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Thursday, Mar 20, 2008
Checkpoints take brief looks at downloadable and independent releases. Today we throw back a couple o' pints and take on the Dropkick Murphys Guitar Hero III track pack.

Given that Monday was St. Patrick’s Day, it only seemed appropriate that I would pull on my greenest sweater, throw back a couple o’ pints o’ Guinness, and play some serious Guitar Hero.


Before last week, such a proclamation might have seemed like a complete and utter non-sequitur, but last week saw the release of the three-song Dropkick Murphys pack for the can’t-possibly-argue-with-it price of absolutely free.  Now, we can use our fake plastic guitars to get in touch with our Irish sides…because what could possibly go better with a Boondock Saints / The Departed mini-marathon than some Irish boys shouting at you?


Problem #1: All three of these tracks are from the most recent Dropkick Murphys album, The Meanest of Times, which isn’t really such a bad thing, but they’ve got a hell of a legacy that they could be drawing from at this point.  I know they’re trying to promote the latest album, but they’ve now released four of that album’s tracks as playable songs across two different Guitar Hero games.  Part of being Irish is drinking to the past, yes?  Would it really hurt to pretend the band existed before 2007?


Problem #2: The songs are largely chord-mashing tests of endurance.  Aside from the very fun chart for “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya” (which benefits greatly from its traditional roots), there are lots of chords coming at you fast and furious; chronic down-strummers will have carpal tunnel by the time they end.


There is a tangible benefit to downloading these tracks via the Xbox Live downloading service: the expert-level chart for “(F)lannigan’s Ball” very well may be the easiest Guitar Hero III song with which to break the elusive 500,000-point mark.  That’s 10 GamerScore points just waiting to be snagged.  It’s actually quite smart for Activision to release, for free, a track that seems so ready-made for passing such a milestone.  It’s easy in games like the Guitar Hero series to feel like you’ve hit a plateau, that you’re never, ever going to get any farther in the game, that your fingers just aren’t quite coordinated enough to blow through “Through the Fire and Flames” or stay on target long enough to pull a 1,000-note streak.  To put in a song that makes it comparatively easy to pass one of those heretofore pretty-damn-difficult milestones is a psychological boon for the frustrated.  It’s the type of thing that tells the intermediate player, “no, seriously, you are getting better.  Come back.  Lars misses you.” And then, just like that, you’re hooked again, thinking that maybe, yes, this is the time you’re going to beat “Raining Blood” on expert.


It worked on me. 


If nothing else, the note charts in the Dropkick Murphys pack beat the hell out of the insanely easy “Dream On” chart that they released to promote the upcoming Guitar Hero: Aerosmith release.  Plus, you just might get one achievement closer to total Guitar Hero domination.  You can’t put a price on that, and so they didn’t.  Take the time and download it.  What do you have to lose?


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Wednesday, Mar 19, 2008


Don’t worry if you don’t “get” Tyler Perry. You’re probably not his intended audience, anyway. As a playwright, he strives to understand the urban experience, giving voice to those grossly underrepresented within the theatrical medium. As a filmmaker, however, he is more in touch with his pocket book than his ‘people’. Everything he does on camera tends to go upscale, moving his African American characters into near fanciful realms of luxury and lifestyle. Still, the stories are the same, interpersonal topics like marriage and fidelity, parenting and childhood, relatives and family strife filling his scenes. Toss in a healthy dose of the Good Book, and some soul salvation, and you’ve got the makings of one of the most unusual phenomenons ever.


Trying to uncover why Perry is so popular is not all that difficult. The standard issue response is that he caters to a demographic previously disregarded. And when one looks back at how Hollywood treated individuals of color as recently as 40 years ago, he’s clearly filling a massive niche. Others mention his drag act diva-ship via the madwoman matriarch character he created, Mabel “Madea” Simmons. She’s Redd Foxx without the ‘blue’ moods. Some site a skillful balance between the clichéd and the creative, a gift for using old school melodramatics to touch upon updated, contemporary nerves. And then there are those who simply respond to his God is Great pronouncements. If popular culture is anything, it’s afraid of religion. Perry embraces it fully, reflecting the beliefs and faith of the audience his efforts play to - and they love it.



With the latest big screen adaptation of one of his plays, Meet the Browns, set to open on 21 March, it may be time to dig deeper into the Perry mystique to try and ascertain his staying power. One things for certain - when he puts out cinematic versions of his previously road showed events, crowds clamor. Of the four films he’s been involved in - Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, Daddy’s Little Girls, and Why Did I Get Married? , only one has had less than impressive box office returns. Oddly enough, Girls was also the only one without a theatrical foundation. The rest of his oeuvre has grossed in excess of $100 million, and Browns is likely to continue that trend - especially since this movie marks the return of that all important insane woman, Madea.


Much has been made of Perry, a tall African American male playing an outsized female stereotype, a character noted for her pot smoking, gun toting, pop culture referencing rigors. Perry has said that Madea represents every strong black woman he ever grew up around, the care giving center of a father-less, often frightening urban environment. The jocular personality is merely part of the entertainment paradigm. But there is actually more to Madea than this. As a comic foil, she is the entertainment heart of many of Perry’s plays. Even when she’s not a part of the production, the author finds a funny business substitute (usually in the persona of Leroy Brown) to do the humor heavy lifting.



On the other hand, Madea is also the no nonsense voice of reason, a guide through many of life’s more complicated and vexing issues. Certainly, some of her advice is outdated (beat your kids) and outrageous (the classic “hot grits on the stove” for a cheating man), but it plays directly into the audience’s collective memory. No one has done a better job of filtering the African American experience of the last 50 years into a viable production package than Perry. Even others who’ve tried to mimic his approach - David E. Talbert, for example - seems stuck in a purely post-modern position. But Tyler Perry is old school without being ancient, effectively mixing the contemporary with the classic to create his universe.


It’s something that plays directly into the spiritual element as well. Perry’s scripts are like toe tapping tent revivals, action intermittently interrupted so that good time Gospel shout outs can be introduced. It’s a very important part of their effectiveness, the pressure cooker conceit of all those pent up problems breaking free and into the hands of Christ. Perry hires wonderful vocalists, from David and Tamala Mann (better known as The Browns) to Cheryl Pepsi Riley and D’Atra Hicks, and they all know how to really sell a song. Yet it’s odd that these mainstay moments are stripped from the cinematic versions of his work. Even when he casts noted superstars from the music biz - Janet Jackson, Jill Scott - to play certain roles, music is barely mentioned.



That’s why many in the mainstream just don’t “get” Perry. They see his undemanding storylines, his exaggerated characters, his good vs. evil straightforwardness, and conclude that there is nothing of substance present. They even mock his lack of context. But it’s clear that audiences attending a Perry picture are already well versed in the foundation for the film. They don’t need to see every song, recognize every character, or experience every subplot. As long as there are familiar elements from his celebrated stagings, the ticket sales will soar and the turnstiles will spin. It’s not unlike making a cinematic version of a noted bestseller or beloved TV show - except Perry is much more entertaining.


Oddly enough, as of late, the author has been messing with the formula. While Madea’s Family Reunion used most of the play’s storyline, both Why Did I Get Married? and Meet the Browns have been substantially altered. There are many explanations for such a stance. Part of the rationale is that Perry wants to give moviegoers a different experience than those familiar with the plays. There are delightful DVD versions of these efforts, after all. At the same time, much of the man’s acclaim has come from familiarity. Though his TV sitcom, House of Payne, is a syndicated cable hit, Daddy’s Little Girls barely grossed $31 million - almost $20 million less than any other of the films. Changing the premise seems antithetical to those intentions.



On the other hand, he’s a name brand now, a noted Oprah approved member of the medium. He can do anything he wants and it literally brings out his devotees. Married was still a sizable hit, and another Madea outing (Goes to Jail) is in the works. Perry’s latest play The Marriage Counselor, is making its church and congregation run and his last effort, What’s Done in the Dark… has just landed on the digital format. It seems there’s no stopping this creative powerhouse - and the profits can attest to his staying power. Yet one has to wonder if Perry can ever resolve the hominess of his theatrical works with the archness of his film. Madea might be a powerful iconic image, but could she work outside an already established story? Would a wholly original Perry film be seen as a stretch, or as something to be avoided until word of mouth strengthens the sense of success?


These are the pitfalls Meet the Browns faces when it opens nationwide this weekend. Most critics will not see it in advance (Lionsgate takes a genre-oriented horror-haters position when it comes to many of its previews) and there will be those who instantly dismiss anything with Perry’s name attached no matter what the circumstances are. The few who see it will trot out the standard rejections, and race will get a minor airing along the way. Even that derogatory term ‘chitlin’ circuit’ will show up now and again. But the fact remains that Tyler Perry is a solid, seasoned entertainer with enough invention and drive to keep going for years. He’s patented. He’s bonafide. He’s sanctified. No one can take that away from him - not even his own sense of self. There will always be an underserved element of society looking for someone in sync with their views. For now, Tyler Perry is it, and that’s all that matters.     


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Wednesday, Mar 19, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Señor Flavio
Malito [MP3]
     


El Apagón [MP3]
     


More On This Album


Portishead
Machine Gun [Video]


Dizzee Rascal
Where’s Da G’s feat. Bun B [Video]


Les Savy Fav
Sweat Descends (live) [MP3]
     


Nine Pound Hammer
I’m Yer Huckleberry [MP3] (from Sex, Drugs and Bill Monroe)
     


Everybody’s Drunk [MP3] (from Sex, Drugs and Bill Monroe)
     


The Way It Is [MP3] (from Sex, Drugs and Bill Monroe)
     


Buy at Amazon


Triclops!
Freedom Tickler [MP3] (from Out of Africa out 25 March)
     



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Wednesday, Mar 19, 2008

On the passing of Arthur C. Clarke, Alan Stern, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate tells Space.com:


For my generation, the children of Apollo, Clarke’s writings were hugely and deeply inspirational. He was not just a technically competent writer of science fiction, science fact and futurism, but he was incredibly optimistic. I have had many emails in the last 18 hours, from friends of mine, from childhood, graduate school, adulthood. It’s amazing to me how many say the same thing: ‘I wouldn’t be in this line of work if it weren’t for Arthur Clarke.’ People across the world, especially the backbone of American aerospace exploration and space science, were inspired by Clarke’s writings at one stage or another in their youth.


The same article features similar outpourings of respect and gratitude from science-fiction authors and other technologists. For a more standard obituary, the Washington Post is your best resource


Jeff Greenwald talks about his memories of Clarke at Wired, and at Forbes, David M. Ewatt links to Clarke’s last published story, which “contains chilling warnings about emerging technology, electronic terrorism, and looming threats to life as we know it.”


 


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Wednesday, Mar 19, 2008

One of the best personal decisions I’ve made was the one to give up on writing a dissertation in English Literature. It seemed silly to quit at the end, and only when the work got serious and needed to be professionalized, but there is such a thing as sunk costs, and at some point I had to write mine off. I didn’t have any interest in being a professor. No dissertation, no matter how broad or theoretical or New Historicist, was going to make up for my deciding to study English instead of economics or even sociology, the subjects I was actually interested in. At some point, I was going to have to try to say something meaningful about literature as literature, and I didn’t believe anymore that there was anything worth saying. This may have been my imaginative failing, but I was thinking that literature had only a faint impact on life as it was lived by most people, so to comment on it is to theorize about echoes when you could be wrangling with the real thing. It seems as though you are rejecting reality for the cave and the shadows. (I have a similar understanding of real news—aka business news—versus the personal-interest vicarious-fantasy material masquerading as news. Studying literature started to seem to me a way of affirming the latter over the former.)


Still, this Nation item depressed me completely. William Deresiewicz looks at the MLA job list and comes away with these impressions:


The most striking fact about this year’s list is that the lion’s share of positions is in rhetoric and composition. That is, not in a field of literature at all but in the teaching of expository writing, the “service” component of an English department’s role within the university. Add communications and professional and technical writing, and you’ve got more than a third of the list. Another large fraction of openings, perhaps 15 percent, is in creative writing. Apparently, kids may not want to read anymore, but they all want to write. And watch. Forward-thinking English departments long ago decided to grab film studies before it got away, and the list continues to reflect that bit of subterfuge.


That’s more than half the list, and we still haven’t gotten to any, well, literature. When we do, we find that the largest share of what’s left, nearly a third, is in American literature. Even more significant is the number of positions, again about a third, that call for particular expertise in literature of one or another identity group. “Subfields might include transnational, hemispheric, ethnic and queer literatures.” “Postcolonial emphasis” is “required.” “Additional expertise in African-American and/or ethnic American literature highly desirable.” ...


This year’s Job List confirms the picture of a profession suffering from an epochal loss of confidence. It’s not just the fear you can smell in the postings. It’s the fact that no major theoretical school has emerged in the 18 years since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in 1990. Nor has any major new star—a Butler, an Edward Said, a Harold Bloom—emerged since then to provide intellectual leadership, or even a sense of intellectual adventure. The job market’s long-term depression has deepened the mood. Most professors I know discourage even their best students from going to graduate school; one actually refuses to talk to them about it. This is a profession that is losing its will to live.


Would that someone would have discouraged me. But the universities need writing teachers, and literature grad students can be impressed into teaching composition courses for meager wages as long as studying literature for a living can be dangled before them as enticement. In the English Department I was connected with, the rhetoric and composition folk formed a well-disciplined and highly professionalized cadre who were devoted to instrumentalizing the department’s course offerings. They had the energy for this because their teaching and their studies weren’t fatally split. They and their kind will inevitably inherit the shell of the English departments that are left when lit studies collapse completely. Perhaps they will be absorbed by Education departments, who share a similar fetish for pedagogy for pedagogy’s sake.


On a related note, John Mullen, writing in the TLS, looks at Rónán McDonald’s recent book The Death of the Critic and decides that English professors are ruining their own brand.


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