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Tuesday, Oct 14, 2008

His book is the best of the lot, and so is his smile. Just look at Aravind Adiga. He’s the second youngest Man Booker Prize winner, so states the Guardian, but can we make him the first cutest? A happy man with a bright future who’s entirely unafraid to show some teeth—it’s that face that makes me want to go out and grab his book. That and his passion for his subject ... of course.


Adiga, who’s just 33, won the prize for his first novel The White Tiger, about an Indian cab driver who winds up a swindling businessman. Over at Untitled Books, Adiga fires up about his home country and the issues and injustices that led him to write the novel. Here’s a sample:


What is important for Adiga is that the stories are told. Having the advantages of education and financial security is merely ‘an extra obligation to write about people without those benefits’. Repeatedly described as angry by the press, he counters ‘there is a lot to be angry about.’ He returns again and again to the big questions of education, healthcare (hospitals are ‘mind-bogglingly bad’) and legal protection, and he has been accused of betraying his country by focusing on India’s corruption and problems. ‘I can’t see what could be more patriotic than making a passionate plea for the better treatment of two thirds of my countrymen,’ he retorts. His anxiety to protect his country is palpable and his great fear is that crime and social unrest will explode to South African proportions unless reforms are carried out.


The Mail Online has a great and detailed story about Adiga and his work. There’s a wonderful interview with the author on Book Browse, in which he discusses his influences, his career in journalism, and India’s difficult future.


And a basic Google Image search will get you more pictures of that smile.


The White Tiger is published by Free Press.


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Tuesday, Oct 14, 2008
The images used here are from a rough DVD version of Pieces found in a local bargain bin. If and when a copy of Grindhouse Releasing's version is available, an update review will be offered

Some horror movies can live solely on their carefully crafted hype. Others actually deliver the goods the studio staged ballyhoo promises. And then there is Pieces. Back in 1982, distributors desperate to continue the coattail ride started with Halloween and Friday the 13th took the Spanish splatter film Mil gritos tiene la noche (“The Night Has a Thousand Cries”, roughly), renamed it, and added the intriguing tagline “You Don’t Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre!” With a final carnival barker punchline - “It’s exactly what you think it is.” - the results were unleashed on an unwitting world.


Thanks to VHS and the thriving home video market, the sleazoid shocker became an instant cult classic. The question remains, however, does the movie match the marketing - or is this just another case of carefully chosen words speaking a heckuva lot louder than the action on the screen. The storyline is dead simple. We are introduced to a young boy, tormented mercilessly by his blousy whore of a mother. After a particularly gruesome showdown, we flash forward forty years. On a small college campus, young girls are being viciously vivisected by an unseen killer. Using a chainsaw to carve up the bodies, the police are baffled by the murders.


Detective Lt. Bracken (a nicely cheesy Christopher George) hopes to crack the case with a two fold approach. First, he will elicit the help of student Kendall James (Pod People‘s Ian Sera) to snoop among the student body. This BMOC knows all the angles - and the ladies. Secondly, seasoned cop and star tennis pro Mary Riggs (Lynda Day) will go undercover as one of the faculty. This will allow her greater access to suspects like groundskeeper Willard (Paul L. Smith, with Lawrence Tierney’s voice) and the slightly fey Professor Brown (Jack Taylor). As the body count rises, Bracken grows desperate. Apparently, the murdered is making some kind of trophy out of the ‘pieces’ of his victims…and he’s almost done.



Pieces is the kind of fright film that sneaks up on you. It is really nothing more than your standard slasher effort with a chainsaw doing all the slice and dice (well, there are a couple of knife kills thrown in for good massacre measure). Director Juan Piquer Simón digs deep into his fellow Europeans bag of terror tricks and comes up trumps more times than not. The opening is an obvious homage to Dario Argento’s classic Profundo Rosso, down to the deadly dynamic between parent and child. Once we move to modern times, Lucio Fulci’s full bore gore conceit comes into play. While most of the killings occur off camera, their nasty results get full view visits. Even the ending is unrelenting, delivering not one, or two, but THREE false jolts.


As with much of the Mediterranean macabre geared toward Western audiences, Christopher George gives his Cheshire Cat capped grin a good workout as Bracken. While not as active here as he is in such gems as City of the Living Dead, The Exterminator, and Mortuary, he provides the necessary despotic smugness that makes these movies work. Bracken has to be self assured and clueless, otherwise, the villain’s reveal gets shortchanged. Sure, we see who the bad man is almost immediately, but the cops have to fumble a bit before pulling out their pistols. Similarly, then wife Lynda Day is nothing more than eye candy, reduced at 38 to playing pseudo-paramour for the wispy lothario Sera. 


And speaking of Kendall, it is clear that Simón sees him as the calm within the monster movie maelstrom. Instantly cast off the isle of suspicion, he gets to hit on Day, act as an inspector substitute, emote over various F/X corpses, and show off his larger than average “assets” during a laughable love scene. For fans of the unflappable Mystery Science Theater 3000, seeing the musical prick Rick running around san shorts may explain his angry male animal arrogance. But as a romantic lead, he’s rather limited. According to IMDb Sera’s career was also rather short lived. What started in 1979 was soon over five years later. Google offers up a similar overview.



Even with the cast’s uneven facets, Pieces manages to work. It’s a shame that so much talent takes a backseat to naked babes being butchered. Smith, fresh from playing Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye, does little except smirk and speak like a certain Joe Cabot. Crusty Dean Edmund Purdom has to get by on clipped British courtesy and a nasty five o’clock shadow. Thanks to the dubbing - everyone’s voice is redone (even if it was their own in the end), as was the standard for most import productions - Pieces takes on an amplified exploitation feel. We sense this is a movie that will do almost anything, including substitute actor accents, to get its gruesome point across. Oh, and one thing about the gore. It is plentiful, but clearly culled from an early ‘80s limit of realism.


Indeed, very little of this fright flick plays like an authentic police procedural. A premise is devised, a killer walks among his potential prey, Greed decade fashion victims disrobe with alarming regularity, and soon - it’s power tool time! The Georges chew up the scenery and all is right in the domain of dread. Grindhouse Releasing, a company started by cinema schlock lover Sage Stallone, is promising a two disc “UNCUT” DVD release of Pieces come Halloween. As they have done with other splatter masterworks (Cannibal Holocaust), they assure us fans that we will experience this otherwise mistreated movie as it was originally intended. Some will scoff no matter the digital dressing. Pieces is that kind of perverse product. But don’t be surprised when, after it’s all over, you’re more than a little unnerved. It is that kind of movie - exactly.


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Tuesday, Oct 14, 2008

Like Ezra Klein, I’m puzzled by this cranky screed by Louis Menand about text messaging in the New Yorker. It’s enough to reaffirm the magazine’s “public image as a parochial, old-World-wannabe bastion of upper-income hauteur,” as Vance Lehmkuhl puts it in a slightly different context,  discussing the magazine’s baroque copy editing style.


The piece is triggered by the review of a book about texting, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 by linguist David Crystal, which seems to have been written to reassure those grammar pedants who worry about language being “destroyed” by people using it in new ways. Crystal’s conclusion seems to be that of any sane descriptive linguist—language will be fine. Nothing is worse for the health of a language than dogmatism about usage.


Menand, though, seems so utterly clueless about texting, I almost expected him to defend voicemail: “In some respects, texting is a giant leap backward in the science of communication. It’s more efficient than semaphore, maybe, but how much more efficient is it than Morse code? With Morse code, to make an “s” you needed only three key presses.” The point of comparison for texting is not Morse code, but talking, which is highly inefficient, not only because it carries with it requisite codes of politeness that slow communication down but also because conversation allows for all sorts of back-channel feedback and non-semantic cues (tone of voice, etc.) that clutter the message. Texting allows people to relay information without having to talk, and frankly, I don’t understand who wouldn’t prefer that in most mobile situations. I like to text not because it’s a “game” or because it imposes formal compositional constraints on my expression (two things that Menand emphasizes in Crystal’s account) but because it preserves the sanctity of real conversation. Menand notes that “People don’t like to have to perform the amount of self-presentation that is required in a personal encounter,” but then fails to draw the conclusion that texting liberates us from the burden of all sorts of unnecessary performance. Not every act of communication needs to be so personal and performative. It’s not the Algonquin round table every time we have something to communicate. Sometimes you just want to confirm that you are meeting at 8:00. And when Menand claims that “Texting is so formulaic that it is nearly anonymous” he reveals his lack of experience with the medium or the witlessness of his texting correspondents. Many text messages I’ve received have made me laugh out loud, and they often reveal a great deal about the person sending them.


Conversation is a practice best reserved for face-to-face encounters; texting helps restore conversation to its natural habitat by making the phone conversation necessary only in rare circumstances. I suspect lots of people share that view, which is why virtually all phones will have a keyboard in a few years, and the only phones without them will be held by the preliterate and technophobes who haven’t got over their resentment of cell-phone culture altogether.


I used to be one of those haters, and I still resent the idea that I should be accessible at all times. But in practice, it hasn’t worked out that way; texting allows me to be not present but still communicating—which is actually quite refreshing. Menand thinks that the appeal of texting is speed, but that’s not how it is for me, anyway. It’s about escaping the hassles of reciprocity in communication. Something is certainly lost in this; much is communicated incidentally in conversation as people wend their way to what they want to say and react to the seemingly extraneous information that enters in to the exchange. But much is gained in the way of emotional efficiency when you can broadcast your intentions and proceed. This seems like a main shift in the way we communicate—social networks and cell-phones and such encourage us to broadcast information about ourselves without particular concern for reciprocity or the particular context our audience might be dealing with. It grants us the gift of impersonality, which is not the same as anonymity—it’s instead a heightened performativity; the posture of a writer toward a public. It requires us to assume a certain self-centeredness, to be sure, but it also respects the audience as well, in that it doesn’t demand their immediate attention. So I think Menand is totally wrong when he claims that “delay is the only disrespect.” The whole point of texting is that delay is your prerogative. You are not required to hold this radiation-emitting device to your ear waiting for a response.


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Monday, Oct 13, 2008
How Silent Hill 2 utilizes a restrictive gamer contract to create an intense horror experience.


Often lauded as the best in the series, Silent Hill 2 is an excellent exploration of a game that introduces intentional handicaps and limitations in the game design in order to facilitate a horror experience. It relies on an implicit contract between the game and player, a concept that Justin Keverne explores in a blog post on the topic. As he aptly summarizes about the nature of this contract, “So might players not owe it to themselves to be more forgiving, to enter into a gameplay contract with the designer whereby they will except some necessary restrictions in return for an enjoyable and engaging experience?” It’s a concept that’s key to understanding Silent Hill 2 because it forces a variety of player input handicaps to make a stressful and engaging horror experience. A camera that barely functions, a combat system that creates confusion, and a level design of constant locked doors cease to be the signs of weak programming or game design and instead become the hallmarks of terror.


 


This is a game about crippling and confusing the player input. And it starts it off with a surprisingly logical decision: there is no in-game tutorial. Nothing is explained to you upon entering Silent Hill, a theme that is consistent with the plot and imagery as well. Players will fumble with buttons and controls until they figure out how to manipulate the environment. The problem gets further compounded by the strange and erratic camera. You’re constantly checking the map to see which way you’re facing, which way you need to go, and struggling to make sense of the world you are exploring. In this way the camera and lack of tutorial serve to induce the same state that the protagonist is having: a hallucinogenic and confusing nightmare. This works in conjunction with the combat. The camera can often leave you unable to see enemies, forcing you to rely on the scrambled radio and dark music to warn you that trouble is near. When you press L2 to get your bearings, the camera swoops and pans erratically, further enhancing the confusion and vertigo.  The game explores this idea of a handicapping game contract in the opening moments by keeping the player from doing anything but confusedly walk around as well. As Iroquis Pliskin notes in a blog about game pacing, Silent Hill 2 withholds your ability to fight for hours to induce stress and helplessness. There is a constant barrage of growling, confusing camera, and blinding mist, all while the growing apprehension that something bad is going to happen builds. The first encounter with one of the zombies is an exercise in fidgeting with controls as the player tries to figure out which buttons lock on, swing the plank, and let him dodge. The system is mastered easily enough after this initial terse encounter, but by not having a tutorial the game cleverly forces the player to experience similar confusion as James (the character you play) in that moment. Just as he is stunned by the monstrosity moving towards him and trying to cope with the threat, the player is figuring out how to fight back and keep themselves alive. This becomes a consistent theme of the Silent Hill 2 game contract: it uses the game design to force the player to experience what James is experiencing in its own distorted way.


This dangerous environment is reinforced because the game design plays on your inability to fight competently even after mastering the controls. No matter what, the player knows they are never going to be that great at combat. There is no easy way to dodge every attack, gun ammo always seems intrinsically finite (despite the mountains of bullets you gather), enemies have random amounts of health, and health kits always seem like they may run out (despite the mountains of them you find). So while in reality there is plenty of health and ammo, because of the awkward controls and atmosphere the player never loses the sense of danger. There is no colt .45 here, no katana like in subsequent games to make you feel like a badass (or even competent). Walking down that long corridor below the Silent Hill Historical Society into a dark abyss creates teeth-grinding dread because the player knows that each and every zombie or monster will have the ability to hit them. There is no dominating these creatures, as even the weakest zombie can spray you with vomit. The camera and combat make it so the player is never in full control, the sound and setting serve to remind them of how dangerous a condition they are in as a consequence. These themes are further reinforced by several encounters with the boss Pyramid Head, who has no health and cannot die. Having an unbeatable foe in a game like this draws out discovering this information in a much more horrifying way thanks to the control scheme. It is not until after several clumsy swings and stabs in the gut that we realize our efforts are having no effect whatsoever on the monster.


 


In addition to the opening in the forest, several sections of the game use level design to fill the player with apprehension. By placing people in apartment complexes, hospital wards, hotels or an underground prison the game abandons the large sprawling environments of other horror games. You are always in a confined space. Levels often feel as a rat in a caged maze would, finding dead end after dead while you seek out some item or clue on how to progress. The constant repetition of placing a door that the player can never open creates a sense of the unknown. That there are places in Silent Hill we will never go into or understand. Even when the player steps outside, often to great relief, there are still countless stores and buildings that are locked and impenetrable. It both creates the sensation of being in a real city or building but also plays on the usual Metroid design of filling out a map. In a normal game, we can go everywhere in the environment and see everything. Here, James merely marks locations that he will never access. Barriers he will never cross. The player, stuck with this unfulfilled desire, is only left more stressed and disturbed at their inability to do anything but struggle through the city.


So what kind of story is facilitated by the mechanics of this limited game contract? What is the expression permissible in this limited language as opposed to a game that gives us a broad and diverse ability to express competence and superiority? The game is about James’ nightmarish confrontation with the guilt and suffering that came from the slow death of his wife that ended with his murdering her. It is formed like a nightmare and is filled with logical inconsistencies and surreal characters. Of the few “normal” people James encounters, none of them have rational conversations or coherently discuss the hellish town they all sit in. They ultimately serve as psychological foils for James, with each character representing a part of his psyche that came about during his wife Mary’s slow death. Eddie is the gluttonous and selfish part of James that wanted his wife dead. When they finally engage in a gun duel, James has the personal revelation that he has killed another human being. Angela is the shame-filled and abused part of James that came from his torment as Mary descended into madness. Her final scenes depict fading into a burning Hell, sadly explaining that she deserves what she got. Laura, the small blonde child, represents the anger and childish hope that drives James to live in denial. Indeed, she is the character whom James follows for most of the game and in one ending literally follows her out of Silent Hill. And Maria is James’ wife restored to health. She’s lustful, coy, dependent, and totally unstable. On three separate occasions James is forced to confront her dying because of him, the slow manifestation of his realization of his own awful crime.


 


The monsters themselves operate in a similar psychological manner. Most of them manifest James’ guilt and hatred during Mary’s final days. Some are literally walking shaped like vaginas, some are deformed nurses that represent the women James encountered whiles sitting in the hospital with his wife for days on end. Others are merely manifestations of anger, wielding giant phallic swords and screaming in rage anytime they see James. The various bosses are all variations of vaginal images or caged bodies, the latter manifesting the sense of imprisonment that James endured while his wife was sick. Finally, there is Pyramid Head. We are introduced to him in a homage to David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’, with James peeking through the screen of a closet in horror. We then bear witness to the awful deformed sexuality of Pyramid Head and his sexual abuse of the zombies around him. Often wielding a giant spear, Pyramid Head is the manifestation of James’ shame at killing Mary. He finally understands, “I was weak. That’s why I needed you…needed someone to punish me for my sins…but that’s all over now…I know the truth.” Indeed, it is Pyramid Head who kills Maria, the incarnation of Mary, over and over. It is Pyramid Head who performs awful acts of lust and violence that James so ardently tries to deny. And throughout the various encounters James has with him, Pyramid is always unkillable. The game design does not allow James to remove his literal shame until he has confronted it within the story.


This is only one interpretation of the game. There are far more literal ways to see the events of Silent Hill 2, and subsequent games seem to indicate something more than a nightmare took place. But within this game alone, where a metal can is filled with light bulbs and buildings shift from being totally intact to crumbling into decay in a single sequence, little is certain. The greatest moment of the game is when James finally discovers that he murdered Mary. He is forced to watch this on a videotape and when it ends he is sitting in front of a white T.V. screen. Yet the scene in the game is similarly all white due to the mist and blooming effect in the room. It eerily echoes the exact same thing the player is doing: staring in disbelief at the same kind of screen as James. That moment where both the player and James are doing the same thing epitomizes what Silent Hill 2 is all about. Using a game contract that the player must accept as necessary for the experience, it puts you in the shoes of James as he lives out a dark nightmare of grief, guilt, and limited abilities as he navigates his shame.


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Monday, Oct 13, 2008

When contemplating the massive pile of debt Americans have racked up in recent years, it’s easy to assign blame to individuals, impulsive and weak and blind to the virtues of savings. They are clearly aided in their imprudence by the consumerist culture, which assails them with ads and marketing ploys and seeks to persuade them (or at least reinforce the idea) that they are what they buy and their freedom is realized in the ability to spend—that spending itself is the supreme achievement in society and the act for which we will secure the greatest recognition. It’s tempting to assume people should simply show more impulse control and make better decisions.


But “For a New Thrift,” a think-tank report cited in this BusinessWeek article about the allegedly imminent “New Age of Frugality,” raises the important point that our tendency to save is dependent on the institutions around us. Human nature is inherently foolish, which is why we design social institutions to guide our behavior into constructive channels. This is particularly true about capital accumulation. Once, the legal framework prohibited much predatory lending, but as these laws were relaxed, the usury business thrived and gained for itself a veneer of respectability. The authors of the report argue that state-run lotteries abetted this, and helped vindicate the anti-thrift logic at work in payday-loan centers. As a result, society has split into two groups. The first is those who save responsibly, aided by investment institutions they have ready access to, whether through employer-based retirement savings programs or neighborhood banks or internet usage, and have the social capital to understand how to do it. The others are those who live from paycheck to paycheck, view the lottery as something other than a total sucker bet reserved only for chumps, and typically fall into revolving debt traps through lack of resources, financial savvy, and non-usurious alternatives. From the report:


The lottery class, on the other hand, lacks such ready access to pro-thrift institutional disciplines. Many members of the lottery class are not working in jobs that offer benefits such as 401(k)s, profit sharing, or retirement plans. (In 2004, 70 million of America’s 153 million wage earners worked for employers without a retirement plan.Nor are people in the lower half of the income distribution pursued by investment firms, tax accountants, or major banks. Instead, they are targets of payday lenders, subprime mortgage brokers, credit card issuers, tax refund lenders, and their friendly state lotteries. Their extra dollars do not find a convenient or automatic pathway into a savings account. Instead, they are drained off into high interest payments on predatory loans or used to support a daily lottery habit. Nor do they get tax-avoidance advice or tax advantages in return for their investments. More likely, they give up some of their tax refund dollars to franchise tax preparers in exchange for fast cash. And the leading public anti-thrift, the state lottery, imposes what amounts to an excise tax on them as well. In this way, millions of working Americans who might, under more favorable institutional circumstances, join the class of savers and investors, are now being recruited into a burgeoning population of debtors and bettors.


This seems worth remembering when considering the circumstances that poor people confront and the choices they make that seem so dubious to us, watching from outside, safe and coddled in a host of institutions geared toward preserving our privilege.


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