Monday, September 29, 2008

There Is A God aka Brewers Make The Playoffs

Lord, I am not a religious man. I don't ask for much in this life. I try to eke out a humble, simple existence for myself. But now I know you're out there, watching me, watching Ryan Braun hit a walk-off grand slam last Thursday, watching the New York Mets collapse on the last day of the season for the second year in a row, watching CC Sabathia pitch a complete game victory to clinch the National League Wild Card for the Brew Crew. I know you care.

Granted, you had them blow a 5 1/2 game lead at the start of September, and had them fire Ned Yost with only twelve games to play, which was kind of torturous in that "chop off your fingers one by one" sort of way, but who am I to judge? You work in mysterious ways.

I will ask for nothing more. Except, just, could the Dodgers be eliminated in the first round? No, you know what, I don't really care about that. I am satisfied. I can only ask for so much. My three biggest wishes at the mid-point of the season? 1) Brewers make the playoffs; 2) Yankees miss the playoffs; 3) Tampa Bay Rays make the playoffs. Well guess what? You are the genie, I rubbed the lamp, and I'm all out.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And yes, for the first time since Reagan was president, the Milwaukee Brewers are advancing to the playoffs. Where they will promptly lose in three games to the Phillies, but it doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter.

Oh, and God? A word of warning: if you happen to be out driving around on any roads in the entire state of Wisconsin the next few days, you might want to keep an eye out. Hell hath no fury like a celebratory Brewers fan.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The First Debate: The Discussion

I thought this one was a tie. Neither candidate looked bad, and neither sounded amazing. McCain repeatedly insulted Obama, telling him that he didn't understand what he was talking about. If I were debating I probably would have called him on that, but that's not Obama's personality. Both candidates dodged all questions about the Paulson Bailout Plan, which was disappointing but expected. The questions about Iraq and Afghanistan, although simplistic, allowed the candidates to demonstrate their foreign policy trivia - and that's what debates are about these days. I don't put much weight into them because I knew what each candidate would say months ago. The only point to these type of debates is to see if each candidate has the basic knowledge and intelligence to avoid embarrassing themselves are revealing their insanity to the world. We obviously don't have to worry about that in this election after watching...oh, wait, we still have the vice presidential debates!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cosmic Election Links has a funny and slightly poignant interview with John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Both men are funnier when they let their on screen persona slide and divulge how they feel about politics. Actors (and whatever Stewart is - hosts?) assume, and have imposed upon them, a public personality that partially shields them from critique. It would be interesting to ask Stewart and Colbert if they notice the similarity between those dramatic facades and the behavior of politicians. Is there an important difference? Stewart seems to have reluctantly accepted his role as de facto shaper of public opinion. Colbert is much more comfortable explaining it all away as he satirical work of a fictional character. A fictional character also named Stephen Colbert. Is this all part of our gradual acceptance of electronic consciousness transferance? Ah, well I'll save that bad craziness for another post, here are the quotes:

Here's John Stewart on the value of 24 hour news channels: "We've got three financial networks on all day. The bottom falls out of the credit market, and they were all running around. On CNBC I saw a guy talking to eight people in boxes, and they were all like, ''I don't know!'' It'd be like if Hurricane Ike hit, and you put on the Weather Channel, and they were yelling, ''I don't know what the f--- is going on! I'm getting wet and it's windy and I don't know why and it's making me sad!"

And here's Stephen Colbert channeling South Park: "I don't know if you've paid much attention to the past eight years, but it has been a s---burger supreme. If somebody gives me an empty burger, it's better than eating s---."

Then we have Sarah Palin responding to Katie Couric's renowned hardball journalistic techniques by babbling incoherent talking points. A 5 minute segment of The News Hour burnt to CD and left floundering in the back seat of my car for a few months would sound something like Sarah's response.

Finally, you've been RickRolled, but have you ever been....BarackRolled? How will that internet fad be explained to subsequent generations?

McCain Bails on Letterman

In case you missed it, due to the "suspension of his campaign" yesterday, McCain had to bail out on David Letterman at the last minute. This didn't make Letterman too happy. But it provided for plenty of jokes at McCain's expense, including a wonderful Top 10, which I've provided here:

The Top Ten Questions People are Asking The John McCain Campaign

10. “I just contributed to your campaign - how do I get a refund?"

9. “It’s Sarah Palin - does this mean I’m pars’dent?”

8. “Can’t you solve this by selling some of your houses?”

7. “This is Clay Aiken. Is McCain single?”

6. “Do you still think the fundamentals of our economy are strong, Genius?”

5. “Are you doing all of this just to get out of going on Letterman?”

4. “What would Matlock do?”

3. “Hillary here - my schedule is free Friday night.”

2. “Is this just an excuse to catch up on napping?”

1. “This is President Bush - what’s all this trouble with the economy?”

Watch the video above for the full opening monologue, and stick around till the seven minute mark to see what McCain was really up to (no joke!).

Monday, September 22, 2008

Number 2: Half Life 2 - "Point Insertion" (Valve, 2004)

Returning back now with my list for best first levels in videogames, the number 2 spot belongs to the opening of Valve's sequel to its astounding masterpiece "Half Life". The opening level of Half Life 2 is called "Point Insertion". It begins with you, as our hero Gordon Freeman, being awoken by the mysterious "G-Man", who we'll come back to later. The original Half Life opened with the level "Anamalous Materials", with Gordon going to work on his first day of his new job at Black Mesa, a sort of secret government testing facility.

What makes the Half Life games unique is that the entire story is seen from your point of view. There are no cinematic sequences, no cuts, nothing at all to remind you that you are playing a game. The games play in a sort-of real time, with everything being directly experienced by you as the player. This was best witnessed during the opening of the original Half Life, with Gordon entering the Black Mesa facility as if he were just going to work, with the characters around you greeting you, giving you your nametag and ID and showing you your office. There was a never a game as immersive, and the game laid the groundwork for many games to come, such as Bioshock, which was also featured on this countdown.

So why did I choose Point Insertion over Anamalous Materials? Well, Anamalous Materials was absolutely amazing for its time and Point Insertion definitely couldn't have happened without it. But I'm of the opinion that the opening of Half Life 2 provides for a greater gameplay experience, subtly teaching you the mechanics of the game while effectively showing the world and conveying the atmosphere better than its predecessor. Anamalous Materials could be faulted for its lack of gameplay. While the opening tram-ride scene has been lauded, it doesn't provide for much gameplay besides looking around and taking in the environment. Because of this, I find Point Insertion a better opening level, if only by a hair.

What is the story of Half Life you may ask? Well, Gordon Freeman, fresh out of M.I.T., arrives for his first day of work. He's invited to take part in some sort of experiment which utilizes his knowledge of nuclear physics when something goes wrong during said experiment, opening a dimensional rift, allowing trans-dimensional aliens to invade and overrun the facility. After a lengthy battle working his way through the facility battling not only the aliens, but also the military who've been sent in to "contain the outbreak", Gordon succeeds in stopping the invasion and is subsequently placed in some sort of stasis by the mysterous "G-Man", an unknown figure who pops up throughout both games who appears to be observing Gordon and his progress (think of the cigarrette smoking man from The X-Files).

As I stated in the beginning, Half Life 2 opens with you, as Gordon Freeman being awoken from your stasis by the G-Man who ends his opening monologue with the lines "The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world. So wake up Mr. Freeman, wake up and smell the ashes."

You awake to find yourself on a train. There's just a small handful of people with you there. They're all wearing the same jumpsuits, with numbers sewn onto the chest, like something you'd see in a prison or concentration camp. One of them remarks that he didn't see you get on. The train pulls into the station and as you walk out the door you are presented with the grim nightmare world of Half Life 2. Apparently not everything went well after your success at Black Mesa. As you learn over the course of the game, an alien force known as "The Combine" has taken over the world. Having been attracted to Earth after you accidentally opened the dimensional rift in the first game, the Combine quickly took over in what became known as "The Seven Hour War", after which Earth surrendered. Apparently the Combine have decimated most of Earth's population, leaving only a handful of humans left to live in highly controlled city centers known only by their number.

You are greeted on the overhead TV screens by a welcoming voice. "Welcome, welcome to City 17. You have chosen, or been chosen to relocate to one of our finest remaining urban centers. I thought so much of City 17 that I elected to establish my administration here in the citadel, so thoughtfully provided by our benefactors. I am proud to call City 17 my home. And so, whether you are here to stay, or passing through to parts unknown, welcome, to City 17. It's safer here. " This is the voice of Dr. Breen, who will become the antagonist of the game, and you can detect just a slight hint of uneasiness, or maybe it's weariness, in his voice. This is definitely not the Earth you left behind.

As you make your way through the train station you are treated to an amazingly life-like world. From the dilapidated buildings, to the way the "Civil Protection", in their gasmasks and creepy vocoder voices push you around, to the little scenes that take place (like where you can see the poor guy being interrogated through the slit in the door), the game effectively builds the atmosphere of a nightmarishly dystopian world, that perhaps recalls the horror of WWII ghettos.

You run into an old friend disguised as a member of Civil Protection (CP) who briefly catches you up on what's been going on. He's part of an underground resistance movement against the Combine and directs you to make it to a nearby safehouse. Soon you make your way outside to the main plaza, where you first catch a glimpse of the enormous Citadel, a towering alien structure many miles tall. You make your way through a few alleyways where you stumble across the CP in action, terrorizing and beating a few citizens inside an apartment building, apparently for no reason. This scene reminds me vaguely of the part in THX-1138 with the robot officer beating the person being broadcast on TV (also used as a sound sample on the opening track of Nine Inch Nails' 'The Downward Spiral'). This is definitely a grim world.

Eventually the Combine picks up that you aren't supposed to be in the city. Over a loudspeaker you hear a calm British female voice saying there's been a miscount of people in the sector. Soon the CP are onto you. They chase you across the rooftops, with alien-like helicopters on your tail. You make your way to another building only to find yourself surrounded by CPs. That's when you are saved by Alyx Vance, the comely daughter of one of your old work buddies, who becomes your companion for the remainder of the game.

This level does a lot of things right. It sets up the atmosphere for the rest of the game and it teaches you the basic mechanics of the game with nice subtle touches, like how it teaches you to pick up objects by having a CP officer order you to pick up a piece of trash and throw it away. It's also interesting how there's no HUD during this first level. With no life bars or ammo gauges to clutter up the screen it allows for a more immersive experience. For all these reasons this is why I've chosen Point Insertion as my number two pick.

Watch the level here, and if you're interested watch Anamalous Materials here.

(As a side note, I really enjoyed the ending of this game too. Though it could be said that it's exteremely abrupt, I thought it fit perfectly. Also, I haven't played through Episodes 1 and 2, so please no spoilers!)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

In More Important Election News...

Roger Ebert has a post on his blog about the presidential candidates' favorite movies:

Everybody is making lists of the questions the candidates should be asked during the debates. My question would be: What's your favorite movie? As my faithful readers all know, the answer to that question says a lot about the person answering. It could be used as a screening device on a blind date. Among other things, it tells you whether the person has actually seen a lot of movies, and I persist in believing that cinematic taste is as important as taste in literature, music, art, or other things requiring taste (including food and politics). I know the answers of the most recent Presidents: "High Noon" (Clinton) and "Field of Dreams" (Bush). What might this year's candidates say? A Google search suggests their answers, (alphabetically):

Joe Biden on Facebook: Didn't reply on Facebook. Google search yields nothing.

John McCain on Facebook: "Viva Zapata!," "Letters From Iwo Jima," "Some Like It Hot."

Barack Obama on Facebook: "Casablanca," "Godfather I and II," "Lawrence of Arabia" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Sarah Palin on Facebook: Didn't reply on Facebook. Google search yields only her official website, where "favorite movie" is ominously listed under "Trivia," and even more ominously is left blank. Movies are not trivia.

So let's see what we've got here. As Ebert goes on to say, McCain's answers are pretty good. Letters From Iwo Jima is a bit too recent, I think, to be named a favorite by anybody, but at least McCain picked the weirder, Japanese half of Clint Eastwood's project and not Flags Of Our Fathers (I only saw Iwo Jima, but I liked it), and of course it's not surprising that McCain would gravitate toward a war film. Some Like It Hot is a nice, safe choice from someone of his generation; hard to argue with that one. Viva Zapata! is the most interesting selection, both because of its relative obscurity and its subject matter. Wasn't Zapata a Mexican revolutionary? Not exactly the first movie you'd expect a Republican presidential candidate to admire, but no matter. In sum: McCain knows his movies.

Obama's picks are even more down my alley, so in one way I'm impressed, but in another way I have to say that his choices are a little less idiosyncratic than McCain's. No, I am not going to fault a man for naming Lawrence Of Arabia, Casablanca and The Godfather as favorites, if you know what I mean. And even Cuckoo's Nest is in my DVD collection. But come on, who doesn't like these movies? Still, these are excellent choices.

As for W., I have to say that Field Of Dreams is a pretty solid, if not mindblowing, pick. Let's just say you could do worse (some websites suggested his favorite movie was Armageddon, but subsequent research has proven this inaccurate). Besides, the man loves baseball - he used to own the Texas Rangers. You know, I sometimes think I could have a pretty interesting conversation with W. about baseball if I ever had the chance.

But it seems like Bill Clinton is the master in this contest, as demonstrated by an interview he did with Ebert back in 1999. It's weird to hear a sitting president expressing such open admiration for films such as Fight Club, American Beauty, and Three Kings, but there you have it. Some highlights:

RE: You know, one thing that has struck me this year, there's been a whole group of movies that seem to be very negative about affluence or consumerism. There was this very popular movie "Fight Club," where the guys-

WJC: I saw it.

RE: You saw it.

WJC: Tough movie.

RE: Where they had to fight each other in order to feel authentic because they're Ikea couches were not doing it for them. What did you think about that?

WJC: Um, well I thought it was a pretty compelling movie. I think Norton and Pitt were good in it. I mean, they played their roles really well. And I think that it is, now that we have the most prosperous society we've ever had and we've got a thirty year low on unemployment and a twenty year low on poverty, I think that it's a good thing for people to remember that life is about more than money. But I also think it's important not to disparage prosperity for it gives people the opportunity and the leisure and the security to think about other thing. And you know, so maybe it's the public servant in me, but I think the proper response to the questioning of it is to try to make sure that the people who don't have enough, have enough and then to think about what we're going to do with time and the fruits that we have. But you know, so it was a little too nihilist for me, but I thought it was very compelling. I thought that those two guys were great and I think that Helena Bonham Carter was in it and she was a very compelling figure in it. I thought it was quite good.

RE: I loved the performances and I loved the first half of the movie, but it seemed to me that-

WJC: It gets old though. Doesn't it?

RE: Well, they have to fight each other in order to feel real. It seems to me that there's enough suffering in the world without having to go out and find it.

WJC: There is. And it's simply not true that this that the material advances we've had are inherently bad or empty. They give you the power to define your life more. And I don't mean just for rich people, I mean people that have a decent middle class life. You know, to have the lowest African-American and Hispanic unemployment rates we've ever had, to have a twenty-year low in poverty, to have a forty-year low in female unemployment. These things are not bad. It's just not enough. It's not all there is to life, but it creates the possibility of fashioning a life that has integrity and meaning.

RE: I think so. I gave a negative review to the movie and I got an email from somebody who said, "Well, my generation," this is an amazing email, "my generation has been denied the opportunity your generation had to fight a war like Vietnam. We don't have any way to test ourselves so we have to go to movies like "Fight Club."" And I'm thinking, "That's not what wars are for." His reasoning seemed to be so screwed up.

WJC: Well, the young people they don't have to deal with Vietnam, but I think if they had they would find it was way overrated. You know, losing 58,000 people and a whole other generation of people who were alienated from it and the traumas that so many people went through and there's not a person who went through it who's still not marked by it in some way. Or even more importantly, the civil rights movement, you know that was a very positive thing, but for the people who suffered under the oppression of segregation or who like Congressman John Lewis had their lives threatened because they stood up for civil rights. You know, I wouldn't wish that on the young people of this...there's still a lot of problems in this world. You know, if they really want to throw themselves into something they could figure out what to do about the AIDS epidemic, threatening Africa and increasingly Indians in Asia. They could figure out what to do to save a lot of these kids that are still being lost in our own country. There's still mountains to climb out there. There are things outside yourself to throw yourself into. You don't have to get beat up by somebody you know.

Thanks for the policy plug, Bill.

Friday, September 19, 2008

F-ing Google Blogger Ate My Post

I just spent a full two hours writing my damn post. I hit submit, noticed a spelling error, went to change it, when the message 'autosave failed' came up. I scrolled to the bottom to find more than half of my post missing! It's gone! Poof! I hit the back button but it won't show. I mean, the whole thing was published for a few minutes, but now it's not there! Where the fuck did it go?? I'm sorry but you'll have to wait because Google ate my post. Go fuck yourself Google.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Is Henry Paulson President Now?

Where has Bush been? Did he call it quits after that discussion with Putin at the Olympics? Damn, I can't even watch sports and have a chat without someone criticizing me, I'm done with this President thing.

I'm reading all these stories saying that our situation is/is not similar to 1929 and in every one there's a picture of Hank wearing his blue suit, slightly hunched and reassuringly bald, exiting one shiny glass and marble building or another.

From the NYTimes, Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes:

"It was brief, two minutes. His brow was furrowed, and his words were careful: “The American people can be sure we will continue to act to strengthen and stabilize our financial markets and improve investor confidence.” Then, having imparted no specifics, he once again slipped out of sight."

He basically came out, pointed at Paulson, and said: He's got this one.

Bush met with John Kufuor, the president of Ghana, on Monday. “Your tenure has been full of events and challenges, some very mind-boggling and hair-raising,” Mr. Kufuor told Mr. Bush, raising more than a few eyebrows. “You are a survivor,” the Ghanaian leader told the American president. “And my hope is that history would prove kinder to you.”

You know you're a lame duck when even the President of Ghana feels sorry for you.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Magic 8 Ball Predicts 49ers and Raiders Victories

Is there a more cherished icon of classic American kitsch than the Magic 8 Ball? I mean really now? I was hanging out with my roommate a couple of nights ago, and there in his room, resting on the ironing board, was the legendary soothsaying device in question. I said, "OK, let's try this thing out," and I handed it to him. He turned it upside down, and with the appropriate gravitas, shook it and asked, "Will Obama be the next president of the United States?" The 8 Ball's response: "It is certain." You heard it here first, folks.

Then I did one. "Will the Milwaukee Brewers...make the playoffs?" The 8 Ball's reply: "Don't count on it." Indeed, given the team's recent September slide, I'd say the 8 Ball might be on the mark with that one.

My roommate took another shot. "Will Ohio?" "Outlook good." "All right, I'm liking these answers," my roommate observed.

My turn again. "Has McCain ever had...a his ass?" "Reply hazy, try again." We both groaned in frustration.

My roommate went political one last time. "Will Sarah the election?" "It is certain." We looked at each other in puzzlement. How could both Obama and McCain win the election? The 8 Ball was giving us conflicting answers!

"How about some football questions," I said. My roommate gritted his teeth. "Will the Cleveland the Super Bowl?" "My reply is no." "OK, that sounds about right," he said.

I then asked, "Will the the Super Bowl?" "Don't count on it."

My roommate grabbed it back and shook it rather vehemently. "Will the a game this year?" "Signs point to yes." "Damn." He paused in thought, then shook even harder. "Will the a game this year?" "You may rely on it." "All right, all right, those were stupid questions," he admitted.

And yet little did we know how quickly the 8 Ball's prophecy would prove to be correct! I mean, hell, after the 49ers fell behind 14-0 in the first five minutes against the Seahawks I was pretty much like, "So...which week are we playing the Rams again?" Suddenly I tune in an hour later and it's 27-20 with the Niners ahead. Come again? Final score 33-30 - Niners win. Did I mention that this was the Seahawks? In Seattle? Let's hear it for former UC Davis quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan, who became the first Niners QB to throw for more than 300 yards in a game since 2004. I suppose throwing for more than 300 yards in a game isn't supposed to be particularly rare, but as Colonel Dryden says in Lawrence of Arabia, "Big things have small beginnings, sir." As for the Raiders beating the Chiefs, well, the Chiefs stink anyway.

Of course, we neglected to ask the 8 Ball if the Niners and Raiders would win more than one game this season. But sometimes it's best not to ask the 8 Ball too much.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Shine On You Crazy Synthesizer Guy

Will all those people clamoring for a full-fledged Pink Floyd reunion finally shut up now? Rick ol' boy, we hardly knew ye.

My personal favorite Rick Wright anecdote: Before drummer Nick Mason published his Floyd memoir Inside Out, he sent copies of the manuscript to each of the other remaining band members for feedback. David Gilmour made a few notes here and there, but mostly agreed with Nick's version of events. Roger Waters wrote all over the manuscript, constantly making corrections and arguing over details. Rick Wright just wrote back saying something along the lines of, "Yeah Nick, looks good to me, honestly, I don't really remember any of it."

Perhaps the keyboardists' demise will call attention to his epic solo output, consisting of "God that must be a solo album" titles like Wet Dream (1978), Broken China (1996), and Identity (1984), a collaboration with Dave Harris released under the band name Zee.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Legion of Doom Meets to Decide Fate of America

From the Wall Street Journal: "The Federal Reserve Bank of New York held an emergency meeting Friday night with top Wall Street executives to discuss the future of venerable firm Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and the parlous state of U.S. financial markets.


In attendance from were government officials, including New York Fed President Timothy Geithner, Mr. Paulson and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox. The Wall Street executives included Morgan Stanley Chief Executive John Mack, Merrill Lynch Chief Executive John Thain, J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Goldman Sachs Group CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Citigroup Inc. head Vikram Pandit and representatives from the Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC and Bank of New York Mellon Corp., among others."

Lex Luthor presiding over the meeting.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (Schnabel)

Sickness will surely take the mind
Where minds can't usually go
Come on the amazing journey
And learn all you should know

- The Who, "Amazing Journey"

And you thought your life was tough!

I'd say the main philosophical essence of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly can be boiled down to this: it doesn't take much to live a meaningful life. Here is a man who can only blink his left eye, and yet he does more in that condition than most people ever do in a lifetime.

On a basic level, Jean-Dominique Bauby's life is tragic. One day he's a handsome, talented, wealthy fashion editor, the next day he's a a victim of "locked-in syndrome," unable to move anything other than his two eyes, one of which becomes infected and is quickly sewn up. Not exactly the most pleasant situation to be in. But come on! His pre-stroke life was absurd. Imagine if he simply lived his fancy French fashion editor life, slept with beautiful women, raised a nice, loving family, ate delectable French cuisine in a luxurious chateau, and then died? Who would've cared? Sure, his life would have been nice, but it would also have been unexceptional. He would have missed out on the endless beauty of inner experience. So, in a sense, I feel bad that he had this horrible stroke, blinked his left eye for a couple of years and then caught pnuemonia and died. But on the other hand, it was the only thing that made his life truly interesting and memorable. Without the stroke and the memoir, he would have been just another rich French sleazeball.

Occasionally the film flashes back to moments in Jean-Do's pre-stroke life. And every time the film does so, you realize that you don't really relate to pre-stroke Jean-Do at all. Pre-stroke Jean-Do is callow and boring. But Jean-Do as Left Eye Man? Now this guy I like. This guy I can relate to, because his condition places him on the fringes of human experience - a more interesting place from which to dwell.

Do you ever get the feeling that you're just going through life as though you really have no control over the world around you, and all you can do is watch the world go by while you're left to deal with your own inner reactions? In some sense I often feel like I'm paralyzed - not physically, but emotionally, as though the safest thing to do is to simply step back from the flames and observe life from a distance. On some level that is the modus operandi of the film geek. Jean-Do experiences his life in much the same way as a film geek does, except he has no choice. Film geeks have a choice, but due to certain psychological problems perhaps they don't feel as though they do. I came out of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly realizing that I still have a lot of choice, and that I still have some autonomy over my body, and that I should exploit that autonomy in the here and now because it may not always be with me. It's the rare film that can make you feel grateful you're still able to move your cheekbones.

Indeed, not since possibly Memento has a film so completely taken me inside the experience of another person; it's like it cuts into the very spirit of consciousness itself. When the movie was over it took me a couple of hours before I could fully accept that I was not Jean-Do and that I could move my hands and legs just fine. Of course, with an inner life like his, Diving Bell doesn't even necessarily make "locked-in syndrome" seem all that bad half the time. As he says, "Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed: my imagination and my memory." There are scenes here that are wild and transcendent: shots of birds flying, or of glaciers crumbling in slow motion. I mean, this movie is a trip.

It's also a bit of an apology. For example, there is a moment in this film, around the one quarter mark, that packs the proverbial wallop: Up until a certain point, Jean-Do has only been able to answer yes or no questions (by blinking once for "yes" and twice for "no"). A speech therapist comes in and explains that she's devised a special alphabet that arranges letters by order of usage frequency, and that what she will do is recite letters until Jean-Do hears the one he wishes to use, and in this way he will be able to write full sentences. She is very enthusiastic and excited about this technique. Jean-Do, in voice-over, thinks to himself that this is the stupidest thing he's ever heard of and that she's reciting the letters way too fast. He finally begins to cooperate and the therapist begins spelling his sentence out loud. When she realizes, out loud, that he is spelling "I want death," she begins to cry and she starts insulting Jean-Do for his undiluted pessimism and complete lack of appreciation for her efforts. She steps out of the room, gathers her composure, and then cheerfully sits down to start again.

You see, Jean-Do's condition isn't just about Jean-Do, but also about the therapist. And what right does Jean-Do have to take away this opportunity from the therapist, who very much wants to help him communicate? And what right does he have to take away his personality and his perfectly functioning thoughts and emotions from his family, his friends, and those who still wish he remain a part of their lives? The scene made me realize what he must have realized: that even after a massive stroke, his feelings are not the only feelings that matter. And so, because the stroke does not ultimately kill him, he has the chance to reevaluate his womanizing ways and atone for his karmic sins, whatever they may be.

No, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not necessarily an easy watch. Indeed, I found the film so powerful that although I enjoyed it, I quickly felt as though I wanted to take my mind as far away from fancy French countrysides as I possibly could (which is partly why I began listening to rap). But powerful is not the same as depressing. Jean-Do does not ask for anyone's pity. He simply takes the hand that he's been dealt and he embraces that shit. Or the eye, rather.

"Film critic" rating: ****
"Little Earl" rating: ****

The Decline of Western Civilization Presents: Hole In The Wall

After watching the premiere of J.J. Abrams' new show "Fringe" last night (quick review: it's no "Lost"), I caught the filler show that Fox threw up before the good ol' 10 o'clock news came on. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you "Hole in the Wall".

The whole premise of the show consists entirely of a moving wall coming towards spandex-clad contestants, who must make the appropriate shape of the hole with their bodies lest they get pushed into the pool of green ooze behind them. As you may have guessed it's based on a Japanese game show.

Honestly, I thought it was a joke. The contestants are dressed in spandex and bike helmets, the people in the audience are cheering with way too much enthusiasm, the announcer is way over the top, and to top it off each competing team has a theme, this episode was "The 6-packs" vs. "The beer bellies". Friends, Romans, Bloggers, here we have an example of the Decline of Western Civilization.

Have we really been reduced to this? Millions, nay, billions of years of evolution and we've come to Hole in the Wall? Maye it's a sign of Non-Intelligent Design. Ugh. Well Reuters has a nice write-up of the show. Their reporter sees the whole thing as parody, that's it not meant to be taken seriously. Ok, sure, but that doesn't excuse it from being terrible. I mean, if the hole in the wall segment was part of something larger, say an event on American Gladiators, at least we could say "Well it's just a silly event", but the thing is, the hole in the wall is the premise of the ENTIRE show. That's it, there's nothing else. Half an hour (and this was just the preview I saw, apparently the real show will be an entire hour) of people playing human Tetris.

The Reuters article is actually pretty good, especially this part: "Each challenge is prefaced with a dramatic electronic countdown and announcer Mark Thompson's triple-entendre intonation, "It's time to face the hole!" Hilarious. Hmm, who knows, maybe I need to give Hole in the Wall another chance?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Noel from Oasis Assaulted; Indie Fans Rejoice

The story began when a 47-year-old Canadian man charged onto the stage at an Oasis concert in Toronto. Pitchfork was quick to pick up the story. Pitchfork newsman Matthew Solarski attempts to explain his interest in the manner:

"We bring you now to Oasis, rolling through 1995 classic "Morning Glory" at the Virgin Festival in Toronto last night (September 7). That's Liam on the mic and brother Noel on guitar to the viewer's right. Oh, and a word of caution: make sure you're not drinking anything around the 1:30 mark.

I'd like to think the "You know you should so I guess you might as well" egged that dude on. [Thanks to reader Jack Perira for the tip.]

Now of course we don't condone such random acts of violence, but much like "America's Funniest Home Videos" taught a generation to find humor in the amusingly painful moments of others, we laugh here because it is funny. It also helps knowing that Noel and the rest of Oasis simply dusted off for a few minutes and carried on with the gig."

Let's just come out and say it, hearing that a man of Noel Gallagher's nature got shoved while playing a show is funny.

Then we got an "Oasis Update" in which Mr. Solarski sounded a note of regret for his earlier joking: "Okay, we admit it. Upon first viewing the YouTube clip of Noel Gallagher getting knocked on his ass by an unnamed assailant during last night's Oasis set at the Virgin Festival, we LOL'd. Kind of a lot. Perhaps we even felt a smidgen of schadenfreude, too. But it would seem those reactions were a bit premature. According to a message just posted to their website, Oasis are taking the matter very seriously."

We here at Cosmic American Blog relish the schadenfreude.

Oasis's next show was postponed because, "Noel fell heavily on to his monitor speakers when he was pushed suddenly from behind by his attacker and suffered bruising to his ribs and hip. He was examined in a local hospital after the band's performance and has been advised to rest." I'm sure it doesn't feel good, but that doesn't sound too serious either.

Oddly enough, even 47-year-old Canadians are prone to occasional random violence. I'm sure he wasn't expecting to seriously injure Noel, or then be arrested for assault, but that's why you don't do stupid things like hit people in the head with baseball bats or shove random rich famous people. That sort of thing works a lot better in cartoons.

Number 3: Resident Evil 4 - Pre-title sequence (Capcom, 2005)

The opening of 2005's Resident Evil 4 starts off as quite the innocuous "first level" but just as the player begins to grasp the gameplay's basic concepts, turns into one of the most thrilling, exciting, nail-biting sequences in modern gaming, and hot damn is it fun!

In Resident Evil 4 you find yourselves back in the shoes of Leon Kennedy, star of Resident Evil 2. In the opening cinematic we listen as Leon summarizes the events of RE2 (townsfolk turn into zombies created by evil corporation, Leon saving the day - the usual zombie plot). We learn that Leon has gone from lowly police officer to government agent superstar. When word breaks that the President's daughter Ashley has been kidnapped while travelling abroad, Leon is sent to an unnamed foreign country (ahem... Spain) to her last known whereabouts to track her down and bring her back.

When you arrive on the outskirts of a small country village everything appears normal. You enter a house asking a local resident about Ashley. While Leon talks, the resident sits there with his back towards Leon stoking his fireplace. Suddenly he turns around wielding an axe. You respond swiftly, taking him out. You take out a few more folk along the road as they attempt to attack you. They don't look like zombies, they just look angry... strange.

Ok, so you've gotten about 10 minutes to try out the controls, get a basic idea of how to aim and shoot, taking out a couple 'non-zombies' when without warning the game amps up the difficulty of the situation to a nearly absurd degree. You enter the village proper and see the residents going about their business. You creep around the side of a house to get a better look. One of the townsfolk spots you and then suddenly the townsfolk go f-ing batshit crazy!

A huge mob makes its way towards you, armed with axes, pitchforks, and other blunt instruments. At this point you have several options open but the most common one is to barricade yourself inside a nearby house. You run inside, you can move dressers and tables in front of the doors and windows to slow the oncoming mob. You think you're safe for a minute when suddenly there's a guy with a freakin' burlap sack over his head wielding a chainsaw coming through the door straight at you!!

You run upstairs, find a shotgun mounted on the wall and take it. The townsfolk are putting ladders up to climb through the second story windows, and they've made it past your barricades and are moving inside the house towards the staircase. The chainsaw wielding maniac is gunning right for you, with the intent to stick that chainsaw right in your head. You do the only thing you can, you just start shooting in every direction. You take out one guy only to have three more directly behind him, you shoot the chainsaw guy right in the face with the shotgun yet he still gets back up! Some crazed woman is running at you with an axe! You don't know what to do, you're shooting at this crazed mob but they just keep coming at you, you're running out of ammo, you're thinking "Oh shit, am I really supposed be taking on ALL these people this damn early in the game??!?"

And then as suddenly as it began - it stops. Church bells ring in the distance, the townsfolk turn around and leave, making their way towards the church, muttering something about "Lord Saddler". Leon walks outside. As Leon whirls around asking himself where everybody went the camera pulls away, moving to an aerial view of the town, and THEN, finally, the title of the game comes up, with the words "Resident Evil" and you realize that you've only just seen the intro to the game. Then you're aware that you've just pissed your pants.

Watch a video here (sorry for the poor quality but it's the only decent one I could find).

Sunday, September 7, 2008

New Pedophiles On The Block

Ladies and gentlemen: the album the world has been waiting for! According to AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine, New Kids On The Block's comeback effort The Block "sounds nothing like the New Kids, nor does it feel like them, either: this is grim, joyless mechanical music, only made uglier by the group's sunny past, as it plays like those cheerful kids grew up to be the dirtiest of old men." Try these song titles on for size: "Big Girl Now," "Put It On My Tab," "Stare At You." Mmm mmm mmm. And don't forget "Click Click Click" and "Lights, Camera, Action," which, Erlewine writes, "both enthusiastically celebrate homegrown pornography." And who could fail to be drawn in by the "brittle, skittish rhythms" that contain "no hook in earshot"? Oh baby. Nothing gets me going like five over-the hill teen idols shamelessly hitting on my daughter.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

John McCain: The "Speech": The "Discussion"

I caught the tale end of McCain's acceptance speech. Now, I didn't see the whole thing. But I can tell you one thing: I don't know if speechmaking is his forte. I mean, here it was, the biggest speech of his entire political career, and it was like a book report. It was like a book report from that kid who hates giving book reports so he just strung it together the night before and read it dutifully in front of the class the next day without any passion or fire. I couldn't believe this was actually McCain's nomination speech. I turned to my roommate and said, "So this is a clip from an earlier speech, right?" He said, "No, this is it." He didn't even spend that much time attacking Obama. Apparently, from what I read afterward, it was all about "We've got to take a good, hard look at ourselves as a party, and turn things around." I don't know if soul-searching becomes Republicans well, but hey, at least they're giving it a shot. Seriously, I've seen funerals that were more exciting. The applause nearly tripled when Palin walked out there. They should just switch the ticket. That's what they should do. She's a firecracker. McCain is like that Fourth of July fireworks display where the town really doesn't have a lot of money and the organizers don't really know what they're doing and you're expecting this big finale at the end, and there's a small burst of about three or four fireworks and you're liking it but you're thinking, "OK, that was cool, now here comes the finale!" But after a minute or so you realize that's really the end.

Of course, a presidential election isn't about who gives the best speeches and who doesn't. Which, for McCain, is a good thing I'd say.

Sarah Palin: The Speech: The Discussion

I'm throwing up this post to get some discussion going. Who here saw Sarah Palin's speech last night at the RNC? She really came out of the gate roaring, delivering a speech sure to rally the party faithful. After eight years of Dubbya I've forgotten that politicians are (usually) good orators, and no matter who wins at least we'll have people who'll be able to deliver rousing speeches. But what about Palin, what did you think?

My two cents: I'm a bit worried now. She's definitely a feisty one, and I can see her grabbing a hold of that "She's a soccer (well, hockey) mom just like me!" vote. She's definitely got that all-American mom with a dash of sexiness (dare I say 'MILF'?) thing going for her that just might appeal to women, though probably not those same women who were gunning for Hillary. I'm a bit disturbed by her nastiness though. In an election where one of the candidates appears to want to get away from the usual mud-slinging silly trite stuff of past elections (e.g. -"is he patriotic enough?"), here we've got a woman who looks like she's going to relish in the mud-slinging. A comment off of the Slate boards says it best:

"What we saw last night was the mainstreaming of Ann Coulter, the normalization of the principle that it isn't bile when it's spoken by a pretty woman. "

I won't vote for the McCain-Palin ticket not because I'm afraid of McCain keeping us in Iraq or what have you, but because A- McCain and Palin are pro-life (sorry, there's too many people in the world, we need to start making less of them) and B- In the past Palin has advocated the teaching of Creationism in the classroom (sorry, but I just can't take your opinions seriously if you believe in that).

What's your reaction?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

In a world where movie announcers die...

If you didn't hear, yesterday Don LaFontaine died from complications due to a collapsed lung. Who's Don LaFontaine? He's the movie announcer most famous for any movie trailer that begins with "In a world where...". According to CBS news he's recorded more than 5,000 voiceovers for movie trailers and "hundreds of thousands of more commercials and other presentations." Hundreds of thousands, really?? Sounds a bit of an exaggeration to me.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Do You Have the Crazy?

Only a couple of weeks away from shooting my first narrative short, I have become increasing interested in studying recent independent films that look to be in the same style I want to shoot in. I came across this film, “The Signal,” about a year ago while watching trailers online, and was reasonably excited to see it. Of course, as many indie films, it was not playing in any location that was relatively near my location; so begins the long, enervating wait for the DVD release.

Long story short, I watched it last night and I liked what I saw.

The story breaks down like this: One night a weird signal interrupts all of the TV’s and phones and radios. The signal seems to interrupt synapses and brain wave patterns so that anyone who listens to or watches the signal for a period of time will start doing things that they normally wouldn’t do. And since this is a horror film, everybody starts slaughtering their fellow human beings on a massive scale. As my favorite line in the movie goes, “They just decided to start killing each other.”

There’s a little more to it than that, but I don’t want to get into individual characters and storylines. What I was looking for was story telling technique, editing, sound manipulation, the overall mise en scene of the production. What I got was a very similar feel to another one of my favorite indie films, “Primer.” You don’t have a grasp of what’s going on for the longest time, but the feelings and intensity of the characters just drew you in. And like “Primer”, it was shot as if you were there in the room with the characters. The signal was so strong when a TV was turned on that I had to turn the base down on my subwoofer because it was shaking things off of my desk. I was into it; I was along for the bloody ride.

I’ll revisit this again in a couple of months when I have a final cut of my short to show and we can see if I got what I set out to get.

Monday, September 1, 2008

5. Blur's The Great Escape (1995)

(Note: I have decided to continue posting the rest of my top ten list on my own, and this way Yoggoth can simply finish his list whenever he is up to it and there will be no pressure from me.)

To understand The Great Escape, one must understand Parklife.

Parklife is generally considered to be Blur's best album. But it's not. It looks like Blur's best album, it smells like Blur's best album, it tastes like Blur's best album, but it's not Blur's best album.

You see, after successfully exploring his new Anglocentric bent on Modern Life Is Rubbish, Damon Albarn began thinking big. "I'll make the perfect panorama of English life as it is lived in the late 20th century!," I can see his pouty lips uttering. Just one problem: this "perfect panorama of English life" had very little to do with him. It was more about an idea than about his actual feelings. I mean, the critics are right. Parklife is terrific. But only to a point. It's tasteful, eclectic, and well-contructed, but there's something about it that strikes me as artificial and forced. And even though the record was a huge success, I think Albarn himself on some level sensed this. As he would say on "Country House," "I'm a professional cynic but my heart's not in it."

Enter The Great Escape. The Great Escape is Parklife Plus Damon Albarn's Actual Emotions. According to various sources, thanks to his newfound stardom, for the first time in his life, Albarn began occasionally experiencing what is known by some people as...depression! Of course, being Damon Albarn, it was more like "depression" in quotation marks, but let the man have his moods OK? His relationship with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann was deteriorating in a sea of endless touring (and endless heroin usage, by her at least). A doctor's prescription of anti-depressants became the inspiration for "The Universal" and creative lines like "He's reading Balzac and knocking back Prozac."

The point is, despite his overflowing self-confidence, at heart Albarn, a child of the bohemian theatre crowd, knew that he would never be satisfied with the life of a shallow celebrity. But by the time of The Great Escape, he could see that he was dangerously close to becoming one. And so the satire he dispenses throughout the album isn't just his attempt to make fun of people, but also his attempt to distance himself from the hideously empty lifestyle that he knew he was this close to embracing.

The charm of the album, of course, is that he never explicitly comes out and says this; it's all implied. If Parklife was Damon Albarn's attempt to conform to an idea in his head, The Great Escape was Albarn realizing that he couldn't stand his own idea at all.

So The Great Escape is the sound a band trying to tear apart its image while still attempting to use it. I can picture Albarn twiddling his fingers, saying, "They want Britpop, hey? I'll give them Britpop!" So they decided to shit on Britpop without telling anybody first. The Great Escape is, in the words a literary critic once used to describe Steinbeck's Cannery Row, "a poison creampuff."

With its spidery guitar lines and comical Casio keyboard licks, the album opener "Stereotypes" doesn't sound like it's departing one iota from the classic Blur sound. Nor do the lyrics initially seem to be much of a departure, as Albarn paints a withering portrait of middle-class adultery:

The suburbs they are gleaming
They're a twinkle in her eye
She's been feeling frisky since her husband said goodbye
She wears a low-cut t-shirt
Runs a little B & B
She's most accomodating when she's in her lingerie
Wife swapping is your future
You know that it would suit ya

Not too much different from the horny pair in "End of a Century," right? It's like, "Come on, we all know these people, let's have a little laugh." But on the chorus the song begins to show its fangs:

Yes, they're Stereotypes
There must be more to life
All your life you're dreaming
And then you stop dreaming

When I first heard the song, I used to hear the line "All your life you're dreaming," and expect the next line to be something like, "And then all your dreams come true," or even something darker like "And then your dreams are dashed," But Albarn doesn't even suggest that level of self-awareness on the part of the couple. Instead they just stop dreaming. "Ground down by the stone," as Roger Waters might say. Unlike the frequently misguided but essentially well-meaning young Londoners on Parklife, the characters on The Great Escape are seriously lost. Albarn's mild bemusement has turned to genuine scorn...and it's liberating!

"Country House," track number two, is another deceptively desperate lament. "Oh, jolly, another goofy music hall shuffle a la Parklife's title track," the casual observer might conclude. But beneath all the pithy couplets and the foot-stomping, marching band-ish fade lies the portrait of a person who is barely making it through the day. Only on the third or fourth listen did I realize the backing vocals were chanting "Blow, blow me out/I am so sad I don't know why." Now this is a pop song!

The albums rolls on to the similarly "seemingly benign yet ultimately bleak" ballad "Best Days," with the soothingly ironic chorus:

Other people wouldn't like to hear you
If you said that
These are the best days
of our lives
And other people'd turn around and laugh at you
If you said that
These are the best days
of our lives

The implication being: if the peak of your life is this depressing, imagine the rest of it, buddy!

The Great Escape is, as far as I'm concerned, the best concept album of the '90s, in that it has a clear concept, every song actually addresses the concept, and every song explores the concept in a fresh and equally interesting manner. It's like fifteen different American Beautys with fifteen different Kevin Spaceys and Annette Benings. Who would've thought that boredom could be this much fun?

The album also gets a lot of mileage out of the juxtaposition between the band's cheerful musical style and the despondency of the characters Albarn chronicles. The sarcasm-fest makes the album's few sincere moments even more glorious, such as the gently orhcestrated "The Universal." The song begins quietly, as if it's floating in space:

This is the next century
Where the Universal's free
You can find it anywhere
Yes, the future's been sold
Every night we're gone
And to karaoke songs
How we like to sing along
Though the words are wrong

Then the orchestra explodes on the chorus:

It really, really, really could happen
Yes, it really, really, really could happen
When the days they seem to fall through you
Well, just let them go

So what is it that "really, really, really could happen"? Happiness? Inner peace? The perfect universe? Take your pick. He goes on:

No-one here is alone
Satellite's in every home
Yes, the Universal's here
Here for everyone
Every paper that you read
Says tomorrow's your lucky day
Well, here's your lucky day

The way he sings "Well, here's you're lucky day," it's like he's throwing these people's complacency back in their faces. "Unless you get off your asses and lead a meaningful life, then you can take your lucky day and shove it!"

Another standout, and one of the only times the band's music is as bleak as the words, is Graham Coxon's spooky echo-laden guitar showcase "He Thought Of Cars," which sounds the great lost track from OK Computer, two years before OK Computer even came out (take that, Radiohead!):

Moscow's still red
The young man's dead
Gone to heaven instead
The evening news
Says he was confused

The motorways will all merge soon
Lottery winner buys the moon
They've come to save us
The space invaders

He thought of cars
And where
Where to drive them
Who to drive them with
There was no-one

Sometimes I wonder why Blur never caught on as well in the States as Oasis and Radiohead did, but sometimes I understand exactly why: their sound simply wasn't as heavy. You could also say that whereas most great rock bands seemingly compose their songs from the boundless ether, with Blur you definitely get the sense that they sat down and constructed their songs and put a lot of conscious effort into it. But they're such great craftsmen and the results are so well-layered that I really don't mind. "He Thought Of Cars," however, is (along with Parklife's "This Is A Low") one of their heaviest and most musically graceful tracks.

It's not a perfect album. Beholden as it was to the CD era, it's at least two songs too long. When first borrowed the album from the library, I taped it onto a 45-minute cassette side, and "Topman," "Mr. Robinson's Quango," and "Dan Abnormal" were the ones to go. "Topman" has grown on me a bit, but I wouldn't say it adds anything essential. "Mr. Robinson's Quango" sounds like a poor man's "Country House" (and I still for the life of me don't know what a quango is). And "Dan Abnormal," although a clever anagram of "Damon Albarn," interrupts the album's closing momentum and might have made a better B-side instead.

But the album is good where it counts: in the first songs and in the last songs. Indeed, the album sprints to the finish line with the last two tracks, where Blur finally hammer the nail into the Britpop coffin. "Entertain Me" is like the evil doppleganger of "Girls and Boys," where the giddiness is replaced by exhaustion:

The weekend is back
But so is he
Head to the floodlights
See the fraternity
They're waiting

I hear them up in the north
Down in the south
All that is spewing
Spewing out of his mouth

The song always makes me think of Jennifer Connelly at the end of Requiem For A Dream, reduced to humping a dildo on a slimy stage as the debauched businessmen cry for more, more, more! I also pick up a faint echo of "Here we are now, entertain us" - or am I crazy?

Then comes the album closer, the electronic ballad "Yuko and Hiro," which apparently takes place in a sterile Japanese office building and is also completely, 100%, just plain weird:

This is my work place
And these are the people
I work with
Yuko and Hiro
We work together

We work for the company
That looks to the future
We work hard to please them
They will protect us

I never see you
We're never together
I'll love you forever

As the synths gurgle and the secretaries chant in Japanese, you can't help but say to yourself, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the sound of Britpop dying."

It was just as well. Once (What's The Story) Morning Glory buried The Great Escape in the dust, Blur licked their wounds, abandoned any pretense of Britpop, and repositioned themselves as just yer average indie-rock band with their 1997 self-titled release (famous for the perennial sports anthem "Song 2"). I think at the time it was the smart move to make, but in retrospect it was also kind of a cop-out. It's like if one of the candidates in a hotly-contested election simply decides to call it quits so that he/she can focus on his/her own personal life. On the one hand, you're thinking, "Good for you, politics is nasty." But on the other wanted to witness a fair fight! Who cares if Damon Albarn finally found his "soul"? You know what I say? I say there was more of his soul in The Great Escape than there ever was in Blur, 13, or (dare I mention it) Think Tank, because The Great Escape is where, if you look closely enough, you can catch him secretly slipping soul into the cracks of a relatively shallow pop movement - and getting away with it.