Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Treats

For your enjoyment I've assembled the following ghoulish videos, enjoy.

Everyday is Halloween


Monster Mash

Indian Thriller (must watch!)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Epistolary W

Oliver Stone discusses the narrative of his latest film, W., in this Slate e-mail dialog. Stone is criticized by two of the writers who participated. Specifically it is alleged that Stone's version of W's relationship with his father is exaggerated, and that Stone misconstrues Cheney's justification of the invasion of Iraq. I think Stone does a good job defending himself, and it sounds like he put a lot of effort into the script. If anything, Stone comes across as the best writer of the bunch. Reporters and biographers don't necessarily have to be great technical writers, but you don't expect to see them bested by a Hollywood director. Then again, Oliver Stone isn't your ordinary Hollywood director.

Beatles the Videogame

Maybe this will convince Little Earl to partake of the dark art:

Beatles Version of Rock Band to Offer Unprecedented Gameplay

"A Beatles-branded interactive music game along the lines of Rock Band and Guitar Hero will give gamers and music lovers a chance to play songs from every stage of the Beatles' storied career, from the sweet simplicity of "Please, Please Me" to more sophisticated fare like the songs on Abbey Road.

Unlike previous editions of Rock Band, this one will exist as a "Beatles game" rather than as a branded version of Rock Band. The basic gameplay will be familiar to those who have played other versions of Rock Band, said Harmonix co-founder Alex Rigopulos, but the Beatles' version represents "a unique opportunity for us to forge into new creative terrain in the music game genre and do things that have never been done."

Yoggoth's Prayers Are Answered

From IMDB:

Joaquin Phoenix Says He's Quitting Acting

29 October 2008 2:30 AM, PDT

Joaquin Phoenix, who was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his starring role as Johnny Cash in the biopic Walk the Line, has announced that he is putting his life as an actor behind him. Interviewed by the syndicated Extra at a benefit for the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps founded by Paul Newman, Phoenix, who has just completed filming the drama Two Lovers, said, "I want to take this opportunity ... to give you the exclusive ... that this will be my last performance as an actor. ... I'm not doing films anymore." Phoenix said that he intends to focus on building his career as a singer. "I'm done" with making movies, he said, "I've been through that." Although he was also nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor for Gladiator, Phoenix has experienced an up-and-down career as an actor. His last film, Focus Features' Reservation Road, received mostly negative reviews and earned a scant $121,994 during a three-week release on 14 screens. (Walk the Line, by contrast, earned an imposing $119 million.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Central Valley: Centrally Destitute

Stand tall, Central Valley! According to this article on MSN Careers, at least 10 of the 25 worst markets in which to currently find a job are located within your charmingly agricultural borders. All the big guns are here: Modesto, Stockton, Madera, Fresno, Merced, Bakersfield, Visalia...even Hanford gets a shout-out! But hey, don't feel down - at least you're not El Centro. By contrast, if you happen to reside in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Idaho Falls, Idaho, or Logan, Utah, you are sitting pretty.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Movie, A Movie, My Kingdom For A Movie

Seeing as I've just about exhausted most of the films released in 2007 that I've actually seen, I've been contemplating moving on and reviewing films from 2008. Only one problem: I haven't seen any! Is it just me or have there been hardly any films this year that really felt like "must-see" movies? The only such movie I can think of is The Dark Knight. And I still didn't see it! I mean, the kind of movie where you feel like, no matter what, you owe it to yourself to see the damn thing? Wall-E? Burn After Reading? Pineapple Express? The Changeling? Perhaps I really do need those dreaded "year end best-of" lists I ridiculed so fervently last December after all. But as of October 27, there are only a handful of movies coming out in the next month or so that I am truly excited about seeing. I list them below:

Synecdoche, New York: See Ninquelote's post
The Argentine/Guerilla: Steven Soderbergh's four-hour epic starring Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara. And it's entirely in Spanish!
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: David Fincher, hot off Zodiac, adapts a sci-fi/fantasy-esque F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Count me in.
Milk: Gus van Sant + '70s San Francisco history = at least something worth seeing, right?
Frost/Nixon: Ron Howard doesn't always manage to employ a light touch, but I've heard great things about the play and Howard's kept the original cast, so...

In the meantime, perhaps I'll jump back and review some older films from 2006 and 2005. Or perhaps I'll actually spend my time looking for a job.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

No Man Speaks As Hitch Speaks

Here is a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Eric Alterman.

From the comments:

"It never ceases to amaze me that I do, in fact, agree (by and large) with Alterman but find myself rooting for Hitchens. Am I shallow? Is it the accent? Drawn to a fellow atheist and libertine? Great vlog. Thanks to both."

"Even when I strongly disagree with Hitchens, I love to listen to him make his arguments."

Both men argue around each other a bit, but on the whole I found it interesting.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Towards a Spotless Mind

Selectively Deleting Memories - Technology Review

"Amping up a chemical in the mouse brain and then triggering the animal's recall can cause erasure of those, and only those, specific memories, according to research in the most recent issue of the journal Neuron."

So when can we expect an existential tunnel into John Malkovich's body?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Chinese Democracy - Now With More Flavor!

The Cold War is over and Chinese Democracy is now looming on the horizon. No, not that kind of democracy, I'm talking about the new Guns 'n Roses album! After something like 15 years we'll finally be seeing Axl's long awaited follow-up to.. uh, ahem, The Spaghetti Incident? (their '?' mark). If you are unaware this album has a long history. It's been talked about for years, with Axl guaranteeing that it would be released "soon" for about 10 years now. Its non-release has practically become legend at this point, somewhere up there with the release of Duke Nukem Forever and the proper version of Star Wars that we all remember.

So legendary in fact that earlier this year the makers of the soda Dr. Pepper came out and promised free Dr. Pepper for everyone if Chinese Democracy were to release this calendar year. And with the actual announcement of a release date (Nov. 23rd) Dr. Pepper is actually making good on that promise. You'll be able to go to Dr. Pepper's website that day and download a coupon for a free drink. Then when you get home with your new GnR album clutched in hand, you'll be able to crack open a nice cold soda as you let the homophobic-yet-I-wish-I-were-Elton-John/Freddie-Mercury-wannabee-tones of Axl's voice sweep over you. Aaah, refreshing!

Part for the Whole, or Vice Versa

The great Charlie Kaufman has possibly done it again. His new movie, Synecdoche, New York, staring pretty much my favorite actor of all time, the equally great Philip Seymour Hoffman, will be premiering tomorrow in, well New York probably. This will be Kaufman's directorial debut, and of course he wrote it also.

Synecdoche is the timeless tale of a slightly off kilter theatre director, Caden (Hoffman), whose wife, Adele (Katherine Keener), leaves him, and takes their daughter with her, to pursue the American dream of going to Berlin to paint. He decides to move into a large warehouse with a cast and construction crew, and direct a play about New York City and more specifically his own life within it.

It was a smash at Cannes; but really, what isn't. I'm going to take a chance though and give it a premature two thumbs up.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Even The Bay Guardian Draws The Line Somewhere

From the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Election Endorsements section:
Proposition R

Naming sewage plant after Bush


This one has tremendous emotional and humor appeal. It would officially rename the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant the George W. Bush Sewage Plant. That would put San Francisco in the position of creating the first official memorial to the worst president of our time — and his name would be on a sewage plant.

The problem — not to be killjoys — is that sewage treatment is actually a pretty important environmental concern, and the Oceanside plant is a pretty good sewage treatment plant. It's insulting to the plant, and the people who work there, to put the name of an environmental villain on the door.

Let's name something awful after Bush. Vote no on Prop. R.

Jesus what a bunch of killjoys.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Cosmic Record Player

My aging record player, the grey Kenwood KD-1600 sitting on the ground next to my desk with a "HELLO I'm a MULE" sticker affixed to the clear plastic lid, now faintly picks up a Christian radio station when it's not playing. A vague political discussion segued sides A and B of the Talking Head's 77. As I removed Can't Buy a Thrill and placed Rumours on the spindle, a male and female voice recited a prayer accompanied by gentle chanting. Meanwhile what I think may have been a Black Phoebe fooled with its feathers on the tree outside my window.

And on the Internet -

1) Jacob Weisberg claims that libertarianism is dead. Libertarianism, like communism, is an idealistic political philosophy that imagines a radical reorganization of society. Nothing close to that happened in the instant case. Instead we had a gradual relaxation of some regulation, while institutions that libertarians hate - namely the Federal Reserve - remained in place. Weisberg references "wearying dorm-room debates that took place circa 1989 about whether the fall of the Soviet bloc demonstrated the failure of communism." His article reads a lot like one of those dorm-room debates. The failure of the Soviet Union did not render all socialist policies obsolete, just as the failure of Credit Default Swaps does not render all libertarian policies obsolete. Both are silly and harmful if taken to extremes, but that's why we call them extremes. Sometimes government is more efficient and just, sometimes private industry is.

The current economic crisis does show us that deregulation of the financial industry is a very bad idea. If someone told you they had discovered a brilliant new way to make more money than ever before in history simply by applying an innovative math equation to financial transactions, what would you say? You'd say "you're full of shit." And they were. If 100 guys in nice suits from Harvard told bankers everywhere the same what would they say? "Put me down for 60 trillion!" Libertarianism, or socialism for that matter, had little to do with it. As a side note, however, it's a good idea not to put your entire economic system in the hands of someone (Alan Greenspan) who takes seriously the teachings of a mad woman (Ayn Rand).

2) Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama today. In doing so he mentioned something that has been bothering me for a while (quoted from Glenn Greenwald's Salon blog):

I'm also troubled by, not what Sen. McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said such things as: "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is: he is not a Muslim. He's a Christian. He's always been a Christian.

But the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is: No, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she can be President?

Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion: he's a Muslim, and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I agree.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Bee Gees Saved My Life...Literally!

Keeping the beat for CPR? Hum "Stayin' Alive": Study shows the disco hit helps bystanders remember lifesaving rhythm - MSNBC

And how they mocked you, Brothers Gibb! Will they mock you now? Mua-ha-ha!


Turns out the 1977 disco hit has 103 beats per minute, a perfect number to maintain — and retain — the best rhythm for performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR.

A small study by University of Illinois College of Medicine researchers in Peoria has found that 10 doctors and five medical students who listened to the "Saturday Night Fever" tune while practicing CPR not only performed perfectly, they remembered the technique five weeks later.

“Both the message of the title and the mechanics of the music support the CPR message,” said Mary Fran Hazinski, a nurse at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville and senior science editor for the heart association.

Neither Matlock nor the heart association have compiled lists of other CPR-friendly songs, though many popular tunes do have the appropriate beat. One suggested song has the right rhythm but the wrong message:

It’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” by Queen.

Oh, the irony. Cruel, cruel irony!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

4. Pulp's Different Class (1995)

For me, Pulp were Britpop's secret surprise.

I was initially under the impression that Pulp were maybe the sixth or seventh most worthwhile Britpop band. According to the All Music Guide at least, it seemed like Blur and Oasis were at the top, and then next came Suede, and then there was Elastica, and then maybe Supergrass, and then Pulp were somewhere down around the fringes with the Manic Street Preachers and Ocean Colour Scene. So when I borrowed Different Class from a friend back in my freshman year of college, my expectations were not too high. But I put the CD in, and let me tell you something. It was pop music love at first sight. Maybe I'm just a sucker for the perfect pop nugget, but Different Class was like perfect pop nugget nirvana. 'Wait, who are these guys again?" I remember asking myself with a mixture of puzzlement and enthusiasm. Since I hadn't expected too much from Pulp, and since I hadn't really heard all those other Britpop bands, I began thinking that maybe Britpop was the world's greatest genre and that I needed to get my hands on every Echobelly and Lightning Seeds album I could find. After having listened to Echobelly and Supergrass and the Manic Street Preachers, et al., I've realized that I had it slightly backwards. It's not that Pulp were a second-tier Britpop band and that Britpop was ridiculously amazing; it's that Pulp were actually a first-tier Britpop band and that my old copy of the All Music Guide hadn't given them enough credit.

I've heard it said that if Blur were the Father and Oasis the Son, then Pulp were like the Holy Ghost of the Great Britpop Trinity. Well obviously. But in more concrete terms, I'd say that Pulp mixed the sincerity of Oasis with the lyrical bite of Blur. Jarvis Cocker may seem more like Damon Albarn at first, with his sarcasm and wordplay, but as his songs go on, they reveal more of a heartfelt working class melancholy not too different from Noel Gallagher's. Pulp are like the best of both worlds!

On the surface of it, though, Pulp should not be that good. People like to accuse Oasis of essentially cobbling a bunch of pre-existing songs together and passing it all off as something original, but Pulp are not exactly the most melodically creative band either. But come on, melodic originality is overrated. Why try to bend and squirm in order to create some amazing new chord progression that sounds like a dying giraffe? Pulp don't have a single original chord change in their entire bodies. But what Pulp prove is that you don't need unique chord changes as long you have unique production, unique lyrics, and a unique performance style. Listening to Pulp is like putting on a pair of comfy, worn-in slippers. When a Pulp song starts, you rest easy because you know that when the chorus comes it will be catchy in that familiar, exciting, and gratifying way and not in some overly-complicated, forced, and disappointing way.

It also helps when your producer, Chris Thomas, got his start in the recording business as a last-minute stand-in for George Martin during a White Album session, and whose other credits include Dark Side of the Moon, For Your Pleasure, and Nevermind The Bollocks, It's The Sex Pistols (not to mention The Pretenders, INXS, and '80s Elton John!). But that doesn't entirely explain the '60s girl group/rejected James Bond theme/'80s Madonna/tacky lounge singer concoction that Pulp have perfected so thoroughly.

What really sets Pulp over the edge, of course, is Jarvis' talents as a songwriter. Glam Rock/New Wave isn't usually this...intellectual. Picture Morrissey fronting The Cars and you might get the idea. Jarvis is like that kid in acting class who treats the world as his therapist, but he's so ridiculous that everybody can't help but laugh. He knows how to be outrageous and genuine at the same time. Just look at the guy! I dare you not to like him.

So what about Different Class itself, then? Well, since as far as I'm concerned every song on the album aside from maybe two (I'm looking at you, "Pencil Skirt" and "F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.") are hit single-worthy (I believe five were ultimately released from the album), it's hard to know quite where to begin. I might as well start with the album's most well-known cut, "Common People," which is an exemplary display of Cocker's combination of humor and depth. Initially the song sounds like another typical sleazy sex romp:

She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge,
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin's College,
That's where I,
Caught her eye.
She told me that her Dad was loaded,
I said "In that case I'll have a rum and coca-cola."
She said "Fine."
And in thirty seconds time she said,

"I want to live like common people,
I want to do whatever common people do,
I want to sleep with common people,
I want to sleep with common people,
Like you."

Oh that naughty, naughty Jarvis. At this point you're thinking you could probably write the rest of the song yourself. But oh, what a turn it takes! Instead of bedding this shallow piece of Eurotrash, Jarvis turns around and puts her in her place:

Rent a flat above the shop
Cut your hair and get a job
Smoke some fags and play some pool
Pretend you never went to school
But still you'll never get it right
'Cause when you're laying in bed at night
Watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all yeah

You'll never live like common people
You'll never do whatever common people do
You'll never fail like common people
You'll never watch your life slide out of view
And then dance and drink and screw
Because there's nothing else to do

Being the product of a American trailer park myself, I must admit I don't need to be too creative in relating to Jarvis' anger. The mere words alone don't quite convey the emotion that Jarvis brings to the song. He knows just when to dial it down and turn it up. At about the two-thirds mark, he switches to a whisper:

Like a dog lying in the corner
They will bite you and never warn you, look out
They'll tear your insides out
'Cause everybody hates a tourist
Especially one who thinks it's all such a laugh
And the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath

As he sings the "chip stains and grease" line his voice builds in intensity, as if he can't keep his disgust under control any longer, until he breaks out into a full-throttle shout, skillfully emphasizing the third word of each line:

You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left you go
You are amazed that they exist
And yet they burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why

Take that, you rich little skank! It's a righteous, invigorating piece of work, all right. And it's only my sixth favorite song on the album!

I think because Pulp had toiled in obscurity for so long, once they finally had a hit album in 1994 (His 'n' Hers - I recommend it), they knew they had to seize the moment and make the most of their chance at the spotlight. The band was already hot; by the time they got to Different Class they were just plain en fuego. And because Pulp reached stardom so late in their career, they became one of the few rock bands to express the frustrations and disappointments of middle age. All throughout the album, Jarvis constantly laments the ways in which his life, and the lives of his characters, haven't turned out quite the way he or they would have hoped.

For example: "Disco 2000," a song which not only rips off the irresistably catchy riff from Laura Branigan's '80s Aerobic Rock classic "Gloria" for its verses, but manages to feature a chorus that is somehow even catchier! Here a middle-aged Jarvis bumps into a girl he used to have a crush on as a kid, and he comes to the bittersweet realization that while she's married and has a baby, he's still a lonely bachelor. At first his reminiscences are shamelessly sleazy:

You were the first girl at school to get breasts
And Martin said that you were the best
Oh the boys all loved you but I was a mess
I had to watch 'em try and get you undressed

But on the chorus, he thinks back to a conversation the two of them had as children:

"Let's all meet up in the year 2000
Won't it be strange when we're all fully grown?
Be there, 2 o'clock, by the fountain down the road"
I never though that you'd be married
And I would be living down here on my own
On that damp and lonely Thursday years ago.

So two roads diverged in the wood, and Jarvis took the road less traveled. And he feels like a pathetic loser!

A note on the sleaze: I don't usually care for songs about wild sexual exploits (*cough* Prince *cough*), but I don't mind it with Pulp, because Jarvis never sounds like he finds his wild sexual exploits particularly fulfilling or gratifying. Beneath the steamy sex lies a sea of frustration, fear, and loss. Jarvis' songs about sex aren't really about sex; they're actually about loneliness and disappointment. Take "Live Bed Show," where Jarvis chronicles a young woman whose sex life has inexplicably dried up - but from the point of view of the bed(!):

This bed has seen it all,
From the first time to the last,
The silences of now,
And the good times of the past
And it only cost ten pounds,
From a shop just down the road,
Mind you that was seven years ago,
And things were very different then

It didn't get much rest at first,
The headboard banging in the night
The neighbours didn't dare complain,
Oh everything was going right
Now there's no need to complain,
Cos it never makes a sound
Something beautiful left town,
And she doesn't even know its name

Jesus, I need at least three hankies to handle that one. Indeed, I find some of the songs on Different Class so affecting that I can barely even listen to them at all. "Something Changed" is so poignant it almost makes me vomit. It's like a Britpop version of Paul Simon's "Something So Right," where we catch Jarvis in a rare, cautiously optimistic, mood:

I wrote this song two hours before we met
I didn't know your name or what you looked like yet
Oh I could have stayed at home and gone to bed
I could have gone to see a film instead
You might have changed your mind and seen your friends
Life could have been very different but then,
Something changed

Jarvis, a natural-born cynic, finds it almost impossible to accept his own good fortune. It's like, "Why would anybody want to love pathetic old me?":

Why did I write this song on that one day?
Why did you touch my hand and softly say
Stop asking questions that don't matter anyway
Just give us a kiss to celebrate here today
Something changed

Indeed, I suspect such a sentiment was difficult for Jarvis to dwell on for too long, as the album immediately switches gears (with his cheerfully knowing take on rave culture, "Sorted for E's and Wizz), and never comes back to anything resembling romantic bliss.

"Underwear," like "Disco 2000" and "Live Bed Show" before it, is equal parts sleazy, comical, and tragic. Despite winning one-liners such as "If fashion is your trade/Then when you're naked/I guess you must be unemployed yeah," both the protagonist and narrator (who seems to have some personal investment in the girl's sex life) sound rather tortured:

I couldn't stop it now
There's no way to get out
He's standing far too near
How the hell did you get here
Semi-naked in somebody else's room
I'd give my whole life to see it
Just you,
Stood there,
Only in your underwear

After some guitar texture worthy of Johnny Marr, Jarvis slides into a quiet baritone:

If you could close your eyes and just remember,
That this is what you wanted last night
So why is it so hard for you to touch him
For you to go and give yourself to him, Oh Jesus!

What I love about Jarvis is that he's able to capture so many sides to a situation. Relationships aren't only just funny, or only just sad, but they're both at the same time. Because he doesn't simplify the messiness, his work is more honest as a result.

Now, as good as the first four-fifths of Different Class is, for me what launches the album into a class of its own is the strength of the last two tracks. Usually an album has shot its wad at this point but apparently Pulp have only been just warming up. Which is not to say that the last two tracks should have been released as singles. They are perfect, all right, but perfect as album tracks. And they find Jarvis abandoning sex entirely to close the album out on an almost PG kind of melancholic note.

"Monday Mourning," may not be the most lyrically impressive song on the album (although the lyrics are enjoyable enough), but for me might be the most musically thrilling and most skillfully produced. The band gets particular mileage out of some well-timed acoustic guitar flourishes, some well-layered keyboard overdubs, and some eerily high-pitched electric guitar soloing at the track's conclusion, over which Jarvis alternates between maniacal shouting and some irresistible "doo-doo-doo"s. Everything eventually comes to a screeching halt with a synthesizer sound evocative of a giant intergalactic spaceship powering down for the night. I've never read a review of Different Class that singled out the song, but for me it's one of the most exciting pieces of pop music...ever.

After the frenetic intensity of "Monday Mourning," "Bar Italia" is like the quiet, early morning last hurrah, before the hangover finally kicks in:

That's what you get from clubbing it
You can't go home and go to bed,
Because it hasn't worn off yet,
And now it's morning
There's only one place we can go
It's around the corner in Soho,
Where other broken people go
Let's go

I think Jarvis himself sensed that he was "drunk" on fame, and that once the excitement finally wore off he'd have to face a dark night of the soul (ie. This is Hardcore), but in 1995, for just this one delicate moment, riding the momentum of Britpop, he could accept that he didn't need to torture himself and sit around and "ask questions that don't matter anyway."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I Found This Onion Clip to Be Hilarious

12-Year-Old Boy Scouts Volunteer To Give Women Breast Exams

Oh Come On Hitch Just Say It Already

In his own inimitable way, Christopher Hitchens comes out for Obama in Slate. But he certainly doesn't make it easy for himself. He starts out on this seemingly irrelevant note:

I used to nod wisely when people said: "Let's discuss issues rather than personalities." It seemed so obvious that in politics an issue was an issue and a personality was a personality, and that the more one could separate the two, the more serious one was. After all, in a debate on serious issues, any mention of the opponent's personality would be ad hominem at best and at worst would stoop as low as ad feminam.

Oh my! I for one wouldn't want to be caught dead stooping to ad feminam. In other words, Hitch is beating around the bush. He continues to beat some more:

At my old English boarding school, we had a sporting saying that one should "tackle the ball and not the man." I carried on echoing this sort of unexamined nonsense for quite some time—in fact, until the New Hampshire primary of 1992, when it hit me very forcibly that the "personality" of one of the candidates was itself an "issue." In later years, I had little cause to revise my view that Bill Clinton's abysmal character was such as to be a "game changer" in itself, at least as important as his claim to be a "new Democrat." To summarize what little I learned from all this: A candidate may well change his or her position on, say, universal health care or Bosnia. But he or she cannot change the fact—if it happens to be a fact—that he or she is a pathological liar, or a dimwit, or a proud ignoramus. And even in the short run, this must and will tell.

So basically Hitch, what you're trying to say is that you think McCain has too many character flaws to be a good fit for the presidency. Oh, but what's the fun in merely cutting to the chase? Better to quote old English boarding school sayings. I also continue to be amused by Hitch's misplaced disgust toward Bill Clinton. Why Bill Clinton and not George W. Bush? Is it because every other columnist has George W. Bush covered? I'm not saying that Clinton was the greatest president ever, but how was he more of a "pathological liar" than every other politician we've ever had in the history of Western civilization? I suspect that Hitch simply likes to relish in his flair for the dramatic. Witness the text below:

I suppose it could be said, as Michael Gerson has alleged, that the Obama campaign's choice of the word erratic to describe McCain is also an insinuation. But really, it's only a euphemism. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear had to feel sorry for the old lion on his last outing and wish that he could be taken somewhere soothing and restful before the night was out.

A low blow couched in highbrow discourse. At this point I think Hitch should just abandon the thin journalistic veneer and dive headlong into Hunter Thompson-esque absurdity. Near the end of the piece, he finally offers, in what amounts to high praise in the Hitchens world, a tepid endorsement of Obama:

Obama is greatly overrated in my opinion, but the Obama-Biden ticket is not a capitulationist one, even if it does accept the support of the surrender faction, and it does show some signs of being able and willing to profit from experience.

Well ring the bells and fire the cannons!

Join the team, Hitch. Join the team.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Revolution Will Be Televised...On Inside Edition?

You know the political winds are blowing harshly when the sleazy TV gossip shows begin covering the economic collapse. I tuned into Inside Edition last night and all of a sudden there's this story about "AIG executives who, in the midst of an economic crisis, are being treated to a luxurious vacation at a Ritz-Carlton in Northern California." Before I know it, there's exotic footage of the Half Moon Bay Ritz-Carlton! Oh, those dirty, dirty insurance execs - living it up at the Half Moon Bay Ritz-Carlton while the rest of us have to scramble around and salvage what's left of our retirement savings. Tsk tsk!

None of the AIG execs were celebrities. As far as I could tell, the sole appeal of the story was the corporate outrageousness and nothing more. Imagine this kind of story airing on Inside Edition a year ago. How much of Inside Edition's target audience would have even known what AIG was? Are we witnessing the mainstreaming of working-class anger (or something akin to it)?

And I haven't even mentioned the story about "Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama deliberately avoiding each other on stage at the end of last Tuesday's debate?!?" Lo and behold, they had the footage to prove it. But on the Daily Show Michelle denied the rumors: "We'd already greeted each other back stage beforehand." Yeah, sure, like I'm going to believe that one.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Time To Line Up (for a Wii)

NPR posted an article recently comparing the rise of recent videogame sales to the rise of movies during the Great Depression. In the pun-tacularly titled article "In Tough Economic Times, Video Games Console", writer Laura Sydell examines how during the Depression people started going to the movies more in order to find some cheap entertainment and forget their worries, and sees similarities to our modern times. While movie revenues continue to remain even, sales of videogames are up 43% from this time last year. She sees this in part as "getting more bang for your buck." Looks like more and more people would rather pay $50 for something that will keep them entertained for months rather than something that lasts just a few hours.

With Nintendo Wii's still flying off the shelves (I've yet to actually see one on a store shelf and they've been out for nearly two years now), combined with Nintendo's heavy marketing focus on families and the casual gamer, plus the rise of HDTVs, it looks like more Americans are deciding to stay in instead of going out. And with the Dow dropping another 679 points today, it may be that way for awhile.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I Almost Want To Go See Beverly Hills Chihuahua Now

Excerpts from Josh Levin's review of Beverly Hills Chihuahua in Slate:

Indulgent parents and animal lovers, steel yourselves for pooches done up in couture outfits (who is the canine Edith Head, I wonder?), quadrupedally modified one-liners ("Talk to the paw!"), and a plot that's like a succession of "Yo quiero Taco Bell" commercials minus the fast-food come-on.

Drew Barrymore nails the rich-bitch inflection of pampered lap dog Chloe, making barked-out commands like "I have a mani-pedi at 11 and you have to make my waffles" sound just as grating and odious as they read on the page. It's Barrymore's pleading voice that makes Chloe's downward spiral upon getting lost in Mexico—her diamond-encrusted Harry Winston collar gets stolen, and she's forced to sleep in a cardboard box under a park bench and fight off a pack of strays for a discarded churro—actually amusing at times. Andy Garcia, too, brings depth and pathos to the role of a jaded ex-police dog—his character, the German shepherd Delgado, has the best movie-animal flashback since the chimp Elijah in Being John Malkovich­—and Luis Guzmán does his best dog-voicing work in years as a pit bull caught up in the dog-fighting racket.

But don't be mistaken: Beverly Hills Chihuahua is odd, and not in a pleasant way. Kid movies often depict protagonists who get lost in strange, frightening lands. It's always tricky when that strange, frightening land happens to be a real place populated by a real ethnic group. Beverly Hills Chihuahua scratches vigorously at Mexico's seedy underbelly: Chloe gets captured by a band of dogfighters; has a run-in with a computer-generated, piñata-thieving rat named Manuel (Cheech Marin); and joins up with a coyote who smuggles collarless dogs across the border to America, where they presumably hope to find higher wages, better schools, and improved butt-sniffing opportunities.

Now this is some family-friendly entertainment.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Extending The Pointless

Now here is why I left grad school. Somebody named Adam Kirsch has written an article in Slate called Nobel Gas: the Swedes have no clue about American literature. And I practically had to restrain myself with a dog leash in order to avoid hurdling myself at the computer and replying "So what, buddy?" The ultimate response is probably to cringe and ignore it, but allow me to vent nonetheless. He really hit my sore spot with this comment:

Just look at the kind of American writer the committee has chosen to honor. Pearl Buck, who won the prize in 1938, and John Steinbeck, who won in 1962, are almost folk writers, using a naively realist style to dramatize the struggles of the common man. Their most famous books, The Good Earth and The Grapes of Wrath, fit all too comfortably on junior-high-school reading lists.

Ooh, I hate those books that fit all too comfortably on junior-high-school reading lists - you know, the ones that people actually read and get something out of and build their life philosophies around. Yeah what a drag. Instead Kirsch feels like the Nobel prize should have gone to American writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. Yoggoth's a big Pynchon man; I've never read him. I once got a hundred pages into DeLillo's White Noise; didn't really seem Nobel Prize worthy if you ask me. As far as I'm concerned, if any American writer of the past forty years deserved a Nobel Prize it was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Hell, Hunter S. Thompson deserved a Nobel Prize more than Don DeLillo does. But don't ask me, what do I know about literature, I only got halfway through Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Honestly, buddy, who cares? You're just jealous you don't get to vote for the Nobel Prize yourself. Listen to this guy:

No one on either side of the Atlantic would quarrel with the awards to William Faulkner in 1949 or Ernest Hemingway in 1954. But in the 32 years since [Saul] Bellow won the Nobel, there has been exactly one American laureate, Toni Morrison, whose critical reputation in America is by no means secure.

Ooh, the author's critical reputation better be secure before you give him or her the prize. Oh my God, what a tragedy, can you imagine if the Nobel Prize went to an author whose critical reputation was The earth would turn to ash!

I'll leave it to Fray user "upupandaway" to finish off the job:

Of course, maybe my opinion is just a little to under the corporate/political radar to be seen as anything but the heart songs of a naif. But hey, when my favorite writer or book doesn't get a Pulitzer or a Nobel, and my favorite movie doesn't get an Oscar and my favorite play doesn't get a Tony... Guess what? It doesn't affect my experience and appreciation of that art in the least. So, I win. All that said, Whatever-his-name-is jerking himself off at the Nobel playground sounds exactly like the kind of helium headed windbag that could ruin a filet dinner with the miasma seeping out of his mouth. Somebody should box up Harold Bloom and mail him to that guy. They can takes turns seeing who can shove their head farther up their own ass.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Dead Pool or The Vice Presidential Debate: The Discussion

Sarah Palin and Joe Biden demonstrate competing sex-ed curricula.

Short summary: Palin isn't a raving lunatic, Biden almost cried, both candidates are mavericks promising unbridled change while supporting most of the policies of their respective major political parties. Yet one maverick's change is changier than the other's! I kid of course, McCain's policy proposals are obviously closer to those pursued by the current administration.

I call this one...another tie! Maybe it's my conflict-abhorring personality, but again I didn't see a clear winner emerge after the debate. Palin didn't embarrass herself. This adds to my confusion, however, concerning her psychedelic interview with Katie Couric (here and here). Was she just nervous during that interview? She didn't sound like an overly intelligent person during this debate - she parroted many of the same talking points she did during the Couric interview - but she also didn't blend them into an incoherent verbal melange. How many people out there still believe the Democrats=higher taxes canard? Palin kept at it, so they must believe it's effective.

Biden came across as a likable and informed guy. As a law student I enjoyed his response when Ifill asked if he had ever changed his mind on an issue. He responded that he had, concerning the standards that should be used for judicial appointments. I don't think this answer won him any votes though. First, it wasn't exactly clear what he was talking about (I didn't know who Robert Bork was before coming to law school). Second, this associates Biden with lawyers, that group of ne'er-do-wells we love to hate. Still, it was better than Palin's dodge. Biden dissembled a bit defending his vote to approve the invasion of Iraq. Did he really vote that way just to help the UN inspecters? The same inspectors that, if I remember correctly, the US later insisted leave the country?

Pundits often attribute every answer given by politicians to one convoluted political strategy or another. I often wonder how accurate these assessments are. Did Palin intentionally throw the Couric interview to lower expectations for tonight? Did Biden mention the judicial review thing in order to introduce Roe v. Wade in a round about way? Maybe. But then maybe they're just winging it after a point.

As far as the Presidential election goes, I don't think this debate will matter. An expansive lead has opened up for Obama. Unless the economy makes a surprise turnaround based on October candy and Hank Paulson/Ben Bernanke vampire masks, he'll be our next prez.

Number 1: Super Mario Bros. - "World 1-1" (Nintendo, 1985)

Number 1 on my list of best first levels in videogaming is the first level of Super Mario Bros. This level is probably familiar to anyone who has had even the remotest contact with videogaming. It's also probably THE most played level in any videogame ever if you think about it. Who doesn't know those opening few steps, running up to the '?' block, the little Goomba which makes its way towards you, only to be squashed by Mario's jump, with a mushroom power-up as a reward? And then there's the memorable tune, the Super Marios Bros. theme if you will (not sure on the actual title or if it even has a title). It's so simple, yet so catchy, and ultimately very memorable. Nearly anyone who played the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the 80's can hum along with it, it practically defined the sound of videogaming during that time.

Then there's the story of a plumber named Mario and his brother Luigi, off to rescue the princess of someplace called 'the Mushroom Kingdom' from a giant turtle/dragon thing named King Koopa (the name Bowser would come later). Moving his way from left to right, Mario conquers his foes by 'stomping', or jumping, on top of them, encountering bizarre enemies such as large turtles, some of which have wings and fly, fireball spewing piranha plants that pop out of giant oversized pipes, flying men in clouds that drop spikey turtle things, hammer tossing turtle brothers, and all sorts of strange and bizarre creatures. Oh, and in order to 'power-up' the character Mario, he acquires giant mushrooms that pop out of bricks, which glide away unless Mario runs after them. Who the hell came up with this stuff??

The man behind this madness is Shigeru Miyamoto, whose name belongs in the above credits more than Nintendo does. A student of art and industrial design, Miyamoto was hired by Nintendo of Japan in 1977 as a staff artist. A few years later, when the newfound Nintendo of America was struggling to come up with a hit, Miyamoto was recruited to design a new game. This was rather unprecedented as nearly all videogame designers at the time hailed from the computer programming field, no one hired 'artists' to make games. He ended up creating two of the most enduring videogame charactes to date, a giant barrel-tossing gorilla, and a little mustachioed protagonist originally named 'Jumpman'. This of course was the game Donkey Kong. The name Jumpman was changed for the American release. The story goes that Miyamoto and the other designers were sitting around trying to come up with a name for this character when their landlord Mario Segale came knocking, asking for the overdue rent. And thus Jumpman became Mario.

World 1-1 is a great level because it does nearly everything right. Right off the bat it teaches you that you can stomp on your enemies to get rid of them. The '?' blocks invite you to 'hit' them from below, and the very second block contains a power-up, which is nearly impossible to avoid since it slides around and bounces off the pipe in front of you, coming back in your direction. The aforementioned pipe teaches you to jump over obstacles. What makes it all work is that the gameplay just feels right. Mario's controls are very tight and precise. There's a lot of nuance in his jump, so that with a good run Mario can leap over a long chasm, or with just a short press of a button he'll jump correspondingly shorter. Mario's stomping move is also well implemented. Enemies such as goombas are defeated with just one hit. Koopas require two hits to get their shells moving, but even then there's the danger that their shell will bounce off of an object and come flying back, sometimes resulting in a shell infininetely moving back and forth. The addition of the fire flower power-up allows Mario to shoot fireballs, with koopas now dying in one hit, thus adding another level of depth to the simple gameplay. All in all, everything from how Mario controls, to how the enemies behave, to the availability of power-ups, it all just works.

Gaming journalists often talk about a lack of a 'Citizen Kane' of videogames. Newsweek's N'gai Croal doesn't like this debate, in this article from, he says this:

"Would you ask whether literature had produced a Guernica, or whether photography had produced an Oedipus Rex, or whether film had produced a Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde? What's with this urge that many people have to compare games to other media—particularly movies—and find them wanting on those other media's terms? (Are we all Roger Ebert now?)"

I can see what Croal is trying to get at here, that every media should be taken on its own terms. Perhaps in comparing videogames to film we are missing the point, we should be looking at the genre of videogames as their own unique medium, it's just not fair asking for a Citizen Kane to come along and legitimize the form.

While Croal and others are arguing over this I think they're missing the Citizen Kane of videogames lurking right here in their midst. We've had it since 1985, and it's the game this article is about. I would say that Super Mario Bros. is the game these guys are looking for. Super Mario Bros. was responsible for arcade games transitioning into modern videogames. Until that point gaming was something you did at arcades, bowling alleys, and bars - something to pass the time away while you threw back some beers. The purpose of games like Pong, Asteroids and Donkey Kong was to provide the consumer with some fun while getting them to throw another quarter in the slot. There was no real concept of 'progress' within a game, there hadn't been born the idea that a game could be 'finished'. Have you seen The King of Kong? (highly recommended by the way) Only a handful of people have ever gotten to the end of Donkey Kong, and there's no real end, the game just sort of bugs out. With Super Mario Bros. gamers were invited to play a new kind of game, one where they could progress through a series of levels and ultimately defeat a big bad guy and win the game.

Super Mario had elements of arcade games that came before it, and through a combination of an amazing art style, memorable music, a bizarre world, and expertly crafted gameplay, it helped elevate gaming to something that hadn't been seen or done before. Gaming was no longer just about playing a game to see your high score, it was now about enjoying the whole experience, from the music to the visuals, familiarizing yourself with the layout of each level, and learning how to master the controls until you too could get to that final castle and save that damn princess!

Oh, and to take the analogy of films and videogames one step further, it would probably be better to compare Super Mario Bros. to The Godfather, with Super Mario Bros. 3 as The Godfather Part II.

For all these reasons, Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 is my pick for best first level of all time. Watch it here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Adventures In Rap #8: Licensed To Ill

Growing up as I did in the proverbial cave, the first Beastie Boys album I ever heard (and probably, by extension, the first rap album I ever heard) was their second one, Paul's Boutique. But for the vast majority of listeners, Licensed to Ill is the album through which the public first became acquainted with the charms of MCA, Ad Rock and Mike D. Many members of my generation can sing along to every word of "Girls," "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" and "Brass Monkey" while proudly hoisting their red Dixie cups in the air. But not me. I am a Paul's Boutique kind of guy. So once I finally listened to Licensed To Ill, I thought, "This is the Beastie Boys album that everybody knows by heart?"

Knowing what I know about rap now, I can see why Licensed To Ill became such a big hit at the time. In 1987, rap was barely capable of putting out memorable singles, let alone memorable albums. In that respect, Licensed To Ill must have been the strongest rap album released up to that point, aside from possibly Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell. Each song, I think, has something interesting going for it; there isn't exactly any filler. But in 2008, it's apparent that Ill is saddled with cheap '80s production and embryonic sampling techniques in a way that later rap albums (and later Beastie Boys albums) are not.

Don't get me wrong, Licensed To Ill definitely upped the sampling ante considerably. While early rap was certainly no stranger to borrowing, for the most part the borrowed hooks and licks in songs like "Rapper's Delight" and "Planet Rock" were performed on new instruments in a new way (a practice that later became known as "interpolation" rather than sampling). But on Licensed To Ill the Beasties sampled directly from the source. In fact, when I first heard this album, I jokingly told a friend that the artist credit might have been more accurate if it had read "Led Zeppelin - as remixed by the Beastie Boys." Copyright laws are also gleefully flaunted in the case of The Clash, Black Sabbath, CCR, War, Billy Preston, and Mr. Ed. Yet compared to the sampling onslaught on Paul's Boutique, the technique as used here is tame.

So for me, Ill is more interesting as history than as music; I can appreciate the album's innovations without really wanting to listen to it all that much. Ill is also quite significant for a reason not explicitly connected to its music. It's been said before, but it's such a useful comparison that I might as well regurgitate it: The Beastie Boys were to rap what Elvis was to rock 'n' roll. They made it OK for white suburban kids to like hip-hop. By sampling Zeppelin and Sabbath instead of James Brown and Sly Stone, by rapping about Colonel Sanders and Abe Vigoda instead of homelessness and crack, and most of all, by being white, they probably quadrupled the size of rap's audience. Many at the time accused the Beasties of cultural piracy, but not too many in the rap community itself. As Darryl "DMC" McDaniels says in Rolling Stone:

The first time we toured with the Beastie Boys was the Raising Hell tour in 1986: Run-DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. We were playing the Deep South -- Crunkville, before there was crunk -- and it was just black people at those shows. The first night was somewhere in Georgia, and we were thinking, "I hope people don't leave when they see them." But the crowd loved them, because they weren't trying to be black rappers. They rapped about shit they knew about: skateboarding, going to White Castle, angel dust and mushrooms. Real recognizes real.

Indeed, because they were white, I don't think the Beasties had quite as many legitimate political grievances as their black peers did, so they naturally took a more absurd and abstract approach to the genre. I doubt anybody had heard rap lyrics like these before:

I got rhymes galime, I got rhymes galilla
And I got more rhymes than Phillis Diller

Spent some bank, I got a high powered jumbo
Rolled up a wooly and I watched Colombo

However, delightfully random pop culture references such as the ones above are more the exception on Ill than the rule, as they would be on Paul's Boutique. Licensed To Ill is like the A Hard Day's Night to Paul's Boutique's Sgt. Pepper: sure, it's better than what passed for a good album in its day, but it pales in comparison to what eventually followed. Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that "Licensed To Ill reigns tall among the greatest records of its time." Yeah, but what's it competing with? The Joshua Tree? Bad? Give me an album that reigns tall among the greatest records of any time. Like Paul's Boutique.