Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Stuck Inside of Visalia with the Bakersfield Blues Again...

So I'm grounded by mechanical trouble for this wonderful New Year's Eve. I've been out eating Brazilian food and now am enjoying the New Year as any good recluse would, with the solace and silence of my thoughts and a copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

This year we've gone from Miley Cyrus to Metal Gear, monkey prostitutes to extreme beer, and everywhere in between. I'd like to thank our contributing bloggers, Herr Zrbo and Ninquelote. Zrbo has contributed greatly with his prodigious video game criticism and Ninquelote is conservative.

A Cosmically American New Year to all, and to all a goodnight.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mmmm, Beeeer

I enjoyed this article about Sam Calagione and his brewery, Dogfish Head.

As a child I couldn't stand the taste or even smell of beer, but now I love it. At some point I started to dislike most sweet drinks-I even drink diet soda. Red wine is good, but doesn't equal beer as a sipping drink. Beer has an amazing flavor; I seem to recognize that I shouldn't like it, but do. So called "extreme beers" have attracted my attention of late, and I'm particularly fond of sour IPA's such as Stone Brewery's Ruination. I'll have to give Dogfish Head a try.

"The Decider"

I was flipping through TV last night when I stumbled upon the documentary "The Decider" on MSNBC, hosted by Chris Matthews. Did anyone else catch it? It was sort of surreal watching a documentary "looking back" on the Bush presidency. Sure, maybe it's a bit early, he's not even out of office yet, but it was surely the first time I truly realized that Bush won't be our president anymore. I guess it's the strange realization that one day we'll be looking back at the last eight years as a piece of history. Like the way my parents would talk about Watergate or Vietnam. It's strange that one day I'll be telling some future kid about the Iraq war long after it's over.

Anyways, I haven't even said anything about the documentary. Basically it was trying to look at Bush's presidency with some sort of hindsight. I tell ya, it's interesting to see how much he's aged in the last 8 years. There was a clip of Bush sitting at his desk on 9/11 addressing the nation that evening, and he looked 10-15 years younger than he does now, complete with a full head of brown hair. Well, if you catch The Decider I would recommend it purely for the feeling it invokes of waking up from a long dream.

Monday, December 29, 2008

U.S. to Disentegrate in 2010 Due to Civil War and Moral Degeneration...

...predicts Russian professor Igor Panarin.

"When I pushed the button on my computer and the map of the United States disintegrated, hundreds of people cried out in surprise," he remembers. He says most in the audience were skeptical. "They didn't believe me."

At the end of the presentation, he says many delegates asked him to autograph copies of the map showing a dismembered U.S."

Sounds like a fun conference.

"He predicts that economic, financial and demographic trends will provoke a political and social crisis in the U.S. When the going gets tough, he says, wealthier states will withhold funds from the federal government and effectively secede from the union. Social unrest up to and including a civil war will follow. The U.S. will then split along ethnic lines, and foreign powers will move in.

California will form the nucleus of what he calls "The Californian Republic," and will be part of China or under Chinese influence. Texas will be the heart of "The Texas Republic," a cluster of states that will go to Mexico or fall under Mexican influence. Washington, D.C., and New York will be part of an "Atlantic America" that may join the European Union. Canada will grab a group of Northern states Prof. Panarin calls "The Central North American Republic." Hawaii, he suggests, will be a protectorate of Japan or China, and Alaska will be subsumed into Russia."

A dubious claim, Texas' gross domestic product alone exceeds that of Mexico. Additionally, how is a civil war going to work with all sides armed with state of the art hydrogen bombs? Still, that map would make for an awesome steampunk RPG campaign setting. Come to think of it, maybe Igor's been playing a bit too much Crimson Skies lately.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Keep It Up, Pitchfork, Keep It Up

Once again, more evidence that album reviews are not their strong suit: "LOLz: Classic Album Covers Get the LEGO Treatment." Now here is the kind of article I'm talking about people. If it weren't for Pitchfork, I would have never been blessed with the sight of this:
Or this:
Or this:
Or this personal favorite:
Or these (for all you Belle and Sebastian fans):
Come on Pitchfork, just give it up and turn into a humor blog already.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

2. Belle and Sebastian's The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998)

This album? According to most Belle and Sebastian fans, this isn't even their best one. Hell, the author of Belle and Sebastian: Just a Modern Rock Story claims it is their worst. But I care not for the opinions of Belle and Sebastian fans. Although I suppose I am one. But I wouldn't consider myself the typical Belle and Sebastian fan, at least.

To me, the typical Belle and Sebastian fan would be someone more like my brother. From 1997 to 1998 he'd been studying abroad in England, and when he came back he started ranting and raving about "this incredibly obscure Scottish band, they're not even famous in Scotland." He hoisted a cassette copy of If You're Feeling Sinister in the air. I took a look at it.

"What is this, some kind of folk music duo?"

"Actually they're a band of about seven people and there isn't actually anyone in the band named Belle or Sebastian."

OK, weird. I was rather skeptical of this album's potential quality, for mainly two reasons: 1) it was new, and 2) my brother liked it. My brother liked all kinds of crap, such as Yanni and the Indigo Girls. So here's some band that I've never heard of before, and he's telling me it's amazing. Fat chance. Sure enough, he played the album to me, and I wasn't overly impressed. I thought the song title "Like Dylan in the Movies" was clever, but I could tell that my brother didn't even get the reference. I told him that it sounded like Nick Drake, which is impressive in retrospect because I hadn't actually heard Nick Drake at that point; I'd only read about him and imagined what he sounded like, and what I imagined Nick Drake to sound like sounded like...Belle and Sebastian! To be fair, I didn't listen very closely, but I do find it interesting, knowing the album's reputation now, that I was totally unenthusiastic about Sinister at that point. A couple of theories: 1) I had no idea who Stuart Murdoch was, or what he was about, or why I should have cared; 2) my brother was sitting there in the car telling me how great the album was, and no sane music listener can function under those conditions; 3) Sinister just wasn't destined to be my favorite Belle and Sebastian album.

Fast-forward a couple of months to November 1998. I am a freshman in college. My brother, clearly undeterred by my lack of enthusiasm for the band, sends me a tape with If You're Feeling Sinister on one side and the band's brand new album, The Boy with the Arab Strap, on the other. I figure, "Aw, what the hell, might as well give this new one a quick listen and placate my brother, I'm sick of my Supertramp tapes for the time being." So I put it in the player.

And it was good. Really good. Better than Supertramp good. And that's pretty good. It was like a full-on sensory onslaught. It was like a rainy autumn afternoon, or a dip in a summer stream. One beguiling melody just blended right into the next and I couldn't even tell where one song began and another ended. It was just a giant sloshing sea of keyboards, pianos, trumpets, violins, guitars, handclaps, bagpipes, recorders, name it. I didn't bother listening to the lyrics; I assumed they were probably great and left it at that. Before the album was even over, I knew it was a winner. brother liked these guys! I couldn't just tell him he was right, could I? Next time we spoke on the phone, I considered mentioning it, but after he divulged some grotesque sexual exploits, I decided not to bother. The mere thought of the album made me think of my brother's neuroses, so I locked it away in a drawer for months, still only having listened to it that one time. But I knew. I knew it was one of those albums that would sound good the second time and the third time and the thirteen hundredth time, because I know these things.

Eventually, after placing sufficient distance between my brother's unnecessary divulgences and the tape he made me, I returned to Arab Strap in full force. I must have listened to it more times than Stuart Murdoch probably listened to Hatful of Hollow. As soon as "The Roller Coaster Ride" would crawl to a finish, I'd immediately rewind the tape right back to "He had a stroke at the age of 24/It could have been a brilliant career." Since I didn't have the lyric sheet, I tried my best to decipher the band's impenetrable Scottish references. For years I thought "Has he ever seen Dundee" in "Seymour Stein" was "Has he ever seen Gandhi?" I didn't know what the hell seeing Gandhi had to do with Seymour Stein, but I'd sure as hell seen Gandhi (some of the lyrics I was sure I misunderstood I'd actually heard correctly; apparently he really was saying "The United States of Calamity, hey"). On breaks from college, I used to hop in the car at 3:00 in the morning and just drive down the coast. One time I remember parking the car out by Pigeon Point Lighthouse, with nobody else around, just me and the crescent moon and the ocean. It's starting to sound like with every single album on this list I went out and stared at the crystalline wonder of the night sky, but come on, if great albums don't make you want to go out and stare at the crystalline wonder of the night sky, then what the hell are they good for?!

Now that I liked Arab Strab, I gave Sinister another try - but I still agreed with my initial assessment. Gradually I came to learn that I had fallen for the wrong Belle and Sebastian album! In fact, Arab Strap was apparently a huge step backward for the band, according to the group's highly passionate fans. I think Sinister is an album on which the lyrics are more prominent, and more immediately entertaining. A lot of fans fell in love with Murdoch's lyrics and simply wanted more of his lyrics, so when, on Arab Strap, he started letting Isobel and Stevie Jackson write songs, fans were like, "WTF? We want Stuart Murdoch songs with witty Stuart Murdoch lyrics!" Since I didn't worship Sinister in that way, I never felt like Arab Strap was a disappointment. I can see why a lot of fans would have, but I don't share their hostility. Parts of Sinister come off to me as a little overly-cutesy or too charming by half. I think the lyrical approach on Arab Strap is a little more mature and confident. Sinister is sort of pitched, perhaps unintentionally, to a more exclusive audience - like, "Hey, you found us, congratulations!" Whereas on Arab Strab the band knew it already had an audience and kept the in-jokes to a minimum. I also think the melodies on Arab Strap are simply...stronger. About a third of the songs on Sinister, like "Fox in the Snow," "Mayfly," and "The Boy Done Wrong Again," strike me as a bit meh. Perhaps there aren't any songs on Arab Strap quite as well-written as "Like Dylan in the Movies" or "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying," but Arab Strap, for me at least, has more color and texture overall. (Truth be told, Arab Strap's toughest competition probably comes from Belle and Sebastian's own EPs; if Push Barman To Open Old Wounds were an album proper, it might have made my list.)

Many fans also point to Murdoch's (soon-to-be-permanent) decision to divvy up the songwriting as evidence of Arab Strap's inferiority to Sinister, but, when I first began listening to the album at least, I liked that some of the songs were written by other members but that most of the songs were still written by Murdoch. I liked this idea of Murdoch as ringmaster but not dictator. To me, the balance on Arab Strap seemed just right, and it wasn't until the follow-up, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, where the balance became genuinely out of whack (that and the fact that Murdoch's songs were...not as good). In retrospect, now that Stevie Jackson has been given ample opportunity to shine and, in the opinion of many, has ultimately revealed himself to be a lesser talent than Murdoch, I am not as enthusiastic about "Seymour Stein" and "Chickfactor" as I once was. I must admit I cringe a little when I hear him sing "I caught a glimpse of someone's face" and he sings the word "faa-a-a-a-ce" like he's about two seconds away from soiling his pants in trepidation. But back in 1998, how was I to know that Stevie Jackson would become...Stevie Jackson? Likewise, Isobel Campbell's hushed whisper on "Is It Wicked Not To Care?" is not for all tastes; she sounds as though one poke in the ribs would knock her right over. But see, Arab Strap is so eclectic! In the space of about five minutes, you go from the funky, handclap-laden outro of "Seymour Stein," to Stuart David's surf-jazz sci-fi spoken word piece "A Spaceboy Dream," to Stuart Murdoch's orchestrated, Motownesque erotic rumination "Dirty Dream No. 2." But it all just sounds like the band jamming! I think this is what Beck was trying to sound like half the time - except with, you know, actual soul and feeling.

Still, although the album is more than the sum of its blah blah blah, two songs stand out to me as particularly exemplary. "Sleep the Clock Around" features what appears to be a saw as percussion and also the best use of bagpipes in pop music history. The lyrics are perhaps a snapshot of what it must be like to bum around Glasgow on the dole:

In the morning you come to the ladies salon
To get all fitted out for The Paperback Throne
But the people are living far away from the place
Where you wanted to help, it's a bit of a waste
And the puzzle will last till somebody will say
"There's a lot to be done while your head is still young"
If you put down your pen, leave your worries behind
Then the moment will come, and the memory will shine

When Stuart and Isobel hit the word "shine," suddenly there's this sound that's like God's head exploding. There's also a nice trumpet solo as well.

The title track opens with the world's most hypnotic organ riff and settles into a groove that circles around itself for five minutes and would be just as enjoyable, as far as I'm concerned, if it continued on for twenty. Murdoch uses the song's bouncy rhythm as a cover for a stream-of-consciousness diatribe that features some of his nastiest lyrics ever:

A central location for you is a most as you stagger about making free
With your lewd and lascivious boasts
We all know you're soft 'cause we've all seen you dancing
We all know you're hard 'cause we've all seen you drinking from noon
Until noon again
You're the boy with the filthy laugh
You're the boy with the arab strap

What I love about Belle and Sebastian is the contrast between the delicate, pastoral musical setting and the biting, sarcastic lyrical content. I don't even know who Murdoch is ripping on, but I'll be damned if I'm not bopping my head and clapping along every time. He's the master of elegant pop with an edge.

Speaking of mastery: Arab Strap is so stocked with hidden riches that only just recently did I genuinely notice the second-to-last track, "Simple Things." It's only 1:45 in duration but Murdoch doesn't waste a note. Sandwiched between "Chickfactor" and "The Rollercoaster Ride," tracks so quiet they're almost on life support, "Simple Things" is like a bracing burst of urgency and conciseness:

If you want me I'll be there
A boy to deal with all your problems
But part of the deal
Is for you to feel something

If you want me look me up
I don't exist in usual places
Subtle as the wind is grey

If you want me you know where I am
I saw your arms in a dream
And there were blue veins blue
Blue veins

If you want me all you have to do
Is ask a thousand questions
Triplicate and file under
"Simple things you ask to make a young boy sigh"

So how about that? Ten years later, and my brother's discovery is rewarding me still. Just don't tell him I said so.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Kojima, 2001): The Mega Analysis

Upon the release of Hideo Kojima's 'Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots' earlier this year, critics heaped praise onto this final chapter of the Metal Gear saga. The review at Gamespot, my preferred site for reviews, begins with this:

"Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is the most technically stunning video game ever made. It's also a fine example of storytelling prowess within its medium, combining gameplay and narrative so slickly and beautifully that it's impossible to extricate one from the other. It's likely you will emerge awestruck from your first play-through, wishing the experience would continue yet nonetheless satisfied with its conclusion. It's difficult not to sound hyperbolic when discussing MGS4 because every part of its design seemingly fulfills its vision, without compromise. There is no halfway."

I am not here to talk about this game. I'm here to talk about 'Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty'. I haven't played the fourth title yet, but what that review says about the fourth title I would apply to the second. I'm going to go ahead and say that for me, this was the best videogame narrative I've ever experienced. By the time the final credits rolled I was so blown away that I had trouble sleeping that night, trying to make sense of what I had just experienced.

Speaking to a good friend a few days later, I said that it's almost a shame that MGS2 is a videogame, in that it requires you to play it to experience it, that you can't just sit back and be a passive observer. But that's also the beauty of it, because the game begins to toy with you right off the bat, leading you down further and further rabbit holes, which eventually start to break the fourth wall, leading up to a point where you, the player, are the one being played.

It's difficult to talk specifically about MGS2 without giving too much away. It's told in two chapters. The first chapter begins with you, back as Solid Snake, investigating a tanker leaving New York harbor in the middle of the night. It's been two years since the Shadow Moses incident, the name given to what happened in the first game. Snake now works with Otacon, the scientist and inventor of the original Metal Gear, for a group named 'Philanthropy', with the goal to rid the world of all Metal Gears, which have now become widely available since Ocelot, one of the main baddies from the first game, made off with the test data after the Shadow Moses incident and sold it on the black market. Otacon has learned (under mysterious circumstances) that a new version of Metal Gear is being transported on this vessel and Snake is being sent to investigate. Snake makes his way onboard, and let's just say things don't go as planned, resulting in the tanker sinking just off the coast of Manhattan.

Then the real story begins. In chapter 2 you start off as Snake, or at least you think you're Snake, being given a briefing in a scene eerily reminiscent of the original Metal Gear Solid. You're reminded about an oil tanker that sunk off the coast of Manhattan two years ago, and how the government came in and created 'The Big Shell' - an offshore platform built to clean up the mess. Just like with the original MGS, you're told that the President was touring the facility when terrorists took over the platform and are demanding a ransom, otherwise they'll kill the President and blow the Big Shell, resulting in an even greater environmental disaster. Then, in a bizarre twist, you're told that the leader of the terrorists is Solid Snake himself! And then it's revealed that you, the player, are not Snake, but Raiden, an effeminate whiny-voiced soldier who's had extensive training in virtual reality scenarios but who's now on his first real world mission.

This completely throws you off as the player, for you know what happened two years ago with the tanker, you just played that part, and now you're not only told an alternate history of those events, but you're told that Snake was responsible (which he wasn't)! And on top of that you're not playing as Snake, the hero, but as some other guy! What's going on here??

Things get weirder. Colonel Campbell, who, just like in the original MGS commands the operation, informs you that he had to get a replacement communications officer due to some unforeseen circumstances. For the replacement he's picked... Rose, your girlfriend? Raiden is baffled by this, as are we. Over the course of the game Raiden will have many conversations with Rose via Codec, a sort of video-chat player Kojima uses as his primary narrative device. These talks with Rose are often lengthy discussions on the meaning of relationships, the importance of communication, and the importance of trust. I've never witnessed such conversations in a videogame, and even most television and movies don't go into such painstaking detail of how conversations in relationships can play out. Plus she refers to Raiden by his real name, Jack. So we've got Jack and Rose, a la a movie about a sinking ship, I don't think this is just coincidence. Watch an example of these conversations here.

More bizarre things happen. As the story progresses you run into a man who looks and talks exactly like Solid Snake (voiced by the same actor), but who goes by the ridiculous name Iriquois Pliskin. You meet another Cyborg-Ninja, just like in the original game, who gives you a gift from some group called the 'La Li Lu Le Lo'. As the game goes on the rug is continually pulled out from under the player. Twists within twists. Eventually the game itself (or is it Kojima?) starts to toy with you, implementing fake game over screens ('Fission Mailed' instead of 'Mission Failed') and other bizarre happenings that break the fourth wall.

And then comes the finale, where the game becomes so bizarre and ridiculous I didn't know what to think. I was reminded of the infamous boat ride scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where you begin to think the director is either crazy or he's just having his way with you. I thought, "Has Kojima just lost it at this point? Is he just messing with me knowing that I'm too far involved not to continue?" Things got so strange near the end that I called out to my girlfriend in the other room to come witness what I was seeing to make sure I wasn't crazy. I thought that perhaps Kojima was some alien genius whose brain functioned at a higher level because I have no idea how he thought this stuff up, wrote it, and executed it so brilliantly. It's like some bizarre combination of the intricate and meticulous plots of Umberto Eco, mixed with the surrealness of David Lynch, and topped off with a dash of eccentric Japanese anime flair.

I can't describe the ending without ruining the story, but it ends with a whole treatise on the nature of self and truth, the importance of faith and free-will, and how our past is linked to our future as a species. In attempting to understand everything I stumbled across this site (it's one huge spoiler, you've been warned) which is devoted entirely to a discussion of the finale. I found this part was a good summation of the first two MGS games:

"The first Metal Gear Solid deals with the question, 'How much of a human being is defined by the genes?'. Naturally, the theme for the second is its complimentary part, 'How much of a human being is defined by information?'"

Update: This last Christmas day my dad gave me a catalog from MIT press to look at to see if there were any books I might be interested in. I ran into this book, which appears to deal with what I think Kojima was trying to say. Also, I've read that Goedel, Escher, Bach is another good place to start.

That's it for my look at Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. I'll leave you with the closing credits to the game, set against shots of New York City and Federal Hall (where the game ends) with a great accompanying jazzy piece of music that fits perfectly. Stick around for the end to hear Snake's final monologue (and click on Part 41 if you dare to listen to the final Codec call, a Metal Gear tradition, major spoilers!).

P.S - Did I forget to mention there's a part where Raiden runs around naked? You can watch a short X-Play retrospective of this memorable incident.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ur-Cruise and Fagen:

English majors undergoing mid-period academic calcification will often write about the lesser known works of famous figures. This sort of writing is usually crap. However, this Slate article extolling the virtues of Tom Cruise in Risky Business is worth a read. In Stephen Metcalf's words, "I can't name another American icon who has been so popular, and for so long, and yet so hard to like, and for so long." Personally, I've always enjoyed Tom Cruise as an actor, although I've never seen Top Gun. So he wants to give a big fuck you to the world by becoming a rabid Scientologist and marrying Katie Holmes just because he can. More power to him.

Donald Fagen now writes interesting, informative columns about forgotten media figures - in addition to being the lead singer from Steely Dan and having written some of the greatest songs of all time. I'm jealous and ashamed of myself, but happy to read this article.

Oh, and Christopher Hitchens makes fun of some religious guy. It's kind of like shooting fish in a barrel at this point, eh Hitch? Why did President-Elect Obama pick this religious guy to perform at his inauguration? I don't know, it probably sounded good at the time and it would look bad to switch now. If I were being inaugurated I'd choose to be sworn in on the Koran, just because I could. Right after I married Katie Holmes.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What Every Pitchfork Media Article Should Be Like

Seriously. They should just retire the album reviews and only publish Worst Album Cover lists. Highlights:

Dido: Safe Trip Home
In space, no one can hear you yawn.

The Magnetic Fields: Distortion
I was going to listen to this album, but then I used it as a restroom.

My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges
Can Brian Dennehy crack the Da Vinci Code?

James Taylor: Covers

p.s. A pretty entertaining new blog I just found:

Friday, December 19, 2008

Can Love Bloom on a Battlefield? - Metal Gear Solid Conclusion

It's taken me a while but I finally finished the original Metal Gear Solid. In terms of plot, so much has happened since our last outing that it's hard to wrap it all up, but I'll try. Hideo Kojima, the creator of the series, really enjoys large, complex plots. Essentially, Snake learns that he has to stop the Metal Gear from firing. He also learns that he's been injected with a genetic virus called "FoxDie" which is a virus programmed only to kill certain people with a certain genetic makeup. Snake learns that he was injected with FoxDie so that he would infect the terrorists trying to take control of Metal Gear when he came into contact with them, but he learns that it is designed to kill him also. Basically his whole mission was a setup by the government from the beginning - in order to cover up the secret of the Metal Gear project, which if exposed could cause huge tensions between the superpowers of the world, Snake was injected with FoxDie. When he came into contact with the various terrorists they would be exposed to it and die (thus why the DARPA chief died of a mysterious heart-attack, because he wasn't the DARPA chief at all, he was one of the terrorists in disguise! Still following?). Snake also learns that the leader of the terrorists, Liquid Snake, is actually his twin brother. You see - they were all part of a genetic experiment during the '70's called the 'Les infantes terribles' project, which was designed to create the ultimate super-soldiers from the cloned DNA of 'Big Boss', the bad guy from the original Metal Gear games on the old NES (and whose remains the terrorists are asking for as part of their ransom). Snake and Liquid share the same genetic code and that's why Snake will also die from FoxDie. In fact, we learn that Gulf War syndrome is a byproduct of the genetic engineering, because all those soldiers over there were injected with stuff that essentially caused their genetic makeup to change to that of Big Boss's. Oh yeah, that Cyborg-Ninja that Snake encountered earlier? Turns out he's the brother of Naomi, one of the operatives on your team (who injected you with FoxDie to begin with), but he's not really her brother, he's actually her parents' killer!!! If you're wearing your tinfoil hat and have Art Bell's number on speeddial at this point don't be ashamed.

So as we can see, Kojima likes his plots complexo-to-the-maxo. But ultimately (and thankfully) not much of the plot is relevant to our discussion. Metal Gear Solid deals with a lot of themes not usually found in videogames. At the end of the story Snake knows that he's going to die from the FoxDie, but he doesn't know when. In fact, Naomi (who's brother was the Ninja) tells him that he'll die when his time is up, but until then he should "live life!" Kojima explores destiny and fate here. If Snake could die at any moment, then what's the difference if he didn't know he was infected at all? Should he let that control his life?

Kojima also deals here with finding purpose in one's life. Throughout the game Snake is constantly asked "what are you fighting for?" If he's just a mercenary, does he have actual beliefs, or is he purely just a gun-for-hire? During one of his conversations with Master Miller (who ultimately turns out to be Liquid in disguise), Miller says to him that the only difference between a murderer and a soldier is that the soldier is killing for a purpose. Do we need to give ourselves over to something greater to find purpose in life? At the end, Snake escapes from the compound with Meryl (the Colonel's niece) and decides he'd like to finally give his life purpose by giving himself to Meryl. Watch the final cinematic here (skip to 4:15 to get to the actual speech by Naomi addressing this topic).

Speaking of love, the scientist who Snake helped rescue earlier, Otacon, delivers one of the more awkward lines in the history of videogames. During his time being held hostage by the terrorists Otacon falls in love with his captor, the female terrorist sniper. Later in the game, after he's been freed by Snake, Otacon approaches Snake and asks him "Do you think love can bloom, even on a battlefield?" Though its hard not to chuckle when you hear this line, it's Kojima once again driving home the point that we need to live life for a purpose, that we can't just live for ourselves, but that we need to live for something greater. Watch the scene here.

So, is Metal Gear Solid art? It's hard to say. The game certainly has a strong message. While most other games in the same league (I'm looking at you Halo) have larger than life heroes and a grand, epic scale, their messages are ultimately pretty thin. But with Metal Gear Solid Kojima is actually trying to tell us something, that we need to give our lives purpose by giving it over to something greater, whether that purpose be a life of military service or love to another, and that we need to protect that love by avoiding war, weapons, and conflict. Unfortunately most of this message is conveyed during lengthy cinematic cutscenes which technically aren't part of the gameplay, but more like watching a movie. Perhaps as a compromise I could say that the game isn't art, but the story and message contained within is.

Until next time when I get into Metal Gear Solid 2 (which is even more crazy and complex), I'll leave you with this trailer which just premiered today for the upcoming Metal Gear expansion pack for the cutest game in the world, LittleBigPlanet.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Southland Tales (Kelly)

Where to start? First of all, Southland Tales is the second film by Richard Kelly, the director of Donnie Darko. I liked Donnie Darko, but not as much as most people did. I didn't really understand the point. Sometimes that doesn't bother me, but with Donnie Darko I felt like Kelly actually thought his film had a point but he didn't really know what it was. It seemed like one of those movies people liked because it was different enough from most other movies and because it received no hype. Then I heard that Southland Tales was screened at Cannes and everybody said it was terrible. But it sounded like it might be terrible in a Fellini Satyricon/She Hate Me/Inland Empire sort of way. I decided that if I ever got the chance to watch it for free, I would give it a try. So I'd like to give a big shout-out to my former co-worker for loaning me the DVD.

Richard Kelly is a very ambitious director but not, I'd say, a particularly intellectual one. He seems to have a (slightly more geeky than usual but) essentially normal American alpha male mentality. I get the impression he watched Fight Club and Three Kings and figured, "Hey, I could make movies just like these!" But he didn't really pick up on the subtle attention directors like Fincher and Russell tend to pay to cinematography, editing, set design, etc. As a result, Southland Tales has a bit of an amateurish, TV movie quality; Kelly basically points the camera at the action and doesn't bother with the rest. His writing also lacks the wit and coherence of his contemporaries. Some sample lines of dialogue:

"The fourth dimension will collapse upon stupid bitch."

"We're a bisexual nation living in denial. All because of a bunch of nerds. A bunch of nerds who got off a boat in the 15th century and decided that sex was something to be ashamed of. All the Pilgrims did was ruin the American Indian orgy of freedom. "

"Join us for an in-depth discussion of the penetrating issues facing society today. Issues like abortion, terrorism, crime, poverty, social reform, quantum teleportation, teen horniness and war."

It's like, "My dialogue doesn't need to be particularly insightful, just as long as it's weird." He may have a point. Kelly's ultimate idea of cinema is probably The Usual Suspects or Rocky III, but hey, at least he's got enthusiasm. It's not everyday you see Justin Timberlake hulking behind an offshore gun turret with an ungainly scar on his face quoting ponderous passages from the Book of Revelation, is it? Or Wallace Shawn ranting and raving from the ballroom of a zeppelin about the new brand of "fluid karma" he's invented? If you don't even know who Wallace Shawn is, then I'm afraid you may not find Southland Tales quite as appealing as I did. Truth be told, I've never seen a more stellar assembly of quasi-famous character actors in my life: Curtis Armstrong, Nora Dunn, Cheri Oteri, John Larroquette, Jon Lovitz...the list goes on. Not to mention Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn star/political activist and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a political heir/time-traveling scientific specimen. I'm not sure if Kelly deliberately wanted to cast the film with B-level actors or if these are simply the only actors who were willing to say yes. Either way, the end result is the same.

So if you adored Donnie Darko and were actually expecting Southland Tales to be a "good" movie, then I'm sorry for you my friend. But for me, watching Southland Tales was a bit like reading one of those really wacky and entertaining short stories you might come across in a Fiction Writing college class: it's not the work of a true professional, but it sure beats the hell out of that treacly semi-autobiographical love story written by the self-absorbed girl to milk some cheap sympathy from her classmates after her latest meaningless break-up.

"Film critic" rating: *1/2
"Little Earl" rating: ***

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Return Of Ebenezer Hitchens!

Apparently I wasn't the only one to get a big kick out of the idea of Christopher Hitchens as a modern day Ebenezer Scrooge. So did Christopher Hitchens! In a piece entitled "'Tis the Season To Be Incredulous," he suggests the birthing of a possible new holiday tradition:
The late Art Buchwald made himself additionally famous by reprinting a spoof Thanksgiving column that ran unchanged for many decades after its first appearance in the Herald Tribune, setting a high threshold of reader tolerance. My own wish is more ambitious: to write an anti-Christmas column that becomes fiercer every year while remaining, in essence, the same.
A noble goal, Hitch, a noble goal. Perhaps there'll come a day when the bitchy Hitchens Christmas column is as essential a piece of Yuletide tradition as The Santa Clause starring Tim Allen. Highlights:
I had never before been a special fan of that great comedian Phyllis Diller, but she utterly won my heart this week by sending me an envelope that, when opened, contained a torn-off square of brown-bag paper of the kind suitable for latrine duty in an ill-run correctional facility. Duly unfurled, it carried a handwritten salutation reading as follows:

Money's scarce
Times are hard
Here's your f******
Xmas card

As in such dismal banana republics, the dreary, sinister thing is that the official propaganda is inescapable. You go to a train station or an airport, and the image and the music of the Dear Leader are everywhere. You go to a more private place, such as a doctor's office or a store or a restaurant, and the identical tinny, maddening, repetitive ululations are to be heard.

Suppose we put the question like this: Imagine that conclusive archaeological and textual evidence emerged to prove that the whole story of the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth was either a delusion or a fabrication? Suppose the mother had admitted shyly that, in fact, she had fallen pregnant for predictable reasons? Suppose we found the post-Calvary body? Serious Christians, of the sort I have been debating lately, would have no choice but to consider such news as absolutely calamitous. The light of the world would have gone out; the hope of humanity would have been extinguished. (The same obviously would apply to Muslims who couldn't bear the shock of finding that their prophet was fictional or fraudulent.) But I invite you to consider things more lucidly. If all the official stories of monotheism, from Moses to Mormonism, were to be utterly and finally discredited, we would be exactly where we are now. All the agonizing questions that we face, from the idea of the good life and our duties to each other to the concept of justice and the enigma of existence itself, would be just as difficult and also just as fascinating.

I feel a song coming on:

You're a vile one, Mr. Hitch
You have termites in your smile
You have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile
Mr. Hitch
Given a choice between the two of you, I'd take...the seasick crocodile!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Update: Shoe Attack Already Turned Into Videogame

Not 24 hours since the incident occured a game company has already gone ahead and made a flash game based off of this soon-to-be-infamous event. Play it here. No respect I tell ya', no respect!

Update: Check out these .gifs, I really like the Matrix and the Three Stooges one.

Rehash: The Saga Continues (part 2)

Here am I back with part two of my analysis of the original Metal Gear Solid. Since our last outing with our hero Solid Snake, Snake has infiltrated a warehouse full of nukes. He was told by the now-dead weapons company exec that he needs to find Dr. Hal Emmerich, creator of the Metal Gear project. After facing off against a ninja-cyborg (who seems to know Snake from somewhere else), our hero finds Dr. Emmerich. The Doctor, who prefers to be called Otacon, explains just what the titular Metal Gear is. The project is to create a giant bipedal walking battle tank fully armed with nuclear warheads, able to fire its nukes from anywhere on the planet. Unfortunately Otacon thought the Metal Gear would be used only for defensive purposes (really?!), only now realizing that his project will probably be used for something more nefarious. Kojima creates parallels here with the guilt of those who took part in the Manhattan Project. Not fully realizing the implications of nuclear technology, some of those scientists felt regret the rest of their lives. It's actually layed on pretty thick here, with Otacon revealing that his grandfather had been involved in the Manhattan Project and that his dad also just happened to be born the same day as the bombing of Hiroshima.

Kojima seems to enjoy laying things on thick. As we saw with the eight minute long speech against nuclear weapons in our previous outing, Kojima really likes to drive the point home, if not even overshooting it. It's like he wants us, the player, to know that he is specifically addressing us. This goes against the writer's adage of "show, don't tell". Sometimes it seems that Kojima would just rather tell us. It can definitely pull you out of the game.

And it would seem that Kojima likes to pull the player out of the game. Continuing on, Snake meets up with Meryl (pictured above), the Colonel's daughter (it's a long story but the Colonel who's giving Snake orders has a niece who joined Fox-Hound before they went renegade). What's interesting here is Kojima's use of "self-reflexive awareness of the game as a game" (I stole this from the Brainy Gamer, excuse me). After meeting up with Meryl you exit out into a hallway. Meryl calls attention to the fact that guards are no longer patrolling the hallways, which she finds odd. Then Snake replies, "What happened to the music?" It's then that you realize as the player that the game is talking to you, because, in fact, the music in the game really has stopped playing. The tense spy-action background music, something the player probably never paid much attention to before, has ceased playing. I had trouble finding a good clip of this. For now go all the way to the very end of this one to watch this scene.

Imagine in a film if during a particularly quiet scene one of the characters mentioned that there was no music. How odd would that be? After this strange little scene plays out you enter a new part of the building where the music starts back up again. When you get a call on your radio, one of the characters working with the Colonel specifically asks you if you've heard any strange music lately, and Snake responds with something along the lines of "Yeah, when I entered this part of the building I started hearing a little tune". Kojima seems to enjoy playing with you, the player of the game, not just the characters involved in it.

That's it for now, I'll be back with my final analysis of the original Metal Gear Solid next time.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Reminds Me Of The Raiders

I don't know about anybody else, but I was rooting for Anthropology A&M.

If you're in the mood for another funny (but more recent) clip, I recommend "Goofy in How to Hook Up Your Home Video."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rehash: The Saga Begins

[I've just recently completed Metal Gear Solid 2 and plan on writing my analysis and thoughts on it soon. At the moment though, my mind is still reeling from everything I just experienced and it may take a bit for me to get my thoughts down properly. For the time being here's a rehash of the first part of my analysis of the original Metal Gear Solid which I posted on ludology 101 a few months ago (and which you probably missed since it's basically a dead blog). Enjoy!]

I've recently taken it upon myself to try out the Metal Gear series. Just a few weeks ago the final chapter of the series, Metal Gear Solid 4, was released. As I've posted before, it's been receiving rave reviews, with some reviewers calling it one of the best videogame narratives ever. After procuring (on-site?) a Playstation 2 and a copy of the original Metal Gear Solid (1998) I've begun my journey.

The man behind the MGS series is Hideo Kojima. He is both the creator and director of the series. One of the problems with videogames not being taken seriously as an art form could probably be attributed to the fact that games are made by many, many people, so there's usually no one identifiable person who leaves their distinctive mark or stamp on a game unlike a director of film. This is not the case with the MGS series. Hideo Kojima, who is seen as a sort of auteur in the videogame community, is the driving force behind MGS. Some people think of Kojima as a visionary- a complete master of his craft, able to tell amazing, complex (actually, really complex) narratives. Others see his games mimicking cinema so much that they say he's in the wrong business, that he should be making films instead of videogames. For an interesting look at Kojima check out this article at the Brainy Gamer which compares and contrasts him with D.W. Griffith.

Metal Gear Solid starts out with the main character, Solid Snake, being given a mission to infiltrate a nuclear waste disposal facility in the Bering Strait which has been taken over by a rogue private military contract group called Fox-Hound, of which Solid Snake used to be a member. The game relies on you, as Snake, to sneak around and figure out what's going on.

What makes the game interesting, at least for me, is that the story is basically an analysis of the American military-industrial complex told from a distinctly non-American perspective. The whole gameplay revolves around stealth. Fighting is usually a last resort, with sneaking around making the game much easier than if you try to fight everyone you see. I find this in contrast to most American made games, which usually have you shooting anything and everything, with violence being the easiest, if not the only answer. Whole books have been written on America's fascination with violence, but the contrast between a Japanese vs. an American take on the subject shows here when your character doesn't fight all that much, even though you're told you're a top tier secret agent with deadly skills.

The other observation I've made so far is just how anti-violence prone this whole game is. There have been increasing anti-war/anti-violence themes and messages cropping up as I go along. Currently I'd say I'm a quarter of the way through the game. After rescuing a kidnapped weapons company executive (think Halliburton) the player is treated to an 8 minute long cutscene which goes into a whole history lesson about post-Cold War nuclear weapons disposal, how much nuclear waste is created each year, out-of-work Russian scientists looking for a job, and a whole diatribe on the evils on nuclear weapons. Watch it here (skip to 5:15 to get the real history lesson).

As the length of just this cutscene shows (and there are many more lengthy cutscenes), Kojima is fond of fashioning his games like they were films, and I'll explore that further in another analysis.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Come On Guys, Just Tell Us What Movies You Really Like

All right, French guys, you win. You win. Your taste in cinema is superior to mine. Forgive me for harboring secret affection for "overexposed Hollywood pseudo-classics" such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Casablanca, and - gasp - The Third Man. Forgive me for never having bothered to watch Ugetsu, Sunrise, Johnny Guitar, and Pierrot le Fou more than once.

Honestly. All I get from this list is, "Yeah. Oh yeah. Check out all these foreign/silent films we can name. Yeah. The Mother and the Whore. Tabu. Gertrud. Mmm yeah. Lick it. Lick it, bitch." I mean, a list is a list, but gimme a break. You just know there's a guy on this staff who goes home and watches The Sound of Music every night, but when it comes time to make the 100 Greatest Movies list, he chickens out and names Ivan the Terrible and Night of the Hunter just so he doesn't look like a total loser to his buddies.

That's the problem with this thing. It's like the Taste Police. "Well, let's just name a bunch of movies that are about eighty years old so nobody can really argue with us." This list just isn't any fun. Sure, I'm as frustrated with the Internet Movie Database "Shawshank Redemption/Lord of the Rings" style of listmaking as anybody, but I'm afraid Cahiers du Cinema may have swung the pendulum just a wee bit too far in the opposite direction. For a better list of this kind, I would recommend They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? or Sight and Sound's Top Ten Poll. The Sight and Sound Director's Poll is probably the most reasonable list I've ever seen, presumably because actual filmmakers, unlike snooty French film critics, may not feel like they have quite as much to prove.

Cahiers du Cinema's 100 Greatest Films:
  1. Citizen Kane - Orson Welles
  2. The Night of the Hunter - Charles Laughton
  3. The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) - Jean Renoir
  4. Sunrise - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
  5. L’Atalante - Jean Vigo
  6. M - Fritz Lang
  7. Singin’ in the Rain - Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
  8. Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock
  9. Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis) - Marcel Carné
  10. The Searchers - John Ford
  11. Greed - Erich von Stroheim
  12. Rio Bravo - Howard Hawkes
  13. To Be or Not to Be - Ernst Lubitsch
  14. Tokyo Story - Yasujiro Ozu
  15. Contempt (Le Mépris) - Jean-Luc Godard
  16. Tales of Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari) - Kenji Mizoguchi
  17. City Lights - Charlie Chaplin
  18. The General - Buster Keaton
  19. Nosferatu the Vampire - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
  20. The Music Room - Satyajit Ray
  21. Freaks - Tod Browning
  22. Johnny Guitar - Nicholas Ray
  23. The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) - Jean Eustache
  24. The Great Dictator - Charlie Chaplin
  25. The Leopard (Le Guépard) - Luchino Visconti
  26. Hiroshima, My Love - Alain Resnais
  27. The Box of Pandora (Loulou) - Georg Wilhelm Pabst
  28. North by Northwest - Alfred Hitchcock
  29. Pickpocket - Robert Bresson
  30. Golden Helmet (Casque d’or) - Jacques Becker
  31. The Barefoot Contessa - Joseph Mankiewitz
  32. Moonfleet - Fritz Lang
  33. Diamond Earrings (Madame de…) - Max Ophüls
  34. Pleasure - Max Ophüls
  35. The Deer Hunter - Michael Cimino
  36. The Adventure - Michelangelo Antonioni
  37. Battleship Potemkin - Sergei M. Eisenstein
  38. Notorious - Alfred Hitchcock
  39. Ivan the Terrible - Sergei M. Eisenstein
  40. The Godfather - Francis Ford Coppola
  41. Touch of Evil - Orson Welles
  42. The Wind - Victor Sjöström
  43. 2001: A Space Odyssey - Stanley Kubrick
  44. Fanny and Alexander - Ingmar Bergman
  45. The Crowd - King Vidor
  46. 8 1/2 - Federico Fellini
  47. La Jetée - Chris Marker
  48. Pierrot le Fou - Jean-Luc Godard
  49. Confessions of a Cheat (Le Roman d’un tricheur) - Sacha Guitry
  50. Amarcord - Federico Fellini
  51. Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) - Jean Cocteau
  52. Some Like It Hot - Billy Wilder
  53. Some Came Running - Vincente Minnelli
  54. Gertrud - Carl Theodor Dreyer
  55. King Kong - Ernst Shoedsack & Merian J. Cooper
  56. Laura - Otto Preminger
  57. The Seven Samurai - Akira Kurosawa
  58. The 400 Blows - François Truffaut
  59. La Dolce Vita - Federico Fellini
  60. The Dead - John Huston
  61. Trouble in Paradise - Ernst Lubitsch
  62. It’s a Wonderful Life - Frank Capra
  63. Monsieur Verdoux - Charlie Chaplin
  64. The Passion of Joan of Arc - Carl Theodor Dreyer
  65. À bout de souffle - Jean-Luc Godard
  66. Apocalypse Now - Francis Ford Coppola
  67. Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick
  68. La Grande Illusion - Jean Renoir
  69. Intolerance - David Wark Griffith
  70. A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne) - Jean Renoir
  71. Playtime - Jacques Tati
  72. Rome, Open City - Roberto Rossellini
  73. Livia (Senso) - Luchino Visconti
  74. Modern Times - Charlie Chaplin
  75. Van Gogh - Maurice Pialat
  76. An Affair to Remember - Leo McCarey
  77. Andrei Rublev - Andrei Tarkovsky
  78. The Scarlet Empress - Joseph von Sternberg
  79. Sansho the Bailiff - Kenji Mizoguchi
  80. Talk to Her - Pedro Almodóvar
  81. The Party - Blake Edwards
  82. Tabu - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
  83. The Bandwagon - Vincente Minnelli
  84. A Star Is Born - George Cukor
  85. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday - Jacques Tati
  86. America, America - Elia Kazan
  87. El - Luis Buñuel
  88. Kiss Me Deadly - Robert Aldrich
  89. Once Upon a Time in America - Sergio Leone
  90. Daybreak (Le Jour se lève) - Marcel Carné
  91. Letter from an Unknown Woman - Max Ophüls
  92. Lola - Jacques Demy
  93. Manhattan - Woody Allen
  94. Mulholland Dr. - David Lynch
  95. My Night at Maud’s (Ma nuit chez Maud) - Eric Rohmer
  96. Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) - Alain Resnais
  97. The Gold Rush - Charlie Chaplin
  98. Scarface - Howard Hawks
  99. Bicycle Thieves - Vittorio de Sica
  100. Napoléon - Abel Gance

Friday, December 5, 2008

Poetic Justice

I just read that Ann Coulter fell and broke her jaw. Now she's going to have to get it wired shut for a few weeks (not kidding here!). Poetic fucking justice if you ask me. Read it here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


World's oldest marijuana stash totally busted - MSNBC did they make the brownies?

Ayn Rand!!! the workplace.

McSweeney's publishes something funny once in a while to justify their elaborately beautiful publications. This parody of Atlas Shrugged, set in the contemporary financial whirligig, is just such an item.

"He gestured to his floor-to-ceiling windows, a symbol of his productive ability and goodness.

"There's a whole world out there of byzantine financial products just waiting to be invented, Dagny. Let the leeches run my factories into the ground! I hope they do! I've taken out more insurance on a single Rearden Steel bond than the entire company is even worth! When my old company finally tanks, I'll make a cool $877 million."

Their eyes locked with an intensity she was only beginning to understand. Yes, Hank ... claim me ... If we're to win the battle against the leeches, we must get it on ... right now ... Don't let them torture us for our happiness ... or our billions."

Monday, December 1, 2008

PORN!!! the workplace

Yesterday I read this article online about the increasing rise of viewing porn in the workplace. That's right, watching porno in your cubicle/office/breakroom while on the clock. According to Nielsen Online the number of employees who view porn in the workplace has increased to 25%, up from 23% last year. That means one quarter of your workmates are watching porn, probably viewing a delicious bum or tit RIGHT NOW!

Why is this so? According to the article, people are looking for an escape, or maybe their bosses are just so busy managing a workplace in a crumbling economy that they just don't have enough time to devote to their employees anymore. Also, the rise of youtube-like porn sites makes it easier than ever to watch a little porno on the side. According to some expert they interviewed (who's probably watching porn right now):

"Managers are dealing with so many issues right now that sometimes people are able to hide out and no one knows what they're doing." But a larger factor is the evolving sense—not universally shared—that porn is no big deal. "You're looking at a younger consumer who has grown up with pornography being out there in the pop culture."

I don't know about you, but when I'm surfing the internet at work I'm generally reading videogame blogs,, google news, or browsing wikipedia entries.

Dongs away!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Adventures In Rap #9: Eric B. & Rakim

Alright, who wants to join me in a game? Here's the game: name your top five favorite Eric B. & Rakim songs. "Eric B. and who" you say? You're not alone. And yet, apparently Eric B. and Rakim's standing in the rap world is high. Just listen to Steve Huey's introduction from the All Music Guide:
During rap's so-called golden age in the late '80s, Eric B. & Rakim were almost universally recognized as the premier DJ/MC team in all of hip-hop...Eric B. was a hugely influential DJ and beatmaker whose taste for hard-hitting James Brown samples touched off a stampede through the Godfather of Soul's back catalog that continues up to the present day. Rakim, meanwhile, still tops fan polls as the greatest MC of all time.
Well, how great could they be if nobody's ever heard of them? The answer: good enough to justify their reputation as hip-hop innovators, but not good enough to actually satisfy a listener in 2008. In other words, I'm glad they played their part, but personally I find Eric B. & Rakim more valuable as history than as music.

But let us give credit where credit is due. Now, if it were 1987 and I had just placed the needle onto the wax of Eric B. & Rakim's debut album Paid In Full, I would have probably said "damn that is good." Eric B. & Rakim's music would have struck me as more mellow and danceable than the dominant Run-D.M.C./LL Cool J rap/rock hybrid sound of the time. But given that it is actually 2008 and not 1987, and I have grown up in the post gansta funk era, I have to say that Paid In Full sounds like a great remix album - except it actually is the album. Hooks? Choruses? You won't find any of them here. Innovation alone does not make an album stand the test of time. There also has to be songcraft.

Take Rakim's much-vaunted rhyming skills, for example. Yes, his rhymes are smoother and more intricate than the rhymes of his predecessors. It's too bad Rakim only tackles one topic: his rhyming skills. A lot of casual observers like to criticize rap by saying that "All (insert random rapper here) ever does is talk about how cool he is." Often this is just an easy way for a lazy listener to disengage with the music. But in the case of Rakim, it is essentially true. Take this rapid-fire verse from 1988's "Follow The Leader" for instance:

A furified freestyle, lyrics of fury
My third eye makes me shine like jewelry
You're just a rent-a-rapper, your rhymes are minute-maid
I'll be here when it fade to watch you flip like a renegade
I can't wait to break and eliminate
On every traitor or snake - so stay awake
And follow and follow, because the tempo's a trail
The stage is a cage, the mic is a third rail
I'm Rakim, the fiend of a microphone
I'm not him, so leave my mic alone
Soon as the beat is felt, I'm ready to go
So fasten your seatbelt, cause I'm about to flow
No need to speed slow down to let the leader lead
Word to daddy, indeed!
The R's a rollin' stone, so I'm rollin'
Directions is told, then the rhymes are stolen
Stop buggin', a brother said, dig em, I never dug 'em
He couldn't follow the leader long enough so I drug 'em
Into danger zone, he should arrange his own
Face it, it's basic, erase it, change ya tone
There's one R in the alphabet
It's a one-letter word and it's about to get
More complex from one rhyme to the next
Eric B be easy on the flex
I've been from state to state, followers tailgate
Keep comin' but you came too late, but I'll wait
So back up, regroup, get a grip, come equipped
You're the next contestant - clap ya hands, you won a trip!
The price is right - don't make a deal too soon
How many notes could you name this tune?
Follow the leader is the title, theme, task
Now ya know, you don't have to ask
Rap is rhythm and poetry, cuts create sound effects
You might catch up if you follow the records E. wrecks
Until then keep eatin' and swallowin'
You better take a deep breath and keep followin'
The leader

This is the kind of verse that would have had aspiring rappers shaking their heads in unison in 1988, confessing to each other, "Now how the hell are we supposed to top that?" And yet...the song is about nothing! Just imagine if Rakim had actually applied his nimble linguistic talent to genuine subject matter. Sure, maybe if I were a DJ or a rapper, Eric. B. and Rakim would be my idols. But seeing as that I am neither of those things, I can't really enjoy Eric B. & Rakim as anything more than a (very impressive) historical curiosity.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Walmart Stampede

From the New York Times: Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death

What in Wal-Mart could be worth standing in line for, let alone trampling someone to death over?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Good Kind Of Trivial

Was the world waiting with bated breath for Slate articles on the twin topics of car horns and tied college football games? No. Did I enjoy such articles? Yes. Here, I think, are two perfect examples of the fluffy but satisfying Slate article. The keys are: 1) the authors don't treat the subject matter as something more important than it really is; 2) they supplement their fluff with some impressively thorough research, so the pieces are not actually completely devoid of informative value.

In all honesty, I've been enjoying Slate a little more than usual lately. Perhaps this is not completely unrelated to the fact that we have a new and intriguingly energetic president preparing to take office. It's like someone finally pouring super-strength Drano down a toilet that has been clogged for eight years. Here, then, are some other recent Slate favorites:

1) Why Is Obama Our First Black President?: Kids' questions about his victory, and their parents' attempts to answer - Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson

2) Don't get Depressed, It's Not 1929: Why All Those Great Depression Analogies Are Wrong - Daniel Gross

Well that's a relief!

3) Obama's Reagan Democrats: They weren't crazy about Obama, but they voted for him anyway. Now what do they want? - John Dickerson

Favorite part: "Mark Parowski, who described himself as a 'hard-core Republican,' didn't pick Obama until the moment he was in the election booth. His wife had been to Obama's last rally in Manassas, Va., the night before, along with 90,000 others, and said it sounded as if Obama was talking right to her in her living room. His disgust with Republicans was a big factor in his vote, Parowski said, but he also saw backing Obama as a chance to make a generational change."

I can just imagine this Mr. Parowski, muttering to himself only moments after leaving the election booth: "I reached over and began pulling the level for McCain...and I...I...just...couldn' it!"

4) Do You Want Gravy On Your Palin?: Ammunition for Your Holiday Political Spats - John Dickerson

I could see the validity in each side of these arguments. Some of the more tantalizing:

Hillary at State

Great idea: She knows the issues, won't be afraid to tell Obama what she thinks, and is the perfect embodiment of American ideals of opportunity and service.

Horrible idea: Drama! She'll put her interests above the president's. Bill's conflicts of interest will be impossible to overcome. Powerful women don't do well in the Middle East.

Will a Woman Ever Become President?

Sure: Hillary's campaign was a thorough mess, her husband was off message constantly, and yet she still almost beat Obama.

Not for a while: Geraldine Ferraro was right—in politics, it's harder to be a woman than a black man. It's still a sexist world. Just look how terribly everyone treated Sarah Palin.

Bush Is the Worst President of My Lifetime

Born before 1932: Son, let me tell you about a man named Herbert Hoover.

Born between 1932 and 1974: You think he was worse than that paranoid liar Nixon? There have been no attacks since 9/11. Iraq is turning around and may become a beacon for democracy in the Middle East. Bush is like Truman: unpopular now, but history will vindicate him.

Born after 1974: No need to elaborate. Use the time to get a second helping of pie.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Mega Man: The Movie!

Ok, so the above trailer isn't for a real film. It's just a fan made trailer for a fictional Mega Man movie. There's a lot of fan service going on, so if haven't played a Mega Man game in a while you might not get it all, but for a couple of fans working with zero budget it's pretty damn fun to watch and imagine "what if...". Now, it's nowhere near as good as the fake Legend of Zelda trailer put out earlier this year, which looks so real that upon viewing it my girlfriend said "why don't they just make the real thing, millions of people would go see it anyways." Besides the ridiculous looking Ganon, it looks like a real trailer for a real film. Watch it below:

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What, No Dave Matthews?

I'm glad to see that Rolling Stone got such a kick out of my old post on my favorite singers that they decided to compile another one of their infamous "100 Greatest" lists in response. This one is not too bad, or at least not as open to obvious criticism as their 100 Greatest Artists list (you know, the one that excluded Pink Floyd?!*@). Nevertheless, the list's (in my opinion) overall high quality has not prevented various outraged music lovers from dubbing it the "worst list ever" for leaving off the legendary vocal stylings of artists such as Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder. Let them rant.

I'm not sure I would have gone with Aretha Franklin at the top. Perhaps her influence has been so pervasive that I really haven't given her proper credit for inventing the whole R&B diva thing. Perhaps I just don't respect the whole R&B diva genre a great deal. Also, I would say that Aretha's artistic legacy mostly rests on the material she recorded at Atlantic from approximately 1967-1969. Great stuff, sure, but enough to earn her the title of greatest singer of all time? I wouldn't quite go there. I'd say the #2 and #3 choices, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley, respectively, might have been more deserving of the number one spot - but not by any outrageous margin.

Most of my favorites are here: Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, etc. Even some of my more esoteric and less obvious picks made the cut, like Neil Young, George Jones, Brian Wilson, and Karen Carpenter (I love the quote they dug up from John Fogerty here: "Karen Carpenter had a great sound, but if you've got three guys out on the ballfield and one of them started humming [a Carpenters song], the other two guys would pants him.")

Which reminds me: One of the features I really liked about the 100 Greatest Artists list is that Rolling Stone had managed to recruit, for every entry, some other famous musician to contribute a little blurb on the assigned artist. But it seems like the deadline must have snuck up on the magazine a bit sooner than expected this time because eighteen entries come accompanied with a musician's essay and all the rest are simply essays written by the Rolling Stone staff. Which is it, guys? Either you go with all musician essays or all staff essays, but you don't just go with both! Maybe it's a work in progress. Let us hope so.

On the other hand, they may have redeemed themselves to a certain extent by featuring scans of some of the handwritten ballots, so you can actually see how the world-famous voters voted! Keith Richards cheekily voted for himself in the final spot. Courtney Love, James Blunt, and Sebastian Bach didn't get the memo and shamelessly voted for themselves in the top spot (Ozzy Osbourne at least put himself at #6). And Maynard James Keenan of Tool wrote in only his own name and left the rest of the ballot blank. B.B. King picked mostly jazz and blues singers, but then threw Whitney Houston in there. Merle Haggard listed "The Beatles" as one singer. James Hetfield named metal acts exclusively, with the exception of Johnny Cash. Iggy Pop reserved a spot for Neil Diamond. Alice Cooper's was probably the most surprisingly tasteful of the lot. Can you really picture the King of Shock Rock sitting alone in his apartment listening to Dionne Warwick, Frankie Valli and Laura Nyro? "Welcome to My Nightmare" indeed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thanks, Vatican

Vatican forgives John Lennon for Jesus quip - MSNBC
"The remark by John Lennon, which triggered deep indignation mainly in the United States, after many years sounds only like a 'boast' by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up in the legend of Elvis and rock and roll," Vatican daily Osservatore Romano said.

The article, marking the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' "The White Album," went on to praise the pop band.

"The fact remains that 38 years after breaking up, the songs of the Lennon-McCartney brand have shown an extraordinary resistance to the passage of time, becoming a source of inspiration for more than one generation of pop musicians," it said.
Way to go, Vatican. Too bad he's already dead. But nevermind, Yoko will gladly accept on John's behalf. What's next, I wonder? Maybe they'll finally forgive Madonna for that whole "having sex with a cross" thing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Herr Zrbo's Newest Favoritest Blog*

Herr Zrbo's got a new favorite blog in town. Not content to sit here all day dreaming of Ladies of 280 or of TV anchor babes, yours truly has discovered Failblog. It's really nothing new, it's just America's Funniest Home Videos (or Jay Leno's 'Headlines') updated for the youtube generation, but boy oh boy, is it hilarious! I've spent many hours of my time at work chuckling away at whatever Failblog has to offer. Take the example up above, HILARITY! You can find all sorts of ridiculous stuff on this site. Like this one, for example, taken from a Dear Abby column:

"Dear Abby,
I have a man I can't trust. He cheats so much, I'm not even sure the baby I'm carrying is his."

Good times, good times.

*This title is meant to reflect a fail

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Dennis Hopper: Still The World's Most Entertaining Asshole

While many kind and selfless artists have died prematurely and left us much too soon, Dennis Hopper, one of the most reckless, abusive, and obnoxious talents in the film industry, has somehow managed to live to the ripe old age of 72. Perhaps there really is no justice in the world. Or perhaps God simply likes the entertainment. I know I do. Here, then, in his fully self-conscious glory, is Dennis Hopper, from an interview with The Hollywood Interview, a fellow blog on Blogspot (note: why can't we land these kinds of interviews on our blog?). The casual observer might only think of Hopper as that guy from Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, and...Waterworld, but in truth, he's made films with everyone from James Dean to John Wayne to Andy Warhol. While growing up in Kansas during the Dustbowl, he actually bought a dog from the Clutter family of In Cold Blood fame. He apparently produced an album for Miles Davis. The man has seen and done it all, and what's really impressive is that he's seen and done it an asshole! Excerpts:

Watching your character in the first episode of Crash, I thought to myself ‘So Frank Booth survived the gunshot to the head in Blue Velvet and became a record producer.’

(laughs) Yeah, right!

Who else would call someone an “eyeless fuck” but Frank Booth?
(laughs) Yeah, yeah. My first conversation with my penis in the limo with the young woman driver, it’s pretty hairy. When I hire the new driver, who’s black, and say “Gorillas in the mist, that’s what the LAPD call you,” he has no stop switch, my character. He says everything and insults everybody. He just goes for it.

Which at one time could have described you.
Yeah, probably. I guess so. It was so long ago now, I can’t remember. (laughs) Phil Spector and I had an office together for ten years, and people have asked me if I’m doing Phil Spector in this and I said ‘No. I’m doing me!’ (laughs)


I remember hearing you tell a story about snorting gasoline from your grandfather’s truck…
Yeah, and I looked up at the clouds and saw clowns, until I ODed on the fumes and smashed up his truck with a baseball bat, thinking it was a monster, smashing out the lights. (laughs) I was about seven. (laughs) Not good, but that was the end of my gas-sniffing.


I heard that during the filming of True Grit that John Wayne chased you around Paramount with a loaded gun?
(laughs) No, that’s not quite how it happened. He used to arrive on the lot via helicopter from his mine sweeper that he had moored in Newport Beach. He’d have a .45 strapped on his side, wearing army fatigues, and that’s the way he’d arrive to work every day. This one day he arrived, and he wanted to know where “that Pinko Hopper was hiding.” I was actually in Glen Campbell’s trailer, hiding from him. He was screaming “My daughter was out at UCLA last night and heard (Black Panther) Eldridge Cleaver cussing, and I know he must be a friend of that Pinko Hopper! Where is he? I want to talk to him!” So he wasn’t literally running around with a gun looking for me. He was walking around with a gun at his hip, but I think he wanted to have a political discussion, as opposed to committing actual manslaughter! (laughs) Anyway, nothing ever came of it. That was just Duke.


We have to talk about the character of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. I read an interview with David Lynch where he said you called him after reading the script and said “David, you have to let me play this part because I am Frank Booth.”
Well actually, he’d already cast me, but I did call him after he’d cast me, and we’d never met at that point, and said ‘You haven’t made a mistake, because I am Frank Booth.” So supposedly he went back to the table with Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern, they were all having lunch together, and said “I just got off the phone with Dennis Hopper, and he said that he was Frank Booth, which I guess is really good for the picture, but I don’t know how we’ll ever have lunch with him.” (laughs)

How were you Frank Booth?
I’d come out of a heavy drug life, and had known a lot of people like Frank. I didn’t mean that I was literally Frank Booth, but I’d certainly run into characters like Frank, and understood him. A big discrepancy came the first day we were shooting the big scene where Kyle is hiding in the closet and I come in demanding my bourbon and tell Isabella to spread her legs, and then this sort of horrendous rape scene occurs against her. None of us had met at this point and that was our first scene. (laughs) David had helium on the set, because in the script, the tank that Frank was constantly taking hits from was written as helium, which makes your voice really high, like Donald Duck. But it doesn’t disorient you in any way, it just makes you talk funny. So I said to David, ‘You know I always thought of this as being nitrous oxide or amyl nitrate or something.’ He said “What is that?” I said “Something that disorients your mind for a few minutes. I’m also having trouble acting with my voice sounding like this. So could I just show you what it would look like with the other stuff?” And I did, and David said “Oh, that’s great!” So we went with that, and I said ‘If you want to put the (helium) voice in later, in post, we can,’ and of course, we didn’t. So that was the only real contribution I made to that film, I guess. (laughs)