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by Rob Horning

18 Nov 2008

One of my favorite features of the Financial Times are the special sections devoted to relatively obscure regions that assess the politics and investment possibilities. Today’s edition included a four-page section on Belarus, home to Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Yes, you can learn a great deal about the city of Grodno, and Belarus’s dependence on Russia’s gas, and its thriving tractor-building industry. But the only must-read is this interview with Lukashenko, in which he proudly, if ironically, seizes the “last dictator” mantle.

You are so lucky to have a chance to talk to the last dictator of Europe. You could only dream of meeting with the last dictator of Europe and see what kind of dictator he is. Touch him, sit at the same table with him. You only read this in books, but now you’ve seen it for real.

It’s probably a stereotype I’ve absorbed from 1980s Cold War films, but this is exactly how I expect Eastern European dictators to sound, contemptuous of Western journalists to the point of mocking them to their faces. (It makes me want to reread the New Yorker article about the mad dictator Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, the self-styled “father of all Turkmen,” or this classic about chess-loving dictator Kirsan Ilyumzhinov of Kalmykia.) Lukashenko dismisses his political opponents (“if they come to power they wouldn’t know what to do ... They feel good being eternal oppositionists”) and declares Belarusian elections “transparent without precedent” before dispensing this brilliant piece of parenting advice.

It is very important for a father to teach his son a real man’s life. And when [my youngest son] Kolya turned one year old, I took him by the hand and brought him to a steam room. Of course he complained and ran out. But now he is four years old, he can endure temperature differences from 100 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the steam room to 28 degrees in the swimming pool. Plus he endures ice baths. I taught my [two] elder sons to do that. We would cut a hole in ice on the river, dive into it, and then run along through the snow to the steam room.

No wonder my adult life has seemed so inauthentic and unreal—it’s been distinctly lacking in drastic temperature swings and ice baths.

by Rob Horning

18 Nov 2008

In this LRB essay, Slavoj Žižek ponders the significance of Obama’s election. While it seems to represent a temporary triumph over political cynicism—“what the cynics don’t see is their own naivety, the naivety of their cynical wisdom which ignores the power of illusions”—does it also imply some sort of decisive break in historical continuity? Has Obama introduced a whole new game rather than merely adjusting the rules of the existing politics? (See Larval Subjects’ thoughts on that here.) As the transition has been assembled, we’ve seen some of the same Washington power players from the Clinton era shuffled back into prominence, which has led to articles (like this one) pronouncing that nothing’s really changed. This allows some pundits to dismiss the outpouring of emotion when Obama won as overdramatic self-congratulation by liberals who will deserve to be disappointed by politics as usual. (Update: See leftist philosopher Simon Critchley’s view here.)

Of course, politics will largely remain the same—various interests will continue to compete for priority and so on. This is a good thing; dreams of post-partisanship are misguided in presuming some underlying consensus among peopple with irreconcilable differences. Žižek makes this point in an aside: when the financial crisis led to bipartisan action, what that meant in effect was “that democratic procedures were de facto suspended.”

But it’s hard to look at something like this, the first of what promises to be a weekly YouTube chat from Obama, on a government website that is almost unprecedented in its user-friendly slickness, and not feel that something is fundamentally different about this administration. That difference—a comfort with new media and the opportunities that stem from it—seems irreversible. (I’m sure this has already been called Politics 2.0 somewhere.) I have to admit that it’s a little sinister and Big Brotherly in feel, and I am still cynical enough to suspect these traits will help make it go over well with the general public.

What Obama’s team seems to want to do is establish Obama as an untarnishable brand, anchored in images of youth and progress (hence YouTube), that can then be used to win approval for policies without having to convince people of their merits. Participating in politics tends to make people uncomfortable, and few people do it at any level beyond voting. It involves compromise and confrontation and a willingness to be reminded again and again that reality falls short of ideals. But people love participating in brands—no compromise necessary there, as the engagement takes place on the fantasy level and consists of pure vicarious pleasure. If we become invested in brand Obama, we will end up absorbing the progressive ideology he may espouse as a kind of by-product. And this can then inform the polls that inform political decisionmaking by legislators. Maybe this is nothing new; this is the “bully pulpit” theory of executive leadership. We just have been without a credible leader for so long in the U.S. that’s it is hard to remember what that is like.

by Vince Carducci

17 Nov 2008

The Beatles is called ‘the White Album’, of course, because of its cover, which is completely devoid of imagery save for the group’s name blind-embossed on its face slightly off-center and askew, and a few discreet bits of type printed in barely visible light gray on the spine and front and back panels. In the shimmering muteness of its glossy blank surface, The Beatles announces the end of the psychedelic era, the obsolescence of floridity and pretension typified ironically enough by the band’s previous opus, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like a Trojan horse virus, the seeming ineffability of The Beatles’ exterior masks the flowers of evil contained in songs that would dissolve the saccharine melodies of the Summer of Love and provide the helter-skelter soundtrack for the Manson murders and Watergate paranoia to come.

by Bill Gibron

17 Nov 2008

The juxtaposition of instrumental music with actual songs seems almost antithetical to the movie soundtrack dynamic. After all, we view the score as something supporting the film, not focusing in on its themes (or lack thereof) or pimping particular sales lagging label mates. And yet over and over again, directors use individual tracks by known and unknown artists to amplify their own sense of aesthetic, while studios demand their placement for added marketing pizzazz. Of course, rare is the filmmaker who can successfully merge the sentiments of a specific song with the sequence it’s supposed to suggest. More times than not, the commercial tie-in is more viable that the proposed purpose. Luckily, some films use music as it’s meant to be - a celebration of life within a unique aural vista in which vision and sound are supposed to merge.

This time around, SE&L‘s Surround Sound looks at three soundtracks that really can’t make up their minds. One wants to celebrate the sexy soul sounds of old school R&B, but yet can’t shake the exterior elements that make the movie it stands for sadly significant. Another tries to walk the fine line between beatbox and breakneck, and almost succeeds. Finally, we get the weird combination of New Age mood music and slightly underdone indie pop. In all three cases, the parts work better than the sum, and if you don’t mind digging just a bit, you’ll probably find more gems than jokes. Let’s begin with the best, for obvious reasons:


Soul Men - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

With their deaths within weeks of each other, Bernie Mac and the Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes, left Soul Men with a clouded legacy that no amount of cinematic sunshine could overcome. Even the movie itself, which turned out to be a gloriously raunchy, cliché controlled grab bag had trouble prying laughs out of the pall these tragedies produced. If anything, the sensational soundtrack to the film suffers even more. While Mac and co-star Samuel L. Jackson make a sensationally vulgar and viable ex-R&B act, their singing performances indicate a pair of incredibly talented (and brave) men. Though they only appear on three cuts - the John Legend led “I’m You Puppet”, the sensational Rufus Thomas cover “Boogie Ain’t Nothin’ (But Getting’ Down), and the show stopping finale “Do Your Thing”, their exuberance and professionalism lingers throughout the entire score. It also amplifies the sense of loss. 

As a collection of classic tracks, Soul Men sizzles. There are excellent takes on such Stax staples as “Comfort Me”, “Private Number”, “Water”, and “Memphis Train”. We even get such memory lane myths as “You Don’t Know What You Mean (To a Lover Like Me)”, “I Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)” and “Never Can Say Goodbye”. But it’s the collaboration between Mac and Jackson that consistently stands out. Again, the voices sometimes strain to hit the notes, and there is a lack of pure professional polish that comes through, especially when placed side by side with someone like co-star Sharon Leal. Yet it’s the power of personality that wins over - that, and the undeniable perfection that is these old soul standards. Many may see this uneven comedy as an awkward swansong for two very talented me. But Mac and Hayes are the reasons Soul Men works, not the elements that bring it down.

The Guitar - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

The Guitar gives off the vibe of an incomplete, or even worse, incoherent project. Early reviews of the film, a first time feature by Robert Redford’s daughter Amy, have argued for the maudlin movie as either inspired, or a work of manipulative junk. The half song/half score CD for the project produces a similar kind of disorientation. On the one hand, we get Space Age Bachelor Pad muzak in the form of “Glancing Lovers” by Johnny Saravino. On the other, there’s the subtle folkish fluff of Phoebe Jean Dunne’s “Cold Hands”.  Rock is rewarded with an Everyothers reading of David Bowie’s “John, I’m Only Dancing” (good) and the band original “Dive With You” (raging, if kind of flat). By the time we get to the end of the tunes, Alap Momin’s slightly psychedelic “Arch Angel” and Deb Montgomery’s jagged “Fly Free” seem like proper finales.

But there’s more - 30 tracks more. Written by David Mansfield, the moody, ambient tone poems produced to supply The Guitar with atmosphere seem to work, for the most part. “Walking” offers an intriguing introduction to this composer’s concepts, while “Thoughts of Suicide” and “First Flashback” (with its thunderous guitar swirls) broaden the potential canvas. “Shopping” sounds like an ad for a high end PC, while “Nice Dress” is a country-tinged trifle. Things stop about halfway through, oddly enough, for another tune, the lo-fi oddity “Hard Way”. From then on, it’s more amplified angst, carefully strummed psychobabble, and a far amount of sublime sonic invocation (“Leaving” being a prime example). While the verdict may be out on Ms. Redford as a director, her choice in aural accompaniment shows promise - and some problems. As a result, The Guitar soundtrack feels unfulfilled.

Nobel Son - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

From the opening chug of Nobel Son‘s title track, an electro-fied rave-up with Middle Eastern tints by Spitfire, you get the distinct impression that you are about to enter one of those oh-so-hip self-referential efforts where the director, Randall Miller, is about to channel his inner Guy Ritchie. Reading over the plot synopsis for this darkly comic thriller, one feels the fit will be a little more complicated. The story involves the kidnapping of a Nobel Prize winner by members of his own dysfunctional family. The remix heavy soundtrack, peppered with several instrumental tracks by popular trance DJ and recording artist Paul Oakenfold, is very reminiscent of the man’s contributions to other fast-moving missives like Speed Racer, Shoot ‘Em Up, and The Matrix Reloaded. Oakenfold is definitely the star here, his knob twirling and disc twiddling on such cuts as “Thumb Time”, “Roasted Pig”, and “Screwing Around” showing off his style magnificently.

Unfortunately, this fellow CD space savers consistently let him down. The Bad Apples “Let Me Be Real” is so derivative of flaccid FM rock that it starts to sound dated the moment the lead singer opens his bemoaning craw. Spitfire’s tracks aren’t bad, but they too suffer from a sort of “been there, heard that” recognizability. Emjay and the Atari Babies do their best Sigue Sigue Sputnik meets T. Rex cock stomp with the interesting “So Clear”, while “Hum” from the Groove Armada starts out strong, and then never builds into anything. Only the Chemical Brothers contribute something special, their brilliant “Come Inside” suggesting all the reasons the band was once considered the “next big thing” in music’s ever-changing landscape. If a collection of songs can be indicative of the type of film they complement, the hit and miss redundancy of Nobel Son‘s soundtrack doesn’t bode well for director Miller’s motives.

 

by L.B. Jeffries

17 Nov 2008

One of the most prolific themes of modern video games is the idea of creating a roller coaster or theme park ride experience for the player. Just as you would go through an amusement park and jump on the various rides, in video games you go through and try out the various experiences offered. The designer creates a roller coaster path through a series of action-packed events. A prime example of this design is Call of Duty 4’s single-player campaign. Whether it’s operating the turret in a gun ship, dying in a nuclear fallout, or battling in the streets of a Middle-Eastern city, this is the gaming equivalent of an amusement park ride for modern warfare. Three specific moments are particularly impressive in this design because they push the norm for shooter experiences and offer something besides generic victory scenarios. What Call of Duty 4 tackles in three distinct sequences is dying in a war zone.

 

The first roller coaster sequence takes place in the midst of a Civil War. The developers pull the rug out from the player in this sequence because up until this point the game has been acting like a fairly typical shooter. Suddenly, we are thrust into the body of the President as he is being dragged to his execution. You have no control over movement but can move the camera, a logical game design choice given the linear narrative. What makes it interesting is that players almost never play the victim in an FPS and suddenly, here they are experiencing it. Once it dawns on the player that this is a passive sequence though, there is a risk for things to become boring. In Half-life 2 there are many passive exchanges that are dull. But here, the developers keep it interesting by surrounding the player with activity. Civilians run in terror, firefights are going on, and every atrocity of war one can imagine is going on at all sides. The player still controls the camera and they immediately start trying to see everything going on as the car drives through the city. It is, literally, like going on the Pirates of the Carribean ride except everything has been replaced with modern warfare events. By coercing the player to frantically look all around they are mimicking what a person in that situation would be doing. In this way, the game involves the player into being a willing camera man. A willing participant in making the event be presented the way that it would be for someone actually in that situation. The slow dread the player feels as they see the inevitable gun barrel coming upon them and finally being aimed is also present. The game gives you the experience of being executed and it coerces our involvement through both game design and player input.

The nuke sequence is still probably one of the most incredible experiences a video game has yet provided for its audience. What would the final moments of being at ground zero for a nuclear blast be like? The level opens with the player acting as the character they’ve been playing for several missions and whom we assume is going to be escaping from the blast in yet another frantic battle. Crawling out of the crashed chopper is done at a crippling pace and the player cannot see outside until they get to the exit. It’s an excellent piece of level design that controls the visual flow of the surroundings to the player. Like the passive sequence of being executed, there is a great deal of careful design architecture occurring. Each sight and sound is carefully paced in the level all while the player is still in control. The first thing you see once you get outside the chopper is a dead marine. Any thoughts about escaping begin to fade at that ominous sign. Movement is heavily inhibited and the player falls over several times while they try to move. Your crippld state is heavily emphasized by the sound here as well; each footstep makes a dragging sound and there is heavy breathing in the soundscape. You’re able to make some progress but slowly you start to realize maybe this level is different. Maybe you’re not getting out of here. A glance to the right reveals an incinerated playground and then the moment we were wondering about finally happens. The game design makes you collapse. You look up and finally see the mushroom cloud glowing bright yellow in the background. A crashing sound to your left draws your attention to a sky scraper crumbling to dust. No more walking and the lights dim, with only the strange sound of children playing in the burned out playground going on around you.

The final passive sequence is at the end of the game and it’s just as startling as the others. A lot of people criticized it for coming seemingly from nowhere, but given the almost cliché briefing where the soldiers all talk about buying each other drinks and the fact that you never really know when a mission is doomed in war anyways, it didn’t disrupt my personal experience. Your attempt to escape the Russian Ultra Nationalists goes awry and you end up stranded on a bridge. After two missiles from a helicopter slam your position, you struggle around in shock while everyone in your squad is brutally shot or injured. The camera is controlled somewhat by the player but the game does not hesitate to jerk your head for you, so you can only move it around a small amount. Your fellow soldier is shot while he drags you to safety, the approaching soldiers kill your team-mate, and your captain is struggling with the gun in his belt. In this instance, absolute freedom as in the other levels would cause you to miss the designers intended experience. The final moments of seeing the game’s main villain walking towards you culminate in the player performing the ‘Last Stand’ activity that they have witnessed throughout the game. A downed soldier pulls out their pistol and fires off a few shots before they’re finished off. Only now, it is the player performing the doomed action. Because of the other two cutscenes we are desensitized to our dying and when the gun is slid towards us concerns about staying alive are forgotten. All you want to do is take aim and finish off the person responsible for all of this. Yet the game’s final twist is perhaps its most clever, because just as we are preparing ourselves to die because the game has demonstrated that it has no qualms about killing us, we are miraculously saved. The game explores both elements of combat, dying for no reason as with the nuclear strike and being saved while others die around you.

 

There are a lot of fundamental elements in these moments of Call of Duty 4 that have little to do with game design or even narrative and instead boil down to aesthetics. When a game puts you into a passive situation where you can only observe one must instead approach it as an architect. How is this room conceived? Where do my eyes go? What is the flow? An excellent essay proposes just such an approach to games by pointing out the possibilities an architecture student would see in a video game. What is the perfect way to design the scenery and landscape of an atomic wasteland? Of the room you intend to be the last thing the player sees? It’s an aesthetic that Call of Duty 4 explores with these passive moments and that is greatly enhanced by the emotion the landscape design brings out. It’s not enough to just stick the player in a car that’s surrounded by people being shot. It’s not enough to have people speak to your character instead of shooting at them. Several other FPS games, such as Quake 4’s horrific Strogg conversion sequence or F.E.A.R.’s blending of cutscene and explosions have all explored the idea of passive sequences. What happens in Call of Duty 4 is a passive sequence that doesn’t take away the excitement of participating in those moments because the roller coaster ride always gives us something to look at.

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