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by Bill Gibron

11 Jan 2009

Some directors don’t deserve the reputation they eventually earn. While many consider him to be the worst filmmaker in the world, the late Ed Wood was merely a misunderstood visionary. Really. If you don’t believe it, just look at the efforts of one of his unhinged contemporaries. Responsible for such groan-inducing drek as Wild Guitar, Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, The Lemon Grove Kids, and most memorably, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, the former legitimate cinematographer became the kind of bad movie icon that all half-assed directors strived to best. Under the pseudonym of “Cash Flagg”, he acted, worked with fellow b-movie producers, and attempted to keep his creative dreams alive via a wealth of less than successful drive-in fare. When the passion pit finally dried up and drifted down movie memory lane, he started dabbling in porn.

So when it was announced that the 70 year old had died 7 January from a heart attack, few except the most ardent of outsider film fans probably noticed. Unlike similarly styled grindhouse legends like Herschell Gordon Lewis or Doris Wishman, Ray Dennis Steckler didn’t have a considered cult following. Heck, few probably even recognize the name. There were those however who championed his amateurish outrages, and others who merely shrugged their shoulders and went about their web-surfing business. Most probably did know that, at the time of his passing, he was finishing post-production on a sequel of sorts to ISCWSLABMUZ (entitled Incredibly Strange Creatures: One More Time).

Certainly no news services eulogized his loss. No major 24 hour cable channel called upon his supporters and well wishers to remember his life. Film Comment probably won’t write up a retrospective, and when Oscar puts out its annual cattle call of corpses, his visage will surely be missing. It’s not that Steckler was forgotten so much as how forgettable his output was. He fell into filmmaking by accident. Like most men of his generation, Steckler was called to the medium because of military service. He was an Army photographer for a brief bit during the ‘50s. Unlike many of his ilk, however, he decided to pursue the celluloid visions the armed forces placed into his impressionable adolescent head and headed out to Hollywood.

He got his start working for the big names, like Universal. But after an incident involving an unsteady set and Alfred Hitchcock (so rumor/tall tale/ripping yarn tells it), Steckler needed to leave LA. He ended up finding a home with wannabe mogul Arch Hall Sr. and his Fairway Productions. Determined that his pasty faced son Arch Jr. could be the next big teen idol, Pops put his unctuous offspring in several low rent disasters. Working camera, Steckler made a brief stunt appearance in the now immortal Eegah! (as a partygoer tossed in a pool by lead behemoth Richard Kiel) and ended up directing the Halls’ Jailhouse Rock ripoff, Wild Guitar. He even played the part of Steak. While the movie had its moments - especially the mesmerizing song and dance sequences featuring an atonal Arch as an ersatz Elvis - it was nothing short of awful. Undeterred, Steckler decided to head off on his own. Raising $38,000, he decided to stay within the musical genre, and came up with a title he was sure would sell his storyline.

Unfortunately, Columbia took umbrage with newly minted The Incredibly Strange Creature: Or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-up Zombie. To them, it was highly reminiscent of their upcoming Stanley Kubrick comedy Dr. Strangelove. With the slightest of name changes, a lawsuit was avoided, and Steckler went about completing the project. Using Long Beach’s Pike Amusement Park as a backdrop, and fashioning a story that mixed showtunes, juvenile delinquency, gypsy curses, doughy businessmen, and lame latex monsters, he was convinced he had something that would make him famous.  Instead, ISCWSLABMUZ made Ray Dennis Steckler infamous. For a long time, the film was thought to be nothing more than a joke. Michael and Harry Medved even wrote in their Golden Turkey Awards book that, while the movie seemed to actually have a release (there were marquees to prove the title), no one could confirm that it actually existed.

In fact, it wouldn’t be until the advent of home video before many knew of Steckler’s work - and even then, he was typically relegated to the junk shelf at the local Mom and Pop. For his acclaimed UK documentary series, The Incredibly Strange Film Show, presenter Jonathan Ross stole the moniker and even interviewed Steckler. For many, it was their first introduction into the age of exploitation, drive-in dive cinema, and what would later be referred to as ‘psycohtronic’ moviemaking. Of course, by then he had more than moved on.

The ‘70s saw a rash of quickie smut statements, grimy little exercises with names like Perverted Passions, Teenage Hustler, and Sex Rink. Even with their racy content, Steckler had a hard time raising money for his movies. 1979’s Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher had to resort to a Wishman style of sound recording thanks to budgetary concerns. Instead of actually capturing dialogue on film, he simply filmed the actors at various angles where the mouths couldn’t be seen. He then dubbed in their lines later.

By the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, Steckler was in semi-retirement. He owned a small mail order video business, with one of his hottest sellers being a six volume compilation of actress outtakes/auditions from his Hollywood Strangler sequel - the Las Vegas Serial Killer. The commercial catch? The clips were rife with nudity. Steckler eventually sold the business to one Dan Wayman and watched as labels like Something Weird Video introduced a hungry generation to the abject pleasures of underground cinema. His biggest moment in the limelight came in 1997, when Mystery Science Theater 3000 used one of its initial Sci-Fi Channel shows to mock and make fun of Steckler’s zombie stomp. It would later appear on DVD as part of the Volume Nine set for the series.

Naturally, there are those who continue to call Steckler an unheralded motion picture auteur, someone misunderstood by the mainstream and de-legitimized by a critical community unable to appreciate his genius. To them, the stream of consciousness craziness of ISCWSLABMUZ is what makes it so magnificent. They worship the retarded East End Kid conceit of Steckler’s “Flagg” persona. In this wacked out world, The Incredibly Strange Creatures is not some unknown quantity, but a brilliant deconstruction of the entire old school Hollywood moviemaking myth. Sure, he was seen by many as nothing short of mediocre and for others, he’s much, much worse than Ed Wood. But unlike many in his particular grade-z schlock field, Ray Dennis Steckler found a way to stand out. He may be gone, but one has to imagine he will not be soon forgotten.

by Mike Schiller

9 Jan 2009

You’ve read the reviews.  Gears of War 2 has a marked lack of depth.  It’s relentlessly immature.  Its characters are a little corny.

As our own Ryan Smith puts it, “The rating on the game says it’s Mature, but half the time it feels like it was the brainchild of a 15-year-old boy.”

All of this is entirely true.  I have no argument refuting any of it.  What I will argue against, however, is the idea that somehow the story (or lack thereof) in Gears of War 2 makes it less of a game.  On the contrary, I don’t know that I’ve found a game whose story complements the gameplay quite so well as that in Gears of War 2 in quite some time.

Perhaps it’s a matter of expectations.  When you pick up a game that says Gears of War on it, to expect any sort of meaningful story is to be asking something of a game that it was never intended to provide.  The entire point of the Gears of War series is to blow stuff up and, if possible, look good doing it.  If you blast an enemy in the head enough times, that head explodes into a crimson gush of alien blood.  If you’ve got the guts to run up to a baddie, you’re rewarded with the opportunity to take a chainsaw to said baddie.  Your reward for doing all of this is to fight bigger bad guys and see the sights that new terrain has to offer.

The strength of the “story” in Gears 2 is that it is almost entirely motivated by moving the player from one dangerous situation to another.  The game starts in a bombed-out gray ‘n brown environment that looks entirely familiar to just about anyone who played the first game, but then you’re given an excuse to shoot reavers (giant airborn squid things) in lush greenery.  Then you end up inside(!) a giant worm.  Then you end up dodging “razor rain” in an all-too open environment.  Then you’re in a giant temple.  Along the way you blast away some humongous beastly looking things, ride a reaver and a brumak, and confront the Locust Queen.

The longer cutscenes in the game do their part in heightening the player’s anticipation.  A long sequence at the beginning features the gears’ commander giving a Big Important Military Speech.  Yes, it’s a clichéd trope when it comes to this sort of movie or game, but while he’s doing all of that, you get these tremendous panoramic shots that convey the scale of the operation you’re embarking on.  The scripting and the cinematography of the scene is perfect, and it’s a great way to get motivated for the operation ahead.

The intimate conversation with the Locust Queen does the same thing, but in a completely different sort of way.  Her quiet confidence and the constant presence of the impossibly agile, impossibly strong Skorge by her side as she speaks heightens the dread you feel as you know you’re about to face off against the Predator-like beast that caused so much havok early in the game.  She’s rambling on and on about infected locusts and lambent whatnots and maybe western philosophy and how to balance a checkbook, but it doesn’t really matter because, again, the game is not really about the narrative, the game is about look and feel.

Ah, but then there is Maria.

Maria, the captured love of Dom’s life, is where my argument is in danger of falling apart.  Maria is the closest thing here to narrative for the sake of narrative, because nowhere is the search for Maria truly integral to the progression of the story.  Still, in a land where the toughest guy wins, the search for Maria served to make Dom tougher, even as it gave him a gooey center.  Maria is his motivation, before and after we learn her ultimate fate.  His anger at losing her rubs off on the player, which actually makes chainsawing enemies into bloody giblets even more satisfying.  Again, the story feeds the sense of scope, heightening the drama and determination of the player. 

Of course this won’t be true for everyone; for every player that thinks the story works wonderfully with the game, there’s one that thinks it’s a distracting mess.  I have a theory as to determining which side of the fence you’ll fall on: Did you like Independence Day?  Did Armageddon make you tear up a little at the end?  Did you think The Rock was a cinematic masterpiece?  Aside from proving I’d never make it as a film critic, the fact that I can say yes to the aforementioned three questions (or anything similar that relates to big, stupid, Michael Bay-style action movies) has a lot to do with why I find the story elements of Gears of War 2 not only tolerable, but pretty fantastic.  The story makes everything bigger, and it gives me even more reasons to enjoy blowing things up.  What’s not to like?

by Rob Horning

9 Jan 2009

I’ve been puzzled by the popularity of the game Guitar Hero, for what seems to me like obvious reasons. It’s like karaoke minus the trouble of having to hear the sounds you make. If you want a more interactive way to enjoy music, why not dance, or play air guitar? Or better yet, if holding a guitar appeals to you, why not try actually learning how to play? For the cost of an Xbox and the Guitar Hero game, you can get yourself a pretty good guitar. I assume I am missing the point of it, the competitive thrill, but I can’t help but feel that Guitar Hero (much like Twitter) would have been utterly incomprehensible to earlier generations, that it is a symptom of some larger social refusal to embrace difficulty. (Sure TV shows may have become more “complex,” but these remain passive, albeit more absorbing.) A society that requires such short cuts and preemptive blows in the name of the short-attention span surely must be deeply broken, our progenitors probably would have thought.

Since, lamentably, what we do for a living tends to lack meaning for us personally, we rely more on our leisure and consumption time to supply our lives with meaning, to afford us opportunities for self-realization. But consumption and self-realization may be at odds. In his introductory book on Marx, philosopher Jon Elster (who I’d encountered before as a theorist of precommitment strategies) makes an interesting point about consumption versus self-realization:

Activities of self-realization are subject to increasing marginal utility: They become more enjoyable the more one has already engaged in them. Exactly the opposite is true of consumption. To derive sustained pleasure from consumption, diversity is essential. Diversity, on the other hand, is an obstacle to successful self-realization, as it prevents one from getting into the later and more rewarding stages.

Perhaps there is an optimal balance for these two impulses that, if Elster is right, are antithetical. But if living in a consumerist society subjects us to all sorts of marketing pressures (derived from the need to sell all the junk we make at our unmeaningful jobs), that balance tips precipitously toward consumption, and potentially destabilizes the economy and our own psychological well-being. (This is what Marx seems to be suggesting in his concern with alienation from “species being.”) Elster, paraphrasing Marx, writes, “In capitalism, the desire for consumption—as opposed to the desire for self-realization—takes on a compulsive character. Capitalism creates an incentive for producers to seduce consumers, by inducing in them new desires to which they then become enslaved.” (The word choice here suggests Elster’s skepticism.)

So, surprisingly, the way the loss of opportunities for self-realization plays out is not through a paucity of options but a surfeit of them, all of which we feel capable of pursuing only to a shallow degree before we get frustrated or bored. Consumerism and its infrastructure (meaning markets, market spaces like the internet, and the shopping-oriented personality type most readily developed within consumerism) keeps us well supplied with stuff and seems to enrich our identities by allowing us to become familiar with a wide range of phenomena—a process that the internet has accelerated immeasurably. (I encounter a stray idea, digest the relevant Wikipedia entry, and just like that, I’ve broadened my conceptual vocabulary! I get bored with the book I’m reading, Amazon suggests a new one! I am too distracted to read blog posts, I’ll check Twitter instead!) But this comes at the expense with developing any sense of mastery of anything, eroding over time the sense that mastery is possible, or worth pursuing.

With more “diversity” available, it’s becoming harder to evade boredom, which more and more seems to be engineered socially (by accelerating fashion cycles, by making us always aware of what we are missing, and by making every moment a purchasing opportunity) as opposed to developing from some idiosyncratic internal curiosity in an individual. Novelty trumps sustained focus, whose rewards are not immediately felt and may never come at all, as Elster points out, if our focus is mistakenly fixed on something ultimately worthless. (I’m thinking of my long investment in Cryptonomicon.) Rather than taking advantage of that “increasing marginal utility” that comes with practicing something difficult, our will to dilettantism develops momentum.

To take a trivial example, let’s say you decide you like psychedelic music and want to “master” it by having a deep familiarity with the genre. But then you stumble on the hardcore psych MP3 blogs, and you are probably at that point discouraged by the impossibility of ever catching up and listening to it all. There is simply too much that’s now available too readily. You might still download everything you can get your hands on—that costs nothing but disk space and a minimal amount of time—but you’ll never make significant use of the larger portion of what you acquire. Acquiring has supplanted inquisitive use as the self-realizing activity. You have become a collector of stuff as opposed to a master of psychedelic music.

This seems to happen generally, as what Elster calls “the marginal disutility of not consuming” grows stronger—i.e., we have a harder time giving up the thrill of novelty, of exposing ourselves to new things. We end up collecting things rather than knowing them, and we display our collections in the hopes that others will recognize us as though we actually do know them. Or perhaps we have already reached a point where we all figure we are all playing the same game and that that distinction between owning and mastering is unimportant. (If I own a cool guitar, maybe a replica of no-name Telecaster or the Jag-Stang that Kurt Cobain used, does it really matter if I can play it?)

Dilettantism is a perfectly rational response to the hyperaccessibility of stuff available to us in the market, all of which imposes on us time constraints where there was once material scarcity. These time constraints become more itchy the more we recognize how much we are missing out on (thanks to ever more invasive marketing efforts, often blended in to the substance of the material we are gathering for self-realization). We opt instead for “diversity,” and begin setting about to rationalize the preferability of novelty even further, abetted by the underlying message of much our culture of disposability. Concentration takes on more of the qualities of work—it becomes a disutility rather than an end vis-a-vis the stuff we acquire. If something requires us to concentrate, it costs us more and forces us to sacrifice more of the stuff we might otherwise consume. In other words, consumerism makes the will and ability to concentrate seem a detriment to ourselves. The next thing you know, everyone touts Guitar Hero as a reasonable substitute for guitar playing and mocks the fuddy-duddy nabobs of negativism who are still hung up on the difference.

by Barry Lenser

9 Jan 2009

I’ve now listened to “Do You Want to Know a Secret” many times, read of its origins, and taken ample notes. Even so, I don’t think I could put together a commentary that aspires to be original or insightful. Throughout, I found myself insistently qualifying both the positive and negative reactions I had toward the song. As in: “Secret” doesn’t amount to much but it easily delivers a warm and modest pop pleasure. It’s hard to dislike but closer to forgettable than not. It’s lightweight but knowingly so. Such ambivalence can frustrate one’s attempt at lucid criticism.

The song itself is simple and fairly straightforward. Musically, the Beatles drew inspiration from an early ‘60s doo-wop hit called “I Really Love You” by the Stereos. What results is a tight but fanciful bounce of a song that moves along with a procession of lilting guitar plucks and a crisp, contained rhythm. The only twist comes right at the outset when the combined effect of minimalist spaghetti strumming and George’s earnest vocal produces a heavier, more uncertain tone. This dissolves within seconds though, giving way to the wispy amble that marks the song.

Lyrically, John borrowed from a tune in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which includes the line “Wanna know a secret/ Promise not to tell”. According to Steve Turner’s A Hard Day’s Write, the titular “secret” referred to how John “had just realized that he was really in love” with his first wife Cynthia. Strangely, he wrote this song a short time after his marriage to her, which would seem to undercut the sense of excitement and discovery that one might experience while harboring such emotion (and not wedding its target). But John couldn’t have felt too strongly about how “Secret” would convey these sentiments because the vast majority of the song is so breezy and also because he allowed George to take the lead vocal.

Perhaps this detail, that “Secret” seems like a bone which the band tossed to George, partly animates my mixed thoughts. It almost reinforces the song’s disposable feel or attaches a negating asterisk to any enjoyment you might derive.  But this is likely just an instance of outside factors unduly influencing how a song is received. The effect is more contrived than anything. What isn’t contrived is that enjoyment, which, however qualified, doesn’t require a tedious explanation for its existence.

by Mike Schiller

8 Jan 2009

If you’re the type to follow a blog like this one, you’ve no doubt heard the news of UGO Entertainment’s purchase of the 1Up network and all of the properties underneath it, followed closely by the news of game rag stalwart EGM’s sudden (not to mention unfortunately timed, at one month before its 20th anniversary) cancellation.  The entire fiasco has resulted in a confirmed list of at least 30 staffers suddenly finding themselves having to check the “unemployed” box on every form they fill out for at least the near-term future.

Thus far, UGO’s been saying lots of nice things about letting 1up remain its own brand while simultaneously getting rid of a whole bunch of the people that made that site stand out (that is, the podcasters) among the major game sites, but I’m not going to be too hard on UGO here, because when you get down to it, it’s just business, as much as we’d prefer to think of it as more than that.  That’s small comfort to those who were just pink slipped, but turnover always happens in these situations, and we’re just not in the sort of economy that welcomes exceptions to that rule.

Gamers of a certain age will never forget this page.

Gamers of a certain age will never forget the Sheng Long hoax.

For many older gamers such as myself, the disappearance of EGM is really hitting home.  This is the magazine that gave us the infamous secret of Sheng Long, the magazine that started the “Lair is crap” wave of anti-publicity, the only magazine that most of us would ever have thought to have bought despite the presence of Fabio on the cover.  Heck, I remember the first one, which I bought shortly after spending way too much time with an Issue of Nintendo Power trying to figure out whether those Mega Man 2 screens were too spectacular to be real.

Still, the departure of EGM is just another domino to drop in the course of print media’s apparent march to extinction.

One could argue that print is already flirting with complete irrelevance as far as gaming goes, given that the only major American gaming rags left are Play (whose primary claim to fame is its “girls of gaming” feature), Game Informer (whose circulation will continue to thrive due to its status as a “free” bonus for signing up for GameStop’s membership card), GamePro (I’m sorry, I just never much cared for GamePro) and the official platform-specific magazines.  Europe still has a couple of solid mags in the form of Eurogamer and Edge, and Japan’s Famitsu continues to be a nationwide tastemaker (nothing solidifies the hype of a Japanese release like a 39 or 40 out of 40 from a Famitsu review).  Even so, with the ease of internet access still exponentially increasing and the shrinking window that separates “breaking” with “outdated”, it’s hard to see much of a future for print.  On an online source, you can see video previews of upcoming games; in print, you need to look at pictures.  Online sources can publish instantly, leaving print sources at least two weeks in the dust when it comes to news.

Maybe if they put Fabio on every cover…

Maybe if they put Fabio on every cover…

If a print publication is to succeed, it is going to need to a) appeal to the nostalgia of an audience that grew up with print, and b) provide a service that online outlets can’t.  In the case of Famitsu, for example, that service is in the presentation of scored reviews by a core set of reviewers which still garners as much or more respect than any of the current online crop of reviewers.  For English-language audiences, however, this approach is more difficult because any of the writers who could pull this sort of clout are already gainfully employed online.

Perhaps if there were a print mag that was structured more like an academic journal, in which experts, scholars, and the rest of us were encouraged to submit essays to a prestigious editorial board, the best of which would be published, we would want to subscribe to it.  Of course, The Escapist already does this online, so it’s difficult to see it succeeding in a subscription-centered arena.  Gonzo game journalism already has its place online, as does some surprisingly well-constructed fan-fiction.

The truth is, there really isn’t anything that print magazines can offer that online outlets can’t, and even the most nostalgically-minded reader is going to favor something free, current, and dynamic.  Even I’ll admit that despite my own subscription to EGM, I wasn’t really reading it anymore; maybe I maintained it for the fresh-ink smell that a just-delivered magazine has.  Still, EGM was something of an institution in its own right, a holdover from the Nintendo age that managed to hold on longer than it could have thanks to some sharp editorial minds and solid writing.  Inevitable as EGM’s demise may have been, January 6, 2009 was still a sad day for gaming as we knew it.

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