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by Lara Killian

24 Nov 2008

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Marcel Proust wrote a rather well-known work called In Search of Lost Time, published in France in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. Before he embarked on this masterwork, he wrote a magazine article called “On Reading” that was published in 1905 in Renaissance latine as part of his exploration of the personal importance of the experience of reading:

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book.

Proust ruminates about the importance of time spent reading as a child, and the associations that come to exist between the stories that were read and the age when we read them. Whether the time was spent outside with family members at a picnic, or in one’s own bedroom or perhaps some secret spot, the setting where we first encountered some of our favorite childhood characters and tales continues to be important.

Coming across those same stories in our adult life, story details might be forgotten but there is still a good chance that some association remains between the content and the time when we first encountered it. Proust comments:

If we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist.

As an elementary school kid my nose was often stuck in a book. I remember creating a cushy nest in my oddly shaped closet, using all the extra pillows and blankets I could find to create a hiding place for myself and my pile of Trixie Belden books. Did you have a secret reading nook as a child? Does encountering one of the books or authors that helped shape your sense of the reading experience as a child bring you back to the time and place when you began to love stories?

by Mike Schiller

24 Nov 2008

In a week that appears to signal the end of the tremendous 2008 holiday gaming glut, it’s nice to see that there are still a few essential buys that are impossible to ignore, even if they are of a decidedly smaller nature than most of the big ticket items we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks.

The first thing I’m going to be doing this week is rediscovering my Shoryuken thumb for the sake of Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix.  Actually, “rediscovering” might not be the right word, as I never was able to pull off the damn dragon punch with anything approximating consistency.  Why can my thumb not master the mechanic of forward-down-down/forward?  I dunno, but I’ll be getting more practice at it this week with my boy Ken.  Seriously, this is another stop on the nostalgia train that’s shamelessly torn through the downloadable console services this year, but it looks like another fantastic one.  No fighter has ever come close to the pick-up-and-play appeal of Street Fighter II, and to see it all prettied up for an HD audience ought to be just enough to convince a whole bunch of people to lose their lives to it again for another month or so.

Of course, while I’m talking about the nostalgia train (which I’m sure looks a lot like a steam engine), I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the DS update of Chrono Trigger, which finally hits this week.  You know, since it almost broke the internet when it was announced back in the summer, I’ve heard almost nothing about this re-release…I guess with so many new properties making their way to portables and consoles this time of year, we don’t really have time to be spending on the graphical tweaks of a classic RPG.  Still, classic it is, and you’re going to be glad you have it next summer when you’ve got 30 hours to kill and no more Xbox games to play.

Other than those two?  Not much to see!  The DS’s Neopets Puzzle Adventure is actually a surprisingly challenging puzzler in a crowded DS market, so that’s certainly worth a look.  Band Manager, on the PC, could be fun or it could be a snooze (but if it has to do with music I may give it a run-through), and the Wii gets a couple of cooking games where you cook food that you can’t actually eat (I may never understand the appeal of this).  Am I overlooking something?  Banjo-Kazooie, maybe?

It’s a slow week, so maybe this is the time to catch up on some of the stuff you missed over the last month and a half or so (surely there’s something, yes?).  Happy Thanksgiving, all.

by Rob Horning

24 Nov 2008

Tyler Cowen linked to Peter Suderman’s post at Culture 11, “In Praise of Negative Reviews,” a response to Joe Queenan’s funny essay about useless, gushy book reviews and awkward amounts of unearned praise. Suderman observes that when it comes to incoherent praise,

the critical medium that suffers most is pop music criticism, which skews toward generally positive reviews of most everything, no matter how bland or terrible. Scan the sidebar of Metacritic’s music page. Nearly all of the review averages are positive or very positive, and almost none of them are straightforward pans. In fact, right now I don’t see a single album with a review average that gets a score categorized “generally negative reviews.” Contrast this with the movies page, which contains more than a dozen films with low averages. Even the limited release indies — the “artsy” films — are often given low marks.
Is contemporary pop music really that much better than contemporary mainstream filmmaking? I think not. Instead, it’s just that the music reviewing culture has developed in such a way that most everything scores a “pretty good” or a “not bad.” (Witness Idolator’s ongoing mocking of Rolling Stone for the rock mag’s tendency to give pretty much anything a three-star review on its five-star scale.) There are a handful outlets like Pitchfork and The Village Voice which regularly publish tough music criticism, but these are the exceptions.

Suderman has no real explanations for the surfeit of positive reviews. I had some theories back when I was writing more music reviews and was trying figure out why anyone bothered. Unlike films, many many records get released, and just noticing one and running a review of it already marks it as significant. The substance of the review itself is almost beside the point. Acknowledging its existence is already an admission that it’s “pretty good,” so it would be strange for the review to suggest otherwise.

In general, it’s hard coming up with compelling descriptions of music, and with readily accessible sound files, reviewers are competing with the songs themselves, which are easier to sample for oneself than ever. Many review editors try to compensate for this by urging writers to craft tightly wound prose explosions with lots of active verbs and implausible metaphors. The poetic quality of the review has to make up for its inability to beat the music, which basically speaks for itself. Generally, explaining whether the record is good or not is secondary to the writer’s making the reader laugh or think, Wow, that was cleverly phrased. And if all else fails, reviewers can work a variation on the formula of “sounds like artist A plus artist B doing some crazy thing”: e.g., “sounds like Bob Dylan making a pass at Joan Armatrading while landing a helicopter in a minefield.” (Here’s a good example from Klosterman’s review of Chinese Democracy: “It’s like if Jeff Lynne tried to make Out Of The Blue sound more like Fun House, except with jazz drumming and a girl singer from Motown.”) These descriptive conglomerates typically come across as positive but don’t really help readers, unless they have a clairvoyant capacity to get on the reviewer’s wavelength.

When I first started reviewing music, I used to receive boxes of discs from a fledgling website and had to write 150 words reviews of everything in the box. On top of that, I had to single out at least one out of every 10, if I remember correctly, for 300-word recommendations that would receive more prominent play on the site. I used to think this was a terrible way to go about things, because often there weren’t any CDs that warranted recommendation, and I didn’t think reviewers should be rewarded with prominent placement for shilling for bands. But it wasn’t hard to figure out the logic for this way of doing things. When people read CD reviews, they want to find out about something they should go listen to. They don’t want this: “Hey, here’s something you never heard of. Take a few minutes to read about why you were far better off that way.”

It might amuse some readers to see well-established artists attacked, but who wants to read negative reviews of stuff they haven’t heard of? There’s no point, and the reviewer just comes across as mean. I certainly felt this way about myself when I was writing the negative reviews. It seemed dumb for me to be discouraging these performers, who had no chance of making it, really, no matter what I wrote about them. It’s no fun pissing on people’s dreams. In fact, it made more sense to try to champion all bands, so I could potentially claim some of the glory for helping one of them make it. (I was too cynical to think that actual musical talent had anything to do with future success; success in popular culture has mostly to do with promotion and relentless networking.)

Readers often want hype, not evaluation, because it gives pop culture a sure-fire context, whereas a review that traces musical influences and parses lyrics only helps a select few readers. Besides, there are no established criteria for what’s good beyond popularity or fidelity to genre expectations. Maybe Suderman thinks it’s possible that music reviews could be objective evaluations of quality, as defined by some unimpeachable universal standards, but I don’t believe these exist for pop music (or for much of anything in culture—aesthetic criteria are political creations). The pop music people consume is typically a tribal thing or a means to participate in the zeitgeist, and it’s hard as a reviewer to shape the zeitgeist from the margins. But that doesn’t stop many of them from trying.

The idea that I would simply write up a fair evaluation of a record was of course out of the question. My taste is pretty eclectic and idiosyncratic. That was by design. I took pride in the idiosyncrasy because I used to think it made me special, unclassifiable. So my opinion was of no use as a guide for people with more “average” tastes, and I sometimes went out of my way to be contrarian. Most reviewers are similarly in it for the self-definition, seeking to prove to themselves that their tastes are unique or trying to secure tangible proof of their influence on the world. The parasitic positive review is as much a will to power as the nihilistic negative one. And I think pop-music reviewers generally have a disproportionate amount of respect for musicians and want to mystify what musicians do, turn it into magic. This justifies the amount of time they spend under the musicians’ thrall, thinking about the musician’s efforts instead of making efforts of their own.

by Bill Gibron

23 Nov 2008

The bad movies. That’s all anyone ever wants to talk about. Manos. Mitchell. The audacity of taking on a pseudo classic like This Island Earth. The creative constitution it must have required to endure the aesthetic horrors of Time of the Apes, The Castle of Fu Mancho, or Attack of the The Eye Creatures. But there remains so much more to Mystery Science Theater 3000 than Arch Hall Jr., Coleman Francis, and Merritt Stone. As a matter of fact, one of the first things critics latched onto where the sensational skits, in between bits that often commented directly on the film being shown. Yet there were also times when the material was merely “inspired” by the work being presented, said muse mutated into wit that transpired the sloppy celluloid circumstances. It’s these boffo blackouts that deserve reconsideration and concentration. SE&L, confirmed MiSTies, will highlight 10 of the best forays into funny stuff the Satellite of Love and its occupants ever attempted. 

There are a couple of caveats when diving into this list. First, we purposely avoided anything where music was involved. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was famous for its satiric songs, and trying to pick 20, let alone 10 would have been impossible. Therefore, only atonal humor will be discussed. Also, we’ve also stopped the reflection at Season 7, the non Sci-Fi Channel version of the series. There’s no real reason for such a barrier, except that more people are familiar with the updated concept of the show, and some of the older material needs its day in the sun. Finally, supporting characters like Dr. Clayton Forrester, Dr. Lawrence Erhardt, TV’s Frank and the Mole Men have also been excluded. They’ll get their moment sometime in the near future. With all the stipulations in place, let’s begin in chronological order:

Crow’s Thanksgiving

from K03: Starforce: Fugitive Alien II

Back when the series was still being broadcast across actual antenna airwaves by local Minneapolis station KTMA, a special holiday edition of the show featured this fabulous history lesson from everyone’s favorite “bird dog thing”. From the pilgrims arriving in a van and taking turns “starving”, to the Indian’s spraying their guests with mace (don’t ask), the robots get the spirit of the occasion, if not the factual certainties. An important discussion, if only for finally explaining the connection between Turkey day and the reason people start Christmas shopping the day after.




Sidehackiing Terminology from 202: Sidehackin’

As with any new sport, descriptive phrases and jargon are mandatory. They help reporters explain the action and bolster color commentators ability to earn ESPN highlight reel airtime. For this Ross Hagen rehash of every competition oriented cliché ever conceived, Joel and his automated pals provide such expressive lingo as the ‘Hickory Dickory Die’, ‘Fruitful Snootful’, and the ‘Tension Envelope’ routine (popularized by Nutsy the Clown). It’s enough to knock competitive darts, Ninja Warrior, and all other non-mainstream athletics off the pop culture radar.




Klack Foods Commercial from 211: First Spaceship on Venue

Anyone old enough to remember single company sponsorship in television will smile at this remarkable riff on Kraft and its long-form infomercial breaks that championed their various faux foods and cheese spreads. Here, a spot-on Tom Servo (channeling Ed Herlihy) describes how Klack Industrial Saladoos-based snack and snippets can be used to make mouth watering family favorites like Skin Mittens, Cooter Cakes, and the traditional Gut Whistle Pie. Just don’t forget the Flesh Button dressing, or a heaping platter of Creamy Crust Puppies. Now that’s fine eatin’.


Crow vs. Kenny from 302: Gamera

After an onslaught of giant monster madness, Crow can no longer stand the whiny goody two shoe-ing of everyone’s favorite short-panted pint size. So he lets his aggressions out in the most fruitless display of childish chiding possible. Taking the opportunity to do the same, Servo joins in. Joel tries to help his pals have a more positive perspective on the friend to all oversized beasties. It only lasts for a little while before the bile begins rising all over again.



Winter Sports Cavalcade from 311: It Conquered the World

It’s icy chills and snowbound thrills as Joel and the ‘Bots describe the frostbitten pleasures of training, Alpine style. We experience the gory goodness of the latest craze - speedskating combined with kickboxing. Then there’s cat snapping, where kittens are taken to absolute zero and cracked like Turkish taffy. And let’s not forget “shi-ing” which is also referred to as playing ping-pong or badminton with a Barbie doll frozen in a bucket of ice. And you thought snowmobiling and hokey were the best things about the months of November to February (or August to May, if in Minnesota).

 

Catching Ross from 315: Teenage Caveman

Ross Allen was a well known animal trapper who violated several ethical, moral, and PETA inspired values with his raping of the Florida Everglades. As protest, Tom turns the tables on the great blight hunter, subjecting him to many of the same humiliating outdoor tortures that Allen himself employed to make his living. With Joel along for visual illustration (he uses a small action figure to simulate the pain being inflicted), we get the kind of pointed payback that only a fire hydrant like puppet and a stand-up comedian trapped in space can dish out.



Art Therapy from 507: I Accuse My Parents

Hoping to gain some insight into how his robot pals think, Joel asks them to visualize their own fantasy families. For Tom, it’s a portrait of his father, Gigantor, and his two moms - Haley Mills and Peggy Cass. For Crow, it’s an oversized deadly dynamo of a dad, who combines homespun wisdom with lasers that fire out of his chest (“pyeww, pyeww”). Of course, Gypsy only envisions a world filled with nothing but Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea‘s Richard Basehart. Why? To quote the cast: “I dunno.”

 

Chick Flick Fight (Really Femmie Movies) from 517: Alien From LA

A post-apocalyptic Kathy Ireland inspires this brilliant breakdown of Mike and the gang’s feminine side. Over the closing credits of this crappy film, Tom chides Crow over his copy of Places in the Heart and his complete Sally Fields collection, while the little gold guy gives his human buddy a Six Weeks, Dying Young, and Irreconcilable Differences combo. Between a Herbert Ross festival, Savannah Smiles, and the mere mention of Madame Sousatzka, there’s not a male chromosome left in the Satellite of Love. Just remember to quote freely from Rich and Famous and everything will be okay.



Ingmar Bergman Tells a Joke from 617: The Sword and the Dragon

The late, great Swedish filmmaker is lovingly spoofed when Mike and the ‘bots take a break from this horrible foreign fantasy film to offer up a moody monochrome gag. Though there is probably no more than a page of actual dialogue, the entire skit is filmed at a pace that makes snail’s nervous over how slow it proceeds. The payoff is well worth it, however.




The Edge of the Universe (2001 Spoof) from 706: Laserblast

This was it - the supposed end of the series. Comedy Central had failed to renew the contract, and even worse, a typical season of episodes (12 to 24) was reduced to seven. So how do you send off the greatest TV show ever? Easy, you mimic the greatest film ever. This classic 2001 lampoon, complete with pointed visual cues and recreations of classic moments, left fans free associating for days. It’s all here - including a final image that summed up how special Mystery Science Theater 3000 was to fans and cinephile’s worldwide.

by Jason Gross

23 Nov 2008

Today’s the day that no one thought would come- Chinese Democracy is finally out now.  You can go to the GNR MySpace page to decide if the wait was worth it. 

IHMO, it wasn’t unless you like over-flashy guitar that makes you miss Slash and enjoy Axl’s voice being submerged instead of being utilized as the great scream machine it is (at least until the middle of the thing).  And for the handful of good melodies around, they’re more than balanced out by the soggy ballads.  I’d take anything else in their back catalog over it.

Their label will soon find out if it was worth the millions of dollars that they invested in it but don’t be too surprised if they can’t recoup the dough from the album sales.  Granted, it was a canny move to get it sold through Best Buy but there’s no way that they’re gonna sell as many copies as Appetite For Destruction and I doubt that they’re gonna outsell Lil Wayne or the Eagles for this year either.  Mostly likely, Axl is gonna have to haul whoever is in GNR now around for a tour and try to sell enough merchandise to make up for it.  They don’t have any dates scheduled yet but rest assured that his label’s breathing down his neck to take his act on the road.

But you also realize this occasion means that Dr. Pepper now has to make good on its promise that it surely regrets making earlier this year: one of their sodas for everyone in the States, barring Slash and Buckethead (though Axl promised to give his soda to the later) if GNR finally put out their album this year.  Needless to say, they made the offer when they were fairly confident that Axl wouldn’t come through but he finally did (maybe he was goaded on by them), so now they’re stuck.

If you go to their website today, you can download a coupon for a free soda that you can redeem at any store that accepts it until next February.  First, you have to get to the site though and it’s clear that they weren’t ready for the traffic they got.  Here’s some of the error messages that their site spit out earlier today:

“The paging file is too small for this operation to complete.”

“The specified CGI application misbehaved by not returning a complete set of HTTP headers.”

“Service Unavailable.”

“Insufficient system resources exist to complete the requested service.”

“The network link was interrupted while negotiating a connection. Please try again.”

“Not enough storage is available to process this command.”

What you have here is kind of a greatest hits of server breakdown messages.  And even after you get into the site, you still have to sign up for the soda coupon and rest assured, their server isn’t ready for that either—I’ve tried a number of times and my browser just keeps timing out.

Makes them look kind of bad now but rest assured that they’ll have a notice up tomorrow saying “We’re thrilled with the response we got!” instead of “We weren’t prepared to have that damn album come out and have to make good on our promise!” 

Of course, people love to gooble up free stuff and this stunt was good publicity for them but it’s hardly gonna turn America into a nation of Pepper drinkers.  Most people will just go back to the other crappy drinks that they guzzle down after this.

As for me, if I do get my coupon, I’m gonna cash it and send my soda to Slash.  He deserves it and I’d wager that he’s not bummed that he isn’t on the new GNR album either.

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