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by PopMatters Staff

3 Jul 2009

Last Night in Montreal
by Emily St. John Mandel
(Unbridled Books)
Released: 2 June 2009 (US)

LAST NIGHT IN MONTREAL follows the intersecting lives of four people: Lilia, a twenty-something who mysteriously disappeared during childhood; Eli, who tries to hold on to her and then tries to let her go; Christopher, the private detective who remains obsessed with Lilia’s case; and Michaela, the detective’s daughter, who is as rootless as Lilia—and who knows the answers Lilia seeks. A beautifully written, almost poetic tale of loss and love, of sacrifice and abandonment, and of finding a way home, this novel is an hypnotic read, one that casts a spell.

by Tommy Marx

3 Jul 2009

Garth Brooks is one of the most successful singers of all time. In the United States alone, he has sold more than 68 million copies of his albums since 1991 (when Nielsen Soundscan began monitoring sales), and only the Beatles have sold more albums in American history. He was largely responsible for the massive growth in popularity of country music during the ‘90s, and he has consistently broken box office records when he toured.

Yet, for all of his huge success, he only had one song reach the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Even more incredibly, his only major mainstream hit wasn’t one of his 19 #1 singles on the Hot Country Songs chart. It wasn’t even officially released to country radio and peaked #62 on the country chart as an album cut.

This is the story of the “Lost” one-hit wonder.

by Nick Dinicola

3 Jul 2009

When starting a new game in Tom Clancy’s EndWar, the player is faced with three options for difficulty: Normal, Expert, and Hardcore. When I saw the choices for the first time I immediately choose Expert because I had been conditioned by numerous games over several years to know that the middle option was always the medium difficulty. Sure it was labeled “Expert” but I knew it was just a label. Before getting into the game proper, the player is encouraged to play through the Prologue, what is essentially a series of tutorials familiarizing the player with the various mission types. I did, and I could not beat the third mission. I lost so fast, so many times that I turned off the game in frustration and didn’t touch it for a month. When I finally went back to it, I started a new game on Normal. I beat the Prologue, I won World War III, and I had a blast doing so. As someone who usually never plays a game on the lowest difficulty setting, it was easy for me to rationalize the switch because the setting was labeled Normal. This was the setting the game was meant to be played on, right? Be that as it may, there’s no denying that I had to switch to lowest difficulty setting in order to get past the third tutorial mission. But I don’t really mind anymore, because I loved conquering Europe and Russia and I’d gladly choose that experience again any day.

Mitch Krpata at Insult Swordfighting wrote a series of posts in which he tried to come up with new words to describe people’s gaming habits since “casual” and “hardcore” are horribly inadequate. He wrote, “Some people play to master a game—to perfect its mechanics, to explore every inch of the game world. Some play to “see the sights”—to hit the high points and not get too caught up in the minutiae. Let’s call these groups ‘Skill Players’ and ‘Tourists.’” There are further subcategories, but for now these two terms effectively describe two distinct (though not mutually exclusive) styles of play. One plays for the experience, the other for the challenge.

These differences in play are exemplified in the blogosphere in people’s reactions to Red Faction: Guerrilla, and the news that New Super Mario Bros. Wii will incorporate Nintendo’s new “demo play.”

Russ Frushtick at the MTV Multiplayer blog and Chris Kohler from Wired’s GameLife blog both write about why they played Red Faction: Guerrilla on the Casual difficulty. Kohler describes what a difference the switch made, “I could absorb far more of the enemies’ bullets, meaning that instead of having to hang back and pick them off from afar, I could run up to the soldiers swinging my sledgehammer, taking all of them out with brutal bashes to the head. I could destroy enemy buildings with impunity, not having to worry that I’d be sniped as I was gleefully reducing a communications tower to splinters.” Frushtick writes about his frustration with the game on Normal, “What did get old was getting shot and dying. Having to run around corners to wait for my health to recharge. Having to take cover and use strategy when all I want to do is rush forward and bash the world in the face with my large hammer. If the difficulty impedes access to the greatest part of a game, just toss the difficulty!” That sentiment more effectively describes the Tourist gamer than any dictionary definition. Sometimes it’s fun to just play.  The mere act of messing around, of shooting and jumping and climbing and smashing and exploring and discovering and dying and doing it all over again, is enough.

But what then, if free play such a good thing, is one to make of Nintendo’s “demo play,” which clearly takes that away from the player. “Demo play” is a kind of help system that would allow players to get past a certain parts of a game by essentially letting the game play itself, and then jumping back in when they’re ready. Reactions by gamers have been mixed, with some supporting it, some indifferent, and some despising it, but the one complaint that caught my attention was the worry that certain players would just watch the game play itself all the way though, treating the game as a movie.

Even if a player watches a game play itself to the end and only jumps in to participate in the final battle, he’s still embracing the very thing that separates games from movies: Interactivity. The player is being given the option of choosing which challenges he’ll face. Skipping certain sections of any game will certainly change the experience for the player, but changes it for the better. For players who find pleasure in watching a game unfold, and not in the challenge of beating it, skipping a hard part only adds to their experience.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I like the more extreme possibilities of “demo play.” As much as I would like to play Mass Effect, BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty 4, or any of the Splinter Cell games again before their sequels come out, I just don’t have the time. I would love to experience those games again in some condensed form, to refresh myself on the stories and characters without having to commit eight to twelve hours to each game. Maybe just a half hour here and there to fight a Big Daddy, assassinate a 12th century politician, or shoot down a helicopter. Just for the fun of it.

by Bill Gibron

2 Jul 2009

Legend has it that when Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni came to America to make his second English language film (after the monster success of Blow-up), he was shocked by the backlash his production received. There was never any doubting of his ideals - the filmmaker famous for such seminal cinematic statements as L’avventura, La note and L’eclisse was as left leaning as the turbulent times allowed - and his planned film was to take on all aspects of the debauched Western (read: US) culture. But with local law enforcement accusing Antonioni of everything from inciting riots to corrupting the morals of youth, the counterculture’s latest auteur was heading for a face off with the most conservative of stateside Establishments - and it really wasn’t a fair fight.

As a result, many consider Zabriskie Point to be a failure. They see it as a kind of compromise, a version of Antonioni’s philosophies foiled by a time when the ‘60s was dying and no one was around to eulogize the corpse. The Manson Family had killed, the War in Vietnam (and the battle at home) raged on, and politics preempted freedom and common sense for the sake of a slipping nation. Antonioni wanted his ethereal encapsulation of the entire Peace Generation to be a strong and unswerving statement, a view of a land corrupted by consumerism and corporate greed. What he got instead was a tantalizing tone poem, a masterpiece that makes its point in symbols so obvious and complaints so calculated that one just can’t imagine his message would be so simple.

When we first meet out hero, Mark, he is storming out of a student strike rally meeting. He is tired of all the talk and wants to act - and act NOW. Sadly, during the resulting confrontation with police, an officer is shot and killed - and Mark is targeted as the likeliest suspect. On the run from the law, he steals a small airplane and heads out into California’s Death Valley. There he runs into temporary secretary turned CEO mistress Daria. A fertile example of free love flower power, she’s off to help her middle-aged man secure a deal to exploit some local land.

The minute they meet, the coquettish Daria woos Mark with her earnest and easy sexuality. She connects with his need for rebellion and revolution. They make their way to Zabriskie Point, where they continue to discuss politics both social and personal. There, among the various mineral deposits and dusty dunes, they express themselves physically. Mark decides to take a risk and return to campus. He is sure his sense of innocence and justice will pay off. Daria simply goes off to meet with her boss, hoping for a happiness that, sadly, will probably never come.

It is often said that foreign filmmakers do a far better job of capturing the American zeitgeist, no matter the era, than their US counterparts. A perfect example of this proverb arrives in the form of Zabriskie Point. You will not see a better distillation of the entire 1960s and everything it stood for - good, bad, indifferent, insightful - than this uncompromising artistic overview. As a modernist, a moviemaker noted for his disconnected ideals and luxuriant long takes, Antonioni was still capable of contravening expectations. Zabriskie actually tells a rather linear story, settling on Mark and Daria’s escape from society as the basis for all that follows. Unlike some critics who’ve claimed the film is all outdated screeds and sand dune canoodling, Zabriskie Point actually builds, offering multiple layers of meaning. It may not always succeed, but when it does, it’s magical.

In essence, this is a story about sin, and the sacrifice of two human beings toward the betterment of mankind (make that Western mankind) in general. All throughout the opening of the film, Antonioni counters the high minded pronouncements of the student radicals with the ever-present pulse of materialism and advertising. We see billboards promoting the good life, and sale pitches poised to get would-be “suckers’ to buy their unnecessary desert dream homes. As Mark rides around LA, railing against the apathy he sees, the source of said indifference bombards us from all angles. Antonioni also tosses in the necessary mood music of the time, giving Pink Floyd, the Youngbloods, and The Rolling Stones (among others) a chance to air their always intriguing sonic dirty linens.

But it’s the finale that will stay with you long after Mark and Daria finish their fateful meeting. Using a high tech home in the side of the mountain as an icon for all that’s wrong with America’s economic inequality, Antonioni systematically blows up all the trappings of such a sour post-modern philosophy. We literally see piles of clothing, refrigerators loaded with foodstuff, library shelves larded with books, and various iconic bourgeoisie settings explode in a slow-motion dance of disintegration. For these moments alone, Zabriskie Point deserves to be revered. But there is more to this movie than criticism. Antonioni also wants to celebrate the purity that could have come from such a realized rethinking of the typical communal norms. When Mark and Daria eventually make love, their spirit of passion is so strong that it calls up the dusty ghosts of all young lovers of the era. It’s a sequence that Antonioni visualizes with all the musk and meaning he can create.

It’s not wonder then why this movie was challenged - before, during, and after its making. Our country comes off as cold, cruel, callous, calculated, controlling, contrived, and in the end, committed to the stagnant status quo. Antonioni may be anguishing over the lack of true extremism in the actions of student groups and unions, but his answer seems obvious from the moment Mark and his buddies hit the gun shot - arm yourself and take down the Man one bullet at a time. Even the ending uses the infamous bombings of the era as an inference on how to rid the structure of such harmful board room robber barons. In many significant ways, Antonioni is pissing on both the peaceniks and the powers that be. Neither deserves his ultimate approval and neither get it.

As a result, Zabriskie Point can feel incomplete and ambiguous. Instead of staying with its obvious leftist leanings, it chastised the audience for believing to readily in their own peace, love, and harmony pronouncements. Our leads may seem naïve, walking directly into traps that almost any ‘right’ thinking individual would see a million miles away, but that’s part of this movie’s before-its-time charms. By 2009 standards, such a declaration would seem silly. Back almost four decades ago, it was prophetic. Antonioni could see the end of the era in signs more sensational than acceptable, and many coming to his celluloid table weren’t happy with the creative dishes being served. Sadly, that’s their loss. Today, Zabriskie Point plays actually as it should - slyly, uncompromisingly, masterfully.

by Thomas Britt

2 Jul 2009

Dan Gubbins’ Silent Paper Radios project is a departure from his past work as a DJ and hip-hop/electronic music producer. Gubbins says that the inspiration for Silent Paper Radios was the “Weird Folk” movement of recent years, but his sound is less showy and more traditional than much of what that trend produced.

New Silent Paper Radios album Reborn As a Wind Chime is one of this year’s most pleasant surprises, and the unsigned Gubbins has decided to offer the album as a free download for a limited time. On a MySpace blog entry, he instructs listeners to “Download my album free for a month and spread the silent word!”

Silent Paper Radios
Reborn As a Wind Chime [MP3]

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