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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

“Louisville is death you’ve got to get up and move, because the death do not improve” – Silver Jews “Tennessee” from the album Bright Flight


In a recent interview I conducted with David Berman, renaissance man of the Silver Jews, he was thinking of changing the aforementioned lyric for the upcoming tour. He also claimed he’s never been able to play it in Louisville, obviously. But this is a lyric that needs to be heard by the people of Louisville – and they need to be confronted with it directly. Mr. Berman beating around the bush is going to do no good as far as a songwriter goes – because during his near two decade career and many one-liners – this is one of the most prominent lines, one which struck home with a lot of people (including myself) in the town.


If you’ve never spent a decent amount of time within the city, than this line may just be another bundle of words that sound meaningful coming out of Berman’s growl. But let me let you in on a little secret – Louisville, as Berman claims, has had a “dark star” hanging over its head for quite some time now. Not quite as bad as it did back in the ‘90s, but it’s still dangling in sight. The town is full of a never-popping bubble of musicians that attract a wider audience for a local show than a national show – some may say this is a good thing, but by alienating themselves from the rest of the musical world, it only hurts a musical community. This mentality has kept a lot of musicians within the city from getting widespread acclaim. The one’s that have made it generally dispersed to outside cities such as Nashville and Chicago to get in with a different crowd of musicians, such as Tortoise and David Berman himself.


With this said, Louisville has somewhat detached of this clique mentality over the past several years, mostly because so many different genres are coming out of Louisville and bands find themselves not working on common ground. The town needs to take to heart Berman’s words and not fall inside the hole they once created.


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Monday, May 12, 2008


Leave it to film’s last agent provocateur to do what a sloppy stoner comedy couldn’t. A couple of weeks ago, when the lackluster lampoon Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay opened, audiences were treated to a last act exercise in paltry political commentary. Briefly, our Asian/Indian heroes try to reclaim their good patriotic name after being mistaken for terrorists. Through a series of stodgy misadventures, they somehow wind up in Crawford, Texas. There, they hook up with our current Commander In Chief, and after a few blunts, the supposed purple haze induced belly laughs begin.


Now, there is nothing new with painting our sitting President as a foolish frat headed party boy. It was a legacy that he carried across two elections (and two wins), and South Park savants Trey Parker and Matt Stone did something similar - and far funnier - with their 2001 sitcom That’s My Bush. Comedy Central cancelled that sage-like series, only to revive the leader as loser ideal with their Our Gang rip-off L’il Bush. Since the advent of humor, government officials have born the brunt of satire and comic criticism. The powerful have always found themselves in mirth’s machine gun sites.


Mostly, it’s viewed as harmless fun, a chance to knock down an elected official with the only weapon remaining inherent in the people - the freedom of speech. Of course, the current administration has used every post-9/11 tactic they can to curb such rights, but leave it to the jesters to maximize what few liberties are left. The portrait painting is also kind of lame. Bush is dumb. Bush is out of touch. Bush is controlled by advisers out to forward their own agenda, not that of the nation. None of this is new, and seldom is it clever. But it avoids the real problems with this presidency, so it’s also more or less ignored.


Where someone like George W. really needs to worry however is when someone serious takes up their cause. In this case, Oliver Stone has just announced the final casting on his proposed limited biopic on our 43rd executive officer (Entertainment Weekly offered a sneak peek in this week’s edition). The project, entitled W., will begin filming in a few weeks, and while not every role is set (the writer/director is still looking for someone to play vilified VP Dick Cheney), Stone seems ready. With the suddenly hot Josh Brolin parlaying his No Country for Old Men cred into the title part, and supporting turns from Elizabeth Banks (as Laura), James Cromwell (as Daddy Bush Sr.) and Ellen Burstyn (as Momma Barb), this promises to be another controversial send-up of history.

It’s well worn territory for the criminally underrated filmmaker. Even though he owns two Oscars (for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July) and has made several sizeable box office hits, including Wall Street, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday, it’s his political pictures that have raised (and equally reduced) his reputation. Many see JFK as a misguided masterpiece, a conspiracy theory tricked out as actual fact, while Salvador is too liberalized to explain the Central American crisis of the mid ‘80s. He’s taken on Fidel Castro (his 2003 documentary Comandate) and made one of the most jingoistic films about the terrorist attacks of seven years ago (World Trade Center).


Yet for anyone looking to gain some insight into what Stone might be attempting here, they need look no further than the brilliant deconstruction of the only US President ever to resign from office. 1995’s Nixon was seen, at the time, as the perfect combination of man and material, a subject that Stone could really sink his teeth into while exploring the post-Vietnam Watergate watershed that drove a decade into decadence and indecision. Yet, oddly enough, the famous burglary celebrated by the Washington Post and its pair of supercop journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein, was a minor part of the narrative. Instead, Stone looked for a big picture pronouncement, hoping to highlight the paranoia and pettiness that drove this leader to illegal acts of insane arrogance.


While some considered the hiring of Anthony Hopkins antithetical to the movie’s designs (how a British actor best known for playing a suave serial killer could take on one of the most American of political icons was frequently questioned), it turned out to be a masterstroke. Stone wasn’t looking for a mimic, or worse, a Rick Baker manufactured make-up version of Nixon. He wanted to showcase the human being inside. What Hopkins did was genius. By finding out what made this predatory political animal tick, he literally turned into the crooked Commander in Chief. It’s impossible to watch this film 13 years later and not see the media made images present in the UK thespian’s mannerisms.


Apparently, W. won’t be so broad in its scope. Nixon went from the leader’s days as a poor California boy to almost every electoral benchmark in his career. In recent interviews, Stone likened this latest project to The Queen, a narrative that takes seminal events from the subject’s life and shows how they add up to the man we see today. In comparison to Nixon’s “symphony” he says, W. will be more like “chamber music.” Of course, there are other hints at the approach within his comments. He calls Bush “an alcoholic bum”, pointing to his “conversion to Christianity” as the driving force in his professional and political decisions. For a director who never skirted scandal, embracing hot button concepts like addiction and religion seems par for the course.


Yet just like Nixon, one expects extensive dramatization in order to get to the essence of an area. One thing films can be faulted for is such a shorthand concept of truth. It’s impossible to cover all facets of an individual’s personality, even with the jaded judicial notice of an already clued-in audience. Composites have to be created both in characterization and circumstances. Stone is often raked over the coals for taking such a condescend view, but within the language of film, it’s literally impossible to deal with an entire lifetime in three hours. Of course, some might argue with the intent of those who try, but with all great art comes even greater ambition - and hubris.


Additionally, W. is planned for an Election 2008 release date. That means that Bush will still be President when the movie is in theaters - barring any production delays or problems (like the upcoming Actors Guild strike). How that will affect Stone, or his cast, remains to be seen. Additionally, movies like this usually strive to set the tone for someone’s legacy. Nixon wanted to humanize someone that was systematically demonized. It may have wound up doing a little of both. Similarly, W. has the potential for shedding some light on the current Commander’s often puzzling decision making process. It could also go Harold and Kumar all over his rationale.


No one expects Oliver Stone, a serious moviemaker, to have the President of the United States snorting coke off a stripper’s treasure trail, but it’s clear that a subject like George W. Bush places such a sequence in the realm of dramatic possibilities. Even early script reviews have argued that W. balances the administration’s tendency toward bumpkin burlesque with real insights into how the politics of fear work. Maybe Stone will settle for something in the middle. Or we could be seeing the unmaking of an already undone leader. One things for sure - this is one man who may be wishing the world saw him as a dope smoking stooge after all. The truth may be far more telling - and terrifying.


 


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Monday, May 12, 2008
In the sixth installment of the Zarathustran Analytics series, L.B. Jeffries explores those games that fall outside the boundaries set by his guidelines.


As any classification system necessitates, there are exceptions to the four basic categories being used in the Zarathustran Analytics. Going beyond the mere nitpicks of innovative games that strike careful balances or parallels, it is important to identify the games that specifically lack one of the three variables. When analyzing a video game by its experience rather than game design or player input, one might conclude that a game that does not feature all three variables isn’t really a video game. You don’t classify them this way to be belittling, though, you do it because these games create a different experience and should be judged by different criteria. Why criticize a game for not having a story when it wasn’t created with that in mind to begin with? Why criticize a lack of options when they would have served no purpose? There needs to be room for purists in the medium of video games and the exceptions to the four forms addresses that.

The most obvious place to start is with games that don’t have plots. Note the difference between that and not caring about the plot for a moment. There are plenty of games where the plot is entirely forgettable or the plot is one sentence long. Save the princess. Get to the end of the level. Or at the very core: beat the game. I contend that the goal of winning is in and of itself a story in a game. It has a beginning, middle, and end. The game may consist of nothing more than jumping off platforms or wanting to be “The Guy”, but that’s simply an incredibly small story. It has finality and the player puts in all the details. That doesn’t always make it a good story, but it definitely should be considered one.


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Monday, May 12, 2008

I referenced this n+1 article about the “hype cycle” in the previous post, but it’s worth, well, hyping. Mocking the odious New York magazine-style approval matrices, the author compares the fluctuating social capital of cultural goods to asset bubbles, lamenting that media hype “transforms the use value of a would-be work of art into its exchange value.” In other words, we don’t judge art by its underlying fundamentals; instead we trade on their momentum. I’m skeptical that those things can be separated. The degree that pop culture is enjoyed privately isn’t going to be expressed in the public sphere, where opinions become hype because they become part of one’s identity posturing. The private enjoyment can simply be experienced; the direct pleasure of listening to a song need not be mediated to be felt. What does need mediation is the pleasure of being culturally relevant, being part of the zeitgeist or ahead of it.


So how we “use” culture depends a great deal on how we regard it contextually. Without context, there isn’t much there to consume—it’s not as though the intrinsic qualities are so deep and sophisticated. That private pleasure goes only so far, and if we were after that private pleasure alone, we’d consume something other than the culture that’s mainly relevant because it is contemporary. Rather, with pop culture, we are consuming context in object form; we are choosing to engage our times through an artifact, be part of the cultural conversation. This may be why most people don’t mind hype and, in fact, respond positively to it. Hype gives us a reason to consume, an opportunity to get something beyond the things’ intrinsic qualities. We can passively consume things that were once required activity: participation, a sense of belonging to something larger, a sense of being excited. Hype sucks primarily when you have a lot of free time to discover things to be excited about on your own—a luxury for most people who are not pop-culture connoisseurs. For everyone else, the vicarious excitement of hype is welcome—an efficient solution for not having enough leisure (or imagination) to become excited from scratch, entirely on our own.


The main use value of popular culture—what makes it popular—is its ability to signal one’s personality in the public sphere. (The n+1 article limits what one might signal through culture to the reputation of connoisseurship, but most people don’t seem to care about that. They want to belong, not be singled out as snobs.) What gives popular culture that capacity is its widespread distribution and its malleable substance, and often it’s made with that kind of negative capability in mind. It is intentionally indeterminate, or in other words, “shallow.” Hype, then, does reinforce the generic, insubstantial qualities of pop culture by expanding the base that can relate to it, creating network effects and magnifying the feelings of participation it conveys and communicating potential it has. A feedback loop is created: the shallower culture is, the more useful it is to us in the ways hype amplifies, and more hype proliferates and highlights cultural superficiality. This cycle tends to abrogate pop culture for those who want to experience it as connoisseurs (the brunt of the n+1 complaint). Hype makes us (happily, for many of us) have to consume culture as zeitgeist; it ceases to be an occasion to express our refined tastes. Instead, it liberates us from having to worry about tastes at all.


Of course, there is still public discussion of culture that is not hype, but it happens on a parallel track, only among parties that have established their bona fides with one another. Often, that means talking to oneself.


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Monday, May 12, 2008

A cyclone in Myanmar; an earthquake in China.


28,000 dead; 41,000 reported missing in one. An estimated 12,000 perished and 18,000 missing in the other.


Horrendous events. Mind-numbing numbers. Asia’s natural cataclysms have been in the news this week and, as all such disasters are wont to do, they give us pause. It is not so much that they are awesome in their scope (although there is that dimension to them); and it is not just that they remind us that the world is a dangerous place (hell, we don’t need natural disasters to signal that!); it is not simply to hip us to the capriciousness, the tenuousness, the fragility of life (which, of course such news inevitably—and immediately—does). It is also something beyond the fact that they are true tragedies (which of course they are)—featuring astronomical figures of dead and displaced; and a nearly uncatalogueable list of derivative harm and suffering resulting after the fact.


Admittedly, all of the above elements arise when nature strikes, as it so often does, without warning. But more than any of this, what prompts us to take pause is the fact that horrors such as these are constantly in our consciousness. And they are constantly in our consciousness due to one factor and one factor alone: media. Such events have become what Walter Lippmann long-ago dubbed “the pictures in our heads”


because of

news media. Had the cyclone and the earthquake occurred in, say, 1811, they would not have been any less massive, tragic, awe-inspiring natural events; but their status in the lives of most of the world population would have been far less powerful or significant. What has changed over the last century (and actually, only more like the last twenty-five years) has been the position and the power of such events in our everyday lives. Some of this change is “merely” psychological, and some of it is political, economic, social, and moral. For better and worse—thanks to the globla media—what happens over yonder now is very much a part of our thinking, our consideration and reaction, somewhere over here.


This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, right? The world becomes smaller; we become more and more aware of how others live in the way-beyond-out-there—and, importantly, how they are suffering. A potential doorway, perhaps, into greater sympathy, possible assistance. But, peel that outer layer back and it may not all be to our benefit to have all this constant monitoring, this endless mediation. Consider . . .


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