamentation of the season passing so quickly was one that I made year after year, and, indeed, was one that I was in the process of muttering back in 1998. But that year, sitting there alone and cursing my outcast state on that cheap mall bench, I was forced – just for a few minutes – to just sit, to simply stop. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be. I just was. And as the Christmas music seeped into my subconscious, a realization bubbled up. I started to smile. I was at peace. Call it a seasonal zatori.

It was a magical moment.

And it’s one that I’ve endeavored to faithfully recreate every year since. That was the first Christmas that I was acutely conscious of contemplating, enjoying, experiencing. It’s a lesson that I’ve tried to apply to other aspects of my life, most especially other occasions – holidays, weddings, gatherings of any sort or stripe. As my good friend from Australia is wont to say, it’s the moments of our lives that matter the most, for, at the end of the day, it’s all that we have left.

Which turns the wheel back to Halloween, my (second) favorite day of the year. And another period which seems to rocket by without much time to pause, to reflect, to enjoy. Five years ago, I decided to fix that, to force myself to sit back in that bench and to let the environment, the sights and sounds, smells and wonders, seep into my psyche. I also decided that I would use the opportunity to honor one of the most important stories in my life, one of the pieces of artwork that has touched me the most profoundly on a personal level and shaped my sensibilities on a professional one.

This is how the X-Files Halloween marathon started. Every year, starting on 10.13 (“I made this!”) and running for nine consecutive nights, we watch one episode from one season of the series (the first night’s episode is from the first season; the second night’s, from the second season; etc.), specially selected by yours truly based on considerations of story, atmospherics, isolation from the show’s overarching mythology – there are a number of people who come to the marathon every year that have never seen The X-Files or, at the very least, have never seen the whole story through – and, of course, scare factor.

Is it silly? Sure. Is it nerdy? Definitely yes (in fact, one of this year’s guests insists on referring to it as Dorkfest 2008). But it’s also fun, and a great excuse to have friends and family over for nine nights in a row, wearing costumes and eating candy and enjoying one another’s company. It’s also a great way to sneak some clever writing and wonderful production values down the throats of those who have never before experienced the joy that is Chris Carter.

This year’s marathon starts tonight at 8:00 and, just in case you’re curious, I’m providing the full selection of episodes below. Feel free to join along at home or to furnish your own selection of Halloween-worthy material; either way, just sit and be. Make a moment of it.

In the end, it’s all that we’ll have left.


Monday, October 13th: "Miracle Man"

Tuesday, October 14th: "Fearful Symmetry"

Wednesday, October 15th: "Jose Chung’s 'From Outer Space'

Thursday, October 16th: "Kaddish"

Friday, October 17th: "The Post-modern Prometheus"

Saturday, October 18th: "Field Trip"

Sunday, October 19th: "The Amazing Maleeni"

Monday, October 20th: "Redrum"

Tuesday, October 21st: "John Doe"

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Big Read

The Big Read is a project of the National Endowment of the Arts. The idea is to promote reading, through community libraries around the country. You can check the NEA/Big Read website to get more information and find out if your local library is taking part.

I guess it’s obvious that I’m a reader, especially given my choice of careers. As a Librarian I’m fortunate to have access to many of the books which are included in the Big Read list. Most of them are the classics that you would expect, but sadly are the titles which often sit on our shelves unless a teacher assigns them. Personally, I haven’t read as many of them as I probably should have, but am going to try to get to a few more in the next year.

Here in Orange we have about a dozen of the book/CD sets that were produced as part of the NEA program. I picked up two of the CDs at the American Library Association convention a couple of months ago. I’ve enjoyed listening to them and recommend that you might want to check them out, even if you don’t read the book. The CDs will give you some insight into the author, a little background on the history of the book and a few minutes of the actual book read by professional actors.

The two I have are FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury and THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett. I read both books years ago, and have seen the films based on them as well. Bradbury, himself, is interviewed on the CD and several authors discuss the influence the book had on them. The Hammett program features interviews with mystery writers and discusses the most famous film adaptation with Bogart, also.
If you ever intend on reading some of these books, or would just like to know more about them, I highly recommend the series. Check it out!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Beanworld Returns!

This weekend I went to the Small Press Expo in Maryland. I had a great time and took a few photos. One of the big excitements of the convention was seeing Larry Marder and finding out that he will be continuing Beanworld for the foreseeable future. Here is a picture of Larry Marder holding a sketch he drew for me. Beanworld is one of my favorite series of all time. It is a series for all ages and is absolutely delightful. Dark Horse is bringing out a collection and a new winter special. They are listed in this month's Previews. You should run out an reserve your copies right now. There is a new Beanworld story available online right now! This series is unlike anything else and is just a load of fun. Yes, I did pick up some Beanworld action figures at the convention. I remember getting some from Eclipse years ago and they are the absolutely most hilarious idea of all time. You can see a picture of them in the Sept. 27 entry on Larry Marder's blog.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Metal Gear Solid 4

If you've never played any Metal Gear Solid titles before this one, or if you just sampled a small morsel of the series, this game runs an incredibly high risk of tempting you to viciously spear your expensive DualShock 3 into your even more expensive PS3. And though that will considerably lower your electric bill, you might find yourself spending even more money for therapy soon thereafter. You will shake your fists and bellow at all the reviewers who drooled slobbery praise over this game and convinced you, an MGS dabbler, to purchase it.

There's a good reason for this. MGS is a series that has a dense and intricate story line that is intertwined throughout every iteration, and MGS 4 is the culmination of all the story lines, the One Sequel To Rule Them All. As such, this game was uncompromisingly crafted for MGS fans seeking closure and makes no effort to sacrifice this finality in a belated effort to attract new fans.

Imagine watching The Return of the King on the basis of it having won 11 Oscars - without actually having watched the other two LOTR films beforehand. That's pretty much how it is with this game. Sometimes a sequel is masterful not because it can stand alone, but because it completes a familiar fictional universe and your experience of it in ways that go above and beyond the call of duty.

Overall, the gameplay elements have been evolved magnificently. You can do, see, shoot, and sneak more than ever before. But even in this wealth of improvement, some things in particular stand out:

The guards, human and otherwise, have gotten much, much smarter (finally) and have formidable eyesight (finally). If you thought the new completely maneuverable camera would make intrusion too easy, think again. In earlier games, the fixed camera was compensated for by guards who, though not unintelligent, couldn't see farther than their own gun point. The new and improved guards not only work in squad synchronicity, but are blessed with much better senses, including a keen sense of smell. Did you hear that? They can smell you.

The fact you can choose sides in a shootout to exploit the situation gives the game a glorious amount of tactical elbow room. You can choose to ignore the conflicts, of course, but choosing sides makes some sections easier at the expense of making some sections more difficult. But above all, being encouraged to be a rabble-rouser of the worst kind is too hard to turn down. Deliberately making a mess of an already messy firefight is just too much fun to be legal, no matter how virtual it is.

SIXAXIS motion controls are for the most part gimmicky and extremely limited. Having only played a little of MGS4 in a local EBGames, I can say that I haven't spent a terrible amount of time with it, though. They're never mentioned in the manual either, leaving you to sleuth out if they even exist. You can tilt your controller to gently peek out from under a dumpster lid, shake to "clear" your octocamo and, supposedly, shake it to wake yourself up. In regards to this latter function, however, I've swung the controller around in every which way I could imagine (short of tying it to a string and swinging it around my head) and it didn't seem to make a difference.

It annoys me as well that Metal Gear has finally succumbed to the aggravating Light Fixture Anomaly, in which any source of light that is covered by a rudimentary grate or pane of glass is inexplicably invulnerable to projectiles of any kind. In a game where the mere act of walking runs the risk of shattering a clay vase or beer bottle, and car windows can be obliterated by a tranquilizer dart, I demand that a street lamp should snuff if I shoot it.

The amount of mandatory gameplay is fairly small, which is compounded by the length of the cutscenes. If you are a savvy gamer and are good at rushing economically through a level, you will at times find yourself wondering why the gameplay in-between the cut scenes is so short.
I heard there are 90 minutes of cut-scenes. MGS has always been infamous for its long cutscenes, but don’t worry. I’m sure you won’t end up watching a feature length film in the middle of your gameplay. *cough*

I'll give you a bottom line: if you haven't played all the MGS games before this one, don't play it. You'll be doing yourself and this game a great disservice. If you played some MGS games and could never get into them, stay away from this one, because it will not give you a change of heart. But if you have played MGS, then this game will be fun.

And just to be clear, I’m not telling anyone to go buy a PS3 just for this game. It’s not worth it when there isn’t anything else worth playing on the console.


Bottom line? Rent it.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Most Overrated Game (Of All Time)

Halo. Everyone is familiar with this gaming phenomenon, and everyone seems to have nothing but praise for this apparently revolutionary shooter. It sells as if it had been forged by a limitless supply of solid gold and was blessed by the Pope himself. Master Chief has been carried up the sacred mountain of gaming by the critical community on perfect 10’s to stand alongside other and better legends like Link, Mario, and Sonic.


Halo is the most overrated and undeserving game series of all time.

Maybe it's because when I had heard that Microsoft was going to make a video game console, a significant portion of my heart turned black, never to regain its former luster. A computer company sticking with computers?—isn’t that just a old-fashioned concept? Maybe because the game is more mainstream than My Little Pony, and my games-are-art streak simply can’t handle that. Maybe that’s why I just can’t seem to bask in the alleged "glorious" Halo.

Or maybe it's because the game is more unbalanced than a cross-eyed toddler, offers no distinguishing features that separate it from the universes and capabilities of any other FPS (First Person Shooter for you n00bs), has a completely generic and unrewarding single player campaign, and boasts the most annoying and repulsive online community the world has ever seen.

Let me address some of the backlash I can already hear coming:

"Yeah, the single player isn't all that, but it's a multiplayer game and the multiplayer i5 4\/\/3z0/\/\3! XBOX Live roxs!”

First off, if it's a multiplayer game, then why did they bother with a single player campaign? Secondly, if the single player is mediocre at best, then why is the game getting perfect 10s!?

There's nothing innovative in Halo. Anything that Halo feels proud of has been done before, and often better. Dual wielding? Goldeneye 007 did it in special circumstances, and Perfect Dark did it standard. Master Chief? The whole taciturn hero thing has been done many times before with more memorable and interesting characters, and the only thing that keeps Master Chief from looking like every other space marine from Starcraft to Warhammer 40,000 is the fact that his power suit boasts a helmet with a cute little brim over the visor. Mixing up elements from previous distinguished games and then failing to improve these elements in any significant fashion does not make a game innovative.

I mean, really, what about Halo gameplay is so new and different? The weapons, though interesting designs, are never implemented in ways that are interesting or useful.

This brings me to the problem of game balance, which for me was the fatal flaw in Halo. After having played it a while back at my brother’s house, I came to realize that I wasn't losing so horrifically because I was a bad tactician or bad at shooters. I was losing for two reasons: 1) Somebody had a sniper rifle, and 2) bad respawns. Good Lord, does this series have some awful respawns! You don't even get a single measly second of invincibility to compensate for being placed right in death's merry path.

I remember playing Halo, dying, and then remaining out of the game for the next twenty seconds as I died six times in a row without being able to take more than three steps. Of course, the respawns wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the blasted sniper rifles. If you've ever played Halo, you know how good the sniper rifles are. They're supposed to be ineffective at close range, but we all know that's a fib. Unlike any other good FPS, any weapon in Halo that isn't a sniper rifle, sticky grenade, or beam sword is worthless. Until you get your hands on any one of those three weapons, you might as well be running around furiously blowing bubbles.

The sniper rifle has absolutely no mitigating factors. Sniper rifles are supposed to bestow the benefits of long range and precision accuracy in exchange for high recoil, low rates of fire, small magazines, longer reload times, and complete uselessness at short range and in tight spaces.

Because of these facts, Halo's sniper rifle can be shot while running, jumping, or falling out of a vehicle from deadly heights, and in any of those situations can be fired at full zoom without suffering any penalty to accuracy. You could be spinning like a top and the bullets you fire will still go directly to the spot your crosshairs were pointing at the moment you pulled the trigger. These bullets can also ricochet twice and still have enough killing power for a one-hit kill.

Halo-Halo 3 are broken, and yet they still garner incredible critical acclaim. What they see in the Halo series, I have no idea. I don't need overpowered weapons blowing away heads made of cotton candy to make myself feel like a gamer.

Bottom line? Don’t buy. Don’t rent. Don't even look at it.

Being True vs. Being Right

Characters are funny things. I think just about any writer will tell you that there have been times when a character took on a life of his own and refused to do the things the writer planned. As the character develops, his personality develops until when the writer gets to the point where Harriet is supposed to marry Peter, the writer realizes that there is no way in hell Harriet would do such a thing. And then she has to write a half dozen more novels worth of character development to get them both down the aisle.

It's rewarding when this happens, because it means that the character has become more like a real person than simply a cardboard puppet for the author to manipulate; and that means that the character and the things that happen to him are more likely to be meaningful to the reader.

When my characters are obstinate and refuse to follow my elegantly-constructed plots, I generally let them have their head and adjust my story accordingly. I've got plenty of practice doing this running RPG's with my wife.

But sometimes I come across a related problem. What do you do when your character has opinions and beliefs that differ greatly from your own?

Usually it's not that big a deal. It's a common situation, after all. Imagining what it would be like to be a person other than yourself is pretty much a prerequisite for being any kind of a writer. If a character of mine has different political views or religious beliefs or moral outlook than my own, we can agree to disagree for the space of the story.

I will admit that sometimes I am not above mocking such a character and use my perogative as author to poke fun at his misconceptions. The biggest temptation of all is to convert the characters. Robert Heinlein once said that there were only three basic plots in fiction, one of which being "The Man Who Learned Better." Growth of understanding is what character development is all about; and what better way to develop the character than to have the story be about how the character learns that his former opinions were wrong and comes around to the Author's way of thinking.

Except... when you put it that way... Gee, that sounds awfully egotistical. And worse yet, it reduces the character back to being the cardboard puppet again, dancing for the author's amusement.

I'm not saying it can't be done, but to do it right, the writer needs to show the character's conversion developing naturally out of the character.

Arthur Conan Doyle was an ardent believer in Spiritualism, and once wrote a story in which his character the bombastic Professor Challenger has a dramatic encounter with the ghost of a former assistant which converts him to a belief in the afterlife. Doyle wrote no such story about Sherlock Holmes, in which the Great Detective renounces his skepticism about the supernatural. It would have out of character for him; it would have seemed contrived; it would have seemed false.

I was once is a similar situation many years ago. I was playing a character in a Victorian Era monster hunting game named J. Hamish Broadstead who was an arch-skeptic. He completely rejected the supernatural and had made it his life's mission to debunk fraudulent mediums. He was your stereotypical late-Victorian scientific materialist, and I admit, I played him as a pompous buffoon. After all, since there really were vampires and ghosts and such creatures in the campaign, his obstinate refusal to see this was a running gag.

I decided to draw a comic book "origin story" for my skeptic, explaining how he became so obsessive about debunking the supernatural. I framed it as a dream in which he is guided through his past by another of the characters, who was loosley based on the Phantom Stranger. ( "This isn't going to be like that wretched Dickens Christmas story, is it?" "I'm afraid so, Professor." "Can't stand Dickens. Always taking legitimate social concerns and sentimentalizing them." )

So, I had Broadstead's spirit guide show him selected scenes from his youth culminating in an incident where as a young man he exposes a fraudulent medium at a senance and the shock of the revelation causes his sickly, invalid sister to fall into a swoon. She dies shortly afterwards, and Broadstead blames the charlatan. Secretly, though, he harbors guilt at the thought that had he not unmasked the fraud, his sister might still be alive.

At that point in the story, I realized I needed to come up with some kind of resolution. There had to be some reason for Broadstead to relive his tragic past. I needed Broadstead to find Redemption.

Except...

I couldn't buy it. It just didn't seem right for Broadstead. I'm a Christian, and Redmption and Forgiveness are a big deal for me; but Broadstead was an athiest. Given his background and his personality, I could not picture him having a religious experience; it would not ring true. Even if he ever did have such an experience, he would almost certainly interpret it in purely materialistic terms.

So how would I respect Broadstead's character without seeming to validate a world-view I disagree with? How can I be right and stay true at the same time?

In this particular story, I had the spirit guide offer Broadstead the chance to speak with the ghost of his sister and resolve their issues. Her ghost appears behind him, arms outstretched and beckoning to him. But Broadstead banishes her with a grumpy "Poppycock!" without ever seeing she was there. He doesn't need anybody's help and he is perfectly capable of dealing with his own guilt issues by himself, thank you. Besides, if there is an afterlife -- which he does not for a moment concede -- then his sister certainly has better things to do than to come back here. To the end, Broadstead remains proud and self-sufficient and true to his personal philosophy and code. And yet... his sister was there, if only he would see her. And the story ends with him standing quitely by her grave. Praying? Pondering? Only he and God knows.

I'm not exactly sure if I succeeded in striking the balance I wanted in that story. I thought it worked pretty well at the time, and had some nice bits of dialogue; but in summarizing the plot, it seems rather weak. Sometimes a story works, sometimes it doesn't.

I'm in a similar situation again; I'm working on a story in which the central character is going through a crisis of faith. But I have to work out exactly what the character believes and how that will change through the challenge he's undergoing -- without being able to use my own beliefs. Having him convert to Lutheranism would just be too improbable, even if I could work a character into the story who could explain Justification by Faith to him.

No, I have to be true to the character; otherwise he'll come off as phoney. I have to find what aspects of my own beliefs he would understand and be open to, so that what he comes to believe flows and develops from who he is and what he knows.

This is the story I should be working on instead of writing this.

Ah well. Chewing through the problem has given me a couple ideas; and I'll work on it some more.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

GAME INFORMER + EGM = Katie Couric/Sarah Palin Interview

Okay. That’s it. Game over. I’ve had enough.

Videogame journalists are a particular breed, typically caught in a twilight world of quasi-professionalism and trapped-in-mom’s-basement-nerdom. Their writing is so full of off-the-cuff, give-me-five-my-man jokes, opinion-passed-as-matter-of-fact fact, and self-referential innuendo that many of their articles, previews, features, and reviews read like glorified fan fiction – which, in actuality, is what most of it amounts to (since most fans don’t seem to have the foggiest inkling of what the properties they devote so much of their time and energy to actually consist of; see the so-called Star WarsExpanded Universe” for more than ample proof of this).

Okay, call me old-fashioned. Call me stodgy, a product of formal English training. (Indeed, writing this article in the first person is sending chills down my spine. Oh, what would Dr. Prescott think?) But a more informal, even, perhaps, colloquial, style isn’t a damaging element and does not elicit an automatic, derogatory roll of the eyes.

But having one’s head up one’s ass does, however.

In a too-perfect-to-pas-up example, the September issue (number 185) of Game Informer – y'know, the one where "The Top 25 Games from E3 '08 Revealed" is boldly proclaimed across the top of the cover, in (stereo)typical comic book fashion – features a brief write-up of Halo Wars, the real-time strategy spinoff to the extremely popular first-person shooter series. The entry’s first paragraph concludes with this gem of an observation:

“If we’re lucky, this prequel to the trilogy may make [developer] Bungie’s convoluted story make some sense.”

While excellent examples of solid and fun gameplay, particularly on the multiplayer side of things, using the words “convoluted” and “story” in regards to the Halo games is like applying “competent” and “legal” to the Bush Administration: it just ain’t accurate. In fact, it goes well beyond the territory of asinine and very rapidly approaches the border of insanity.

Convoluted? Halo? What passes for a story in the games is lifted wholesale from Aliens, a movie not graced with a compelling, well-executed narrative, to put it gently. Indeed, the Halo trilogy rarely rises above the repetition that makes up the bulk of its (single-player) experience: point, shoot, point, shoot. It has as much soul as schlock such as Braveheart or Elf, films that are direct products of the formulaic mass production system that is collectively known as Hollywood (why does Zooey Deschanel fall in love with Will Ferril? Not because it makes story sense or is consistent with her character – it’s because she’s supposed to, stupid. Now stop asking questions that have anything to do with the reality of the situation and get back to suspending your disbelief). And when Bungie did try to infuse the paper-thin narrative with just a hint of some desperately needed depth, the fan community rallied about “poor writing” or a “confusing story,” as a simple Google of Halo 2 more than readily indicates.

Convolution – real convolution, not the half-baked, masturbatory kind – can be found in the narrative structure of Oshii Mamoru’s films or the writing style of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Or in the Metal Gear Solid series, if we must remain in the realm of gaming. But Halo? Yeah – James Cameron, at least the sci-fi version that is evidenced in fare such as Terminator and Aliens, is a real master of nuanced, multi-layered depth.

If made in an academic setting, the author would’ve been laughed out of the room and the publication tainted. And, indeed, if the author were truly professional, making an irrelevant and unwarranted reference to the story of a different, albeit related, game series – and this is ignoring the fact that it was a patently erroneous irrelevant reference – would never have been seriously entertained.

But why? Why would an individual who clearly has no basic understanding of the writing process, in general, or narrative structure, in specific, feel free to speak off-the-cuff about the plots or thematic motifs of game writing? And why would an EIC allow him to do so?

Dan “Shoe” Hsu, the former captain of EGM, thinks he has the answer. In his new blog, he says:

Why the bullshit, though? Is it that hard to stay clean and honest in this business? I guess I can understand how someone can get into a compromised position. It’s not like our industry’s made up of ex-New York Times reporters and journalism grads (not counting a few folks here and there, like our own Crispin Boyer). A lot of game journalists (like me) didn’t come from any sort of journalism background; we didn’t necessarily get the proper training or influences up front. So I can see how that inexperience or lack of guidance can sometimes lead to less-than-stellar ethics. Sometimes, people just don’t know any better.

And while Hsu’s hypothesis leans more towards the ethical bent, it still serves our purposes here. Why no professional behavior from the professionals? Because they’re not professional!

But the situation is more serious than that; the mentality that breeds this near-nonstop stream of jejune prattle is endemic to our very popular culture. Stupid is chic; snarky is tops; sarcasm is as basic as oxygen. And gaming, being the youngest and the most fragile of the various art forms – and, therefore, the most eager to find acceptance in (American) society-at-large – is oftentimes the biggest culprit in this bastardization. Pick up any game magazine and look at the captions that grace a screenshot of an upcoming title. Information about a game’s features or technical abilities? Iffy. A definitely-trying-too-hard-to-fit-the-Adult-Swim-uber-cool-factor joke? Almost a universal certainty.

It’s not by coincidence that I quote Hsu; EGM is perhaps the most serious, and easily the most consistent, offender in this category. Its too-perfect-to-pass up example: in the publication’s E3 ’06 issue (it’s always about the Electronic Entertainment Expo, isn’t it?), “journalist” Mark Reynolds writes of Silicon Knights’s much-maligned, and recently released, Too Human, “In its current state, I wouldn’t show Too Human in a high school science fair, much less the world’s most important gaming show.”

But wait – it gets better. Reynolds actually defends his oh-so-clever stab at a witticism when SK president Denis Dyack later stopped by as a guest on EGM Live, the mag’s podcast (which is infinitely worse than its print cousin, thanks single-handedly to the obnoxious drivel and draining intellect of Jennifer Tsao, one of EGM’s editors and the show’s host). “I’m talking to the reader like I’m talking to my friend,” he initially offers, followed shortly thereafter by:

C’mon, it’s making a point. It’s an obvious exaggeration to make a point. I’m a writer; at the end of the day, I gotta make something that people are gonna want to read.

Indeed. And that’s exactly the problem, on more levels than one.

Dyack thinks that the gaming press isn’t critical enough. I think they’re not intelligent enough. How, after all, can you have the former without first possessing the latter?

But, then, if videogame journalists never dabbled in areas in which they were completely over their heads, we would have no videogame journalists to politely ask to stick their feet in their mouths. Straying from one’s area of expertise (if, indeed, the person in question even has [a relevant] one), making a condescending comment, or offering a pop-culture-saturated zinger are the bread and butter of gaming magazines, websites, and blogs. Throw in a dash of pretentious and jejune self-aggrandizement, and you’ve got the forums that crop up like cancer all over the world wide nets, egging them on.

And trapped in the crossfire is the gamer, an individual who wants news and information – and, yes, the well-informed and -constructed opinions and editorials of the industry at large – and the entire medium itself, which desperately needs any and all sophistication and professionalism to propel it down the road of further maturation and mainstream recognition.

Oh, well. Until then, I’ll stick to Time.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What happened to my MMORPG?

Frankly, anything that has a title so long that it has to be shortened like that is rather scary. I mean…the shortened version is almost as long as the regular version. So, what is happening with the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG for medium)?

They suck. That’s what’s happening. Stay with me folks. Most MMORPGs out there today suck. They’ll claim they don’t suck, but they do. They will also claim they have come a long way, but they haven’t, really.

Now, I don’t mind MMOGs, don’t get me wrong. It’s the MMORPGs that are just…wrong. But what exactly is wrong? Let’s start anywhere, anywhere at all…oh, how about magic? Magic systems in use in most fantasy-themed MMORPGs today are by and large the same magic systems pioneered by D&D games nearly two decades ago. There are flashier, prettier, and have some bells and whistles added on the side, but the way magic affects the characters and players within the games has remained exactly the same - it seems game developers have read a single fantasy book and never bothered with another one. Magic is offensive, defensive or utilitarian (make my rusty kettle shiny again). It's usually bound to a single magic meter of some kind (I wonder if Gandalf the Grey had one), and it doesn't interact with the environment.

Fire bolts fly into dry brush without so much as a spark and ice bolts leave green grass unperturbed. No one seems to want to bother to really explore things like complex interactions of multiple spells, creative ways of using defensive spells offensively and vice versa. No one is considering the possibility of using that shiny kettle spell on your shield to reflect fire bolts. No one is considering what actual sources of magic (other than the stupid MP bar!) it might be interesting to represent. How about directly using the environment to source magic power? Like drawing magic power for water related spells from lakes and streams, fire related spells from lava rocks and the sun, air spells from windy gullies…

How about we look at questing? The thing that is commonly referred to as “quests” in modern day MMORPGs is a shame upon the true meaning of the word. When exactly did running between towns carrying useless objects between useless NPCs has come to be known as a quest? That is a $3 an hour job for bicycled teenagers, not a quest. Neither is killing rabbits by the hundreds, or wolves by the dozen. No, not even Charr. Not a quest. Sorry.

What is a quest? A quest is an involved, perilous, unique adventure; an adventure, mind you, that is usually undertaken by a character because it is part of his own story, his place in the world, his belief system. NOT because he needs that 70 platinum for a new piece of armor he is saving up for. It's no wonder that so many of the older, more mature gaming demographic never stick with an MMORPG for too long: a world that defines your place in it by assigning you deliveries is not exactly something that people who look for more than just “hack and slash” in their gaming experience want to keep coming back to. World of Warcraft made a very tiny, but ultimately important step in the right direction in the area of questing - but very, very much more is truly needed.

Though, I am reminded of a story about how two people were going to have their wedding on WOW. Seems that a bunch of people who played orcs or goblins got wind of the wedding. While the ceremony was taking place, they trashed the wedding and killed everyone.

I really wish I could have seen that.

The fact of the matter is, proper “questing” could be implemented in any current MMORPGs without so much as a new line of code - all it would take is a dedicated, motivated community of players coupled with a little visionary leadership from those running the game. Literature is chock full wonderful adventures, intrigue, and mystery - core components of a true quest. I don’t want any more “trading sequences” in games.

The examination of the questing problem in particular leads us to a useful generalization, which is that the problems with the current batch of massively multiplayer RPGs lie with the very factors that are supposed to make MMOGs such a unique genre - massive-multiplayerism (this is now a word) and world persistence. Many of these games make such poor use of the massively multi-player aspect, they become, from the player interaction point of view, little more than glorified chat rooms augmented with rudimentary combat and item exchange. To make things worse, even this benefit usually comes at the price of greatly dumbed down gameplay mechanics as compared to most single-player PC RPGs. As a result, most serious RPG fans are better off with just a regular role-playing game.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

He has answered your question, and yes, he is Gay...

Clay is gay , Others are as well

It might seem odd that a site that is about the foundations of popular culture, through myth and arts and politics, and the like would discuss the announcement that a singer of some popularity is gay. Clay Aiken is gay. He announced it in an interview and all the hounds that have been chasing him can now search for another target. It is news in that by announcing that he is gay another popular culture figure comes from a world unlike the center, the mass of culture. But that doesn't change his voice, his views, his value does it? No. Whatever made him able to sing so well prior will continue. Will he be able to play the role of a macho male in a film with violence and testosterone supreme? Well no, probably not, but he really couldn't prior. However, many people who are GLBTI can cross many boundaries and do many things. It shouldn't be a surprise.

But the point here is two things, one it is news. That suggests that people from different sexual or gender orientation are outside of the mainstream in the mainstream's views. Rightly or wrongly, that is. Whatever the mainstream thinks is not necessarily truth, say for instance when the normative behavior in Nazi run Germany was to serve and participate in government, the military and the general society well knowing that Jews were hated, and that is not a normal moral behavior. Mainstream does not mean correct, it means felt or thought by many.

Secondly, we exist in a world that is moving beyond the past considerations of normal. I am not a fan of Clay Aiken's music, but to suggest that he is anything but wildly talented is foolish. He could very well continue to sell millions of CDs despite what used to be considered a career killer. He can thank others who walked in his steps before him, but it nonetheless required courage to step out of the darkness of privacy and secrecy and into the bright lights of society.

I am not saying anything about the morality of Clay Aiken, because in my mind morality is about decision making, and sexual orientation is about who we are drawn towards and romantically love. Far too many people do not understand that human quotient, that when it is boiled down, we are talking about a private, and heartfelt aspect of humanity. When Clay Aiken chose to evade prior questions about his sexuality he said that it was a private matter and a question that at its root is rude to ask. I agree.

So let us move forward. Next question?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Discomfort of Art




I was told the other day by someone of respectably high intellect that they didn’t approve of a great deal of modern art because it was impossible to enjoy. They cited the National Endowment of the Arts as being a force in changing art from pleasure to self indulgence. Which led me to question their political values, not aesthetic values. You see, I understand the argument the person was making, that if the art work cannot be enjoyed it is not something that should be called “art”. But I disagree with that. I believe art should make you uncomfortable if that is the desire of the artist. I believe art should comfort you if that is the desire of the artist. Art, especially of the past century and current one, has drawn all the lovely flowers there are to draw. The lovely children and lovable clowns are all painted to near delirium. But Guernica by Pablo Picasso captured an event in emotion. People looking at it were unlikely to think it beautiful but couldn’t stop looking for the pain and horror it presented. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ struck a chord in people as a work that both could be an argument that the artist was mocking Christians and mocking their symbol by submerging it in urine, or served a greater purpose in creating a work of art that merged both the event that Christians remember as being paramount, and placing it in a container filled with waste, which is certainly how many non-Christians treat the crucifixion. You can ask yourself which concept you think the artist is suggesting, but my point with both works, is that by getting people to think rather than just admire or be mentally soothed, some art serves a greater purpose. I will return to this theme soon, but it won’t be limited to the visual arts. In what way can music express bad things and still be good for the soul? How can we hold in our hearts anger and express that and it is good? All will be revealed, but for now just remember that while art is all about the intent of the artist, you can of course still enjoy works for whatever strikes your tastes without a shred of worry.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The monthly share your favorite club challenge thingy

Alex's Thursday post on favorite movies got me thinking. I often share the names of favorite movies, songs and books on different sites and blogs, and I read other people's lists, but it is rare that I actually do something with what I read. How would you feel about a movie-book-music club-challenge-thingy? We would agree that at the beginning of each month, we would post recommending a movie, book and/or song that we want the others to watch, read or listen to, and then post our responses to them as comments to the original post. The only rules are: no spoilers in the original recommendation post, only a recommendation with a few personal reasons; post the recommendations around the 1st of the month; and try to pick something you think people won't have seen, read or heard, or haven't seen, read or heard for some time.

What do you think?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Well we asked for your favorite music, how about movies?


What film inspires you? What film makes you cry? What film makes you feel rowdy? What film allows you to work with it in the background?

For me my list is very flexible, I have numbers just because this is how it poured out of my brain, but I would say the first three especially are accurate.

I like stories about the growth in human courage and hope. I like big angry monsters. I love human intrigue and relationships that aren't sappy crap. There are films on my list that function as comfort food when I am sad, or lift my spirits when I am tired. There are silly films, and nostalgic ones. What are on your list?

1. Shichinin no samurai (1954)
2. Amadeus (1984)
3. Excalibur (1981)
4. From Here to Eternity (1953)
5. Blade Runner (DIRECTOR’S CUT) (1992)
6. Where Eagles Dare (1969)
7. The Mummy (1932)
8. The Crying Game (1992)
9. Gladiator (2000)
10. Last Man Standing (1996)
11. Black Rose, The (1950)
12. M (1931)
13. King Kong (1933)
14. A Christmas Story (1983)
15. Alien (1979)
16. Say Anything (1989)
17. Metropolis (1927)
18. Gojira (1954)
19. King Kong vs Godzilla (1963)
20. Das Boot (1981)
21. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
22. The Misfits (1961)
23. Soylent Green (1973)
24. Andromeda Strain (1969)
25. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

What is it about that girl?

You know who I'm talking about.

Hannah Montana. I'd say she qualifies as "popular culture" right now. What is it that makes people go crazy over her? Why must her face be plastered on EVERY OTHER THING in Wal-Mart? I'm serious, people, she's everywhere. And the only reason is because of her father! She sings okay, but not enough to have her face on everything! Okay...before this turns into a rant, let's get started....

Why is she so popular? I asked myself this profound (sure, Brynna) question while stocking some of her wigs/purses/jeans/skirts the other night at good ol' Wally World.

And I think I know the answer. Well, at least part of it anyway.

The whole premise behind the Hannah Montana show is that Miley Cyrus has this "secret star life" where she's this great singer. I've never actually seen the show myself, but I know the basics. No one knows she's Hannah. She's just Miley at home.

And that's the beauty of the idea. That's why it works so well. That's why girls from -9 to 15 love her.

She has a secret life. Where she's this famous person. Who wouldn't want that? In every girl's mind, she wants to have a secret life like Miley Cyrus. Where they are famous and loved. Instead of the same old stuff everyday.

But a deeper thing is also in Hannah Montana. I know, I just used the word "deep" to describe a part of a show on the Disney Channel....wow. Anyway, the deeper thing is this.

Almost everyone has a secret life. The stuff you don't tell anyone. The stuff you want to keep to yourself because you're either embarrassed about or people won't understand why you like to do certain things (mundanes anyone?). So, Hannah relates to the teens who have that "secret" lifestyle.

What do you guys think?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Mighty Mythopoeic Manner

Recently I read an essay by C.S. Lewis on the 19th Century fantasy writer George MacDonald. Lewis was a great admirer of MacDonald’s and was deeply influenced by him. He said that reading MacDonald’s Phantasies as a young man “baptized my imagination”.

“I have never concealed the fact that I regard MacDonald as my master, indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”

But Lewis also admits, somewhat defensively, that MacDonald is not a terribly good writer.

“If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank -- perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic, acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling.”

Literary critics have made the same charge against Lewis’ friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, and against Lewis himself and against many authors of fantasy: “Yes, but they’re not good writers!”

(If you want to start a fight some time, just mention Harry Potter in a room full of lit teachers).

To which Lewis counters, “What he [MacDonald] does best is fantasy -- fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic.”

The term “mythopoeia” comes from the Greek and refers to the process of creating myths. Tolkien was fond of the word and used it as a title of a lengthy poem he wrote to Lewis early in their friendship defending the practice of myth-making.

Lewis had a deep, abiding love of myth, especially the Germanic and Scandinavian myths that he associated with “northerness”. They contained a mysterious quality which stirred something deep inside him, something he called “Joy”. It was his own search for “Joy” and his attempts to analyze and understand it that, by his own account, led him back to Christianity.

Here, in his essay, Lewis is not just talking about inventing gods and artificial cosmologies; he uses “mythopoeia” to refer to a story which moves the audience in the same way that our ancestors, and sometimes we ourselves, are moved by a myth. To use Joseph Campbell’s phrase, it’s a modern story which conveys the Power of Myth.

“We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version -- whose words -- are we thinking when we say this?

For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of any one’s words. No poet, as far as I know or can remember has told this story supremely well. … What really delights me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all -- a mime or silent film. And I find this to be true of all such stories.”

Lewis vindicates MacDonald by raising the Plot and the inventiveness thereof over the Prose by which that plot is conveyed.

“In a myth -- in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters … any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, ‘done the trick.’ … To be sure, if the means of communication are words, it is desirable that they be well-chosen, just as ot is desirable that a letter which brings you important news should be fairly written. But this is only a minor convenience, for the letter will, in any case, go in the waste paper basket as soon as you have mastered the contents and the words … are going to be forgotten as soon as you have mastered the Myth."

He goes on with an example.

"Of this I had evidence some years ago when I first heard the story of Kafka’s Castle related in conversation and afterwards read the book for myself. The reading added nothing. I had already received the myth, which was all that mattered."

I know of writers who would object strongly to this point of view. After all, writers live by their words; ideas are a dime a dozen by the writing is what puts money on the table. And arguing Plot versus Prose completely overlooks Characterization, which in my book is just as important as the other two. But to be fair, Lewis is talking solely about Myth.

But the essay made me think about what our modern myths are:

The last son of a dying planet is sent by his parents to Earth where he uses his extraordinary powers in a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.

A child watches his parents be gunned down by a thief and vows to dedicate his life obliterating crime; and since criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, he strikes fear into them in the guise of a giant bat.

A geeky, gawky adolescent gains amazing abilities as the result of a lab accident. When his early attempts to use his abilities for personal gain leads to tragedy, he learns that with great power must also come great responsibility.

None of these stories may be great literature; but they are great myths. They lie in our cultural DNA along with Jason and Hercules and Robin Hood and Tarzan; they have a quality which resonates in our popular imagination.

Which is what good myths do.

Consider attending this convention, of popular culture



(Please click the image to read the print more easily.)

I will be there, selling works of my own, and review books that I have reviewed, and my own purchased works that I am now selling.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Assassin’s Creed

Oh Middle Ages, you were ever so fun. What with the plagues, wars, and shoddy science, it's a wonder anyone survived to tell us about the good ol' days. In the world according to Assassin's Creed ye olde times went something like this... Assassin's good, Crusaders bad, people who want power for the sake of power very bad. And so, with that premise in mind we jump into the world of death and mystery that is the Middle East: 1191 A.D.

The story of Assassin's Creed is a sort of sci-fi conspiracy tale mixed with revisionist history. While you play the game as Altair, a disgraced assassin, you are really only reliving his memories through Desmond Miles, his present-day descendant. Your job is to assassinate a particularly important Crusader, a close advisor to King Richard. Altair, being a cocky guy, saunters right up to the fellow and tries to poke him in the eye. Sadly, Mr. White-Christian-Knight-Who-Says-Ni doesn't take too kindly to this, and a fight breaks out. Returning to his master in shame, Altair is stripped of his rank and sent on nine separate missions in order to reclaim his honor.

As Altair and Desmond get closer to figuring out what exactly is going on, the story starts to draw you in, but then it spits you back out again. Violently. While your original assassination targets turn out to be rather complex individuals who may not really deserve their sudden deaths, later targets revert to being power-hungry, schizophrenic jerks who deserve what's coming to them. Also, the "modern day" storyline doesn't really pay off either, as the game ends not with a big reveal or a cliffhanger, but just a rather boring conversation and some non-helpful information. It feels like the developers were getting ready to finish the game, but just before they could get to it some well-meaning but inept intern took the disc off and it went gold before they could stop it.

Before Altair can perform his deadly duties, he must gather information on his target. You see, to an assassin knowledge is power. If you told kids that if they paid attention in school they might get to stab people in the neck for a living then you'd solve the education crisis overnight.

Info gathering includes interrogating and roughing up familiars of the person you're hunting, eavesdropping on conversations, working with informants to get juicy details, and pick-pocketing locals with valuable maps. You can also climb up really tall buildings to get a lay of the land, as well as rescue citizens from bullying guards in return for help escaping later on when you're being chased.

For the first few missions you'll be having so much fun with these tasks that you'll likely take care of every little objective dot on your map just so you can get the full experience. And then, around the fourth or fifth mission though, a sad reality will sink in: you're doing the EXACT same thing over, and over, and over again. There are no missions where you can choose one investigative path over another, and the levels play out the same way every single time. Ultimately, the game suffers one of the worst fates imaginable, as it eventually becomes just plain boring.

The title's control system is very ambitious, perhaps even too much so for its own good. Each face button controls a different body part, with your head, legs, and each arm being assigned a specific place. It sounds complicated, but it's really not too bad, and it won't take any time at all before you're squeezing through crowds, running from guards, and engaging in fancy swordfights.

Where things fall apart, however, is in the "free run" mode, especially when Altair is being chased. You see, normally you stay in "low profile," a mode in which Altair walks slowly, gently pushes people out of his way, and generally does whatever he can to keep from drawing attention to himself. As long as you are being courteous, guards are unlikely to attack you, and you can come and go pretty much as you please.

Things take a turn for the worst in "high profile," however, which is the mode which you must use to pull of Altair's attacks and more impressive acrobatic maneuvers. Things get downright impossible when you are trying to escape from a gaggle of guards and every move counts. Oftentimes as you're sprinting from danger you'll accidentally run up a wall or grab-leap onto a ledge you didn't mean to snag, costing you precious time and usually allowing soldiers to get in a few cheap shots. Ultimately, the controls are functional, but far from perfect.

Aside from the issues already mentioned, there are several more gripes to be had with this title. Firstly, the voice acting for Altair is terrible. Most of his lines are delivered in a somewhat robotic tone that make him sound either hypnotized or deeply under the influence of something. It really stands out because the rest of the voice crew does a very fine job, which begs the question of how his character could be so botched.

Bottom line? Rent. Don’t buy.

World War Z: An oral history of the Zombie War (a review)

First off, let me apologize for not posting here for several weeks. My wife and I took a cruise and then I spent the past week trying to catch up at work. I'll try to be a bit more of a familiar face around here.

I love stuff with zombies, whether in comics, film or prose fiction. It probably goes back to my childhood, growing up reading FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, and the Warren titles CREEPY & EERIE. There were also a few old B&W ‘horror’ films, like WHITE ZOMBIE that I would watch over and over when they were broadcast late at night on “Chiller Theatre”. Of course, it took Romero’s original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to really make zombies cool. By the ‘80s you could rent the Italian films by the likes of Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava in glorious color on VHS in some of the non-chain video stores, at least in NYC.

I don’t recall hearing about this book previously, but happened to come across it at Borders a couple of weeks ago. I was looking for something a bit different from the suspense thrillers & mysteries I have been reading lately. The reviews and inside blurbs use the same thing to describe the contents of this book. “Studs Terkel meets George Romero.” I’m not clever enough to come up with something different, but personally I agree with them. None of that is a slam and in fact appears to sum up exactly the flavor (pardon the expression) that Brooks was trying to provide.

The novel (for that is what it is) is comprised of the author’s notes & transcripts from ‘interviews’ conducted with those who survived the period known as the “Zombie War” or “World War Z”. The unnamed writer formerly worked for the United Nations to compile their official report on the events. Now, almost a decade later he has been given approval in using notes and information gathered, but not utilized by the authorities. Told that his work was ‘too intimate’ for inclusion, the writer attempts to document how the plague came about, how people reacted and how things have stabilized over the past decade.

Those interviewed range from a Chinese doctor, who was one of the first to encounter the victims, to former bureaucrats, military personnel and a few “businessmen” who profited one way or the other from those trying to survive or simply escape. There are also a number of ‘just plain folks’ who through luck, skill, planning or a combination of all those actually found safety in those areas where the undead could not get to them.

Brooks introduces us to dozens of individuals all of whom have their own stories to tell. Some are heroes, a few are villains (though, of course, they don’t see themselves in that way) but most were people who found their normal existence suddenly torn apart literally and figuratively by things they could not understand. He gives them all a very real set of emotions and even in the short (sometimes only a page or two) chapters you can imagine these scenes in your mind.
One of the things that Brooks does and I think quite well, is that he uses this fictitious plague to poke a finger at a number of current political and social problems. References and thinly veiled jabs at real events, corporations and media personalities are easy to pick out. In a way, Brooks, does not take sides but shows just how some of these agencies and individuals might react in a situation where they were losing control.

Two things which came to mind while reading WWZ were similarities to both the original Living Dead trilogy and to Robert Kirkman’s WALKING DEAD comic series. Brooks does not rip off either but uses his skill as a writer to show the broader implications and consequences of what events, such as occur in the two other series, would have on a worldwide basis. How would culture, business and government react and how would they attempt to regain a measure of control?

If you enjoy this book you might also want to check out Brook’s companion book, The Zombie Survival Guide, which will help you prepare for anything that might go down in the future. Finally, if reading is too much of a hassle you can wait for a film version of the novel announced for 2010 release, unless something happens between now and then, of course!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Darius Goes West

In 2007, Darius Goes West, a documentary made by a group of 12 young friends, came from nowhere to win a series of awards at film festivals nationwide. It sounded like an unlikely contender on paper, with an unknown crew and minimal funding, but its incredible heart and unbeatable energy proved to be a winning combination. Its focus was 15-year old Darius Weems, who had never left his hometown of Athens, Georgia because he was confined to a wheelchair by Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the disease that had already claimed his older brother's life. In his Freshman summer, together with 11 friends, he made a journey in an RV across the US, aiming for Los Angeles and the MTV studios, where he wanted to have his wheelchair 'pimped' on MTV's Pimp My Ride. The documentary records their journey, and doubles as an analysis of the wheelchair accessibility of the US.

Winning over audiences and juries at national and international film festivals, Darius Goes West was the most highly praised documentary of 2007. While the publicity helped with achieving their goal, that was not what the 12 young men were after: they wanted to raise money for research into a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Now in 2008, they have announced their new goal for the documentary: they want to use the DVD sales to raise $17 million for Duchenne research.

You didn't read that incorrectly: I did say $17 million. These 12 lads, who have already proven that they can make an incredible piece of cinema, are now going to prove that it can be used to make a difference in the world.

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is a genetic condition that causes the muscles to waste away. It tends to affect boys, with its onset in the first six years of their lives. It weakens the child until he needs a wheelchair, and continues to affect all the muscles. It is 100% fatal, and has been labeled the number 1 genetic killer of children in the world. The average life expectancy of a Duchenne sufferer is 20 years. At the time of writing, Darius Weems is 19, and currently on the road, promoting the DVD and this huge charity action in schools around the US.

The math is simple. A copy of Darius Goes West costs $20. In the next 12 months, the money from every single copy that is sold will be split two ways: $17 will go to Duchenne muscular dystrophy research, and $3 will go to making new DVDs. If 1 million copies can be sold, that's $17 million for Duchenne research.

This is the trailer for the documentary, which also serves as advertising for the charity action.




Darius Goes West was a labor of love, and you can see that love in every scene. This charity action is also an act of life-affirming love. Darius Weems' legacy to the world will be to have put a cure for his condition within researchers' reach. I believe they can do it.

Support: I am donating all the money I earn this week from my blog Rolling Traveler to the Darius Goes West: The Vehicle project. If you want to help, visit Rolling Traveler once a day every day between now and next Monday evening; all the traffic-generated revenue will be donated to Duchenne muscular dystrophy research.

Further links:

Scenes from Darius’ graduation ceremony intercut with scenes from the movie. Call me soft, but I have cried every time I’ve watched this.

The Graduation

The Darius Goes West Official Site

The Darius Goes West Store