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by Lara Killian

12 Jan 2009

Do you remember what sort of books you enjoyed when you were a teenager? Or if you’re a teenager right now, what are you reading? Last week I started a youth services course and as an opening exercise we were asked to think about what our lives were like when we were 15 years old. (I won’t lie, some of us cringed.) The instructor brought in stacks of books and laid them out on tables; some familiar and some totally unknown. We were asked to pick a book, whether we knew it or not, and then explain what had drawn us to the particular volume. Obviously cover art or titles, and occasionally an author’s name, attracted many of us.

I picked up a book called An Earthly Knight (2004) by Janet McNaughton. The old style calligraphy font of the title reminded me of the historical fiction I started reading as a teenager. It always seemed preferable to spend time with my mind in another time and place than the all-too-real-and-scary present. After we’d discussed why we were drawn to the books we’d chosen, we were invited to take them home and read them. Why not?


There is some wonderful historical detail in this book; the author has clearly done her research. At its heart this is a love story of a slightly immature young woman doing a lot of growing up in a short period of time, and learning to recognize the motivations people have for their actions. Caught up in the possibility of someday becoming the Queen of Scotland, Lady Jeannette (Jenny) allows her behavior toward family servants to become petty, as she stamps her feet and shouts when she doesn’t get what she wants. She immediately realizes she’s behaving badly, but believes such behavior is expected from those who are privileged. Though status is all-important to her father, Jenny finds herself intrigued by a young man who lives apart from society. He is always gentle and kind, and Jenny feels herself around him—calm, peaceful.

Teens, particularly young women, are likely to identify with Jenny’s rapid changes of temper and emotion, as well as her desire to be her own person and yet cultivate the approval of the more powerful figures in her life, especially the men. She behaves badly, then realizes that in her heart it is more important to have friendship and love than power and pretty clothes. McNaughton points out aspects of language and culture, at this intersection where local Scottish culture interacted with the English Church and Norman tradition. (There are even a few of the wee folk present and working their mischief.) Without overwhelming her audience with too much historical detail, McNaughton tells a good story, while educating her reader a bit at the same time.

What were you reading at age 15?

by Rob Horning

12 Jan 2009

Nicholas Carr, building from my post about dilettantism and incorporating an analysis of the Clash’s “Complete Control” to boot, draws this pertinent conclusion: “Distraction is the permanent end state of the perfected consumer, not least because distraction is a state that is eminently programmable.”

That seems right to me. The implication is that the level of our interest in our amusements, and worse, in what we may consider to be our life’s work, has its limits set by the sort of society we live in—the tendency to become distracted is not some personal failing or the indicator of someone’s weak will, but the accomplishment of a bundle of associated forces that help naturalize certain consumerist preferences. Our susceptibility to boredom is “programmable” through the amount of stuff thrown at us and the amount of stuff a “normal” with-it person is assumed to know about and the various ways cultural ignorance can be exposed. (Hence the useless entertainment quizzes and trivia contests and the like. These seem innocuous enough, but they help calibrate our boredom, suggesting what the breadth and depth of our knowledge should be.) Fortunately, we are not yet “perfected” consumers in this fashion, but—if you’ll forgive a lapse into teleology—that’s the goal a consumerist economy hopes to accomplish. That trend is palpable (though perhaps that is because those resisting it do not register, have no way of communicating their resistance to a hypermediated and hyperaccelerated society without acceding to its terms). If we are not vigilant, our attention span will continue to shrink, and the “helpful” tools to force more and more material through that tiny pinhole of focus will proliferate. (Just as road-building worsens traffic problems, media-management and organization tools tend to exacerbate our attention problems. I spend as much time editing metadata as I do concentrating on music I’m listening to.)

Impelled by a sense that we must streamline our consumption and absorption of information and experiential opportunity (a need fomented by media technology, which both extends marketing’s reach and expands the amount of information we can readily acquire), we end up going for quantity over quality, the superficial over the complex, and regard convenience as an abstract good rather than being defined in relation to some other activity. Convenience only speeds our pursuit of more convenience. In this, we come to resemble our society’s economic system, which seeks profit for its own sake. To keep up the incidental Marx references: in The Limits to Capital David Harvey points to this relevant passage in Capital:

The simple circulation of commodities - selling in order to buy - is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.
As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value…becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.

Basically, the economic roles we fulfill—for most of us, that means “consumer”—shape the horizon of our subjective aims while serving the underlying function of reproducing the existing system. That means embodying the restless pursuit of novelty, at least to the degree to which we want to be at harmony with the culture we live in. We become consumerism “personified and endowed with a consciousness and a will.”

As a result, it’s hard to avoid the feeling of missing out on something, no matter how into whatever it is we actually are doing. Alternatives are always filtering in to taunt and tempt us, and we hold our ability to become absorbed, to achieve “flow,” in abeyance, waiting for the diversion.

The urge to devise a scorekeeping system for our consumption grows as we seek a way to manage it all and compare what we’ve done to some standard—to restore the meaning that’s lost with our failure to become absorbed and committed to something. So if there is no way to keep score, then the activity can seem pointless. (A commenter to my previous post made that point about Guitar Hero, adding that this aligns our personal pleasure seeking with corporate notions of total quality management. If there were only some way I could attach some kind of scoreboard to my guitar when practicing scales, maybe I would do it more.) For example, I start to fetishize the number of posts I plow through in a day in my RSS reader; if the unread posts figure reaches 500, I go into orange alert, and start reading faster, skimming more, leaping past the longish posts and the Vox.eu papers and such for BoingBoing and Metafilter links.

Consequently, we end up having to set up defenses against distraction. Writer Cory Doctorow, a BoingBoing.net contributor, offers this compendium of advice for getting writing done. The advice all seems sound if not ultimately somewhat tautological—the best way to avoid distraction is to not allow yourself to be distracted by bells and whistles on word processors or by instant messaging or the infinite research possibilities online. Such resistance makes sense if we can muster it, but it can feel bad, like stifled curiosity. The problem is that in our culture, curiosity has been co-opted, inverted, made to function as its opposite—distraction, novelty for its own sake. The growing burden on us is to enforce rigor on our curiosity or exercise the discipline to ignore the would-be forbidden fruit.

by Mike Deane

12 Jan 2009

Love Tsunami

Love Tsunami

Montreal’s the Silly Kissers are making the type of perfect ‘80s synth-pop that can only be made in the late 2000s. All songs are written and produced by the song writing duo of David Carriere and Sean Nicholas Savage and they perform the songs with vocalist Jane Penny and three others. The songs are almost always focused on love; whether it’s love lost, strong love, sad love, all love facets are covered here from male and female perspectives, and at times in a single song (that’s right: lovers’ duets). It seems that only with the passing of 25 years can the synth-pop genre be fully utilized in a stripped-down and self aware format. 

Admittedly, this band is not really breaking new ground, but are creating keyboard-based pop music focused on the most salient and enjoyable aspects of the genre: interesting instrumentation and infectious hooks. The lyrical content often takes a back-seat to the hooks, and borders on the cliché cheesiness you’d expect from genre pioneers like the Human League, but the evident obviousness allows guilt-free appreciation. This is not to say that they’re insincere; the content that they touch upon is standard for any genre, but the abandon with which they tackle their theme is a tip of the hat to their predecessors.  And there certainly isn’t any tongue in cheek in their delivery.

by L.B. Jeffries

12 Jan 2009

The tricky thing about the independent game scene is that much like the music world, there is an absolute ton of material to dig through. With so many games offering variations and minor adjustments to genres, it helps to have someone whose willing to dig through it all and point out the games that really do something interesting.

This year’s IGF Finalists are a fantastic place to find just such a narrowing down. The huge variety of games nominated also means that there is something for any genre fan to find from the list. Whether it’s the artistically amazing browser adventure game Machinarium or the psychedelic tunnel chaser Brain Pipe, games that innovated in a huge variety of ways were able to win praise. Particularly interesting are the breakthroughs in interface this year, such as Musaic Box using changes in sound and tempo to create puzzles or Mightier incorporating printed out puzzles and a webcam into the game. It’s good to see that even though games that were pinnacles of refinement are present, there are also one’s recognized for sheer innovation.

I’m particularly glad to see The Graveyard made it on the list under innovation. As was brought up in the coverage of that game’s post-mortem, it’s extremely hard to classify it as a game since there is no choice to it. All you can do is a linear series of actions combined with a random event. The blurb explaining the nomination says, “It’s more like an explorable painting than an actual game. An experiment with realtime poetry, with storytelling without words.” That’s an appealing sentiment to me because even though the game could improve on the exploration aspect it still acknowledges its strength: the game is just a beautiful space. It’s just a black and white graveyard, a single poetic act, and a sad song about death. If a game like You Have To Burn The Rope is going to be praised for its snark and simple mechanics, then the The Graveyard deserves a nod for its minimalist approach as well.

In addition to I.G.F.’s choices is Indie Games’s choices for best games of 2008. These are broken up by genre instead of awards and include shooters, adventure games, and browser games along with several prolific artists being listed. All of these games are guaranteed to work on just about any PC and several are present on console services.

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.

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