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Monday, Aug 4, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-08-04...

A moment of silence for the PSP’s release schedule.  This is the…third?  Fourth?  Actually, I’ve lost count of just how many weeks it’s been since I haven’t had to be a smartass about just how few games are getting released for the PSP this summer.  Thank goodness Madden ‘09 is coming out next week, so I know that I’m not going to have to exclude any of these precious machines of gaming.


You get access to Hannah's wardrobe! Yay!

You get access to Hannah’s wardrobe! Yay!


That said, I’ve heard nice things about Braid and all, but for one week, I’m turning this into a vanity project (SHHH!): The release that’s going to get the most play in this house is…Hannah Montana: Spotlight World Tour.  Yes, it’s another Hannah Montana game, and the fact that it came out on the Wii, oh, last year doesn’t exactly bode well for its sales prospects, but I do know that my daughter was looking over my shoulder as I put together this week’s release list, saw the name Hannah Montana, and proceeded to ask me why I was typing about Hannah Montana in about seven different ways.  So this one’s for her.  Hannah Montana wins, because you get to be a star just like Hannah (just ask the press release!), and play simple rhythm games mostly for the sake of hearing her songs.  Because no, I haven’t heard them enough.


Okay, Braid: It’s a platformer where you CONTROL TIME.  I have no idea whether that’s a recipe for WIN or if it’s just another gimmicky side scroller, but I’m leaning toward the former.  For all the complaining I’ve done about the dearth of releases this summer, Xbox Live Arcade has had one hell of a season, and it doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.  On the PS3 side, Monster Madness: Grave Danger looks like just the sort of thing that next-gen shooter fans would get a kick out of, something like, oh, the Dreamcast’s Expendable updated in all the important ways.


Braid's homage to Donkey Kong

Braid‘s homage to Donkey Kong


Here’s something I’m ashamed to admit: I had no idea they ever released a Sonic the Hedgehog game for the Sega Master System.  I had assumed that they stopped supporting that poor little system by the time Sonic was even a twinkle in Sonic Team’s collective eye, but apparently a version of the blue hedgehog’s adventures did come out for the Master System, and you’ll be able to download it for your Wii today.  New levels?  New challenges?  Another reason to take down Robotnik/Eggman?  Sign me up.


All right, I give up.  Where’s the hidden treasure on this list?  Somebody help me find a place for my disposable income—my wallet’s just too damn heavy.


The full list is after the jump, along with, yes, a trailer for Hannah Montana: Spotlight World Tour.  Enjoy!


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Sunday, Aug 3, 2008

The divorce has been coming for some time now. We’ve been separated for years, but it’s only recently that I’ve even considered taking the final step. Lord knows I’ve tried to make it work. I indulged the flights of fancy, the ‘creative excesses’ if you will. I supported his change of scenario, hoping that Europe would unlock some hidden store of talent that would make our future together tolerable. I even ignored the tabloid way he decided to undermine his personal life. But after a couple of fleeting glimpses of the old brilliance, the same old sad self-indulgence set in. Now, with his latest attempt at interpersonal angst, I’ve decided I can’t take any more. After nearly FOUR decades of dedicated fandom, I am divorcing Woody Allen once and for all.


Oh, we’ve had our troubles before. During the late ‘70s, his Fellini-inspired slap in the audience’s face - otherwise known as Stardust Memories - was a particularly hard time. All we wanted from our cinematic hero was a little of his old comic joie de vive. It didn’t have to be Sleeper or Love and Death, but would it have hurt to follow a more of that Annie Hall/Manhattan style of wit with worry? Apparently, since everything about the 81/2 rip was a visually arresting rant against trying to pigeonhole an otherwise indefinable artist…except, Allen had made his entire career on comedy. Asking for a few more jokes didn’t seem like such a major request.


Granted, it was probably unfair to dwell in the past like that. After all, it must be tough for any creative type to live down such a start. His first few efforts remain gems in a frequently faltering genre. Still, he must have been insulted by the non-stop comments about those “early, funny films”, enough to make a mockery of such a sentiment. And this was even after we tolerated his back-peddling Bergmania. Interiors has its moments, but it just can’t compare to the Swedish master being mimicked. Similarly, A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy proved that, when it comes to calm country mannerisms, a Jewish American filmmaker can only stumble like a stooge.


But he kept coming back. Zelig was an experimental wonder, growing better and more poignant with time, and the next four films - Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Radio Days - proved he had lost none of this nostalgic character craftsmanship. Even after going off the tracks again with September (completely recast and reshot during production, thus beginning the mythos), Another Woman, and his “Oedipus Wrecks” segment from New York Stories, he delivered Crimes and Misdemeanors. Only the most cynical cinephile could deny that film’s power and glory. It looked like things might just work out between us.


And then - disaster. One sloppy, subpar production after another. It’s a list too long to discuss here, but from 1990 to now (almost 18 years) Allen has made only three good films (Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Match Point), two tolerable efforts (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Deconstructing Harry) and a bunch of god-awful garbage (and before you bellyache, go ahead and defend Celebrity, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Melinda and Melinda). Perhaps even more unsettling, Allen has yet to make another movie that matches the critical buzz and acclaim of some of his older works. Even the ersatz musical Everyone Says I Love You is now just a forgotten speck on an usually blemished resume.


There will be some who disagree with the assessment, and it is there right to. I can only go on my own experiences with Allen. I first fell in love with his work when I saw Sleeper as part of an ABC Sunday Night Movie broadcast premiere. I laughed hysterically at this sci-fi spoof, even if I didn’t understand all the jokes (I was in my very early teens at the time). When Annie Hall opened, I was one of the first in line, and again, I was swept away on how mystifyingly magical his movies were. Allen was definitely a thinking man’s humorist, and some of his references were so arcane that, after looking them up, they have stayed with me my entire life (like Oswald, the character from Ibsen’s Ghosts, and his infamous headache).


That was the joy of a Woody Allen movie. He never talked down to his audience. He assumed they were just as bright, intelligent, and educated as he. He wasn’t afraid to infuse his characters with outsized idiosyncrasies, as long as they were grounded in the urban everyday surroundings of their life. Many see Manhattan as his masterpiece, and rightly so. It walked the precarious border between arrogance and amiability with a style and a substance that continues to draw fans and fanatics alike. For a while there, it was hard to completely dismiss an Allen film. You could find massive flaws in what he was attempting, but the level of success was usually measured in some kind of entertainment.


But all that stopped somewhere in the ‘80s, and September is a good example of why. By this time (1987), Allen was seen as a legitimate American auteur. He already had eleven Oscar nominations (and three wins) and a kind of creative carte blanche that studios wanted to be a part of. Working almost exclusively for Orion (who had a distribution agreement with Warners), he had final cut, was capable of casting whomever he wanted, and could even go so far as to keep completed scripts away from his hired help. Actors longed to be in his films, his Academy pedigree (especially in the realm of Best Supporting Actress) almost a given. In essence, he had all the power a filmmaker could ever want - and it seems to have gone about systematically abusing same.


September was meant as a “chamber” piece, a filmed play as it were.  Over the course of the production Allen recast the lead twice, and after editing the first version, did indeed rewrite, recast, and refilm it again. In today’s money-oriented clime, that would be unheard of. But Allen’s productions were always cheap, and up until this point, aesthetically successful. September changed all that. It showed the writer/director as insular, moody, and discontented. It didn’t help that the movie was a bore. Even after Crimes and Misdemeanors (his last true masterpiece), efforts like Shadows and Fog and Hollywood Ending smacked of the same artistic recklessness. Of course, had he only made Love and Death for the rest of his career, trading on his high concept hipster humor for every successive film, we’d be crucifying him too.


But Allen’s recent miscues - the dull Scoop, the awful Cassandra’s Dream - are perhaps the most troubling of all. At a recent screening of Vicky Christina Barcelona, I was struck with how little I cared about the filmmaker’s whiny, overly wistful characters. The story of how love conquers and confuses is something he explored (far more successfully) when I was in high school, and his choice of actors - Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson - seemed more show biz then sensible. Like the passionate painters he depicts in the film, Allen has become an artist wholly in love with his own devices. He no longer feels a need to experiment or explore. Instead, he rounds up the current crop of A-list faces, places them in his overly talky tableaus, and shoots everything like the hand-held POV camera was a novel and new device.


The worst thing an ex can do is make you long for the early days of your relationship. It’s even worse when you dread the next expression from their already tired canon. For me, Allen stopped being exciting over a decade ago. Now, I merely tolerate his presence within the motion picture schema. Maybe he has another laugh out loud comedy in his kit (his last attempt, Small Time Crooks…), or perhaps he can mine individual turmoil and moral turpitude for one more knock out drama (Match Point). Unfortunately, I’m not willing to wait. I’ll gladly have cinematic egg on my face should this prolific 73 year old regain his aesthetic footing. Until then, I’ll resign myself to the past. It’s what any new divorcee would do.


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Sunday, Aug 3, 2008

Two noteworthy articles about using a pay-model for the Net.  First is this article from the Maui Time Weekly (reprinted in Alt Weekly) about how to solve the problems of the newspapers by pulling their material offline, copyrighting everything and killing off the wire services.  At the point, Net users would be forced to pay up for papers and their services.  The problem is that unless EVERY paper out there signed on (which they wouldn’t because it’s too risky), a project like this would be a failure- Net users would then just go to whatever news source they can find online that they like and just use that instead.  The genie’s outta the bottle, as they say, and trying to yank all publications offline isn’t going to happen- papers have already invested too much in their online presence and are seeing their ad revenue grow online (as opposed to offline). 


A saner approach comes from Christie Hefner of Playboy who suggests in this Portfolio article that an ala carte pricing menu for publications might be a solution for them, letting them offer individualized choices like iTunes does.  The revenue from such an idea might not be great but if it gets users in the habit of paying for some material that they really want and getting exactly what they want from a publication, that might make them more loyal readers.  While the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were the last major hold-outs for this model, it might thrive elsewhere on a smaller scale and is at least worth a try, especially in these desperate times.


Finally, a tip of the hat to an article about one of my favorite parts of the Net which found itself sliding off the cultural map with the advent of the World Wide Web.  This PC Magazine article about the death of Usenet made me think of all the times I’ve used newsgroups, even up to this day.  It’s a wonderful, specialized place to chat, gab and argue with fellow enthusiasts about any topic you could think of (of course, I favored the music ones).  Luckily, the newsgroups do survive now in some form thanks to Google Groups, where you should go to check them out.  By the way, you can thank the misguided NY attorney general Andrew Cuomo who decided that ALL newsgroups are evil and support kiddie porn, even though that’s not true- he convinced many ISP’s to stop carrying them all and effectively killed off access to newsgroups to many people.  If you’d like to tell the AG what a misguided knucklehead he is, you can contact him at his website.


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Sunday, Aug 3, 2008


As a deeply-committed peripatetic, I recognize the indispensible role that serendipity plays in travel. In fact, eight times out of seven, it is serendipity—rather than deep ratiocination or meticulous planning—that is going to determine whether the day’s foray will ultimately be deemed successful or not.

Others might call it “happenstance”, or “luck”, or “fortune”—good or bad. But whatever name you attach to it, it is something that travelers have to get used to; we voyagers can’t live without it. Nor would we want to . . . since serendipity is what makes the journey so pleasureable; so deep-meaningful.


Even when it is not. Which is what I will explain next . . .


 


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Sunday, Aug 3, 2008

Wright Mills’s The Power Elite is pretty dated now, especially the first 200 pages of so, which elucidate the specifics of the nascent 1950s military-industrial complex in mind-numbing detail. But it’s worth plodding through all that to get to the thundering denunciations of American complacency that follows, which have lost none of their sting over the years. He laments the loss of a Habermasian public sphere (though the degree to which this ever existed is debatable) and blames a media-sponsored celebrity cult for keeping the public, disintegrated into a mass of alienated individuals capable of thinking only of their own limited self-referential interests, stupified and distracted from the workings of the true “power elite”—the Ivy League-educated managerial class who come from the established rich families. The media fosters a “psychological illiteracy” that encourages stereotyping over thinking, making it harder for us to perceive the totality of society in its functioning (as Lukacs laments about in History and Class Consciousness). “The man in the mass does not gain a transcending view from these media; instead he gets his experience stereotyped, and then he gets sunk further by that experience.” This in turn makes us more vulnerable to media manipulation, since we lack the basis to critique its representations.


The media provide much information and news about what is happening in the world, but they do not often enable the listener or the viewer truly to connect his daily life with these larger realities. They do not connect the information they provide on public issues with the troubles felt by the individual. They do not increase rational insight into tensions, either those in the individual or those of the society which are reflected in the individual. On the contrary, they distract him and obscure his chance to understand himself or his world, by fastening his attention upon artificial frenzies that are resolved within the program framework, usually by violent action or by what is called humor. In short, for the viewer they are not really resolved at all…. There is almost always the general tone of animated distraction, of suspended agitation, but it is going nowhere and it has nowhere to go.


This leaves people in a state of semi-helplessness, incapable of complex thought. “Rather than that internal discussion we call reflection, he is accompanied through his life experience with a sort of unconscious, echoing monologue. He has no projects of his own: he fulfills the routines that exist. He does not transcend whatever he is at any moment, because he does not, he cannot, transcend his daily milieux. He is not truly aware of his own daily experience and of its actual standards: he drifts, he fulfills habits, his behavior a result of a planless mixture of the confused standards and the uncriticized expectations that he has taken over from others whom he no longer really knows or trusts, if indeed he ever really did.” And since the media is controlled by the elite, its effectiveness enriches them further.


As a consequence of the degraded citizenship, democracy is a hollow illusion, an ideological alibi for the status quo. Voting is a mere expression of nationalism as opposed to a true political choice. And a “conservative mood” overtakes intellectuals who are disillusioned by the failure of liberalism to preserve a thinking public. At the heart of this mood “there is a knowledge of powerlessness without poignancy, and a feeling of pseudo-power based on mere smugness. By its softening of political will, this mood enables men to accept public depravity without any private sense of outrage, and to give up the central goal of western humanism—the presumptuous control by reason of man’s fate.” The word smugness serves as a trigger for me, and it makes me want to link this conservative mood with today’s hipsters, as per the previous post. The problem with hipsters is not their fashion-following phoniness; it’s their smug abdication of responsibility in favor of an egocentric apathy. Hipsters are conservatives posturing as progressives, often professing to be liberals while their practice refutes the claim. Mills’s description of the 1950s conservative mood suits hipsterism to a tee:


it is not a snobbery linked with nostalgia, but on the contrary, with what is just one-step-ahead-of-the-very-latest-thing, which is to say that it is a snobbery based not on tradition but on fashion and fad. Those involved are not thinking for a nation, or even about a nation; they are thinking of and for themselves. In self-selected coteries, they confirm one another’s mood, which thus becomes snobbishly closed—and quite out of the main stream of the practice of decision and the reality of power.


(This reminds me of my own indifference to the business world when I was a graduate student, and thought I was well informed on everything important—you know, semiotic theories of gender and decentered subjectivities in 18th century novels and that sort of thing. My arguments about these subjects with my peers were so vital. Mills saw the conservative mood as facilitating “historical development without benefit of idea.” This is the sense, perhaps, in which hipsterism is the dead end of Western civilization. Mills’s book is useful for linking hipsters to the larger problem of the meaningless political sphere, which seems to have spawned them. But it doesn’t shed much light on how to reinvigorate political involvement, how to make the basic acts of citizenship in a democracy not seem trivial or merely self-referential. Could “youth” culture—in reality the culture of grown adults who can affect the structures of society in a meaningful way—form for itself a politically literate, unified, and efficacious sphere of action? Is there anything else to do but resist what is currently dominant, or does any positive action stand only to be co-opted and reassimilated by the forces of conservative “smugness”?


The relation between hipsterism and conservatism-in-effect apathy makes it almost ironic that McCain’s campaign is trying to paint Obama as a kind of king of the hipsters. Andrew Sullivan makes the obvious point that this is no substitute for actually crafting policy positions (the Republicans are the dead end of Western Civilization). But this of course makes them the natural allies of hipsters, who also stand for nothing. These attacks are just another feat of projection, as when McCain plays the race card by accusing Obama of playing it.


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