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Tuesday, Sep 16, 2008


For the earliest peripatetics who toured America—say, a visitor such as Alexis de Tocqueville—politics was one of the greatest fascinations about the nascent nation. Not only because it was ubiquitous—with its fingerprints smudged over nearly every aspect of public life—but because politics served as both magnet and outlet for the robust, often uncontainable energies of the American people. In the French analyst’s words:


No sooner do you set foot on American soil than you find yourself in a sort of tumult . . .  A confused clamor rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once, each expressing some social requirements . . . All around you everything is on the move . . . (with associations of every stripe) commercial . . . industrial . . . religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.


Nearly two centuries later, and despite a complex social history of ever and greater privatization of the public sphere, the cacophony and tumult of the political in American life is no less true. A contemporary visitor can not help but notice, with a current presidential race now heading into its home stretch. What de Tocqueville marveled was a quadrennial “revolution ... in the name of the law” will, come November 4, be upon Americans once more.


And, in the run-up to November 4, Americans have witnessed nothing short of that which de Tocqueville did, back in 1832:


Long before the appointed day arrives, the election becomes the greatest, and one might say the only, affair occupying men’s minds . . . As the election draws near, intrigues grow more active and agitation is more lively and widespread. The citizens divide up into several camps . . . The whole nation gets into a feverish state . . .


In short, they go gaga over the spontaneous, the conflagratory, the manufactured invention and intrigue that has been . . . the unveiling of Sarah Palin.


Or, by other lights: life stranger than fiction.


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Monday, Sep 15, 2008

A variety of science fiction authors offered theories about internet culture in the nineties, observing the potential and predicting various modes of expression possible in such a medium. William Gibson accurately guessed the artistic phenomenon of Youtube celebrities and their cult status, although he significantly over-estimated the appeal of anything beyond sneezing pandas. Ray Kurzweil, more of a futurist than a Sci-Fi author, calculated that downloadable content would replace DVD’s (as opposed to Blu-Ray) in a move that would eventually subsume all forms of media into the hands of one or two distributors. We aren’t there yet…but it is hardly as fantastic a notion now as it was ten years ago. In regards to the intellectual development of writing and communication, Neal Stephenson seemed to hit the nail on the head. In Snow Crash, he describes a type of writer called a gargoyle. Although he was certainly wrong about these people being computer-obsessed virtual junkies (I guess), their writing style he described is fairly apt. It’s a person who collects random information, researches topics online, and combines the data in unexpected and new ways.


 


For the past year or so, a growing movement of intellectual gamers has begun to take the spotlight. It is a social development that’s right on schedule (if not a bit early) in game culture, since all artistic mediums start hitting their stride once their initial fans are old enough to feel nostalgic about it. There was an interesting piece on GameSetWatch about the continuing evolution of video game journalism by Mike Walbridge. It’s a very good collection of different prominent gamerati and their takes on running a game blog. Some maintain well-developed communities, others view them more as soapboxes to stand on. He notes their curious habit of linking back & forth, discussing points raised by others, and in general functioning as an aggregate cabal of ideas. I’m reminded of Stephenson’s gargoyle term because of the way ideas flow and function amongst their blogs. They are not united by a magazine or website (though plenty write for one), they are united by an agenda: creating an intelligent and respectable discussion about video games. The way their attempts have become far more empowered than a single lonely critic or blogger is through the exact method that Stephenson predicted: aggregate ideas in new combinations are more powerful than individual ones. One blogger posts their experience designing an RTS. Another reads it, then cites it in reference to a think-tank on new RTS games. The next adds a little bit, the next adds a bit more, until a snowball effect has occurred and something wholly new is born.


 


So at what stage of intellectual development is the medium of video games right now? In an article about preserving classic video games by Michael Zenke, a particularly insightful comment summarizes it well. Danc, of Lost Garden fame explains: “As games increase in scope, play style and number, it simply isn’t possible to know all games all the time. So a curious thing occurs. You run into people who game and you have nothing in common with them…If the literary world is any indication, there will emerge an elite group that builds lists of canonical titles that everyone must play if they are to be considered ‘educated’…The existing gamer culture will fragment and adapt to this new reality of choice and variety. Entirely new cultures will emerge so that there is no longer a single ‘gamer culture’.” There’s a bit of cynicism about intellectual elitism that I cherry-picked out, but you get his point. And it’s already happening, a person playing Guitar Hero is not the same kind of person who plays FPS games, though they’re both technically playing video games. Working on the book club model, gamers are now picking a game of the month then discussing it through the internet. The aggregate cabal in motion, canonizing the revered classics and exploring different perspectives on them. Michael Abbott, a college professor and prominent blogger at Brainy Gamer, has already made plans for a course on RPG’s and created a loose list for his syllabus. Video games, in terms of development, have started to declare their touchstones, their games that all others are compared to.


 


Let’s take a moment to shake the magic 8-ball, blow the dust off history, and remind ourselves that this has already all been done before in other mediums. Going back to Danc’s comment about game culture fracturing, you can already begin to see the symptoms of factions in the intellectual community. It’s gettin crowded in there ya’ll. You can’t swing a digital cat without hitting another gamer with the surname intellectual, smart, sophisticated, etc. I’m not trivializing or belittling this, my own blog is called ‘Literati Game Reviews’, I’m just trying to have a chat with the kettle while we both sit on the stove. Although the internet is a wonderful place for six or seven intelligent people to chat and flesh out an idea, it is still constrained by the fundamental problem that reality has with conversations. There’s only room for so many people per conversation. A book club with forty members isn’t going to develop nearly as coherent a theme or message as one with twelve. We’ve all played enough video games made by 150+ developers to know that. Whether it’s because your favorite game isn’t on the list, they disagree with your ideas, or they just don’t have enough room for them, eventually writers are going to strike out on their own. And whether it’s from the bitterness of being ignored in one group or finding the necessary fire to get a second one started, these factions are going to start bickering.


 


Which is not such a bad thing, it’s right on course for the development of an artistic medium. Within those fights and dueling ideas is the magic that makes an artistic medium be alive instead of some dissected corpse. Within those conversations and arguments is what makes video games a living medium instead of a parade of dead people’s words or films. First you fight about the games you hate. Then you fight about the ones you love. Then you fight about what makes them great, then you fight about what made them even more. You fight about why they’ve changed.  You fight about why they stayed the same. Finally, you fight about how the medium is dying, and then you fight about how it’s gone. Then you do something new.


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Monday, Sep 15, 2008

It is safe to say that there are several kinds of soundtracks, each type geared towards exactly what the filmmaker wants or the narrative needs. Some act as nothing more than metaphysical mix tapes, complications collecting the various pop music tracks secured for a marketing tie-in release. To call it commercial would be stating the bloody obvious. Others act like subtle supplements, doing little more than emphasizing the storyline or subject matter inherent in a film. For these ethereal attempts, the slightest sonic breeze might simply blow it all away. But some scores are wholly reflective, capable of offering the listener an inner mirror. They provide a resource for mimicking the moviemaker, turning their vision into the sonic serenade heard over the Cineplex speakers.


In this edition of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at three examples of this rarified reality in action. In each case, the person with pen in hand and orchestra at bay is attempting to play inferred filmmaker, realizing the same style and vision of the person paying their wage. From the latest supporting stance from a longtime creative companion to the luxuriant efforts of one of the few women in the business, each presentation perfectly matches the material on hand - for good and for grating.

Burn After Reading - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]


If there is one constant in the Coen Brothers oeuvre, aside from the arcane cleverness and attention to old fashioned cinematic detail, it’s the music of Carter Burwell. Part folklorist, part sage sampler, this amazing musician has guided every one of the boys bravado movie moves, from Blood Simple to their most recent masterpiece No Country for Old Men. While never nominated for an Oscar (his work on both Miller’s Crossing and Fargo deserved at least some minor Academy Award acknowledgement), his themes have become the sonic signatures for the Coens’ complex aesthetic. His most recent collaboration with the filmmakers - the fantastic Burn After Reading - easily reflects the same anarchic attitude the brothers attempted when bringing the surreal screwball comedy to the big screen.


The main approach taken by this unusual film is that all romance is like high espionage. As a result, the Coens create a comedic backdrop in which everything - from extramarital affairs to breaches of national security - is treated within the same ersatz-thriller ideal. Burwell applies the same schematic energy here, such bracing selections as “Night Running”, “Breaking and Entering” and “How is this Possible?” playing like outtakes from a bawdy Bourne provocation. Elsewhere, the composer creates certain themes for specific characters, including a three part piece illustrating the look for love by health club employee Linda and tripwire Treasury agent Harry. Together without other standout tracks like “A Higher Patriotism” and “Carrots/Shot”, Burwell defends his position as full fledged member of the Coens’ creative consensus. It just wouldn’t be one of their films without his amazing musical muse.




Towelhead - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]


Looking over his resume, composer Thomas Newman has provided some sensational aural backdrops for some equally impressive films. From Pixar’s Wall*E to Todd Field’s Little Children, from Revenge of the Nerds in the mid ‘80s to the upcoming Revolutionary Road, he has a unique ability to capture the sly subtext of the films he is complementing. After working with Sam Mendes and Alan Ball on the Oscar winning American Beauty (he also received a nomination), it’s not surprising to see his name associated with the follow-ups from both men. Road won’t be released until December, but already making the festival and limited release rounds is Towelhead. Alan Ball’s directorial debut, centering on the sexual coming of age of a 13 year old Lebanese girl in Texas, is tough subject matter for a movie. Sadly, Newman’s score illustrates just how off base this entire production really is.


Made up mostly of ethnocentric beats and faux Middle Eastern influences, this lackadaisical soundtrack does little to amplify the sinister and shocking elements contained in Towelhead. Sequences like “Snow Queen”, “Vuoso”, and “Rain & Good Weather” feel barely fleshed out, locked in a slow simmering sonic strategy that barely delivers any intrigue. Even worse, when Newman starts with the polyrhythmic drumming and cultural swatches, he seems to be trying far too hard. How obvious is it that a film centering on an Arab teenager in America would be backed by what sounds like the Disney version of a Syrian sword dance. Besides, this score is miniscule in comparison to other efforts. With only eight tracks and a very limited running time, this feels like something Newman tossed off from the top of his head. Even a movie as miserable as Towelhead deserves better.




The Duchess - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]


It is unusual to find women working in the mostly man’s world of film scoring. It’s not for lack of talent. Instead, the studio system and their approach to soundtracks apparently still have a very high, and very unnecessary glass ceiling. Rachel Portman has clearly broken through, although not with the kind of commercial and critical respect given to her more masculine counterparts. Working in film since 1982, she’s provided the sonic setup for such interesting efforts as Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet, the Johnny Depp vehicle Benny and Joon, and most recently, the ‘other’ Truman Capote/In Cold Blood film Infamous. She even has an Academy Award for her work in Emma. Yet it’s clear that as a facet of a film, Portman perfectly matches the moviemakers she’s paired with. Never overstepping her bounds or breaking the tone established, she ends up offering the kind of support that few composers can claim - unobtrusive but totally necessary.


It’s the same with her creative classic revisionism for The Duchess. Featuring Keira Knightley and centering on the scandal plagued life of 18th century aristocrat Georgiana Spencer, Portman’s pieces here sound like found chamber music from a noted master’s overflowing filing cabinet. From perfect little tone poems like “I Think of You All the Time” to more majestic works like “Some Things Too Late, Others Too Early”, Portman’s methods segue perfectly into the noted legends on hand. Indeed, she doesn’t sound out of place among Beethoven or Hayden, both of whom are represented here. Certainly, there is a more contemporary bent to some of the selections, including the suggestively named tracks as “Gee and Grey Make Love” and “Rape”, but for the most part, The Duchess lilts along on the kind of antiquated atmosphere that seems perfect for this kind of period piece. Such a situation brings out all the British in this smart English artist.



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Monday, Sep 15, 2008
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image credit: cherryred2001

I’m just going to go ahead and blame an international move and return to full time grad school for distracting me enough to overlook this one: a group of concerned crafters, wanting to show British fantasy author Terry Pratchett the depth of their concern for him. As a group, starting in January, they created a ‘pratchgan’ – a patchwork afghan composed of small blocks referring to various aspects of Pratchett’s Discworld. The completed work was presented to Pratchett at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 16 August; he seemed quite impressed. Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease almost a year ago. He publicly stated in May of this year that the disease is now affecting his work – spelling is becoming more difficult and his typing has slowed down. Pratchett is determined to keep writing for as long as possible rather than take an early retirement. Different fans find various ways to show their support, and you can see more about the pratchgan on the blog of the organizer, here, including pictures of Pratchett accepting the gift along with a batch of letters from fans.
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image credit: Kit Cox

Personally, I have to love the Librarian square, with his brown orangutan face surrounded by fluffy orange fringe. I think I also spotted the Death of Rats in there somewhere, have a look yourself! What character or concept from the Disc would you most like to see rendered in yarn?

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Monday, Sep 15, 2008

The world of non-iTunes entertainment offerings got a little more interesting this week.  In a sign of how much entertainment companies and other retailers hate Apple, they’ve joined together to form Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), an organization to get movies sold online.  According to this Hollywood Reporter story, the DECE group includes “Warner Bros. Entertainment, Fox Entertainment Group, NBC Universal, Sony, Paramount Pictures and Comcast Corp. with retailer Best Buy along with tech giants Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Philips, Toshiba and Verisign.”  They might as well call it the “No Apple Allowed Club” since they’re all banding together to compete against Steve Jobs.  Usually, you could laugh off an Apple competitor as being naive but with such a big group of big shots, they might have the last laugh, especially since they own a big percentage of the film content out there and can slowly bleed off what they offer or don’t offer to Apple.  If consumers get used to going to another source (or several sources) besides iTunes for movies, then Apple’s got some problems ahead especially as these companies, not to mention Best Buy, can set up loss-leader pricing to entice buyers and also work with the tech/hardware people to have multiple ways to deliver it.


The other big anti-Apple move was the word that MySpace was readying its own music store and that now Facebook is probably looking to do the same, as detailed in this CNet article.  But note an important little item at the end of the article- there’s speculation that MySpace was forced into offering up music for sale because of legal stickiness.  First off, Facebook offers up streaming music because “clever legal language in the terms of the developer platform means that Facebook is exempt from many of the legal issues that would require it to negotiate with the labels.”  In the case of their competitor, “an industry source hinted that legal issues, not profit margins, were the driving force behind MySpace Music.”  Of course that’s speculation but as the article also points out, as I did in my last blog post, the profits for music sales with any service (even iTunes) is so tiny that the whole idea is self-defeating for everyone involved except for the labels and publishers.  That’s not a very encouraging sign for either MySpace or Facebook and it spells out why they’re not about to kill off iTunes themselves, unless they can also offer up a cooler entertainment player than the iPod.  Or if they find friends in high places like DECE…


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