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by L.B. Jeffries

2 Mar 2009

The idea for writing an essay on The Wizard came after watching the Angry Video Game Nerd episode about it. The basic criticism of the movie is that it’s a giant commercial for Nintendo products. While this is technically true, I’d just randomly watched The Mindscape of Alan Moore before this one and was full of some heady notions about the power of writing. When he claimed that most modern magi are drunks, neglecting their talent or working in advertising, it made me wonder what kind of magic would go into an entire film that’s about a single product. If you think about it, there aren’t too many films that can actually claim this. TV series? Sure, G.I. Joe and other shows were glorified ways to sell toys. But those were only about 24 minutes long. An entire 90 minute film that’s about selling a product to a person? That is a spectacle which, however much bullshit it may be proposing, is worth taking a look at just for its sheer audacity.


The film begins with a troubled child lost and confused, only able to say the word “California”. We are then surrounded by his family in turmoil. A divorced mother has taken refuge with a man who doesn’t love her children. The father, unable to perform the traditional motherly functions of cooking for his children, is shown missing her. She is also sorely missed by her two boys, but when the father is asked to care for his third helpless child, the divorce blocks him because he does not have custody. Even Christian Slater, playing himself trapped in another bad movie, is acting like a dick. What could possibly heal this broken family and restore the joy to their lives? Fred Savage, equipped with his grapefruit head, only knows that family is what matters most. He traces his third brother to a mental home where he was placed by the cruel step-father. He sees the fate his brother has been doomed to: sitting blank faced, watching television, with no California in sight. What could make the activity of watching T.V. not so bland, no so emotionless? Fred Savage has a plan: sneak onto a truck full of chocolate cake while they head towards his brother’s favorite state! Fred is eventually horrified to discover that the script is going to demand someone change at some point, and storms back with the plot device that they are out of money. It is then that he discovers that his youngest brother, in a scant five minutes, has gained 50,000 points in Double Dragon. This sentence was originally a long explanation about why this was impossible, but then I realized that I’d have to do that for every other part of the film and replaced it with this.


Quick to notice this prowess at video games is the girl from The Goonies. Attracted by his skill at games, she is quick to recognize that his gaming abilities are a potential source of income and power for the once ostracized little brother. Fred Savage, grapefruit shining, shows his support for his little brother by betting money on his brother’s skills. The challenge does pan out but they are soon forced to find other ways to make money once the bus leaves them. Why not gambling? Indeed, risk is a fundamental theme of this film as 3 children hitch-hike across the country to a video game tournament in Los Angeles. Roger Ebert complained that the film actively promoted that children would be safe wandering the open roads. Which is true, but in the spirit of the film it is also promoting the liberation that Nintendo has provided these kids. Thanks to his ability to master Nintendo, they have money to spend, and one can’t help but notice that Fred is a little more confident with the Goonies chick. Interspersed with these successes are scenes of traveling through a vast and exciting landscape. The freedom these children have gained through Nintendo is developed by showing the oddities of the world. This is made literal by showing bikers, truckers, and all the other exciting things kids would love to do if they were truly free. Before Nintendo they were sleeping outside and hearing wolves; after Nintendo they’ve got a chick and money and the open road.


Christian Slater and the Dad are unable to communicate as they look for Fred Savage and the Wizard. The father’s ineptitude continues, allowing the empowerment of the son as he is the only one who can “follow the map”. Christian Slater struggles to express his feelings for the Dad until, while laying in his boxers with the Dad in a very small bed, he tells him that he loves him. The father is unable to appreciate this moment and Christian Slater is forced to retreat into video games. Despite the initial resistance of the Dad, Christian Slater awakes to see the Dad enjoying the same game. They have a newfound common ground thanks to Nintendo. Fred Savage, the Wizard, and the chick from The Goonies must continue to rely on their game skills and luck to survive. A couple of cow farmers prove that adults can’t be trusted, and some old geezers prove to be easy bait for the Wizard’s skills. But they soon realize that it’s not just adults who can’t be trusted, but kids too. A couple of older punks victimize them because of the Wizard’s Nintendo skills and beat up Fred Savage. Even worse, some gamers can actually be total assholes. The Kid With The Power Glove is quick to demonstrate his mastery of the Nintendo Universe. He owns every game (all 97) and he’s good at all of them. Our shining model for competency, the only player who is a worthy opponent of the Wizard, attained his status through practice and by buying every product possible. When he pulls out the Power Glove, everyone is in awe of its newness. The Wizard, firmly warned not to ruin the pace of the film, refuses to play against him because, “California”.


Throughout these moments there have been the interspersed scenes of the adult males acting out their masculine aggression in unproductive ways. A Professional Child Kidnapper and the Dad engage in several such battles with their cars. Smashing, destroying, and ruining each other’s productivity, the two men are not just at war, they are undermining their very ability to work as a business. If only something could come along that would allow them to express this sense of dominance that they mistakenly project on one another. As the Power Glove Kid and the Wizard show to us all, it is the children relying on Nintendo who have found an alternative. With these shenanigans also come the scenes of the games themselves. Rarely are we subjected to mindless slashing sessions. Driving a car in traffic, defusing bombs, and acrobatics are the themes of each gaming scene. To the parent watching Nintendo in action, they can see that this is a game system that’s about something more than just sitting front of a TV. Eventually there is a plot twist and it is revealed that the source of the Wizard’s trauma was watching his twin sister drown. The chick from The Goonies is quick to join in, admitting that her father is a trucker and that she wants to buy her own father a new home.  But the kids know they are going to have to work hard to win at Nintendo despite all these issues. Investing several hundred dollars in the Nintendo hotline, they are quick to find the information they need to become video game masters. Working tirelessly, they demonstrate the hard work and financial investment it takes to be as good at games as someone like the Kid With The Power Glove.


The culmination of the film is at Universal Studios. In a bold move, the qualifying game is Ninja Gaiden, a title whose challenge is legendary and that few can handle. The Wizard is able to deliver though, but just before he can move on to the final round the Professional Child Kidnapper is upon them. In these final moments the film makes its protagonists become parts of their very hobby. The screaming King Kong and the jets of fire all introduce fantastic elements that deliver these kids into a video game itself. The Nintendo has become real. In the nick of time they get back to the competition and the Wizard is able to play. In this final showdown, all members of the family are shown drawn together to support him. As each one roots for the Wizard, they slowly find a sense of commonality amongst each other. Even the Professional Child Kidnapper is seen rooting for him in the end. The once broken family has been healed by the power of Nintendo. The final scene shows the Wizard finally finding his peace as they drive back to Utah. Earlier in the film, the first coherent words he murmured were, “I don’t want to Quit [playing Nintendo so we can win the Big Tournament and I love you].”  Truly, it is the Wizard who senses that his gaming abilities are not just about playing games. It is he who detects the family coming back together through Nintendo, who realizes that by competing with the Kid With The Power Glove he can someday go on to put the memories of his sister to rest. The Wizard is able to succeed at this thanks to the power of, one more time, Nintendo.

by Lara Killian

2 Mar 2009

You may have heard that Amazon has released its second generation electronic book reader, the Kindle 2.

Even in tough economic times, some of us have to have the latest gadget. Of course, for those who waited to try the original Kindle, there are now lots of slightly used Kindles on the market as their owners look to upgrade.

USA Today itemizes some of the (fairly minor) alterations to the older version of the device. The Kindle 2 is predictably slimmer with a slightly improved interface, and more shades of gray to emulate actual paper even more accurately.

PCMag, however, would like everyone to realize that there are other e-readers on the market. You might even own one already and not realize it.

Personally, file format is a big issue for me. I want to be sure that I get an e-book reader that can handle pretty much every format thrown at it. And I want to be able to transfer data between a reader and my computer’s hard drive. Even if the new Kindle can handle around 1500 books, Amazon has done away with the port that allowed an external memory card to store some of the data and free up space on the device itself. I’m still not convinced.

Are you using an e-book reader now or leaning toward the purchase of a particular model? Perhaps you’re one of the late adopters searching for a gently used Kindle newly released onto the market as the original owner looks to the next generation device?

by Bill Gibron

2 Mar 2009

It is bound to be the biggest issue debated come Friday. It will be far more contentious than how big the box office will be, Dr. Manhattan’s constant state of obvious “endowment”, or the removal of several subtexts. No, what fanboys and freshman to the entire Watchmen experience will surely be hair-splitting over the ending Zack Snyder and his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have come up with for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel. It will definitely be the focus of more than one review, and will perhaps turn some potentially favorable notices in strangled, sour pans. One thing’s for sure - of all the things the filmmakers could fiddle with, the Squid is clearly a comic book - sorry, graphic novel - sacred cow.

For those who want to go into the entire Watchmen experience unaffected by spoilers, this may be your point of literary departure. It is impossible to discuss this element of the book and film without giving away the major plot points in both. Again, you have been warned. For its main story thread, Watchmen revolves around a group of masked vigilantes, once active, now banned by the US government. As tensions between America and the Soviets escalate, the world is pushed to the point of nuclear annihilation. Only the superhero Dr. Manhattan - the only member of the group with any true power - can stop the slaughter. But according to paranoid crimefighter Rorschach, there is a conspiracy to stop anyone from saving the day. One by one, the masked avengers are killed, compromised, and framed for crimes they did not commit.

In the end, it turns out that (SPOILER ALERT - LAST WARNING) Adrian Veidt (also known as Ozymandias), desperate to mimic his hero Alexander the Great, has orchestrated a massive hoax to “scare” the nations of the world into working together toward peace. In the case of Alan Moore’s novel, the event in question is the arrival of a huge alien squid who terrorizes and destroys most of New York City. The character known as the Comedian is killed because he stumbles upon the plan. Rorschach is set up as a murderer because he insists upon investigating the man’s death. Even Dr. Manhattan is condemned as being the cause of cancer in many of his former associates. The allegations make him leave Earth, thereby guaranteeing Adrian minimal interference with his plan. The mock invasion does occur, and he is proven right. America and the Soviets vow to help each other, while the remaining heroes decide to keep quite about what happened.

For Snyder’s take on the material, the entire finale has been reconfigured. Instead of a giant squid, Dr. Manhattan’s matter transforming power is harnessed by Adrian and turned into a nuclear-style weapon. He detonates several of these “devices” around the world - not just in New York but LA, Moscow, and Hong Kong (among others). Naturally, everyone understands that Manhattan is the only “source” of this immense force, and in true Dark Knight style, our muscular blue champion decides to play the threat and take the fall “for the better of mankind”. He will let the powers that be worry that he, not each other, will be the final destruction of mankind. Again, everyone agrees to keep Adrian’s secret, and toward the end, we see the philanthropic side of the man coming out once again as his mega-conglomerate is show redeveloping the huge crater in the middle of the Big Apple. 

If you had never read the graphic novel, the change wouldn’t bother you at all. The entire subtext in Snyder’s Watchmen (and with Moore more or less, come to think of it), is nuclear annihilation. The comic came out during the chilliest part of the Cold War, right as Reagan was confronting the USSR about their unprecedented build up of arms. Everywhere, especially in Europe, proliferation was condemned, and the concept that we might actually end some disagreement with a barrage of A-bombs was part of our foreign policy. So Moore was taking a timely stance when he delivered Watchmen. The actual Doomsday Clock was actually pushing toward that ominous hour of Midnight. Snyder has simply stepped in and expanded upon it (to wonderful effect, one might add).

But what about those of you loyal to Moore’s original vision? What about the millions of devoted readers who see the squid as the ultimate “outside force”, a threat much greater because of its otherworldly - and unexplainable - nature. Why turn Dr. Manhattan into something malevolent when he’s more philosophical than evil? Well, it seems clear that Snyder was influenced by two factors - one editorial and one contemporaneous. Watchmen the movie could not possibly capture all the aspects of Moore’s dense and detailed narrative. Some elements had to be sacrificed. One of the key facets not found in Snyder’s version is the horror themed comic Tales of the Black Freighter. The story of a shipwrecked sailor and his blood-drenched journey home is important for two reasons. First, it parallels Adrian’s own insane ideas about sacrifice, and, two, it is drawn by a fictional artist, now gone missing, who is later tied to the squid attack.

Clearly, without any of the Black Freighter material in the film - even at two hours and forty minutes, Snyder still couldn’t work it in - the artist/squid material would seem unusual. One moment, the world is worried about mutually assured destruction. The next, a big sea creature is killing innocent New Yorkers. Even in the graphic novel, it takes several pages of exposition before we “get” Adrian’s idea. In the movie, this is not necessary. Nuclear war is so omnipresent and important to the narrative that when the Dr. Manhattan device goes off, producing the same result, the devastation draws an immediate and sheepish response from world leaders. Besides, with the limited effectiveness of such films as Godzilla and Cloverfield, would a visualized monster really work?

Watchmen is centered around humans and their obvious flaws and frailty that to offer up some kind of creature feature deus ex machina dilutes that idea. Not that Moore didn’t deliver a devastating finale for his book. Far from it. In fact, on the page, in simple static imagery, the squid works wonderfully. It has the effect and scope the story needs. But since the medium of film infers a great deal of ‘dimension’ to any story, making the squid real would mean offering it up for scrutiny - and that’s not necessarily the best thing for a complicated story’s denouement. Now, we get the destruction without dissecting the source. The payoff is still the same, and in many ways, the aftermath is more powerful, more realistic. As a result, it keeps Watchmen centered in a universe of people.

Still, there will be quibbling. Some will state that Snyder sucker punched Moore by sticking so closely to the source only to “jump ship” toward the end. They will then extrapolate still more fuel for the author’s “I hate adaptations” fire. Purists will simply balk out of allegiance, while those new to the film will wonder what all the hubbub is about. In the end, squid or no squid, Watchmen works because of its underlying themes and symbols. There is more to it than some alien entity. Still, many won’t be able to see the catastrophe for the calamari - and that’s sad indeed.

by Rob Horning

2 Mar 2009

The Atlantic’s new business site (which it annoyingly calls a “channel”) recently posted an interesting but fairly cryptic article by anthropologist Grant McCracken, looking at potential shifts in consumer behavior in the downturn. He outlines several possibilities in relation to a concept he doesn’t really explain here, the “Diderot effect.” Diderot, an 18th-century intellectual, wrote an essay about being given a fancy dressing gown, which made everything else he owned feel shabby to him. Thus, he explains in the essay, he needed to replace the rest of his stuff to maintain consistency among his belongings at the new level of their perceived status. The assumption is that we instinctively strive for that uniformity in our possessions—that we want to communicate a coherent portrait of our cultural capital by having a collection of things whose meaning is readily legible to others and that don’t embody too many internal contradictions. Pushing it further, we may pursue this consistency to convey a coherent sense of our identity to ourselves—we don’t know who we really are until we see ourselves reflected back to ourselves in a cogent group of possessions.

I’m a bit skeptical about this internal urge to consistency; it’s possible that this tendency is encouraged by advertising and marketing efforts to promote what a coherent set of belongings should be, promulgating associations between objects to establish a society-wide understanding of what makes for the standard-issue set at various status levels. In other words, mass media advertising and the content it supports encourage the establishment of “lifestyles,” the logical extension of what Diderot was writing about as a personal idiosyncrasy.

The coalescence of lifestyles may have the laudatory effect of elevating what makes for a subsistence level of consumption in our collective understanding—it couples irrefutable necessities like food and shelter together with more nebulous goods—education, media—that allow people a minimal sense of social belonging. But while this minimum standard has improved in absolute terms over the days of starvation wages, recently it hasn’t improved in relative terms. Income inequality has increased; barriers to social mobility have hardened. That suggests, in turn, that the distinctive goods that we use to make those class barriers known have become more visible and more inaccessible, notwithstanding the supposed democratization of luxury. That widely touted pre-crash trend demonstrated how an improvement in “real” standards can nevertheless leave social class in place. Democratized luxuries are just evident knock-offs, declassé goods that mark the inferiority of their owners to those higher in the hierarchy. The hypocritical cant about “democracy” that’s evoked is a perfect example of ideological inversion—Orwellian Newspeak.

But what happens now, with the recession leveling off all consumption? If consumption was the proimary way of policing class borders, does the fact that there will be less of it imply that those barriers have become more permeable? That more of us can pass as a member of a higher status group through clever and thrifty purchases? Will some other manner of social display more widely available come to signify status?

McCracken’s post doesn’t exactly deal with that question, but it gets at the microfoundations of status consumption. He offers several different possibilities for what will happen to consumption in the wake of the recession. First, everyone could scale back, leaving the existing hierarchy in place, only a lower level. Then with recovery, it will merely ramp back up. Alternatively, certain items of distinction will become more valuable and more cherished, and sacrifices will be made to hold on to the ability to purchase these specific exceptions.So rather than social class being signaled by a collection of goods, it will temporarily come to be signaled by one expensive good.

But is it possible that the new, scaled-back levels will prove “sticky”? McCracken writes,

Displeasure, as we move to a lower level of consumption, might for some consumers eventually lose its sting and turn to comfort too. Or not. The question is whether we might habituate to a lower level of spending.  I think this can only happen if some of the deeper cultural drivers of the consumer culture fall silent.  These would include competitive spending. (This is largely dead among some Millenials.)  It would also include the wish to stay in fashion or in touch with the curve.  (Here too some young consumers are turning their backs on fashion, especially the branded, mainstream variety.)  There are positive forces: the wish to go green, to “save the planet,” this has been the great staple of elementary school education and it is now on the verge of being installed in our culture as orthodoxy.  (This is no doubt as it should be.)  This is where we really have to do our anthropology: what are the cultural drivers that might intervene here and lock consumption habits into place.

I’m pretty skeptical that there are any such cultural drivers—capitalism relies too much on competition for its dynamism for anything to override those sorts of pressures.

by PopMatters Staff

2 Mar 2009

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Turtles Can Fly. That’s a sad fucking movie.

2. The fictional character most like you?
Tyler Durden from Fight Club.

3. The greatest album, ever?
Fugazi’s 13 Songs. Nobody has ever done anything like this record, or like this band.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars, I mean, have you seen Trekkies?

5. Your ideal brain food?
A good book in a small mom and pop cafe sipping on a hot chocolate…

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

READ the article