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by Timothy Gabriele

4 Nov 2009

About partway through ABC’s adaptation of the Reagan-era sci-fi drama V, an FBI counter-terrorism agent, played by Steve the Pirate from Dodgeball, kicks down a door to a suspicious rusty old shed discovered while hot on the trail of a suspected terrorist. “Nothing!”, he proclaims as the interior reveals the banal components of your average quotidian shed, wishing to seek no further.

It turns out that the FBI agent was deliberately defeatist because he didn’t want his fellow spooks sneaking into his secret lair. Still, this disavowal pretty much sums up V;  a dramatic entrance (the arrival of a spaceship/flying LCD screen) and a subsequent failure to carefully examine interiors. Who would believe for one second that a counter-terrorism agent would surrender so easily on the trail of a terrorist cell recently found to be making massive purchases of C-4?

The rejection of surfaces is pretty much the thesis of V‘s first episode, but it’s a thesis upheld by the lazy sci-fi shorthand of a singular empirical reality laying beneath the surfaces. We know the good guys are good, because they know what’s really going on, whereas the suckers pledging a dogmatic “devotion” (the show’s big buzz word) to the new movement are apparently just dupes lured in by the Id-drive to fuck galactic travelers or the desperation-drive to accept anybody offering peace and prosperity in a time of turmoil.

by Tyler Gould

4 Nov 2009

To hear Sarah Assbring say it, Lou Reed’s “Heavenly Arms” had a massive impact on her ability to even begin to write the new album:

“I knew from the beginning I was going to do an album of love songs but as I was far from in an amorous state of mind at the time I realized, I couldn’t write anything that would be pretending I still believed in love. I wanted to though. Desperately. And upon reading the lyrics to “Heavenly Arms” I realized he’d find the way to express this dark and desperate fight for love to survive against all odds. “

El Perro Del Mar is touring in support of her latest album, Love is Not Pop, out now in the U.S. on the Control Group.

El Perro Del Mar
Change of Heart [MP3]
     

by Bill Gibron

4 Nov 2009

If only his mother wasn’t playing bridge. If only Roger O. Thornhill (“My own personal motto - R.O.T.,” he snidely explains), twice-divorced New York ad man hadn’t forgotten that important facet of his parent’s social calendar. He wouldn’t have rushed to his important meeting with some important clients. He wouldn’t have called on the Western Union boy to send a telegram (explaining to his secretary the locational faux pas). And he wouldn’t have incurred the curiosity of a pair of thugs, hitmen working for a foreign spy desperate to learn the identity of infamous secret agent George Kaplan. That afternoon card game eventually cost Thornhill his security, his safety, and his sanity as he becomes part of a major international conspiracy involving missing microfilm, double agents, and a conspiracy moving ever across the United States. 

Scripted by dependable collaborator Ernest Lehman (who set out to create the ultimate version of the Master of Suspense’s style) and featuring film’s singular leading man, Cary Grant (replacing intended star Jimmy Stewart), Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest remains the seminal example of the fabled director’s artistic proficiency. It’s thrilling, sexy, funny, fresh, inventive, exhilarating, and ultimately, a first-class illustration of the “they don’t make them like they used to” adage. Sure, some can argue over the legendary director’s constant shifts in locational perspective (in studio one shot, on location the next) and the highly formal manner in which he handles action, but Alfred Hitchcock is a legend for one obvious reason - he is a true cinematic visionary, someone who literally defined - and then proceeded to destroy - the limits of the motion picture artform.

By mistakenly drawing the attention of two hired goons, Thornhill comes face to face with crafty Cold warrior Phillip Vandamm and his henchman Leonard. Believing his is CIA operative George Kaplan, the duo threatens his life unless he converts to their cause. Of course, our oblivious businessman has no idea what they are talking about. Narrowly avoided an attempt on his life, Thornhill is soon framed for the murder of a United Nations contractor, forcing him on the run and desperate to seek out the real Kaplan. Learning that he might be in Chicago, our hero hops a freight, only to come face to face with sophisticated industrial designer Eve Kendall. She wants to help him. He winds up in ever deeper trouble. Soon, the government gets involved, letting Thornhill know that if he plays along with the Kaplan ruse, his name will be cleared. But there are complications, including how Eve fits into all of this.

Along with Vertigo and Psycho, North by Northwest is indeed the seminal suspense experience. It makes brilliant use of the everyman lost in a world of intrigue and danger ideal, and then amplifies the prospect by making Grant’s Thornhill more adept at these spy games than the villains. True, it takes a lot to show up James Mason and Martin Landau (getting a lot of mileage out of underplaying their roles), but this is Archibald Alexander Leach we’re talking about, the dashing, debonair superstar who more or less gave birth to the mainstream man crush. Grant agreeably gives his greatest performance here, at times both cosmopolitan and comically clueless. Just watch the scene where a completely inebriated and barely coherent Thornhill is trying to tell the police what happened to him. It’s a master class in bridging the gap between post-modern believability and studio system shtick. 

So are his entendre-laced clashes with Eva Marie Saint. No slouch as the femme fatale with a couple of troubling secrets up her designer sleeves, she is a flawless foil to Grant’s well-groomed wolf. There is absolutely no doubt about what’s on their mind when they meet, and later, when it looks like they will consummate their newfound friendship, the dialogue is just delicious. In the commentary track to the new blu-ray release (which looks AMAZING, one must say), writer Lehman lets us know about how careful he had to be with the words and phrases he chose to champion. Censors were already nervous about a middle aged man and a twenty-something sharing a train compartment. Several lines were snipped or trimmed when studio moralists believed they were too suggestive. In the end, Lehman actually got his way, if inadvertently. The scene between Grant and Saint in her darkened quarters remains one of the steamiest non-explicit moment between two people ever - all because of the oblique nature of the exchanges and Hitchcock’s handling of same. 

But the real North by Northwest showstoppers are the various edge of your seat sequences used to intensify the terror. Grant’s near accident while intoxicated is indeed harrowing and the classic crop duster attack remains a singular cinematic moment. The best is saved for last, of course, as Grant, Saint, and Landau traverse the various cliff-like edifices of Mount Rushmore. That’s right - Hitchcock had always wanted to conduct a chase across the façade of the fabled American monument, and thanks to some tricky F/X work (massive photos of the landmark were created, and then dimensionalized on a equally huge Hollywood set), he pulls it off magnificently. Indeed, watching Grant and Saint juxtaposed against this backdrop renews your faith in the power of filmmaking. While it may seem logistically impossible - or worse, highly improbable - Hitchcock makes it wholly believable. Like all of North by Northwest, his craftsmanship overcomes any shortcomings in “realism”.

As the introductory entry of the Master onto the new digital format, Warners works wonders with the North by Northwest blu-ray. The picture presentation is immaculate - clean, sharp, and loaded with detail. Indeed, there is no arguing with the 1080p transfer. The sound has also been remastered, giving Bernard Herrmann’s memorable score a whole new level of epic urgency. There are also some fascinating added features here, including the Lehman commentary, an hour long documentary on the making of the film, as well as a look at Cary Grant’s career and Alfred Hitchcock mythos. But it’s the chance to see North By Northwest as it was initially conceived - original aspect ratio and as close to theatrical quality as the home video domain can deliver - that really makes this masterpiece a must-own. One can only imagine the kind of optical bliss awaiting blu-ray remasters of Rear Window, or even better, Vertigo.

In a career that spans a stint in British silent movies and as part of television’s grandiose growing pains, it was his stint in Hollywood (and the stunning films he created during that tenure) that took Englishman Alfred Hitchcock from trivial to titan - and North by Northwest is an example of the genius at the height of his professional powers. Indeed, it’s hard to watch a post-modern take on the genre and not see this Cary Grant title as an obvious inspiration. Sure, it’s oddly out of place ‘domineering mother’ subplot makes the Thornhill seem slightly less than macho and we never really find out what Vandamm and his men are after (the classic Hitchcock ‘MacGuffin”). Still, if it wasn’t for that blasted card game, none of this would have happened - and that really would have been a shame. That’s because, as cinematic classics go, North by Northwest is one of the greatest of all time.

by G. Christopher Williams

4 Nov 2009

In Tropico 3, you take on the role of a Latin American dictator on a fictitious island in the Caribbean.  Sounds like fun, right?

Well, as anyone who likes to play god in simulation games by taking on the role of managing cities, zoos, movie studios, or amusement parks can tell you, doing so is generally a fairly complex undertaking that generally tests your own abilities in administrating but rarely tests your authority.  Despite being a simulation of dictatorship, Tropico 3 is largely about questioning authority and also about questioning the ideals of those politically motivated enough to arrest power.

Like other god games, this one will have you building an economy while developing and managing resources (both natural resources as well as people).  Unlike other god games, the political aspects of leadership become an additional management issues.  While “El Presidente” is free to make decisions about what to build and how to allocate the treasury of Tropico, he or she will also need to pay attention to the interests of a host of interest groups that influence the tiny people that find themselves under the sway of your “benevolent” guidance.  These interest groups range wildly from Capitalists to Communists to Militarists to Nationalists to the Religious.

As a result, while the various scenarios that the player can choose to play out in campaign mode have specific overarching goals (like shipping a certain amount of tropical goods over the course of several decades or building an economy based on oil profits or staying in power for three decades or socking away a large amount of cash in your Swiss Bank account before your tenure as dictator is over), any of these specific goals can only be met by kowtowing to the whims and needs of these various interest groups.  While building up an agriculturally based economy might seem like a simple enough goal, try doing so at the same time that religious Tropicans want you to build them a cathedral or the military wants better pay for those that defend Tropico against foreign and domestic threats (especially domestic threats but more on that in a moment) or the Communists are demanding better health care for all Tropicans.

Thus, Tropico suggests that you might play at being a seeming “master of men” while exposing the political reality of such “mastery”: that even a dictator has to bow to the demands of the little people if he or she wants to remain in power.  An almost Jeffersonian claim concerning the assumption that power is only granted through the will of the people underlies this democratization of dictatorial power.  This is democracy born of antagonism with the people, though, not by being directly empowered by them.  Indeed, any of the interest groups (of which there are seven in total in addition to the foreign interests of the US and USSR, since the scenarios are all set during decades of the Cold War) that might choose to begin attacking the infrastructure of the nation if they become sufficiently uncomfortable with your power.  Particular groups, like the Militarists, become especially thorny problems as they may simply mount a palace coup and remove you from power altogether if their needs are not addressed or if they feel that the safety of Tropico is threatened.  Elections may also be difficult to control (though, fraud provides some limited options) if a large enough group of variant interest groups find themselves generally dissatisfied with the fruit of their dictator’s labor.

Tropico then is played as a balancing act made up of constant political pandering.  The addition of edicts that can be issued unilaterally aids this process of pandering.  Edicts change the rules of the game and also cost a regular amount of money to maintain over a period of time.  Some edicts are just generally helpful to the Tropican community.  For example, the literacy edict improves relationships with the Intellectuals but also improves education and skills among Tropican workers.  However, the more interesting edicts are those that tend to pit interest groups against one another.  Declaring same sex marriages legal on Tropico will help to assuage any rifts that you have managed to create with the Intellectuals, but the edict will also open up new rifts with the Religious.

This emphasis on practical pandering, too, emphasizes another aspect of the game’s themes concerning the nature of politics themselves.  Since you have your own goals as dictator, which are not necessarily bad for the people of Tropico (building a grand economy for them couldn’t hurt could it?), practicality and pragmatism tend to trump any kind of adherence to political philosophy or ethics.

This Machiavellian vision of the machinery of the political can be quite pleasing from a gaming perspective as well as leading to often cynical observations about how certain philosophies’ ideas can be used pragmatically rather than idealistically to meet the goals of the individual in power.  A troubling but also surprisingly thrilling moment for me came in a scenario in which I was building a very strong economic infrastructure and realized that my workforce was not sufficient to maintain my economic engine.  My relationship with the Nationalists was quite poor at the time as I had hired a good many foreign workers to try to keep up with my need for a larger workforce.  However, my open immigration policy was pushing them towards rebellion.  I had never had the need to issue a contraceptive ban during the game before as I had merely seen it as a way to please the religious while pissing off the intellectuals.  Doing so seemed a pointless tradeoff of potentially rebellious citizenry.  However, I suddenly saw the very pragmatic purpose of “finding religion” and additionally realized that doing so could also benefit me by creating a native workforce, thus, stabilizing my fractured relationship with the Nationalists.  Philosophy and ethics bore very little relevance on my quick decision to issue the ban.  I needed more Tropican babies and the religion of Tropico allowed me to create them.

It is these moments of pragmatic insight and decision making that carries with it complex consequences (hurting you in some ways and helping you in others) that make the simulatory politics of Tropico 3 most interesting as they are expressed through gameplay.  Being a dictator is indeed fun, but it is also a rather wicked way of coming to understand the practical ramifications of seemingly absolute power.

by Tyler Gould

4 Nov 2009

Oh No Ono’s “Swim” can now be found on iTunes in audio and video form. Their sophomore album, Eggs, is finally getting distributed all over the globe, being released in the U.S. by Friendly Fire and worldwide by the Leaf Label on January 26th.

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