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by Sean Murphy

16 Sep 2009

That’s our man.

And by our, I mean men.

The rest of you can have this guy.

And by you, I mean women.

The wonderful thing is, it’s the same dude. That is the unprecedented, impossibly perfect Tao of Patrick Swayze. He had something for everyone, and while there are a handful of superstars who have straddled the line between man’s man and preening peacock for the ladies, usually the actor in question becomes tougher, or gentler, as he ages. Swayze could incorporate both extremes at the same time, starring in two of the penultimate chick flicks and, quite possibly, the mother of all male bonding films, all in a three year window. Guys watch — and cherish — trash like Point Break and Road House because they are hilarious, and Swayze is both alpha male and court jester, rolled into one.

In the rumble, on the ice or during the cold war apocalypse, this was the bro you wanted to have your back.

Remember The Outsiders? (For the full effect, you had to be target audience age when it first came out, which means you were over ten and under twenty). Nobody knew who Patrick Swayze was, then, so that experience is alien to a younger person watching a younger Swayze, now. You could not have shoehorned more pretty young things onto that screen: Dillon, Cruise, Estevez, Lowe, Macchio and C. Thomas Howell (the only one requiring a full name since no one heard from him again, unless you are one of the five people who saw Soul Man) and –for the boys– Diane Lane. That was a lot of Gen X eye candy. And then there was this brawny, unknown badass. He was, obviously, the leader of the brat pack; indeed, he was the only one in that group who looked like he actually could (and did) throw down if the situation required it. He was, in short, intimidating. He was perfectly cast, although he did seem old enough (even as the “older” brother) to strain credulity. He was also, arguably, the only star on that crowded billing not set to explode into immediate stardom. In fact, it would take Swayze, already 30 years old, another four years to become the man.

Everyone remembers how that happened. In the film that shall remain nameless, Swayze made his sweetheart swoon and took half of America with him. He had arrived, and from then on out nobody could put Swayze in the corner. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but the movies he starred in alongside Jennifer Grey and Demi Moore are unspeakable. They are sentimental, melodramatic schlock from the fetid heart of Hollywood. In other words, these commercial grand slams were just what the evil doctor ordered. Two things few men will ever understand (or profit from arguing about): Oprah, and those two movies. But Swayze was easily forgiven. After all, he had saved us from the Russians (or at least softened them up for Rocky IV), and helped the Greasers stomp the rich kids. He also dropped the gloves alongside Rob Lowe in what turned out, unbelievably, to be only the third most homoerotic flick in his oeuvre. With little left to prove, he dedicated himself to the dangerous task of making wonderfully awful films.

He would redeem himself, not only in the subsequent Point Break (clocking in at number two on the homoerichter scale), but in the masterwork that men are genetically incapable of turning off while channel surfing. I am referring, quite obviously, to Road House.

Every man has seen this movie and any man who hasn’t is not a man, so that about covers it. I won’t insult its integrity by trying to analyze anything, I’ll just savor some of the moments that make it so…seminal:

Doc: Do you always carry your medical records around with you?
Dalton: Saves time.

Dalton: I want you to be nice until it’s time to not be nice.

Doc: How’s a guy like you end up a bouncer?
Dalton: Just lucky I guess.

(Everyone): I thought you’d be bigger!

Dalton: Pain don’t hurt.

Jimmy: I used to fuck guys like you in prison.

(Repeat: I. Used. To. Fuck. Guys. Like. You. In. Prison.)

He was, for a while there, our contemporary sacred clown. But more than that, he was real. As in: it only bolstered his appeal (and considerable street cred) when you realized he did his own stunts, married (and remained married) to his childhood sweetheart and, by any account, was a genuinely good person. One must remain wary about separating art from the artist for all the obvious reasons, but there are the occasional exceptions where the illusion is an extension of the actual.

It was refreshing to hear his family report that he passed away peacefully. Of course he did. It’s the least the world could do for him. Besides, death don’t hurt.

by Omar Kholeif

16 Sep 2009

Holcombe Waller is one of those underground artists that doesn’t seem to care about what is happening on the surface of the popular music landscape. He writes songs in his apartment in Portland, he performs (straight-forward performances, fused with a smattering of performance art), oh and he teaches a little too…an elective course at UC Berkeley, to be exact. All of which seems to be executed, and indeed achieved at the artist’s very own creative whim.

How my love affair with this man’s music began, is simple. I discovered him just over a year ago in a back issue of Butt, and from that moment, I felt compelled to ‘discover’ whether Holcombe had the artistic credos to back up his cheeky interview persona.

The quest began with a long wait, for a US import of his release, Extravagant Gesture to arrive to the UK. Once fully loaded and synced, it was only a week, before four tracks off of the album were in my Ipod’s most played list, with the layered, melodic cataclysm ‘Anthem’ taking the prized spot as the number one repeater. At that point, I started to understand why I felt so passionately about Holcombe. Somehow, he had managed to fuse Van Morrison’s lyrical delivery, with a touch of Gospel soul, and cradled that within the airy melodic landscape suited to the The Smiths.

On his next release, 2005’s Troubled Times, Holcombe seemed ready to tackle a different beast. The self-confessional poetry of his previous effort is still all over the place, except now it is aimed at us with a political undertone. The artist weaves his way through shiny melodies that intersperse tales of war and identity, with stories of powerless lovers in helpless relationships. To the reader it may sound ridiculous, but somehow Holcombe manages to begin with the refrain “Condoleez, baby pleez” (on ‘No Enemy’), only to shift to the nonchalant candour found in ‘You Love Me’, where the singer confesses to his lover that he is going to be “vacationing from pain”. From then on, we assume that the couple are on official ‘break’, when Holcombe suddenly tells him “if I [still] love you, we’ll be fine” (that is, if his lover manages to heat things up in the bedroom, of course).

The rest of the album is equally welcoming. The singer meanders between catchy refrains, where minimalistic lyrics have the power to ignite the imagination. When Holcombe sings on title track: “What you doing, patriot? Come buck-naked dance for free, Watch one-monkey down the last cherry tree”. One wonders whether Holcombe is singing about the brutalities of the Bush administration, or a more personal, romantic war – one that may be tearing the artist up inside.

After all this, I have yet to mention Mr. Waller’s greatest gift, his voice. An astonishing instrument, the singer’s four-octave vocal range veers from a gentle simmer to a pointed falsetto with a beguiling ease and precision. This instrument, coupled with his bare and evocative lyricism suggest that Holcombe is one of the more exciting, (and underrated artists) of recent memory.

by Katharine Wray

16 Sep 2009

Working class rockers, Meat Puppets, are heading out on the road to finish off a year already full of touring to promote their latest album, Sewn Together. They also have a brand new video for their single, “Rotten Shame”. Check out the dates after the jump.

by Katharine Wray

16 Sep 2009

Daniel Merriweather
Love and War
(J)
Releasing: 19 January

Hip-hop with horns. Australian soul singer Daniel Merriweather’s debut album Love & War, a Mark Ronson production, has already delivered two hits in England, “Change” and “Red”. Hopefully the States will have the same reaction when it gets a US release early next year.

SONG LIST
01 For Your Money
02 Impossible
03 Change (Featuring Wale)
04 Chainsaw
05 Cigarettes
06 Red
07 Could You
08 Not Giving Up
09 Getting Out
10 Water And A Flame (Featuring Adele)
11 Live By Night
12 Giving Everything Away For Free

by G. Christopher Williams

16 Sep 2009

Some of us old gaming fogeys sometimes like to gripe and groan about the current state of the game manual.  Video games for the most part now come with these flimsy little pamphlets that they call a “manual” that might contain a schematic of your controller that indicates what the buttons do and not much else.  Of course, “back in our day”, floppy disks came packed in a mammoth sized box with a bunch of nifty extras like maps of the game world alongside a 300-page manual that described not only how to play your game from load screen to the penultimate moments of gameplay but probably the entire history of the Roman Empire that would serve as a little flavor for the game that you were about to undertake.

As unwieldy as these tomes were, they often did add that bit of flavor to the proceedings, and they were ultimately necessary components to gaming since most games really provided no in-game tutorial of any sort to guide the player in learning the game.  Consider the horrifying implications in 1985 of Hacker‘s claim that a screen reading “‘LOGON PLEASE’: is all you get to start with.”  A game that gave you nothing to read to get started with?  That might ask you to learn the game by playing around with it?

Of course, “playing around with it” is largely the pedagogy of contemporary games albeit in a guided manner as opposed to the pure “sink or swim” approach of Hacker.  Rather than having to guess at how to control a game character or mash some buttons to see what they might be capable of doing, most games have some sort of tutorial, usually built right into the opening segments of the storyline, that instructs you on how to move around, open a door, or throw a punch.  In addition to telling you how to do it, the game also asks you to “play around” with these controls.  Not only do you learn that you need to “Press A to jump,” but you are instructed to do so yourself after reading or hearing that instruction, a good example of active learning. As Wikipedia notes, this pedagogy popularized by Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison in their 1991 book, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom can be basically boiled down to the concept that “practice after initial learning” is a good way to reinforce a new skill.  The dominant notion in this pedagogy is that pure exposition is generally an insufficient way to acquire new knowledge and that active reinforcements of knowledge benefit those trying to learn new information or how to do something new.

I was reminded of the more traditional expository method of conveying information that game manuals used to provide gamers a few weeks ago when I tried booting up a copy of the World War II simulation, Hearts of Iron 3.  Not only is Hearts of Iron 3 a game that is built in a retro style with pared down visuals of maps and charts rather than fancy battlefield graphics, but it depends on a retro style of tutorial.  While an in-game tutorial exists for this political and military sim, the tutorial is presented as a series of lengthy texts overlaid over the user interface that explain how to build troops, a national economy, participate in diplomatic efforts, etc.  Because of the World War II setting and the fact that you are going to take on the role of a singular authority over a nation, the text is “spiced up” with a kind of narrative component that suggests that Hitler himself is narrating these instructions to the player who will soon be taking on the role of dictator.  While the game attempts to inject humor into what is otherwise a fairly didactic description of gameplay, the “humor” is more groan inducing than funny and also serves to distract from what is a labyrinthine set of rules, guidelines, and symbols that make up the game. 

Since this is all expository, and there are a whole lot of rules to learn, the “tutorial” of Hearts of Iron 3 becomes an exercise in sophistry as the game lectures you on how to perform diplomacy, espionage, and combat in slide after slide of words that vaguely relate to the graphs and charts of the game that you are looking at.  It tells you how to play but doesn’t at this point allow you to get your hands dirty in any of it.  All in all, it takes about ten or twenty minutes to read and scratch your head about the relationship between what you are reading and the UI that you are looking at.  By the time that I was done, I had managed to forget every single thing that I had just read and felt utterly clueless about how to play the game.  I launched a campaign, took one look at the board, and having no idea where to begin with the hieroglyphic of controls that I had just “learned about” promptly turned the game off and forgot about it.

While my response to Hearts of Iron 3‘s pedantic approach might imply that us old fogeys should shut the hell up and join the rest of the world in the 21st century where games teach the player through the more effective pedagogy of active learning, one might consider that the value of active learning has been challenged as well.  For example in a 2006 study, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching”, Paul A. Kirschner reviewed the shortfalls of a number of efforts to put active learning to work in practical settings.  While not all of Kirschner’s criticisms of active learning may be applicable to video game tutorials, some of them are interesting in regards to the problems that some games have in providing only “minimal guidance” when actively training players.

For example, Kirschner notes that novice learners have some troubling results when trying to understand a new concept or how to perform a new activity by actively engaging with it when that activity may require more prior knowledge about it than a beginner may be reasonably expected to possess.  Pressing A to jump is a relatively simple task and then being asked to perform that task by, say, jumping up on a table in game world seems like a relatively innocuous task.  While I might never have played the game that requires me to do so, I possess enough gaming experience to know that I need to press a thumb stick towards the table as I press the button to jump.  I am not a novice when it comes to the general concept of jumping via button pressing in video games.  After all, I played Donkey Kong back in 1981.  However, despite my years of gaming experience I have never played any games in the Tony Hawk series. This is largely because I never picked up a Tony Hawk game until it was well into its bazillionith iteration.  Whichever sequel I tried picking up at some point, had an in game tutorial that I simply couldn’t fathom, asking me to do things and string together combos when I didn’t even really understand the concept of stringing together tricks at all and could barely pull off an ollie.  Like my experience with Hearts of Iron 3, I gave up before the game started with a similar feeling that the controls were a kind of untranslatable hieroglyphic created to confound rather than illuminate.  Rather than being overwhelmed by too much information, I suffered from far too little before I was asked to actually accomplish something.  Ever tried to jump into a DDR sequel having not played the first few versions of that dancing game?  That tutorial will kick your ass.

In addition to the problem of minimal guidance for active learning, there also remains a question of the repetition of learned skills.  Many tutorials ask the player to perform a new task multiple times (three seems the magic number that active learning experts advocate), like, while fighting a thug, perform the X, Y, X combo three times.  While a sensible approach to active learning—trying to remember some complicated pattern only one time while having other additional instructions tossed at you shortly thereafter isn’t conducive to conditioning a good reflexive response—sometimes even three times really isn’t enough if it isn’t an action that will be reinforced regularly.  My experience with 2007’s Conan immediately comes to mind. While I am quite sure that I was taught to block during the tutorial sequence, I spent the entire game not even considering the necessity of a defensive move at all (barbarians don’t really play defense so much do they?).  Thus, the final boss battle in the game was a pretty big shock and ultimately an aggravation to me, since the ability to block is utterly necessary in defeating that one villain.  Initially, I found the battle hopeless.  Paging through the two pages of the manual in the hopes of understanding what I was missing about Conan’s abilities didn’t help much.  A trip to the more expository world of Gamefaqs.com was my only relief as someone on the boards there explained in detail a blocking strategy, which I then had to teach myself by getting killed over and over and over again.  Repetition helps teach a lesson I guess.

Which I suppose is my point, that I am neither opposed to exposition or active learning, nor am I sold on either one as a proper pedagogy for video games.  Quite honestly, I want a good and reasonable amount of both in my game tutorials as they each have there use in learning a game.  However, don’t overwhelm me with a novel length description of play before letting me try out a few basics.  Likewise, don’t assume that I already know enough or that I have used all of the skills available in a game enough before letting me sink rather than swim into action. 

Oh, and for the love of all that is good, allow me the option to skip it altogether if I really, really want to.  Everybody knows that school sucks.

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