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by L.B. Jeffries

5 Nov 2008

In response to the fuss caused by the Mass Effect “Sexbox” controversy, a lot of bloggers and YouTube Critics were quick to note that the game hardly features any real sex. A little bit more digging however, and a frank reality began to strike some people: it’s not like sex has ever been handled maturely in video games anyways. Daniel Floyd’s excellent video on the history of sex in games makes a simple conclusion: if sex is an expression of love, then we need to handle the topic maturely and allow players to express in appropriate ways. Which I heartily support and believe sounds great in theory.

It’s just that I can’t think of too many times in an artistic medium where the first forms of sex depicted were done for any reason other than…depicting sex. Thinking of that as an ends rather than a means may be crude, but it’s also a bit more realistic in terms of how one gets the ball rolling. There are several interesting sex games out on the web now that vary from the tasteless to the tasteful that explore this. Starting with the tasteful is the free to download Dark Room Sex Game. Using the keyboard or Wiimote (provided you have a bluetooth rig), you have to develop a rhythm with the moaning in the game until you can induce an orgasm. The game has no graphics and is instead entirely based on sound and in the Wiimote’s case, vibrating. You press keys until you match the pace of moaning with the partner, trying to synchronize so they can have an orgasm. The game gets much more interesting once you use the co-op or orgie-op modes of play as each partner has to coordinate the moaning with the person standing next to them. It’s an interesting game because it responds to Floyd’s chief complaint about sex in games being belittling to women thus far. Playing the game with your partner (or orgy members) is going to result in requests to ‘slow down’ or ‘speed up’, etc. Rather than the sex being a one-sided affair, it instead takes on a supportive and team-oriented game design. I’m not trying to give myself an orgasm, I’m trying to give one to the other person.

Back on the subject of tastelessness is the recently released indie game BoneTown. Acting like a cross between Grand Theft Auto and a Ron Jeremy Sex Guide (he’s actually in the game), BoneTown is basically an exercise in masculine empowerment. You go on missions to improve your style, cash, and ‘balls’ power. This, in response, lets you increasingly score with more women and pleasure them better. I’m not going to really defend the game one way or another since I haven’t played it, but it has good production values and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It would probably be more respectable if it let you play as a woman, but that’s a psychological mirror even my male, job before social-life, mid-twenties singledom brain might not be able to handle responsibly. But at least the game is honest about the RPG mechanics it’s using and it beats the creepiness of two World of Warcraft players arguing over whose sword is better. At the very least, it gives people something to say whenever a deranged parent or news network is raving about some barely nude kissing sequence in a videogame. “That’s not a video game about sex. This is.”

by Bill Gibron

5 Nov 2008

Michael Crichton was a big man, and not just in stature. At 6’ 9”, he definitely did tower above his peers - at Harvard where he graduated summa cum laude, at the prestigious university’s medical school where he earned his doctorate; among his fellow science fiction writers; and on the set of his hit TV series ER. But he was also a man of big ideas, big successes, and toward the end of his life, big controversies. His accomplishments play like a greatest hits compilation in the main mediums - literature, film, television - he worked within. But upon his passing from cancer at age 66 on 4 November, 2008 one fears he will be remembered for his more contentious nature than his artistic accomplishments.

Crichton was born in Chicago on 23 October, 1942. A prodigy of sorts, he was interested in history and the humanities from a very early age. His mother would take the family to museums and other cultural experiences in and around New York City (the Crichton’s had relocated to Roslyn, Long Island, when Michael was still small) and the strapping student would often offer extra papers to his teachers. Growing faster than the other children, he survived the occasional razzing by losing himself in writing and books. He even wrote a play at age nine. By the time he reached Harvard, he was a bit of a wunderkind. He started writing novels, and publishing them under the pseudonym John Lange. Eventually, he penned The Andromeda Strain, and in 1969, it became a bestseller. Using his given name, it established Crichton as a genre author of formidable note.

And the hits just kept on coming. Among the over 100 million books he was responsible for selling, he crafted The Terminal Man (1972), The Great Train Robbery (1975), Congo (1980), Sphere (1987), Rising Son (1992), Disclosure (1994), and Prey (2003). But his biggest success came when a chance conversation with Stephen Spielberg revealed the plot for Crichton’s upcoming dinosaur-oriented thriller. Mr. Blockbuster snapped up the rights before it was even published, and with that, Jurassic Park became a literal monster. Not only did it bring CGI to the otherwise ordinary giant b-movie creature feature, but it turning Crichton and his catalog into the go-to oeuvre for future book to film adaptations.

Of course, many forget that, in addition to writing, the gentile giant was also a decent director of big screen fare. With the amazing success of Andromeda (which was made into a wonderful film by Robert Wise in 1971), Crichton was given a chance behind the lens. When the TV movie Pursuit (based on his political assassination tome Binary) was well received, he made the leap to the theater, delivering one of 1973’s most provocative and profitable films. Westworld told the tale of a theme park where robots fulfilled the fantasies of its patrons. When a gunslinger android goes rogue, it’s up to a group of visitors to avoid his preprogrammed wrath. Successful enough to mandate a sequel (1976’s Futureworld), it provided the creative carte blanche that Crichton needed.

His next film would be an adaptation of Robin Cook’s organ bank fright fest, 1978’s Coma. It representing a weird kind of aesthetic synchronicity, as both men were medical doctors turned successful novelists. With Michael Douglas in the lead, it turned into a sizeable smash, and this allowed Crichton to pursue more personal projects. In 1979, he adapted his own Great Train Robbery as a vehicle for Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. Unfortunately, the follow-up, 1981’s Looker, was a plastic surgery disaster. While staying well within Crichton’s signature themes of science gone astray and technology trumping common sense, it was not the cautionary tale triumph of previous efforts.

Prior to hitting paydirt again with Park (which he merely scripted with help from David Koepp), he offered up the unexceptional sci-fi slop Runaway, perhaps best known for its casting of Kiss’s recently unmasked Gene Simmons as the main villain. After taking on the turgid Physical Evidence (1989) as a director for hire, Crichton seemed uninterested in continuing in film. While he contributed to the script of the Jan de Bont disaster smash Twister, Crichton seemed content to sell his stories to the studios, and then watch as adaptation after adaption failed to live up to his words. But when Park became a worldwide phenomenon, Critchon recalled the first project he and Spielberg discussed. A proposed novel about a doctor’s life in a bustling hospital emergency room, the TV take known as ER bowed in 1994. This year, 2008, marks its 14th and final season on NBC.

Over the course of his three and a half decades in the spotlight, Crichton never shied from his scientific background or his own interests. He wrote four non-fiction books - Five Patients (about his experiences in Massachusetts General), Jasper Johns (about his personal friend and renowned artist), Electronic Life (an introduction to the home computer) and Travels. He also did extensive programming for both the Applesoft and Basica PC languages. But as the new millennium approached, Crichton stopped sitting on his simmering beliefs and began spewing what many thought to be misguided and mean spirited attacks on environmentalism, the media, and what he considered to be the ‘contestable’ theory of global warming. He even went so far as to offer up a band of mass murdering eco-terrorists as the main plot point for his 2004 work State of Fear.

As each new novel was met with a decreasing level of excitement, Crichton appeared to turn inward. In his last published work, the 2006 “missing link” genetic research shocker Next, the author introduced a minor character named Michael Crowley. Described as a pedophilic Yale Graduate with a small penis, it was seen by some as a petty retort to the real life Crowley, himself a Yale grad and writer for the New Republic. Apparently, he penned a column highly critical of Crichton, and the resulting literary reference was a rather obvious if crude attempt at payback. When he learned he had cancer, Crichton asked that his soon to be published book be held until after his death. The still untitled effort should be released sometime later this year or early next.

Whatever the subject - and speculation among the messageboard faithful is fierce - it is clear that the standard Crichton commercial craftsmanship will be there. Issues that don’t ring true to him will be challenged and chopped up, fed like fodder to a mainstream audience who may not even understand the expressed nuances. Much more than just the man responsible for bring dinosaurs back into the pop culture conversation, Crichton was like Arthur C. Clarke without the knack of precognitive tech accuracy. He took on the growing influence of Asia with Rising Sun, and argued about sexual discrimination - in reverse - with his controversial Disclosure. He often bristled at criticism, complaining that many made their condemnations without actually thinking through their arguments. Up until the end, he remained a contentious contemporary thinker.

But one shouldn’t forget his pre-politics persona. As one of the few science fiction writers with an actual commercial following, Crichton proved that the speculative genre could be as compelling and profitable as Stephen King’s horror or the seedy soap operatics of someone like Jacqueline Susan. Indeed, long before he gave us the return of the T-Rex, Crichton was commenting on the frequent future shock society experienced with the endless march of progress. It’s no surprise then that many of his books take on and deconstruct the big picture painted of the world around us. After all, with someone like Michael Crichton, everything was and still is big - even his legacy.

 

by Rob Horning

5 Nov 2008

Writing in the New Yorker, John Lanchester compares the current credit crisis to a Derridean aporia:

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings—a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect.

Often, the temptation in graduate school was to deploy this insight to assert that there are no essential meanings, no essential values, that basically everything is relative and nothing—say, authorial intent, a person’s identity, an emotional experience, the aesthetic merit of a text—could ultimately be authenticated. I’m not sure the same thing is happening in the financial world with derivatives—which are well-explained at this site. By definition, derivatives derive their value from something else, but in the financial realm, the “movement of the trace,” as Derrida would have called it, is not arbitrary—the value of derivatives are not at the mercy of random concatenations of contiguous assets. Bankers may have neglected the black swans, as Nassim NicholasTaleb has argued, but the nature of the derivatives themselves did not alter depending on the perspective of who was trying to decipher them. The peculiarity of derivative is that they allow investors to go short or long on concepts (say, the idea that G.M. will go bankrupt) rather than physical assets. This makes it sound as though there is no there there, which makes it seem very postmodern. But the key distinction in Saussurean linguistics is that the relation between the signifier and signified is entirely arbitrary. The premise of derivatives is just the opposite; contracts are drawn up to bind the parties around some very specific relation of an asset to its future value.

What is so “decentering” about deconstruction is the notion that meaning is constructed in the arbitrary relations of signifiers to other signifiers, and the total detachment from the signifieds. Financial derivatives don’t detach from the underlying assets, as I understand it, no matter how opaque they may become. The problem in the crisis is not that value, like meaning, is inherently fluid (and that isn’t even meant to be a pun on the illiquidity problem) but that the original amount of valuable stuff was wildly disproportionate to the amount of value being circulated in the financial system. The system was overleveraged.

The closest postmodern equivalent for this would be the notion that there is no value to begin with at the heart of things, only a convenient fiction that value exists: a Master Signfier that seems to give stable meaning to the rest of the signs and allows the joy of the free play of signifiers to begin. If you accept this, then you can argue that the crisis has come because somehow people began to question the necessary fiction (I’m not sure if this is what causes the aporia in Derrida’s argument) and began believing that it wasn’t fiction at all. The peculiar notion that gold has some intrinsic value is a better example of this; the value of gold is in what you can exchange it for, so it must keep moving. If you hoard it, thinking you are gathering value to yourself, you have become lost in the delusion of original, inherent value. The point is that all value is constructed in circulation. Meaning is created through the movement of the trace; the trace itself has no inherent meaning—it’s not the master signifier, even though people may need to believe it is so to start it moving.

Anyway, the tendency to mystify the doings of financial “geniuses” with this kind of postmodernist analysis is dangerous, I think, because it masks the much more apprehensible truth that the credit bubble had become a Ponzi scheme, a game where continued returns depended on recruiting new suckers—new unqualified borrowers, new pension funds to buy up fallaciously rated AAA CDO tranches, etc. That makes for a better metaphor for the crisis than the word games of postmodernists, and is more likely to inspire the sort of regulatory action we should be taking in response to it.

Famously, the only option left open to us by postmodern philosophy is a kind of hopelessness, the “fatal strategies” of apathy or silence or heedless surrender. These are appropriate if you truly believe the entire notion of meaning or value is a sham, that every action helps reinforce the system you want to escape from. But if you believe that companies in a capitalist society actually are productive, that GDP really is a measure of value, that the economic output of a society consists at some level in things we all need to distribute and consume, then postmodern strategies are rhetorical disguises best used to distract people from that actual value while you try to secure more of it, i.e. more power over how the output of society is distributed, for yourself.

by Thomas Hauner

5 Nov 2008

The occasion was Cold War Kids’ sophomore album Loyalty to Loyalty tour, but the atmosphere was more akin to recently parted college pals boozing it up like they’d never split up. Their hour and a half long set sampled both old and new repertoire, though you wouldn’t know it by the crowd’s thrilled responses.

Opening with “Every Valley is Not a Lake” off of Loyalty, their sound was epic but unrefined enough to lend itself to the inebriated blues-y timbre that inhabits lead singer Nathan Willett’s vocals. Pounding on the keyboard, Willett matched drummer Matt Aveiro’s throbbing beats, which along with Matt Maust’s pointillistic and driving bass playing made up the majority of the group’s heavy minimalist sound.

They romped through fan favorites like “We Used to Vacation”, “Hospital Beds”, and “Hang Me Up to Dry”. During “Robbers” they took a particularly humbling DIY approach to the lighting, presenting two flashlights (and not even Maglites) to serve as isolated beams randomly moving about while playing in their wandering silhouettes one-handed. Together it emphasized the song’s underlying sense of loneliness and aimlessness.

Other songs also evoked the group’s isolated timbres. “Every Man I Fall For” suggested the warm yet minor sounds of the Stones’ stumbling intro to “Under My Thumb” before ripping into more reverb heavy strums.

The Kids keenly made sure to set Willett’s respective keyboard and piano at opposite and extreme ends of the stage, allowing Maust and guitarist Jonnie Russell the maximum space to thrash and jump unpredictably. The two were also partial to smacking multiple maracas against several cymbals available at the front of the stage.

The audience matched the group’s youthful exuberance (propelled by a Goonies-like pirate backdrop no doubt) with timely handclaps on “Hospital Beds”. But the real pageantry occurred during the encore when a trombone and clarinet player paraded onto the stage to blast some indecipherable notes on finale “Saint John.” Their panache and movements seemed to do enough to add flavor to the already well-loved tune.

by Bill Gibron

4 Nov 2008

It’s safe to say that Hollywood has finally figured out the family film. Not in a good way, mind you, but in an instantly profitable paradigm which guarantees coffers of cash either before or after the mandatory DVD release. While some might question the callousness of such a statement, the truth is that more of the major studios are sinking their dwindling production pot into films that fill up the G to PG-13 arena. While live action fare can’t really compete (only High School Musical and Hannah Montana have proven that humans can put butts into stadium seats), animation remains king. And not just any cartoon concept, but the sparkling techno geekiness of computer generated imagery.

Over the last year, the town of Tinsel has released several 3D titles. There was Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, Fly Me to the Moon, Space Chimps, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Igor, and Horton Hears a Who. While few passed the patented quality assurance, there were those - Panda, Wall-E, Horton - that rose above the creative din to avoid the genre’s curse. Indeed, ever since Pixar proved the viability of motherboard made entertainment, a motion picture blight has risen up inside the world of animation. Another example of it arrives this Friday, 7 November with the release of the unnecessary, uninspired sequel Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.

Many know it as the Fox/Dreamworks design, and it goes a little something like this: hire yourself a group of recognizable voice actors, preferably from mediums (TV, music) that provide some conceptual crossover appeal; take your spec screenplay and strip it of anything remotely resembling complicated characterization or narrative; insert multiple examples of lame pop culture quipping, everything from tempered Top 40 hits to fame whore in-joking; offer up a few mindless musical montages; and don’t forget the borderline offensive toilet humor and bodily fluid/noises jokes. Wrap it all up in a ribbon of riot act ridiculousness, a level of ADD inspired attention spanning that will leave the underaged spent and the adult feeling they got their Cineplex-inflated money’s worth, and you’ve got a F/D derivative. And a big fat hit, probably.

It’s a talent pool temperament that’s tainted everything from the shrill Shrek (and his two and counting sequels), the rusty Robots, the icky Ice Age efforts and the mindless Madagascar. Of course, such criticism hardly matters when said group accounts for several hundred MILLION dollars in box office returns. Yet to argue that money equals quality is a lot like stating that volume equals pitch. Just because a film rakes in an unconscionable cavalcade of currency doesn’t mean it’s a categorical classic. In the case of these CG slurries, the exact opposite seems to be true. The more money they bring in, the more mediocre and strident they seem to be. Malcolm McLaren had it right - cash from chaos.

Take Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. As franchise fodder goes, it’s a brainless combination of everything that made the first film so stiff with an amplified idea of how to repeat said achievement. This isn’t art, it’s pure commerce draped in an undeniable coating of focus group faith-based marketing. The pre-planned pleasures in the story are so obvious they shimmer. As the four main animals from the first outing discover the pros and cons of returning to their native land, the audience it treated to dim satire, punch lines that bang into each others like tweeners at a Jonas Brothers concert, and a gorgeous amount of visual splendor spoiled by obvious overacting from a cast who seem to base their performance level on the number of zeroes in their residual checks.

Clearly, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa was made with the intent of keeping children’s tiny synapses engaged so as not to allow for any questioning or concern. Yet the film goes so far as to offer up two additional ideals that seem to have no place in such family-oriented entertainment. The first is fairly obvious - violence. This is a very vicious film. Alex is seen as a helpless lion cub, then when kidnapped, his heroic father chases the poachers until a huge gun barrel dislodges a round right into daddy’s…earlobe. While no blood is shown, the character carries the missing piece/scar around the rest of the film. Equally concerning are the sequences with Mort the Mouse Lemur. He is seen trying to enter an airplane, mid-air, and then after he survives the eventual crash, he is chased by a shark that can apparently live outside the water for inordinately long periods of time.

And it goes on. There is a battle between Alex and a muscle-bound lion, another time for the critters to take on a band of desperate (and hungry) tourists. All of which brings us to Nana, the “feisty” old lady from the first film. A short slapstick sequence originally, she is fleshed out here, given to fits of Jason Voorhees like punishment and a Lord of the Flies mentality that just doesn’t mesh with the movie’s lighter tone. It’s hard to support such outright hostility, especially when it’s really not delivered for comic effect. Imagine, if you will, that Yosemite Sam finally managed to get his stubbed up paws on that “rascally varmint” Bugs Bunny…and then spent 45 seconds beating the ever lovin’ stuffin’ out of him. No wit. No physical comedy shtick. Just an endless beat down. Nana gets two chances at this throughout the course of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. How nice.

But perhaps the most disconcerting element here is the weird sexualization of the animals. Gloria, the feisty female hippo, spends the majority of her journey through the veldt pining away for a partner. Not a soul mate, or a friend, but a big time booty call. She eventually gets the big eye from a new character called Moto Moto. During a late night rendezvous which sounds suspiciously like a hook up in a Chubby Chasers chat room, the two give new meaning to the concept of disturbing double entendres. From the glamour shots of our hefty heroine poising provocatively to Moto making like Fabio and flexing his flab, it’s the grade schooler equivalent of watching the foreplay in a particularly disturbing animated porno. Even a strange shot of our lothario’s butt managed to draw audible gasps from the standard screening audience.

All of which begs the question - how, exactly, is this family fare? Are we to assume that Walt Disney, the man who started the entire feature length animation craze, would approve of putting such content into his films? Sure, Bambi’s mother died, and Pinocchio was threatened by the biggest whale his pen and ink posse could create. But would the man behind the House of Mouse condone random acts of senseless brutality? Or maybe Dumbo’s mom should have received a last minute conjugal visit before she was carted off to her mad elephant cage. Certainly it’s an exaggeration to see these sequences as anything more than minor reflections of their more mature counterparts, but they also suggest something desperate about the continual cannibalization of the CG genre. Hollywood usually gets the family film right - at least when it comes to the preprogrammed manner in which they make these movies and money. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is either a fluke, or something to be wary of in the future. Perhaps, it’s a little of both. 

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