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by Chris Barsanti

15 Jul 2009

At what point did the Harry Potter film franchise become a race against repetition? In J.K. Rowling’s series of popcorn-munching fantasy-lite page-turners, the cycle of familiar events is something that helps power them along. Without the susurrus of new classes, new teachers, school holidays, and the rising and falling of friendships and crushes humming in the foreground, the books would have been lost beneath a crashing din of Rowling’s hyperactive plotting. As fantastical fictionalizing of the dreary retread of school years that march one towards adulthood, the books’ magic was rarely about exploration or discovery, but rather about circling the wagons of home and hearth against the darkness outside. Repetition, in the correct dosage, helped reinforce the sense of normalcy and protection that progressively shriveled from book to darker-hued book.

In the film series—which helped instantly transform the books into just another widget in the corporate multimedia entertainment platform before they could really take on an imaginative life of their own—those same guideposts of repetition become less reassuring, though, than they do overbearing. It’s a fascinating thing, as an audience, to watch a young cast grow through the years in tandem with their quickly maturing characters. It becomes less so to watch them undergo the same kind of trials and tribulations from one film to the next.

In film number six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the threatening overtures of the Dark Lord and his wraiths of doom are gathering swiftly. Meanwhile, at Hogwarts, where new security procedures have been put into place, the students go about their business, albeit more nervously than usual. A round of thwarted romance sweeps through the trio of Ron, Hermione, and Harry, aiming to provide some lovesick cheer amidst the gloom. Where director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves go wrong almost from the start is in how they decide to toggle back and forth between the two spheres of dangerous dark-fighting and high school angst, with the latter seeming to get much more attention.

by PopMatters Staff

15 Jul 2009

Stellastarr*
Civilized
(Bloated Wife)
Released: 7 July 2009 (US)

SONG LIST
01 Robot
02 Freak Out
03 Tokyo Sky
04 Numbers
05 Graffiti Eyes
06 Prom Zombie
07 Warchild
08 People
09 Move On
10 Sonja Cries

Stellastarr*
“Freak Out” [MP3]
     

by Rob Horning

15 Jul 2009

Chris Dillow makes a good point about the similarities between Marxian and neoclassical assumptions about human behavior:

The basic premise of neoclassical economics, that people respond to incentives, echoes the Marxian notion that individuals are bearers of social relations. Both stress that an individual’s behaviour arises from the position he finds himself in - which influences the costs and benefits he perceives - more than from his character. Of course, both views can be pushed too far. But both remind us not to see human action as rising from mere idiosyncratic disposition.

Of course, the idea that our own action stems from our own uniquely idiosyncratic disposition is something we probably all have a tendency to assume. That seems to me the core of capitalist ideology, that we as individuals are essentially responsible for not only our actions but also for the surrounding circumstances that determine the possible range of actions. Dillow points out how this converges with behavior economists’ findings:

there’s an important convergence between Marx and behavioural economics. Marxists believe that false consciousness can bamboozle workers into accepting capitalism. If we want to know how this happens, the cognitive biases and heuristics programme helps us. For example, the fundamental attribution error leads us over-estimate the extent to which the poor are to blame for their poverty, and to under-rate the importance of environmental or societal forces. The availability heuristic leads workers to blame immigrants for unemployment rather than less obvious forces. The just world phenomenon and system justification cause us to believe that capitalism must be fair. The status quo bias causes us to accept existing evils rather than risk new ones. And adaptive preferences cause the poor to resign themselves to their fates and want less, with the result that capitalist democracy sustains inequality.

If one’s condition can be read as a statement of what is deserved, our empathetic instincts can be tempered if not squelched altogether. With empathy out of the way, the exchange process becomes more unfettered, and can grow to become the basis for more and more of social life, governing more of our interpersonal interactions. Our emotional responsiveness starts to register in our consciousness as irrational miscalculations of our interest, as maladaptive tendencies. In the name of preserving our individuality—of hewing to the assumption that our idiosyncratic disposition determines our behavior—we end up even more alienated, with a far more mechanistic view of our own behavior. The stubborn belief in our own special uniqueness is harnessed to a view of human behavior that allows for virtually no spontaneity whatsoever, that presumes our best self always acts out of the calculation of costs and benefits and explains away sacrifice or altruism as covertly self-serving.

Anyway, I know I have a tendency to cling to my sense of my own idiosyncrasy and take a peculiar pleasure in what I think it might prove about me, about my nonconformity, about my ability to resist manipulation, about my ability to transcend social norms and expectations and realize some higher originality. I’m into obscure music; I have a taste for difficult books; I don’t watch popular TV shows. I won’t go see the Transformers sequel. But I think that my presumptions of uniqueness are probably what guarantee my overall insignificance—it keeps me motivated to remain deliberately apart, internally praising myself to the extent that other people don’t get me, thereby guaranteeing that I will only be happy with myself to the degree that I influence no one. I wonder if this attitude truly is personal idiosyncrasy or the product of late capitalist ideology. Isolating individuals in their presumed specialness is an effective way of rendering them vulnerable to marketing appeals, to consumerism generally.

by Nikki Tranter

15 Jul 2009

Twilightby Stephenie MeyerLittle, BrownOctober 2005, 360 pages, $12.99

Twilight
by Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown
October 2005, 360 pages, $12.99

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight is more than a book series. It’s a lusty demon, I tell you, bent on making me bite into its shiny red apple-butt. Why, you ask, when I have free will… and absolutely no interest in a puffy high school vampire love story written by a Mormon?

Huge sigh.

Well, there was a time, see, when I was the authority on books in my environment. I knew the newest, best, most arresting works that everyone just had to read. You like her? You should read this. Into him? Try her, now she’s really something. And then my followers would go off and read my brilliant recommendations and on we would go, debating, into the night, the world of the book. And I would sit back, feeling wonderful that I had sparked such debate, stirred others’ romance with words.

Now, suddenly, something has invaded my Book Queen territory. And it’s big and red and evil. So popular, so inescapable, so everywhere

I’m coming to this late, right? Well, this is where it gets interesting ... and annoying. Though Twilight has been around a while, it has only recently found its way over to my circle of friends. And all at once, right now. My best friend, her sister, my junior at work, even my very own sister—are all suddenly buried in the plights of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. And they have four whole books to discuss—massive books, that I know nothing about. See, usually, if a book comes along that takes the group fancy that perhaps I just don’t want to read, I might know enough about its author or plot to scrape by in conversation, hoping that the topic of discussion might shortly shift back to something I’ve read. But it’s just impossible to try and discuss Meyer’s series with my pathetic knowledge that comes pretty much from the film adaptation, which I saw, enjoyed despite the cheese, thought about for a bit—(She’s his heroin?)—and then viciously hated.

I just can’t go on hearing this anymore: “Yeah, but the movie’s different. You’ve got to read the books.”

“Do I?” I scream in my head at these women I no longer recognise, as horns begin to emerge from there earholes. “Do I really?”

And it’s not just Twilight. They all read Meyer’s The Host, too. And sat around discussing its apparently super-amazing ending that I now know, but have no idea what makes it so amazing. It’s killing me, this inability to weigh in on the debate. You just can’t steer a discussion from Stephenie Meyer to Jane Hamilton the way you might get a Patricia Cornwell discussion over to Dennis Lehane. I don’t quite know what to do with myself. It’s like The Da Vinci Code all over again. And, yes, I cracked on that one and suffer to this day.

Do I do it again? Do I—gasp, swallow, choke—read the books myself?

Could I?

What harm would it really do?

by G. Christopher Williams

15 Jul 2009

Max Payne is looking pretty bad lately.

Of course, Max hasn’t lead the easiest life, but Rockstar’s latest screen shots of the two-fisted gunman indicate that some of that hard living is legitimately beginning to show.  Max is getting balder, bigger, and less beautiful by the moment.

It isn’t as if Max needs to be pretty.  What hard boiled hero has ever been able to lay claim to that particular attribute?  But, given that Max’s image is one that could at least theoretically be saved from the ravages of time (since rendered images don’t tend to suffer the ill effects of wrinkeles and weight gain), Rockstar’s choice to go ahead and allow time to leave its mark on their anti-hero is an interesting one.  It is also a choice that lacks a great many precedents in the medium of video games.

Certainly, Hideo Kojima also chose to age the hero of the Metal Gear Solid series.  Like Max, Snake in his last foray into the stealth action genre looked much the worse for wear as he confronted both a new global threat but also had to contend with his own mortality.

These couple of examples, though, tend to fly in the face of conventional serializing in the video game industry.  Most heroes and anti-heroes that get the opportunity to appear in multiple titles have a tendency to perhaps “evolve” in appearance, but they rarely do more than receive an update to their look rather than begin to look their age.  Instead, characters like Lara Croft and Mario are treated as icons, images that are recognizable and emblematic of whatever they are intended to heroically represent—be that sexy, empowered femininity or working class sticktuitiveness.

In considering the aging of characters in serial formats, it occurred to me that this same tendency to age some characters and to leave timelessly iconic other kinds of characters is also a tendency in comic books.  While I am being gravely reductionist in this observation, there has always seemed to me to be a general tendency to approach the handling of the aging super hero in two different ways by the two major comic book publishers, DC Comics and Marvel Comics.

The staple DC characters, who generally are much older than those belonging to Marvel, are usually represented in a timeless fashion.  Bruce Wayne, while having existed since 1939, remains (barring out of continuity material, like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight) seemingly forever trapped in some late-30s to late 40s version of himself.  Superman and Wonder Woman, who resemble minor deities in some way anyway, likewise remain perpetually beautiful despite similar post-World War II origins and despite their stories in serial form running regularly every month for nearly 70 years.

Many Marvel characters (at least around their point of origin, the early 1960s) tend to have experienced slightly different relationships to Father Time.  Spider-Man’s stories began with a Peter Parker still awkwardly attempting to navigate the hallways of his high school.  But Spidey’s continued adventures over the next couple of decades are backgrounded by a clear progression in time: Peter’s graduation, his entry into college, and even his eventual marriage (which, as I understand it was annulled through the intervention of a demonic deus ex machina, which may undermine my point a bit—Spidey seems to have stabilized like Bruce Wayne at some perpetual near middle age at some point fairly recently).  In other words, though, generally speaking following Spider-Man’s progress as a character over the decades also allowed readers to watch the effects of time on his alter ego, leaving Spidey less like an immortal icon and something more like a relatable human being.

It seems to me that DC’s lack of the representation of aging in their characters and Marvel’s tendency to allow characters like the Fantastic Four to age at least a bit (the marriage of Reed and Sue Richards and the eventual transformation of the Invisible Girl into the Invisible Woman are likewise emblematic of a maturation process in their characters) are related in some sense to the philosophies that each company has in regards to their characters.  DC Comics is generally interested in a romantic vision of a hero that is indeed iconic and timeless, representing larger principles like truth, justice, and the American Way, while Marvel is generally interested in more realistic and flawed characters that struggle with life in ways recognizable and comprehensible (once again, I realize that this is a broad characterization, and I can certainly think of exceptions in both comic book lines to these ideas, but my claim is one that I think is generally reasonable in considering the two companies’ approaches but simply not one without exception).

Returning to video game characters then, one might consider in this context the interests of game designers in keeping Lara and Mario ageless while allowing other characters like Max and Snake to indicate noticeable changes in their appearance as time and their series move forward.  Certainly, Lara Croft, like many larger than life representations of femininity in the arts, is almost unable to be aged.  Sex symbols are ruined in a culture that views “women of a certain age” as undesirable.  Lara, however, is in part intended to represent an iconic form of beauty that parallels this ideal notion of youthful beauty.  Likewise, Mario as a working class hero would suffer from being rendered in a geriatric form.  No one wants an arthritic plumber to look at that busted sink, we need someone strong and vital to do such dirty jobs (oh, and to kick turtles).  In that sense games in the Tomb Raider series and the countless titles bearing Mario’s names are ones interested in ideal heroes that represent ideals big, broad, and timeless.

However, Max and Snake occupy game worlds eminently more wed to time as they deal with personal, social, and political issues bound to the periods that they emerge from.  Unlike the explorer interested in antiquities whose adventures give nods to history but stand outside those actual historical events or the plumber who explores completely fantastical settings that are bound to no recognizable time, like mushroom kingdoms and even outer space, Max and Snake find themselves in much grimmer, grimier, and decaying worlds that clearly cannot escape the history crumbling around them.  As a result, characters like Max and Snake, despite their often extraordinary circumstance, still come off as characters that are a little bit more familiar and understandable to us, who as mortals and not gods likewise have to come to grips with time and history.

Rockstar has generally been good at creating these sorts of realistic mythologies (which sounds like an oxymoron, but I think a still reasonable description of the kind of fantastic but still historically and politically grounded worlds of the Grand Theft Auto series).  Recurring minor characters in the Grand Theft Auto games have allowed Rockstar to show that time operates in the worlds that they build.  From the balder and paunchier Ken Rosenberg appearing in the 1990s in San Andreas formerly as a slightly more vital, if completely neurotic coke head in the 1980s in Vice City to witnessing the dismemberment of Phil Cassidy in Vice City having only known him as an armless vet in the later decade represented in GTA III, GTA characters bear witness to the consequences of time on their characters and create a more realistic sense of who characters are as people, not emblems, than, perhaps, other gaming worlds often do.

This generally bodes well for Rockstar’s approach to a well seasoned Max Payne as he is a character that seems well suited to a more realistic sensibility.  Despite the bullet time balletics that are the hallmark of the series, Max is a character evocative of both sympathy and disdain.  He is not a character that represents or allows for simplistic and one dimensioanl analysis.  Such complicated heroes should be allowed to age less than gracefully and having complicated characters that can age may indicate that video game narratives could be growing up a bit themselves.

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Cage the Elephant Ignite Central Park with Kickoff for Summerstage Season

// Notes from the Road

"Cage the Elephant rocked two sold-out nights at Summerstage and return to NYC for a free show May 29th. Info on that and a preview of the full Summerstage schedule is here.

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