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Tuesday, Apr 8, 2008

Can it be that this bastion of folk music from the sixties is being reborn on the web?  It’s great timing considering that No Depression and Harp have recently disappeared.  Broadside is back now with a Pete Seeger interview, a George Bush coloring book and a new tune from Harry Shearer (from the Simpsons and Spinal Tap but here in folkie guise).  Welcome back.

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Monday, Apr 7, 2008

It is 1978, over two years since a conflict between China and Russia resulted in the release of bio-chemical weapons that have destroyed almost the entire population of the planet. We meet the apparent sole survivor, a scientist named Robert Neville who injected himself with a vaccine before the destruction came. He is now immune and stuck spending his days in the never-ending chores of survival. When it’s light, he forages for food and seeks signs of other life. He also hunts for the headquarters of The Family, a dark loving group of disease-altered mutants who want to kill Neville. Their leader, the crazy, charismatic Matthias, sees Neville as a personification of the technological evil that led the world to destroy itself. He wants to be the one who wipes out this “human plague” once and for all. Their battles of weapons and wills consume their lives.

That is, until Neville runs into Lisa and Dutch, two additional survivors who are caring for a group of kids. Unlike Neville, they are all infected with the germ. But they have not changed as quickly as The Family, meaning there is still time for Neville to find a cure. As he battles to find a way to keep Lisa’s brother Ritchie from “turning,” the mutants up their campaign against their mortal enemy. But not everyone can survive the terrors, the torment, and the treachery of being the last one left on Earth. Someone will be The Omega Man.

Since it was first published in 1954, Richard Matheson’s grim story of the last man on earth and his battle to survive has become a prized cinematic commodity. Back in 2002, Ridley Scott was developing I Am Legend to star a pumped up Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sets were designed and effects prepared. Fans couldn’t wait to see the Blade Runner visionary’s take on the material. Eventually, the plans for that version of the novel were scuttled, and Will Smith pegged Constantine director Francis Lawrence to jerryrig his own schizophrenic adaptation of the tome. Luckily, there are still two other movies out there, both with their own set of motion picture setbacks. Each one tried to capture Matheson’s sense of isolation and menace, and for the most part, each one more or less succeeded.

Vincent Price starred in the Italian-made The Last Man on Earth, a decent little B-movie from 1964 that sought to stick to as many of the epic notions that the novel envisioned without bankrupting the budget. And then there was 1971’s The Omega Man, the Charlton Heston sci-fi vehicle that marked the A-list superstar’s second foray into the realm of future shock (with 1968’s Planet of the Apes behind him and 1973’s Soylent Green looming ahead). Given a name symbolizing its place in the Greek alphabet (Omega is the 24th and last letter) and modifying Matheson’s story of vampires out for blood to a more socially consciousness, anti-war, and proliferation statement, this effective, if occasionally eccentric, take on the material has long been a cult favorite. Some buy the changes in the story and find the new, idealistic enemies threatening indeed. Others simply shake their head and wonder when someone will give the gifted Matheson his due.

The Omega Man does so many things right that when the two things it gets completely wrong rear their ugly, ill-considered heads it’s almost enough to destroy the entire film. Director Boris Sagal, a veteran of television, does one of the better jobs of conveying a post-Armageddon environment for his characters to function in. It is rare when his abandoned streets and empty shops feel like back lots or sound stages. There is an attention to detail (the beginning of vegetation overgrowth, masses of intertwined cobwebs) that really sells the isolation and desertion. Never once is the spell broken. And then he finds an actor who seems to purposefully carry the weight and fate of the world on his broad, beefy shoulders.

Heston is a very physical actor, a presence that’s not model attractive or body builder perfect, but does resonate a strong, heroic determination. Frankly, if the risk had been taken to simply let Chuck be the last ACTUAL person on the planet, he could pull it off brilliantly. Even reduced to stagy sequences of externalized internal monologues, he sells the silly characteristic very well. Heston is often accused of over the top scenery chewing, and anyone who remembers the ending of Green or the “damn dirty ape” histrionics of Planet will tend to agree.

But in The Omega Man, we see a much more subtle, subdued protagonist, a man battling the outer threat of the gang of mutants known as “The Family” as well as the personal demons of loneliness and dogged preparedness. It requires him to turn the bravura down several notches and still remain powerful and potent. And Heston rises to the occasion flawlessly.

It’s just too bad, then, that the flaws in the film are so near fatal. Some people argue that, while not novel specific, the fiendish force of The Family makes the perfect frightening foil for Heston’s Robert Neville. But aside from the times when they mock him, calling his name out in childlike singsong from the shadows, the overall effect of these diseased drones is campy, not creepy. It’s like being trapped in a cult full of giggly albino Earth-First luddites.

As their leader, Anthony Zerbe gives both Charles Manson (who seems to have been an obvious model) and the Rev. Jim Jones a run for their rhetoric with his “back to the basics” balderdash. His and his clan’s motivation (no more science or technology, including the wheel!) seems stupid, self-righteous, and downright suicidal, and their stark lack of skin pigmentation will probably only scare those people who find clowns, or Edgar Winter, unnerving. If they didn’t try to stab or set fire to Heston, the only thing he would have to fear from them is being pontificated to death.

The other weak link is Ritchie, the young black boy saved from “the plague” by Neville’s scientific discoveries (and, to some extent, his sister Lisa). Their presence in Chuck’s life seems superfluous to all that is going on, as if to add a humanizing and womanizing angle to Neville’s non-stop battle for survival. Indeed, time and The Family’s terrorizing of Heston seems to stop so he can treat the child and do a little repopulating with Lisa. The fact that they are associated with Dutch, a hippie ex-medical student biker who harbors, “Christ-like,” a group of orphaned children, shows the sanctimonious tone that undermines the potential thrill and chills to be had. When it’s lean and mean, The Omega Man is an effective and evocative thriller. When it’s heavy handed and preachy, it’s stifling.

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Monday, Apr 7, 2008
L.B. Jeffries kicks off his ambitious series on the state of gaming with the question of how a game can develop its own unique identity.

As the need for a critical language in assessing the art of video games becomes tantamount, the most logical place to start looking for such a language is by addressing the question of what defines the essence of a video game. What makes a video game different from a movie or a book? Player input. The interactive nature of video games is what defines them as different from other mediums, and thus arguably it defines what a game is about as well. The story and game design are certainly factors, but they are both portions of a whole. Despite the claims of wanting video games to have more sophisticated stories, good stories in games only solve half of the problem. You’d need to adapt the game design to the topic as well. Put another way, no amount of renaming the chess pieces on a game board after my childhood friends is going to make the game about my childhood. No amount of saying there are political overtones in your FPS title is going to change the fact that your game design is still just shooting people. Staging Hamlet in a game with giant mechs probably isn’t going to capture the essence of the play (but it’d be awesome if someone tried). A game’s identity is not a matter of the plot or design, it is a matter of what the player is doing.

So what then do we have the player do? How does that relate to the plot and game design as they apply to a game’s identity?

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Monday, Apr 7, 2008

Recently I finished Lilli Thal’s Mimus and was reminded throughout the book of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series, and not just because both authors are translated from their native German and appeal specifically to teenagers with a burgeoning interest in fantasy.

Each author possesses an astonishing ability to outline a fantasy realm, people it with fantastic characters, and quickly provide a believable set of rules and boundaries that the action must follow. All this while not adhering to established tenets of fantasy: elves are fair, graceful and strong, dwarves are miners and love nothing more than precious metals, etc. Thal and Funke each give a fresh feel to the genre.

These authors provide a perfect starting point for young adults who grew up liking a good fable or story, but who are intimidated by thick novels or fantasy and science fiction authors with dozens of titles under their belts, each transpiring in a specific paradigm with little space given to background for new readers. Both Thal and Funke certainly know how to tell a story, and one that appeals to most ages above grammar school.

Although Mimus is Thal’s first work to be released in English, Funke’s novels are widely available. In fact, I was introduced to her fiction about two years ago while browsing in a Tokyo bookstore’s massive English language section with a friend of mine, a Japanese teacher of English who loves recommending YA fiction to me. Her testimonial was so emphatic, I bought my own copy of Inkheart, rather than borrow hers.


Coincidentally, I looked up Funke while writing this post and see that in breaking news, the cover for the third installment of Inkheart, has just been released today. Inkdeath has a release date of October 2008, so if you’re already a Funke fan, you can look forward to that.

As for Thal, with three previous award winning young adult novels released in Germany, I expect we’ll be seeing more of her work in translation as well.

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Monday, Apr 7, 2008
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Waoby Junot DiazPenguinSeptember 2007, 352 pages, $24.95

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz
September 2007, 352 pages, $24.95

The big news this Pulitzer year is Bob Dylan’s Special Citation for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”. That and the Washington Posts‘s near sweep of the Prize’s journalism section. The Post was rewarded for excellent public service, feature writing, national and international reporting, breaking news reporting, and news commentary.

There’s something rather gratifying in Dylan and the Post sitting atop the same cherry pie this morning, side by side, in recognition of their work: America’s brain rubbing elbows with its heart and soul. I like it.

As for the Letters and Drama Prizes, I found myself surprised once again at the list of winners, but happy Pulitzer hadn’t played into critic’s hands and deliver the obvious victors.

Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took the fiction prize, with my assumed winner Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke a nominated finalist. And Saul Friedlander’s Year of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945 won in the non-fiction category, with—how great is this?—The Rest is Noise by the wonderful Alex Ross a finalist.

Diaz is quoted today in the Miami Herald on his win:

I’m completely astonished ... For a Dominican kid with illegal parents to win a Pulitzer, a kid who grew up in New Jersey in a neighborhood where nobody gave a shit about us, a kid who delivered pool tables throughout college ... wow, man.

Diaz grew up in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic before moving with his family to New Jersey in 1974 at age six. He attended Kean College in New Jersey and Rutgers, majoring in English. He obtained his MFA from Cornell,

He is well-known for his short fiction, with stories appearing regularly in the New Yorker. His first book, Drown, is a collection of short stories. He is the fiction editor of the Boston Review.

Read enough interviews with him and a picture forms of an honest, unaffected artist who colourfully says what he thinks. He tells the Bostonist: “I think that the intellectual life is amazingly lonely in a country like ours.” And goes on to call his fellow MIT professors “fuckin’ genius[es]”.

He talks to Bookslut about the differences in effort writing novels versus short fiction: “People are always asking, ‘Did it take you so long because writing a novel is really hard?’ I’m like, dude, it took me seven years to write one story, one 20 page story.”

At Slate, he discusses his position as a so-called “Latina writer”:

We’re in a country where white is considered normative; it’s a country where white writers are simply writers, and writers of Latino descent are Latino writers. This is an issue whose roots are deeper than just the publishing community or how an artist wants to self-designate. It’s about the way the U.S. wants to view itself and how it engineers otherness in people of color and, by doing so, props up white privilege. I try to battle the forces that seek to “other” people of color and promote white supremacy. But I also have no interest in being a “writer,” either, shorn from all my connections and communities. I’m a Dominican writer, a writer of African descent, and whether or not anyone else wants to admit it, I know also that Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen are white writers. The problem isn’t in labeling writers by their color or their ethnic group; the problem is that one group organizes things so that everyone else gets these labels but not it. No, not it.

Strange that an author to watch, with one novel under his belt, should also be a Pulitzer Prize winner. But what a great day for the award, that a new novelist with such exciting vigor, insight, and humour should be listed beside Mailer, Faulkner, and Hemingway. Now that’s big news.

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