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by Mike Schiller

10 Jul 2008

If you’ve looked at the PopMatters front page recently, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the recent (and ongoing) set of features dealing with the world of secondhand books.  If you haven’t seen them, go look at them, because each and every one of them thus far is an interesting, absorbing look into either an individual store or the culture of the used bookstore in general.

Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first video game love.

Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first
video game love.

Perhaps because of the increasing age of the average gamer, or perhaps simply because there are enough different games out there to support it, we are starting to see a similar sort of phenomenon in video games—that is, more and more of the so-called “mom ‘n pop” stores that deal in games are bringing in lots of business dealing in vintage.

Being based in Buffalo, I didn’t really see this happening until recently—not until the last couple of weeks did I even realize that a shop dealing in vintage games even existed in this city, given that most of the web hotspots for locating such things (the Cheap Ass Gamer forums, the AtariAge forums, and so on) seem to leave a gaping hole where Buffalo should be in terms of shops in which to buy my old Nintendo / Dreamcast / Genesis / etc. games.  As such, any travel to another town is an immediate excuse to look up the possible vintage gaming destinations.  A trip to Columbus this past month revealed a number of potential hotspots, most notably a place called “BuyBacks”.

Now, BuyBacks isn’t your typical mom ‘n pop shop; at least one of their locations looks more like a competitor to Best Buy from the outside than anything else, though the Ohio State location was at least commingling with the rest of the shops in town.  Even so…wow, is it a rush to have an alternative to the GameStop / GameCrazy block that I’m used to. 

This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.

This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.

I popped in to a few other shops in Columbus, and came back with a treasure trove of stuff…Metal Gear Solid for the PS1, Qix Neo for the PS1, Sneak King for the Xbox (hey, it was $1.99 and I didn’t even have to give my money to Burger King), Faxanadu for the NES…it felt like everything I’d been missing in Buffalo.  There’s something beautifully tactile about walking into a vintage games shop and being able to see what’s there; there’s a certain smell in the air when there’s that much beat-up plastic in the room.  Sure, I could get pretty much everything on eBay or Craigslist or even used on Amazon, but online browsing tends to be so search-based that who’s to say I wouldn’t miss out on some little secret treasure?  Did I even know that Qix Neo existed?  Goodness no.  Would I ever have remembered the joy of Faxanadu if I didn’t see it on a shelf between Ice Hockey and Gotcha!?  Not likely.

Vintage shops are where we can indulge in a minor case of arrested development and recapture the joy of walking into the toy store and seeing, say, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link up there on the shelf in all its golden glory.  Even better, Zelda II won’t even cost you $69.99 (+ tax!) anymore.

Vintage gaming also invites us to remember a time whenbox art had something in common with Harlequin novels.

Vintage gaming also invites us to
remember a time when box art had something
in common with Harlequin romance novels.

Vintage game shops will likely never approach the notoriety or the popularity of the best secondhand book stores, if only because unlike a book, the appeal of a vintage game is limited to a shrinking few who might have a console that can still play the game.  There just aren’t all that many people floating around who have working Intellivision systems anymore, meaning that a store that chooses to stock Intellivision games is severely limiting the number of people who might have any interest in buying something off that section of not-all-that-cheap shelf space.  The only time you see a similar issue with books is through language disparities; the truth is, most people who frequent a bookstore will at least be able to read almost anything on that bookstore’s shelves.  The same can’t be said for the game shop.

Still, more and more aging gamers (such as myself) are finding joy in playing, in the most pure way possible, the games of their youth, and discovering games that they may have missed all those years ago.

Retrogaming fans might want to check out the excellent newsletters at Retrogaming Times Monthly for some good reading that’ll bring you back.  Or, you could join The Brainy Gamer’s newly established (and highly informal) Vintage Game Club, if you actually want to participate in the discussion.  Me, I’m off to scratch the itch at a Buffalo-based shop that copious Googling eventually uncovered.  Hopefully, it’s worth the search.

by Rob Horning

10 Jul 2008

Anthropologist Grant McCracken points to this New York Times article by David Carr about former Us Weekly editor Bonnie Fuller and makes an interesting point about the ideological effects of the celebrity-gossip tabloid Fuller pioneered.

The [article’s] most illuminated observation comes from Janice Min…. Here’s how Min explains Fuller’s success. “She is able to almost distill the id of the reader.  She channels them in a way few others do, and what she heard is: ‘I don’t care about your acting method in your last movie. I just want to know what workout you used to get that fabulous body.’ “
This suggests that there has been a shift in the celebrity culture, a movement from admiration to imitation. Fans now treat the star less as a god and more as a set of transformational pointers. Celebrities by this reckoning are better than us but not different from us.
This is a very big change. Among other things, it marks the democratization of celebrity and the rise of a culture in which everyone imagines themselves a star, or at least transform themselves with a star’s effort and care.

 
This seems right. We don’t particularly admire the celebrities in these gossip magazines at all; they are more like mirrors for our self-admiration.

The essence of Us always seemed to me to be the “Stars—they’re just like us!” page, which sets up the rest of the magazine, which is advice couched as gossip. And it helps explain why the people famous for doing nothing—Paris Hilton, for example—are the magazines’ prime attractions. These are the people who invite the strongest identification in readers, the most vicarious appeal, because their lack of talent seems to confirm our own fantasies of becoming famous merely for existing. In a society in which there is a lot of attention apparently waiting to be spent, it’s not such a far-fetched dream.

What’s strange is that people now seem to believe that it is better, more significant, to have fame than talent. A species of anti-intellectualism seems to be at work. Talented people stand out from the mass, marking themselves as de facto elitists. The merely famous, though, give hope to us all.

by Anthony Henriques

10 Jul 2008

You Can’t Stop Us Now

Salaam Remi, with whom Nas has worked more than any other producer this decade, based this track around a sample of the Whatnaut’s “Message From a Black Man”. Unlike RZA, who recently sampled the same track on his latest Bobby Digital album in raw form, Remi masks the central melody in a heavy baseline. The sound actually makes me wonder whether he sampled the song or just interpolated it. He also adds soulful blaxplotation-sounding horns as a lead into the chorus, sung by Eban Brown, who has been a member of both the Delfonics and the Stylistics throughout his career. He replaces “me” with “us” in his version of the classic hook. The track overall has a more polished yet similar feel to that of previous Remi-produced Nas songs like “Made You Look” and “Thief’s Theme”.

Nas’ two verses on “You Can’t Stop Us Now” run through a range of topics which add together to make the song a singular, astute statement of Black Pride. His first verse is an exploration of African American history in a series of poetic, internally-rhymed individual statements which are able to stand unaccompanied as powerful proclamations; his first line is: “From Willie Lynch to Willie Hutch” – six words that, alone, serve as a potent summation of the plight and triumph of blacks in America. Other lines like “from gold to shackles and back to gold” as well as “slave food turned to soul food” have similar effects and the verse ends with Nas claiming, “Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag / Bet she had a nigga with her to help her old ass.” I could not imagine a better verse examining African American heritage with such celebratory vitriol.

Nas approaches the second verse from a present-time point-of-view and assumes the task of exposing hypocrisies in the interpretations of African versus European culture. He uses the Michael Vick case as a talking point: “Gave a Blood time / Cause he fought with his canine / Bestiality / Humane Society / Go to China, see how they dine / See what they eat / Better yet ask PETA whoever / Which animal makes suede? / If not for suede would you have survived the Dark Ages?” He goes on to address Sammy Davis Jr. who “helped pave the way for Southern crankers and them Harlem shakers”, which has led Nas to assert, in the ending of his verse, “Now we getting our papers / They try to censor the words / To stop our money coming / But you can’t escape us / Haters.”

The Last Poets declaration, in between the first verse and the chorus, that, “as James Baldwin says, you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world considers a nigger” provides a literal link between Nas’ poetry and the original concept of Untitled, a discourse on the word “nigger” and an attempt to strip it of its rhetorical power.

Breathe

This song’s keyboard-driven production from J. Myers and Dustin Moore has a smoothed-out ‘90s R&B feel to it. The beat is not bad by any means, it’s slightly unremarkable. Its breezy style makes it easy for one to hear the song without actually listening to it. That’s unfortunate because “Breathe” is probably Nas’ most personal song on the album and his rhyme-schemes are awe-inspiring.

The lyrics are concerned with the true meaning of freedom in a free country, especially for a high-profile black man. His verses touch upon the theme of subliminal racism in white America which is present throughout the album. We get a glimpse of him at his most somber while contemplating his own identity. His paranoid, seemingly infinitely internally rhymed verses run quickly through his various anxieties (child-custody battles, police racial profiling, money and fame) and he portrays a world where everyone either wants part of him or wishes him harm; his chorus repeats the question: “Can a nigga just breathe?”

The concept of the song fits well into the whole theme of Untitled. It is the lament of a man who, despite all of his accomplishments and contributions to society, still feels unable to transcend the American subconscious from which a word like “nigger” was able to become dominant.

Had the production been a bit more interesting, this would have been an instant classic. It’s still damn good though.

To be continued…

by David Pullar

10 Jul 2008

Sam De Brito keeps a blog called All Men Are Liars over at the Sydney Morning Herald website.  It’s popular and very interactive.  He posts most days with something provocative, usually about masculinity and gender issues, and his sizable readership will run with it for a few hundred comments.

I read it pretty regularly, not without a certain guilt.  The generalizations about gender roles can be pretty crude and it’s mostly entertaining from a voyeuristic angle.  Occasionally he’s right on the money and it’s those moments of insight that keep me coming back.

Now he’s branched out into fiction with a novel called The Lost Boys.  De Brito has tried his hand at a book before: No Tattoos Before You’re Thirty is a little pocket-sized volume of advice that Sam would give his unborn (and unconceived) offspring.  Now he’s trying something more ambitious.

If you’ve read All Men Are Liars for any length of time, you’ll have a pretty clear idea what’s in store.  Sam’s not shy about talking up his past and there’s a strong autobiographical element to The Lost Boys.  Young blokes go out, do stupid things, keep doing stupid things and wake up in their thirties wondering what happened.  There’s a lot of sex, drugs and general misbehavior.

I’ve picked up a copy in a bookshop, flicked through it and put it back on the shelf on a few occasions.  I’m sure there are some interesting insights into the psyche of young Australian men, but the passages I’ve read are so full of misogyny and unrelenting squalor that I just couldn’t be bothered.

That’s the problem with “gritty” literature.  In some shorter art forms, say films or photography or journalism, grime and unpleasantness can be exciting—over a 400 page book, it can be draining.

That might be worth it for a brilliant statement about society, but De Brito doesn’t really speak for Australian Masculinity, if there is such thing.  He speaks for a subculture of lower middle-class urban thirtysomethings, the products of a very specific time and place.  There are any number of Aussie males who would struggle to see much of themselves in these lost boys.  There are big themes involved, but they tend to get buried in all the extreme behavior.

Most of us have a tendency to universalize our experiences and writers only more so.  It goes something like “I’m a man, therefore this is what men are.”  Maybe De Brito’s goal is something less grand, but from his blog and the publicity around the book, it seems as if he’s trying to take the pulse of an entire gender.

Who will The Lost Boys appeal to?  Probably not the Maroubra Beach toughs that De Brito is depicting.  Readers of new Australian fiction tend to be a more sensitive lot.  Maybe a lot of men will read it with a sigh of relief, “Thank God I’m not like that.”  I don’t think that was the author’s point.

by Bill Gibron

9 Jul 2008

Guillermo Del Toro should be Peter Jackson. He should be sitting on a multi-billion dollar franchise, a few Oscars, and that rare combination of mainstream movie studio cred and overwhelming geek love. Granted, the Mexican maverick has gained a couple of these career accolades over the last ten years, his resume overflowing with awards, appreciation, and the kind of adoration reserved for rock stars. Heck, he’s become so powerful within the closed community of Hollywood that he managed to get a sequel made of his amazing Hellboy, even though the first film was no blockbuster, and there was no great grassroots groundswell to revisit the franchise.

When Columbia Pictures bailed, more or less dooming the director’s proposed trilogy, Universal came in and scooped up the series. At the time, it was seen as a major gamble. Even with his Blade II commercial rep and Devil’s Backbone/Pan’s Labyrinth aesthetic aura, Del Toro was not a guaranteed box office hero. In retrospect, it was a genius play on the part of the powers that be. In between greenlighting the return of everyone’s favorite cat and candy loving demon superhero, the Academy came calling, and so did Middle Earth. Indeed, Del Toro is now in preproduction to bring The Hobbit (as well as a follow-up linking film) to the big screen. For the next four years, JRR Tolkien will be his life, and just like the man who he should be, it will be a make or breakthrough for the filmmaker.

Like Jackson, Del Toro really doesn’t require the need of that famed work of fantasy literature to establish his true cinematic value. He is responsible for some remarkably visionary works, from the giant insect deconstruction of Mimic to the vampires as vultures/victims in his take on Blade. A love of old school horror has made him dabble successfully in the genre (Cronos) as well producing the brilliant ghost story by Juan Antonio Bayona, The Orphanage. An appreciation of comics brought him to Mike Mignola’s usual graphic novel, and always the outsider, Del Toro delivered a big screen action film without a major star (Ron Pearlman as the lead?) or well known marketing icon. Yet thanks to his undeniable passion and kid in a candy store scope, he evoked the best of what makes movies magic - the pure power in visuals. It has become his considered calling card.

Looking over Del Toro’s oeuvre, it’s clear that the image is everything. Take the genetically altered cockroaches in Mimic. Their ability to resemble humans, combined with the inherent terror of their oversized awfulness, makes them an endearing bit of macabre. Similarly, his Blade gave neckbiters a mandible to be wary of, while the first Hellboy filled the screen with all manner of heretofore unseen monsters. But it was his smaller films, his work in Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth that sealed the spectacle deal. From the unforgettable symbolism of the unexploded bomb in the children’s home courtyard to the Great Faun, its bent-back legs and elongated limbs suggesting an ancient folklore façade, Del Toro definitely believes that a picture is worth a thousand words - and a million narrative possibilities.

With Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, the man’s imagination machine goes into overdrive. It’s a movie that literally fills the screen with optical eye candy. The moment our hero’s father figure - Trevor Bruttenholm - tells the story of the truce between mankind and magic (illustrated in a stop motion puppetoon style that suggests the very best of George Pal), we know we’re in for a major treat. That things only get better from here is a testament to Del Toro’s constantly churning creativity. Doors are complex puzzle boxes, rock formations the humanoid gateways to other worlds. Even when he applies a standard physical F/X motif to his work (the mesmerizing Troll City), we can sense the purpose and playfulness in his stratagem.

Some suggest that Hellboy 2 has too much visual splendor, that it allows excess to overwhelm both its sensible and supernatural approaches. Actually, this is not a criticism so much as a reflective and rather damning disclosure. The reason most people feel that the film offers too much in the way of wonder is because so many so-called fantasies are absolutely bereft of same. The sequel may play like Ghostbusters on steroids, but Del Toro isn’t doing anything that his fanbase hasn’t complained about and then embraced for the last ten years. The Star Wars prequels were some of the busiest, most CGI-laden examples of overindulgence ever, and yet no one is giving George Lucas grief for his images (his casting choices and script writing, on the other hand…).

No, what makes Del Toro’s tapestry so dense and daunting is its connection to tradition and old world mythology. You see, films like Hellboy 2 and Pan’s Labyrinth rely on a knowledge of legend and fable as a means of making sense of their often symbolic substance. When a city sized Elemental attacks our gun-wielding Hellspawn, its purpose is not just to destroy. No, it wants to reclaim the natural order, the delicate balance that once allowed it to live in harmony with all others. Similarly, the faun is not testing Ofelia by having her fight any particular set of creatures. Each of her challenges represents a step in the maturation process, a point of reference that will make her last act sacrifice seem majestic, instead of meaningless.

All of Del Toro’s nightmares and dreamscapes work this way. The villainous Prince Nuada doesn’t want to simply destroy all humans. He wants them to understand the pain they’ve inflicted on the otherworldly realm. His goal is both nasty and noble, which makes his efforts both ghastly and somewhat valiant.  As with many characters in the Del Toro canon, the complexity fills many functions. A champion is never pure, the wicked never wholly so. Evil comes in a compelling visage, while good can always screw up and shift the eternal equilibrium. Beyond the way they look and they way they fight, the most fascinating element in a Del Toro movie remains how he can turn the tiniest of pixies (the Golden Army‘s beguiling Tooth Fairies) into the most voracious of horrors.

That is why he should be Peter Jackson. That is why he should - and probably will - share the New Zealand auteur’s place among the vaunted visionaries of our generation. For both of these amazing men, vistas come with a value, an unspoken price to be paid by the protagonists who populate them and the antagonists who want them destroyed. For both, story is simply a place to put characters, a chance to allow narrative to strengthen personality and illustrate inclination. For both, technology is the canvas, not the brush. It’s the mind that does all of the heavy inventive lifting. For them, cinema represents the ultimate expression of man’s inspired soul, a picture book as philosophy, film as a force of fate.

In the years to come, we’ll be the lucky ones. We’ll be able to relate our accounts of coming across Dead Alive for the first time, or seeing Pan’s Labyrinth with a paid audience (and not a dry eye in the house). We’ll recall the interviews which made madness sound sane and personal daring appear cautious. Most importantly, we’ll rejoice in seeing the very boundaries of an important artform stretched to their very limits, redefined, and then put back for others to enjoy. And we’ll recall the moment when Guillermo Del Toro moved from the fringes to the front row, bringing his own overflowing mind’s eye with him.  If he’s not already Peter Jackson, he should be. On the other hand, here’s hoping he stays forever himself. He’s pretty great the way he is.

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