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by Rob Horning

20 Jan 2009

Will Wilkinson is freaked out by the Obama adulation:

It’s really just too much to take. The American media lives for politics, and so what the American public gets is completely grotesque. Selected exchange:
  Meredith Viera: I think the hardest thing is not getting emotional, because it’s such an emotional morning. You just want to laugh, you want to cry. It’s so moving. It hits you that you’ll probably never see anything like this again.
  Peggy Noonan (I think): I keep thinking of the old poem, the end of the old poem about the end of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it then to be alive. To be young was very heaven.” So many young people here. It’s very moving for them.
  Viera: I’m not young but I’m blissful, that’s for sure.
It’s all like this. They can’t help themselves, apparently. But it’s also pretty clear that they really do see their job as mediating and engineering our emotional response, as manufacturing our consent.

True enough. They really do see it that way. And it’s not some conspiracy made up by paranoid leftists fulminating about the culture industry. It’s especially obvious today how much contrarian strength it requires to think against the current. You end up feeling as though you are lumped among the “cynics” on the “wrong side of history.”

Incidentally, this is how it felt also during the build up to the Iraq war, when very little of what was reported in the mainstream media seemed to have any relation to reality, and sober analysis of the situation was regarded as virtually treasonous.

by Michael Edler

20 Jan 2009

Lou Reed - Berlin

Lester Bangs dedicated a large portion of his writing career to Lou Reed. Bangs’ loved Lou Reed, but he also hated his guts. Genius and creativity mixed with egotism and jackass-ery. I love Lou Reed. Quite simply, he’s probably my secret crush that I don’t talk to many people about for fear of having to defend this love against a wall of the opposite point of view.

Can I be honest? I have all sorts of difficulty with Lou Reed. There are moments I feel he receives absolutely no credit for the evolution of rock and roll. I mean, come on! No Velvet Underground? No R.E.M. No Sonic Youth. Absolutely no major influence for the underground music scene of the ‘80s and no Nirvana and the list goes on and on. Don’t give me the Ramones or the much over-hyped Sex Pistols. Velvet Underground. More distinctly, Lou Reed holds the key to everything.

And then I stop myself. Usually mid sentence and remind myself whom I am talking about—Lou Reed: The masochist of rock and roll. The man that not even Lester Bangs could quite pin down (which has to be a reason why so much of Bangs’ career is dedicated to writing about Lou Reed). In the end, Lester concluded, “Lou Reed is my own hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possible conceive of. Which probably only shows the limits of my imagination.” Lou fought with the demons created by David Bowie and tried to match full bore that type of excitement; almost pissed he hadn’t thought of glam first. Thus, Lou returned to his VU roots and turned out Berlin.

Berlin caught hipster renewal the past year because of director Julian Schnabel’s filmed concert of Lou Reed performing the entire Berlin album. Shockingly panned by critics and fans upon initial release, Lou spent the majority of his career avoiding the music from Berlin. The album is Reed’s rock opera about a disturbing relationship between a couple based upon drugs and not much else. A maniacal album with full session horns mixed with music snippets from Lou’s days with the Velvet Underground; the most affirming this point are within the song “Caroline Says”, a direct rip from the VU’s “Stephanie Says”.

Berlin is an arresting album and not one for an introduction to Lou Reed’s musical legacy. However, the album dedicates itself to pull its listener to the depths of post ‘60s, urban decay. Truly a song like “The Bed” where Lou whispers of the death of his character Caroline; “And this is the room where she took the razor/And cut her wrists that strange and fateful night/And I said, oh, what a feeling” summarizes the pain and death of the West in a post Vietnam/Summer of Love era that is largely built upon fluff and excess. True, Lou loves the characters he addresses, but Lou also understands that by addressing these issues he stirs up the bowl of stew and no one likes all the ingredients in this stew.

Whatever the case, Lou Reed’s Berlin is probably a nice way to microcosm Lou’s career. He probably gets too much blame for making the album and for making it a disturbingly story that feels disjointed with the glam he was producing at the time. At the same time, Lou probably doesn’t get enough credit for making an album that harkens back to Velvet Underground while giving us a glimpse into what will be Lou’s most engaging and critically acclaimed work of his career in New York and Magic and Loss where Lou shows the focus that is somewhat lacking throughout Berlin

Regardless, Lou Reed’s Berlin is a necessary album for a Lou Reed fan. I am happy to see it receiving some new critical acclaim and was happier to see it in the stacks of “New Vinyl” at Dave’s Records. It shows that rock and roll can resuscitate without traveling down the pathway to corporate sponsorship and excess. Rock and roll can be what it’s supposed to be: urgent and unrepentant. Both are true of Berlin.

by Bill Gibron

19 Jan 2009

When the Academy Award nominations are announced this upcoming Thursday, 22 January, there is a distinct possibility that the five available Best Director slots will be taken up by filmmakers who have never been nominated before - or at the very least, have limited Academy cache. Unless someone like Ron Howard sweeps in and secures a slot for his over-praised (and under-regarded) Frost/Nixon, we could be looking at a list including Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and Gus Van Sant (Milk). Now, technically the last name on this list got a previous nod for the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck vehicle Good Will Hunting, but 2008 may just go down as one of the strongest years for directors ever. Outside the normal Academy-possible names, there are dozens of efforts deserving of praise.

What about Jon Favreau’s work on Iron Man? Who would have thought that such a second tier comic book character would warrant such stellar first class treatment? Or how about Matt Reeves’ reinvention of the first person POV horror film with Cloverfield? The annihilation of New York by an alien monster never appeared more potent, or potentially terrifying, than it did in this early 2008 release. There was David Gordon Green’s delirious take on the stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, which followed another one of his fine small town Gothics, Snow Angels and Ben Stiller finally delivered on over a decade of promise with his stellar insider satire, Tropic Thunder. Between the work of newcomers like Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) and Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) and the returns to form for recognized winners (Jonathan Demme - Rachel Getting Married and Oliver Stone - W. ), it was a wonderful 12 months for the individual behind the lens.

Yet how cool is it that Fincher, Aranofsky, Nolan, or Boyce could walk away with a little gold statue? All have done amazing work, and have carved out a niche among film geeks and lovers of fine film. So what if each has had less than successful runs at the mainstream (only Nolan holds two certified hits - both of them Batman revamps). A critic would gladly take any effort by the mind responsible for Fight Club or Sunshine over a weak willed effort by some otherwise solid studio journeymen. While a dark horse could still stand out and claim one of these uncelebrated savant’s limelight, it’s clear that 2009 was the moment when the fringe finally found some industry acceptance. Heck, Benjamin Button is about to break the $100 million mark. That’s better than Fincher’s last three films combined.

So what makes this time different? Why are five filmmakers usually left for artsy fartsy plaudits (and little else) finally putting notches in their business model headboard? For Boyle, the answer was simple - think outside the UK box. While many of his movies were set outside the country, there’s been a distinct English flavor to memorable masterworks like 28 Days Later or Trainspotting. But with Slumdog Millionaire, the British maverick decided to concentrate on India as an actual character itself. That’s why Mumbai swings and swells with a kind of baffling Bollywood magic. Or what about Nolan? He’d been down the masked avenger avenue before. How could he possibly improve on his fan-favored ‘beginning’ for the man-bat. The answer, oddly enough, was seriousness. He took the often campy comic book material and made it into The Godfather for the graphic novel set.

For Aranofsky, it was a stylistic stripping down. The Wrestler often feels like a documentary discovered by a neophyte nostalgic for a bit of ‘80s sports showmanship. There’s none of The Fountain‘s fascinating flourishes, or Requiem for a Dream‘s big screen idiosyncrasies. Instead, it’s just performance capture, clear and simple. The same can’t be said for Fincher, however. Everything he’s learned about art design, costuming, detail, place, mood, tone, narrative, characterization, special effects, editing, scoring, pace, and inherent emotion has been whittled down and rendered resplendently with his indirect take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. While he’s always been a meticulous filmmaker, Benjamin Button is like cracking open a time capsule loaded with eye-popping ideas and awe-inspiring images.

That just leaves Van Sant, and it seems unfair to minimize his efforts this time around. Milk was a major achievement, a biopic that dealt more with what a famous man stood for than what he did behind the scenes. By focusing on the political end of Harvey Milk’s life, and using his personal problems and predicaments as kind of a grateful Greek chorus, we came to understand the passions that drove him, and the positions which ended his far too short time on this planet. Allowing all of his actors the room to explore and extrapolate - especially the mesmerizing work of lead Sean Penn - the director once condemned for creating a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho is now again poised to perhaps pick up his first real slice of cinematic recognition.

Naturally, there are foul winds blowing for this potential nerd nomi-nation. Ron Howard already has one of these glorified career cappers, and there’s enough of a generational gap implied to ignore the historical retrofitting of his take on the infamous ‘70s interview. Besides, when potential results indicator the Director’s Guild of America announced their group of five back on 8 January, Aranofsky was out and Opie was in - and the Oscars rarely waver from such peer mounted recognition. Still, there’s a chance at bucking the trend, something that surely allows The Reader‘s Stephen Daldry or Gran Torino/Changeling‘s Clint Eastwood to sleep at night. Even with Howard in, however, the trending tends to put Boyle as the man to beat. He already has a Golden Globe to shore up his chances.

Last year, Best Director honors were shared by Joel and Ethan Coen, yet there’s was also the first acknowledgement of the turn towards the outside - they themselves beat four first timers including geek god Paul Thomas Anderson, Tony Gilroy, Jason Reitman, and artist turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Oddly enough, DGA nom Sean Penn - Into the Wild - didn’t make the final Academy five. So there’s still hope that one of the familiar faces clogging up the film biz machine will be missing come 22 February. Until then, it’s fun to reflect on a year which saw so many wonderful films, and so many amazing directors finally making their mark. Let’s hope it continues throughout 2009. The artform clearly needs it. 

by L.B. Jeffries

19 Jan 2009

About a year ago, I was playing Trilby: Art of Theft and I noticed that it led to me doodling characters from it. That experience didn’t repeat itself again until I played the indie game Iji and started doodling the various aliens from it. The games are fairly different from each other except for one shared trait: the art for both is simplified and resembles 8-bit aesthetics more than modern games. Why is the simpler and more abstract representation enticing my subconscious to reproduce and modify what I saw more than any modern game with complex art and graphics? At a glance, the basic idea behind abstract art can be seen by flipping through this flickr group. You have the basic idea or concept communicated in the lines and coloring but you leave out enough detail or coherence so that the viewer still has to interpret. The audience gets to have a limited amount of input in what they’re viewing because the artwork remains silent on certain details. Looking at the urge to doodle that was suddenly springing back up after playing these two abstract games, is this an area of player input that is being under utilized in today’s graphical advancements?

 

Part of how these graphics create a connection comes from looking at the various techniques games use to draw you in. Your health bar, weapons, and abilities are tools for creating a connection with the avatar on the screen. In an essay on the subject of ideological worlds in games the author (can’t find the name on it, sorry) comments, “games forge what James Paul Gee (2003) has called a projective identity, whereby the player adopts the perspectivity of the avatar, developing a sort of empathy for the character on screen. Clinton shows how icons and representational bars attune players’ perceptions in the world to those of the avatar by making precise the character’s perceptual state.” In other words, the HUD, health bar, etc. constitute the player’s method for projecting onto the character by giving us a way to see what they are feeling. The essay and the quote are both about the ways players connect and project themselves into video games and it raises an important point: what player input is really about is giving you ways to project yourself into the character through game design. One of the reactions to that formula is to presume that interacting with the narrative then becomes the primary or even only way a person can project themselves into the game’s characters. The ambiguity that abstract art relies on could then also be considered a fair way to allow a player to interact. The player is able to interpret what their protagonist looks like, how their attacks look, and can manipulate those images to whatever their preference is with their imagination. This is something different than a character editor because unlike the finite options of Fallout 3 or Oblivion, with abstract art the player is unlimited in defining the meaning of the simple images.

About two years ago there was a fairly nonsensical false critical movement that games which didn’t feature realistic graphics were inferior to their cartoony counterparts. Mostly a byproduct of ad men selling games and HD TVs, the counter argument was to point out that there are countless games which rely on cartoony and non-literal depictions with great success. A good example of someone arguing this point is a Kombo article defending Wind Waker and pointing out that there are many unrealistic elements that make videogames fun such as physics or unrealistic reload times. The author also brings up a variety of games with more realistic graphics like Resident Evil 4 and points out that they are a lot less visually exciting. Grey, brown, mud, dirt, and equally drab monsters populate these environments. Yet video games already featured boring and grey environments in their 8-bit form without these complaints being noticeable. Numerous older games have the same kind of factory level or repetitive swarm of enemies that are equally dull. The fundamental difference is that modern brown worlds graphically leave nothing to the imagination. There is no abstraction for us to play with in our minds. An entire area of player input has been cut off by our very own desire to have things look sharper and Hi-Res. I don’t doodle Leon from Resident Evil 4 because I don’t have anything to add or interpret, that’s what he looks like and my horrid drawing abilities are never going to do him any justice.

Artistically, the division between a literal depiction of something and an abstract division can be read like the difference between a symbol and a sign. Carl Jung, in his book

Symbols of Transformation

explains, “A symbol is an indefinite expression with many meanings, pointing to something not easily defined and therefore not fully known. But the sign always has a fixed meaning, because it is a conventional abbreviation for, or a commonly accepted indication of, something known. The symbol therefore has a large number of analogous variants, and the more of these variants it has at its disposal , the more complete and clear-cut will be the image it projects of its object.” The giant parasitic man-monster in Resident Evil 4 is a sign. It’s a depiciton leaves no question about what it is thinking, feeling, or what its actions look like. The 8-bit Mega Man or pixellated King Graham are symbols of themselves. We are able to dictate how they look and act in our minds, we are able to apply our own input to even that fundamental level of the game’s narrative thanks to their symbolic nature. Instead of a character, they are a symbol that can be adapted to whatever the player wants it to be. Obviously the artistic quality and impressive efforts that developers put into their modern games is here to stay and should be applauded. But for those games that take a more abstract approach with their work, the possibilities of such art should not be underestimated.

by Nikki Tranter

19 Jan 2009

Hallie Ephron is an author, teacher, and book reviewer. She writes a monthly column for the Boston Globe entitled, “On Crime”, and spends much of her time traveling the country teaching writing workshops. Hallie is the author of the books, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead with Style and 1001 Books for Every Mood. She has co-written several thrillers with Donald A. Davidoff under the pseudonym, G.H. Ephron. Her latest page-turner is Never Tell a Lie. The book centres on David and Ivy, a pregnant couple doing some Spring cleaning in their new Victorian home. The prospect out of “out with the old and in with the new” begins promisingly, until an old friend shows up at David and Ivy’s yard sale. This friend, Melinda, informs the couple she used to play in their big, old house as a child. Melinda takes time out to have a look around, and disappears causing concern that the couple may have done away with her. What happened to Melinda? Of course, as in the best mystery novels, all is not as it appears. 

Hallie Ephron is today’s Re:Print Special Guest, here to tackle our Five Questions About Poe:

Describe your first Poe experience.
For me, the poems came first. My mother was a playwright and screenwriter, but I think if it hadn’t been for Broadway and Hollywood, she would have been an English teacher. She loved to read aloud, relished the sound of a well-turned phrase, and at dinner when I was growing up she’d recite stanza after stanza of poems like Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo” (“Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom!”) or Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevey” (“... child of scorn…”). Soon, I knew them by heart, too. Poe’s poems had pride of place—particularly “The Raven” (we’d chime in, quothing the Raven, “Nevermore”), “The Bells” with its echoing refrain (“Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells), and the sad sweet rocking rhythm of “Annabel Lee”.

So it wasn’t Poe’s horror or that seduced me, it was the music of his words.

What would you consider Poe’s greatest work, and why?
I’m not a Poe scholar, but by far my favorite of his stories is “The Cask of Amontillado”. Something about that narrator. As he sets the last brick in place and the story reaches its terrifying crescendo, the reader realizes this guy’s stark raving mad. Talk about an “unreliable narrator”. It’s utterly chilling.

Never Tell a LieHarperCollinsJanuary 2009, 271 pages, $24.99

Never Tell a Lie
HarperCollins
January 2009, 271 pages, $24.99

How has Poe’s work shaped you as a reader/writer?
When I was writing “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel”, I reread The Murders in the Rue Morgue. It’s credited as the first detective story and I’d hoped to find in it some new insight. The story, for me at least, is largely unreadable. Take its opening line: “The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis.” I’ve read those words over and over and still I don’t know what that narrator is going on about.  On top of that, the plot preposterous. I mean really, the orangutan did it and stuffed the bodies up the chimney? Still, in the middle of the muddle, there’s C. Auguste Dupin using “ratiocination”, examining evidence, and convincing an eyewitness to spill all. Voila, sprung whole from Poe’s pen is crime fiction’s detective. Seems to me there’s a straight line from Dupin to Sherlock Holmes to CSI’s Gil Grissom, and from all of our fictional detectives back to Poe and Dupin.

Which of your own works owes the largest debt to Poe and why?
Never Tell a Lie. As I wrote it, I was constantly aware of the mystery-horror boundary which, in Poe’s work is rather porous. I also tried to take a page from him by creating an unsettling situation and allowing the unease to build gradually before delivering the shocks and secrets. And, of course, like Poe, I gave my story a narrator who sees events through the distorted lens of emotion.

If you were hosting the celebrations for Poe’s big day, how would have your guests celebrate?
The guests arrive to find the door locked from the inside, a window open. They must break in and figure out who ate the birthday cake. The clues, like those in The Purloined Letter, will all be hiding in plain sight.

Hallie is currently on tour around the country. She will appear at BookMania! in Stuart, Florida on 23-24 January. Visit her website here.

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Culture Belongs to the Alien in 'Spirits of Xanadu'

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"The symbols that the artifact in Spirits of Xanadu uses are esoteric -- at least for the average Western gamer. It is Chinese culture reflected back at us through the lens of alien understanding.

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