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by Rob Horning

22 Jul 2008

David Brooks has been on a kick lately of denouncing consumers for their addiction to shopping and how they have lost touch with the “great bourgeois virtues.” In his most recent effort in this vein, he is responding to a Gretchen Morgenson piece about personal debt, and in particular one woman, Diane McLeod, who’s in way over her head. Who is to blame? Borrowers or lenders? Brooks says neither, and instead posits a “third way” of explaining how people get in over their head:

people are driven by the desire to earn the respect of their fellows. Individuals don’t build their lives from scratch. They absorb the patterns and norms of the world around them.
Decision-making—whether it’s taking out a loan or deciding whom to marry—isn’t a coldly rational, self-conscious act. Instead, decision-making is a long chain of processes, most of which happen beneath the level of awareness. We absorb a way of perceiving the world from parents and neighbors. We mimic the behavior around us. Only at the end of the process is there self-conscious oversight.
According to this view, what happened to McLeod, and the nation’s financial system, is part of a larger social story. America once had a culture of thrift. But over the past decades, that unspoken code has been silently eroded.

That sounds reasonable enough, but as Tanta at Calculated Risk points out, it’s always a little bogus to preach a return to a nonexistent golden age.

This nostalgia for the lost “culture of thrift” always gets on my nerves. America has always had both a “culture of thrift” and a “culture of conspicuous consumption.” We have had our Gilded Ages before the year 1992. The “BankAmericard” (which became the Visa) was invented back in the “thrify fifties,” about ten years after economist James Duesenberry first popularized the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” Collapsing the history of America into a lost golden age of thrift contrasted to a degenerate present of consumption excess is a reliable sign you’re in the presence of ideology.

Of course, that’s a given with Brooks that you are in the presence of ideology, though to be fair, it’s safe to say ideology is present in any sort of opinion piece. Brooks wants to pin our fall from thrifty grace on housing wealth and changing norms.

Some of the toxins were economic. Rising house prices gave people the impression that they could take on more risk. Some were cultural. We entered a period of mass luxury, in which people down the income scale expect to own designer goods. Some were moral. Schools and other institutions used to talk the language of sin and temptation to alert people to the seductions that could ruin their lives. They no longer do.
Norms changed and people began making jokes to make illicit things seem normal. Instead of condemning hyper-consumerism, they made quips about “retail therapy,” or repeated the line that Morgenson noted in her article: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

Brooks probably wants to temper Morgenson’s thesis that lenders have deployed sophisticated marketing techniques to encourage more people to take on more debt and pin the blame those who some reactionaries have called “predatory borrowers”. But oddly enough, Brooks’s account roughly fits the leftist theory that Western countries entered into a late-capitalism phase after World War II, in which the economic emphasis shifted from producing to consuming. Since then, the theory goes, the populace of mass consuming sheep have perpetually had new needs induced in them to keep GDP growing for its own sake, regardless of whether or not that actually improves society’s living conditions. (Which is not far off from what I think—that consumerism in our society is the way to secure social approval and communicate our sense of self to others. Other routes to recognition have been systematically sealed off, so it’s harder to summon the wherewithal to derive esteem or even self-knowledge from any actions other than shopping. Hence, the ownership society—we are what we own. And this happens to nicely fit the lenders’ incentives. They profit through the myriad transactions required to keep the money needed for all these self-fashioning ownership projects circulating.) You’d think Brooks would adopt the conservative tack that consumer goods have democratized luxury, making income inequality irrelevant, but here he is, like a latter-day Carlyle, faulting “mass luxury” as a kind of moral failing.

So what’s his game? Retro-conservatism? He implies (somewhat risibly) that he’s a Burkean conservative in his op-ed. But I think Tanta has him pegged when she argues that he is trying to divert blame for our decadent social mores away from the media establishment he is a part of:

Brooks, writing in that influential arbiter of taste the New York Times, somehow fails to notice the role of the media in constructing popular standards for “risk” and “normal” consumption patterns. In Brooks’ weird little world, Americans responded to “rising home prices” that they apparently directly perceived, without media intervention. It was those house prices that “gave people the impression that they could take on more risk,” not the reporting on house prices or the columnists who solemnly opined that these prices meant that people weren’t taking on more risk by buying or refinancing. How incredibly convenient that line is.

Indeed. So when Brooks writes, “In a community, behavior sets off ripples. Every decision is a public contribution or a destructive act,” he ought to look in the mirror and think about what sort of contribution his own books celebrating bourgeois bohemia and living on “Paradise Drive” in suburbia have made.

by Andrew Gilstrap

22 Jul 2008

You’d think that a single 49-minute track where the songs bleed into each other, layered over one another, with some of them nothing more than snippets (as if some invisible hand is spinning a radio dial) would be the most annoying thing ever. Turns out, though, that it might be one of the best releases of Paul Westerberg’s solo career. 49:00 hit the Amazon MP3 store on July 19 (or June 49th, as Westerberg puts it) for the low, low price of 49 cents. Even if there were only one good song in the whole digital mess, it would be a bargain. But some of these songs (who knows what any of them are called, you give up after a while and just accept the sound collage flow) represent some of Westerberg’s best work since the Replacements folded (the one with the “devil raised a good boy” chorus is certainly one of his fiercest).

Thankfully free of Folker-esque bleating, 49:00 is of the same comfortable, cozy basement cloth as Stereo/Mono—heck, it might even be more ragged than even that wonderfully scruffy release. Ramshackle Faces-inspired rockers blend with sensitive ballads, jangly workouts, snippets of cover songs, Westerberg’s patented put-downs of new men in ex-flames’ lives, jokes about his cleaner lifestyle (“please don’t ask me about my liver”), and what might even be his son yelling over a vintage Westerberg rock riff. 

Listening to 49:00 is just a lot of fun (heck, it might even be Year’s Best material if its staying power holds up). It feels like being on a road trip where you’re flipping between two or three great radio stations—always missing the names of whatever you’ve just heard—that play solid song after solid song. For much of Westerberg’s solo career, it sounded like he needed a foil in the studio to kick him in the pants when his ideas weren’t up to snuff. Maybe all he really needed to do was relax. That said, it would be great if some of these songs got an “official” release as songs. Some of them are just too good to remain buried in this tasty blend of music.

by L.B. Jeffries

22 Jul 2008

When the New York Times takes the time to comment on E3 being dull, you know it’s going to be a slow year. A bunch of games we already knew were coming, a couple of games anyone could’ve predicted were coming, and Microsoft having a very bizarre ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ interface for Xbox. So…what upcoming games should we get hyped about? Hype is an integral part of the video game world, even if it has proven to be a bit problematic. Beyond the odd effect it can have on fans, hype can even be blinding to the actual critics involved. Mitch Krpata points out that critics can be so dead set on a game being good that they’ll list off dozens of flaws yet give a high score anyways. To give you an example of how ridiculous this can get, whether you loved or hated GTA IV, I can’t think of many players who would seriously consider comparing it to ’The Wire’. But it can’t be denied that hype can do a lot of good by getting the word out. So how do we pick we pick what games to hype?


William Gibson coined the term ‘cool-hunter’ in his book

Pattern Recognition

and it’s a very apt description of what a game critic needs to do when selecting which game to hype. You need a developed sixth sense that allows you to stare at a sea of clothes, movies, music, and advertising and detect the one that’s working. Gibson compares it to watching the snow on a television and being able to see an image in it. It’s a good term because it recognizes that there is a certain mystical element to spotting a cool game before it exists, something that is never going to be possible to put into words. Acknowledging then that some games are definitely going to be awesomely kickass and it can be predicted, it stands to reason that we should get out there and support it. The developer and producer need to sell as many copies as possible as quickly as possible, before shelf-space demands pushes the game into the bargain bin. We want to reward creativity and boldness in games, right? Even looking past the desire to economically help your favorite game, there is still something to be said for hype being fun. Over at Brainy Gamer, there’s an interesting post about enjoying hype as a kind of celebration. Soon enough video games will be the mega industry the analysts are predicting and everything will be a sea of jaded “It’s good but not great” reviews. We’ll all just be comparing them to old classics and not even caring about new releases anymore.

So what are some games that should be hyped? We’re entering the realm of subjectivity here but I’ll explain what makes these such stand-out games. I found The Nameless Game at Steve Gaynor’s blog and must admit the pitch is fascinating. They basically took the idea of ‘The Ring’ and applied it to a video game. What if there was a haunted cartridge game and whoever played it would find themselves horribly cursed? I’m basing this purely off the two trailers and Gaynor’s observations, but little touches like the 8-bit game within a game being buggy and glitchy are just the tip of the iceberg. One of the themes in both trailers is the cross-over of games into reality. In the first trailer, you pick-up a DS. The trailer comes to an abrupt end there, the fourth wall being shattered as the person playing a game is now confronting that very fact. In the second, there is a transition from incessant 8-bit music to the humming of a real person in the same tune. It’s this transition of the virtual into the real that both horrifies and fascinates us that the game is capitalizing on. What if our entertainment, our escape, became real? Sure, the graphics look fine, there may be some pacing issues and the puzzles may be dull. But this is a game that no matter what flaws there may be, it is still a very interesting concept.


Another game that has several interesting things going to for it is Red Fly Studio’s Mushroom Men. A studio comprised almost entirely of artists, one look at the game will convince you that it’s totally unlike anything else aesthetically. It also explores the mostly uncharted landscape of being a tiny person in a 3-D human landscape. Levels include a trailer, shed, and the underground world of the mushroom people as they face off against everyday creatures like rabbits, spiders, and moles. Sounds good, right? Here’s the kicker: Les Claypool of Primus is making the soundtrack. It’s extremely unusual for the selling point of a video game to be its soundtrack and yet the time seems ripe for it to happen. An interview with game composer Richard Jacques outlines the culture of game soundtracks today. The once level-based themes that composers knew would be heard countless times have been replaced by long epic scores that support narrative and tension. Games are just now entering a phase where they are moving past that orchestral phase and are looking for new ways to incorporate music into games. It’s safe to say Les Claypool is your man for that kind of job. Again, no matter what problems this game may have, it’s trying to do something new and it’s doing it with a whole lot of style.


The first piece of hype I ever read was for the game Monkey Island. It was a sprawling six page spread, with screenshots that showed snippets from every part of the game. Fighting the swordmaster, digging for treasure, and Monkey Island itself were all featured and captioned. It completely fascinated me, this world they were describing and the experiences I would have there. My obsession with the game was rewarded heartily when I finally managed to play it some months later, but looking back I can still remember that hype article very clearly. I’d played a lot of interactive fiction games before and I’ve played a lot since, but I think what made it so special was that I’d never played anything that was about pirates in the Caribbean. With so much unexplored territory still left for video games, it seems like the best thing we can do now is support the people who are doing the real exploring.

by Bill Gibron

21 Jul 2008

It was all the Internet buzz last week. No, it wasn’t a further dissection and/or dissertation on the then upcoming Christopher Nolan masterwork, The Dark Knight. No, that sensationalized ship sailed about the time the mainstream media was exploiting Heath Ledger’s performance/death. The latest geek cause celeb was, in fact, a first glance, a chance to see a storied title finally brought to the big screen. With the success of his Dawn of the Dead remake and the sublimely stylized 300, Zach Snyder still remained an odd choice to bring Watchmen to the silver screen. Far more flamboyant filmmakers had struggled with the material, most notably Python ex-pat Terry Gilliam. A project long standing in his inconsistent artistic output, there was a time when his version had Kevin Costner and Robin Williams attached.

Thank god for the passage of time (and pop culture fancy). In fact, in 2008 the only true impediment to seeing the fabled graphic novel made, aside from certain technical issues, is the source itself. Writer Alan Moore has never been happy about seeing his work translated to the big screen. With From Hell, V for Vendetta, and especially The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen frequently failing (sometimes completely) his vision and approach, he has written off participation in any future film adaptation. As a matter of fact, Gilliam gave up on this project when he approached Moore about how he would translate the text to film. “I wouldn’t” was all the brusk Brit had to offer. Call it curmudgeonly spite or a true desire to protect his work, but Moore makes no bones about his belief in this - or any other - visualizations of his ideas.

That doesn’t mean Snyder has simply stepped in and deconstructed Watchmen. Indeed, from the very beginning of pre-production, he promised to stay as true to the comic as possible. Naturally, there are issues outside his control - running time, studio contracted concessions, the always awkward process of filtering pages of ideas into a single screenplay - but with a fanbase eager to tear him a new as…pect ratio, this is one director who wisely wants to follow the Peter Jackson/Guillermo Del Toro geek appeasement path. From blog posts and visits to the set, the amount of information about this upcoming release has been handled in a cautious, yet creative manner. Let’s face it, whenever you can get moviegoers excited about something with just a couple of photos (which is exactly what happened a few months back), you know you’re doing something right.

Still, the pressure is on to deliver, and this initial glimpse of what Watchmen has to offer will be that all important determinative “first impression”. So what can or will both sides of the coin - the inside and the out of touch - make of this trailer? Does it satisfy the faithful while inspiring the uninformed? The retro styled narrative, using real world events (Watergate, Vietnam) in a fictionalized ‘80s where superheroes - or as they are referred to, “costumed adventurers”/“masked vigilantes” - are forced to hide their identity, is definitely a hard sell, and the cast (Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup) while exceptional in many ways, doesn’t contain a real A-list tent pole name. From either side, things do look promising…at least, for now.

From a Watch-Maniac’s Perspective
On a recent SModcast, indie icon Kevin Smith, a true comic book bad-ass, had a series of superlatives for the Watchmen preview. After admitting to obsessing on the clip for most of the weekend, he argued that it was a “flawless” representation of the world Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created. He stated that it was like watching a trailer for The Catcher in the Rye and that Snyder visualized elements from the novel so sublimely that the noted Clerks creator was developing a bit of a ‘gay’ mancrush on the filmmaker (his description of said passion was, in typical Smith fashion, far more X-rated). For him - and one assumes other Watchmen devotees - the images offered mimicked Moore’s universe expertly. Smith even suggested that the disgruntled writer might embrace what he saw, given the trailer’s truth and attention to detail.

Since Snyder’s primary hurdle has always been to satisfy the true Watchmen demo, it would appear that he has passed the first of what will be many obsessive’s tests. Smith may not speak for the invested masses, but one has to imagine that he does offer one of the more learned, schooled impressions. Smith admits to loving the comic ever since he first read it back in the late ‘80s, and his appreciation has only grown since then. Looking over the blogsphere and messageboard domain, it seems that many who also love the book share his enthusiasm. Naturally, there are those who want more, and others who envisioned Moore’s message in a slightly less slick, big screen blockbuster manner, but for the most part, the fans are in.

From a Watch-Meaningless Perspective
This is the much harder pitch, especially in light of recent superhero films that have failed to live up to overhyped expectations. While some might argue over the delineation, Alan Moore is far from a household name (Simpsons appearance or not), and when people hear that he was responsible for From Hell (decent), League (disaster), and Vendetta (undecided), such heritage doesn’t inspire much confidence. Snyder himself is also a creative wildcard. Both 300 and Dawn were not definitive mainstream hits, since each one inspired most of their love from the specific genre mavens. They don’t cater to your average Joe Filmgoer. And Watchmen will only be his third theatrical effort. Again, it’s a track record that inspires some confidence, if not outright acceptance.

Of course, some spectacular images can change all that, and the Watchmen trailer does look amazing. From the opening sequence where Crudup follows his character’s nuclear fate to the closing moments where a clockwork object rises up from an alien landscape, the two minutes offered provide the kind of provocative, ambiguous visuals that get tongues wagging and chatrooms yakking. Anyone unfamiliar with the material will wonder what or who the glowing blue muscle man represents, the identity of the fetching leather outfitted babe, why angry mobs are protesting against vigilantes, and whose being buried with full military honors. Of course, as with any indistinct approach, what fails to fully enlighten may simply be unclear to begin with. While saving most of the plot for future teasers is understandable, getting the newbie on board should be Watchmen‘s principal aspiration.

The most aggravating part is that, aside from a couple more trailers and a full blown sneak preview/feature or two, we will have to wait until March of 2009 for the final answer. Until then, conjecture will run side by side with educated conclusion, each hoping to get a handle on this event movie before it finally hits theaters. And who knows, maybe Snyder will pull it off. Maybe he will create the post-modern comic book movie that everyone is anticipating. Then again, perhaps Alan Moore has a right to be bitter…and worried. We’ll just have to ‘watch’, and wait.

by Mike Schiller

21 Jul 2008

It’s not particularly surprising, nor should it be surprising, that the week after E3 is just as sparse as the week of E3 (which we will briefly wrap up later this week) when it comes to the depth of the game release schedule.  It’s tough to concentrate on the releases of yet another entry in the Kidz Sports series when you’re concentrating on, say, new screens for MadWorld.

STILL—some of us are simply not inclined to want to enjoy the fresh air that comes with this time of summer, and so, to the release list we must LOOK:

Fans of idea recycling will no doubt be rather thrilled at a couple of the bigger releases for the week, including the one that I’m most likely to end up with at some point: namely, the Nintendo DS remake of Final Fantasy IV.  Back when Final Fantasy IV was known to us Americans as Final Fantasy II (you know, before Final Fantasy VII went and confused everybody for a while), it was winning hearts and minds as one of the most influential RPGs of its time.  The fully-developed story, an active turn-based combat system that probably seemed as close to perfect as you could imagine at that point, and some of the baddest baddies in role playing at the time made for a play experience that somehow managed to make 30 hours seem short.

For the sake of the DS, the entire world of Final Fantasy IV has been given a complete and utter overhaul, with character models that move far beyond the sprites of the SNES version (or even the Game Boy Advance remakes), complete with three-dimensional modeling and completely redone towns.  While it’s still the same game, it looks completely different, which may well be all we need to give this classic another playthrough.

Also on the recycled material front is 1942: Joint Strike for the Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network, which scores bonus points not just because it’s a shmup but because 1942 is a classic (total classic!).  Hopefully the updated version can live up to its name, and hopefully those big planes still take an obscene number of shots to down.

MLB Power Pros 2008 could be a nice alternative to the baseball sims that pervade the sports market, because really, all we want is R.B.I. Baseball for a new generation, right?  Dungeon crawler fans may well flock to Atlus’ latest as well, as Izuna, the unemployed ninja herself, gets an improbable second go on a new portable.  That’d probably be a nice second step in the genre for those attracted to the genre by those Pokémon dungeon crawlers a couple months ago.  Otherwise…well, there’s just not much to speak of.

Looking forward to anything this week?  Let us know!  The full release list and a trailer for the new Final Fantasy IV are after the JUMP:

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

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