Sunday, March 11, 2012

I have a new blog!

For anyone still poking this old blog hoping some new madness will scurry out of it... I'm sad to say that is not likely. However, I have a new blog you might be interested in. It's Never Loud Enough.

This blog is largely to be a kind of art portfolio, covering my musical/sonic and film experiments. I will occasionally write articles if inspired and almost certainly post Vlogs now and again. It will also chronicle my involvement in theater with my wife, Anna Lien and her new local theater company, Gorilla Theater Productions.

So come on by and enjoy the madness!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Random Humor: Emo-Vulcans

Question: Why have Emo-Vulcans not caught on?

Good Answer: The apparent non-existence of Emo-Vulcans is due to an incompatibility of ideologies between Emo culture and Vulcans.

Real Answer: They cut themselves with Occam's Razor.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Thoughts on Cuccinelli's Pro Gay Discrimination Stance

Via. The Daily Progress:

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli sent a letter to Virginia’s public colleges and universities on Thursday that advises them to rescind their policies banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Cuccinelli, a Republican from Fairfax County, told the schools that only the General Assembly has the authority to establish legally protected classes of Virginians. The GOP-led House of Delegates has shot down legislation on numerous occasions that sought to add protections against discrimination for gays and lesbians.

Cuccinelli’s confidential letter, obtained Friday by The Daily Progress, says universities may not include “sexual orientation,” “gender identity” or “gender expression” in their nondiscrimination policies.

“I am aware that several Virginia colleges and universities have included ‘sexual orientation’ in their respective policies,” Cuccinelli wrote. “For the reasons stated, any college or university that has done so has acted without proper authority. Such invalid policies create, at a minimum, confusion about the law and, at worst, a litany of instances in which the school’s operation would need to change in order to come into conformance. Accordingly, I would advise the boards of each college to take appropriate actions to bring their policies in conformance with the law and public policy of Virginia.”

I don't think I'm being the least bit manipulative by saying Cuccinelli has a "Pro Gay Discrimination" stance. Some might be able to rationalize from the above that he is simply out to enforce the law, and from all accounts does appear to be correct that, "only the General Assembly has the authority to establish legally protected classes of Virginians" as opposed to the schools themselves. Why now (did he really just become aware that they were doing this?), though? Why this?

His answer: "
Such invalid policies create, at a minimum, confusion about the law and, at worst, a litany of instances in which the school’s operation would need to change in order to come into conformance."

That's right, creating confusion about the laws of the state, is a minimum concern for him in this case, meaning that he is not just doing this for mere reasons of enforcement and adherence like some might say coming to his defense; this is not just paperwork. Instead, he's made perfectly clear that his main concern, the worst case scenario is that,
"the school’s operation would need to change in order to come into conformance." I'm sorry if I'm beating people over the head with this, but I can't help but spell it out. He's saying that the worst thing that could happen if schools implement a non-discrimination of gays policy is that, uh, some people might have to not discriminate gays in conformance to said policy. If that's his priority of concern, that some people may be deprived of their administrative right to discriminate against homosexuals, then he is indisputably pro gay discrimination.

It also slays me that he says that the schools "would need to change" their operation to deal with such a policy of opposed to gay discrimination. Has he simply not hung out at a major state college for about the last six years. These policies have been established. They were present all the time I was at UVA and when my fiancee worked as a resident adviser at William and Mary she was also trained to handle cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation. The only change most school will have to face is the stripping of policies they have long self-enforced based on their own principles of human decency and equality so that they can conform to a general assembly that has repeatedly deprived them of the formal right to do so. Isn't this the kind of state interference Republicans are supposed to be, in principle, fundamentally against?

And let's not forget that by discrimination, we're talking particularly, but far from exclusively, about hiring discrimination. So again, a Republican--of the party that is supposed to be helping increase jobs--decided that in our current economic situation it was a good time to stir up an established policy (legal or not) of equality and decency, and by doing so potentially deprive a substantial demographic of job opportunities. Niiiice.

Finally, I cannot end this without addressing a major concern about language. Cuccinelli isn't just saying we should have discrimination against gays, or homosexuals (if the first term could be misconstrued somehow to leave out lesbians,) what he explicitly says according to the Daily Progress is that "
universities may not include 'sexual orientation,' 'gender identity' or 'gender expression' in their nondiscrimination policies" (quotations modified). By this token, he's purposely or inadvertently going after all the alphabet groups, and not just bisexuals and transgender individuals, he's leaving the entire discourse of gender politics to the wolves. Among students and teachers alike, unless harassment can be explicitly construed as sexual, it's up for grabs. Being butch, tomboy, effeminate, 'girly' ... it dosen't matter if you are heterosexual at the end of the day, there is virtually total freedom to discriminate any gendered expression of self according to this.

Great job.

‘Welcome to the Jungle of the UnReal’: Thoughts on Avatar, the 00’s, and the Rise of the Blue Pill

(Note: This is a spoiler heavy piece. Not just of Avatar, but also of numerous other films. If you start to read a sentence with a film in it, be warned that you might know the ending of that film or at least it's big twist by the end of that same sentence. Also, though there are some real links in this ... I kinda played around with coloring text for certain effects, so if you find you can't get a link to work, in some cases that might be due to it having never been a link. It also means some jokes may be lost to people reading this as plain text from a source other than my blog.)

Every time I sit down to write about Avatar, I end up overwhelmed by the number of things to discuss. I find myself outlining essays in my head, sometimes even small books. It always turns into something too big, something I don’t have the time or energy for, and perhaps even something I just don’t have the desire to write. I saw it only few weeks after it came out, and I’m only now getting something on my blog about it.

You see, one of the most difficult things about Avatar for me is that it was a film I enjoyed immensely … and yet didn’t like. I’m at a loss for another clear example of this. I don’t mean that it was a guilty pleasure, a film I know “sucks” but enjoy anyway. I mean literally that I had fun watching it, I enjoyed the characters, the action scenes, the special effects, yet walked out unable to not complain, to not gripe and nitpick. It’s like being allergic to chocolate. It tastes delicious, until the reaction kicks in.

So what about the film do I dislike? Is it how the plot is heavily derivative? Is it that it’s, as I’ve heard so many say, ‘Dances With Wolves in Space’?

Actually … no. Though I agree that the basic narrative of colonialism that it is playing with has been played with to death – that I would rather see aspects of colonialism such as the effects of outsiders imposing artificial (usually profit motivated) boarders incongruous with the natural cultural divides which lead to ethnic and sectarian violence – I actually agree that the ‘in Space’ clause is more than a new coat of paint over the same old fence.

So is it the terrible writing? The poor dialogue perhaps? Again, I liked the cheesy characters and enjoyed the over-the-top quality of them. Ironically, as liberal as I am, I was more troubled by the preachy political commentary even more than my relatively conservative friends. Still, as loud as I vocally groaned at that ‘Na’vi are terrorist’ speech, this was again not really the problem per se.

What about the science? I’ll admit some of the science was hard to embrace. By that I mean the floating islands mainly, and for some reason I forgot about the gravity being lower on Pandora, which explained why the physics of people falling seemed off (10-foot cat people do not drop from that high up and not break bones … on Earth). Still, that’s pretty picky.

So what is my problem?

Avatar is in many ways a pop-cultural ideological bookend, one worth looking over in some length as we are now at the vantage point of a new decade, allowing us to go back and look at it. Avatar is a sort of cinematic conclusion to what Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek call the twentieth century’s “passion for the Real,” the desire to take things to the extreme, seeing the vulgar underbelly, breaking through even reality itself to see the inconceivable void that reality is constructed around to maintain order against. In film, it’s been many things, but most obviously it’s the desire to defy all taboos, to see with unrelenting totality. It is the strive for hyper authenticity in Saving Private Ryan, the exhaustive unflinching onslaught of The Passion of the Christ and the complementary extreme brutality of torture horror (Saw, Hostel, etc.) rising to the status of popular horror (leaving its underground obscurity to take over Hollywood, taking the place of low-gore teen slashers and PG-13 haunted house films). In television it is also the unrelenting proliferation of fully visible surgeries and autopsies in medical and crime dramas.

In addition to violence, the passion for the real has persisted in the extremes of sex. In the first chapter Zizek’s book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, he offers Oshima’s ‘Empire of the Senses’ (usually titled ‘The Realm of the Senses’ in the States) – a film about a sexual relationship that escalates into violence and self-destruction – as one example of this. More recent films of similar veins are Winterbottom's 9 Songs, which explores the futility and finitude of a relationship built around sex (and arguably materialism through the music that complements their escapades) as opposed to love, featuring graphic unsimulated sex by the actors, Breillat's Anatomy of Hell, where an unstable woman hires a gay male prostitute to stare at her naked exposed body and confront the cultural demonizing of the female sex, and most recently, Von Trier’s Anti-Christ, which seems to combine elements of all three in the form of a psychological horror movie (which rates as one of the very few I’ve had to stop watching).

Then there’s the more sociological Real. For all of the controversy of sexual content in Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, it is perhaps most fascinating for how it shows the domestic Real: a husband using the bathroom sink (shaving/brushing, I forget at the moment) while his wife is using the toilet. But more than this subtle intrusion of the camera into the taboo private space, the film explores the fantasy of the darker secret underbelly of our world (the place of the insects as depicted in Lynch’s Blue Velvet), for as Eyes Wide Shut progresses, Tom Cruise’s character believes that he has not only ventured into a secret orgy uninvited, but into a conspiratorial society so nefarious that it will commit murder to keep itself secret, only to learn by the end of the film that he’s gotten carried away. He takes a joke to scare him off too far; they really are just a secret orgy sex club. His fantasy however is one of the definitive fantasies of the Real, even if in one of its most subdued forms. It is more commonly seen, as Zizek points out in the same chapter, in works like Peter Wier's The Truman Show, and Philip K. Dick’s novel The Time Out of Joint. It is the solipsist fantasy that the world around us, our reality as a reality, is a façade, at best hiding something darker, and at worst purely artificial. Which of course brings us to the definitive example of the late Nineteen Nineties, the film that Zizek’s book title is a quote from: the Wachowski Brother’s The Matrix. In the film, our reality is a computer simulation to keep us complacent but that people slowly feel out of place in and break out from to reveal how they are being controlled by machines (an under appreciated predecessor to this is of courseAlex Proyas's Dark City, where nearly the same event occurs with aliens).

While Zizek and Badiou are addressing the whole century, I am looking at The Matrix as the preceding bookend with Avatar. Along with Fincher’s Fight Club, it is an apex of the ‘Gen-X’ desire for something more than the mundane, a generation frequently looking back to its symbolic numerical inverse: the Nineteen-sixties, with its revolutions occurring on virtually every level of society (civil rights, feminism, science, music and the other arts, anti-war movements, domestic relations etc.) and wanting that amazing glorified experience for their own adolescence. After all, instead of the gritty exposure to the horrors of war that was Vietnam, we had the media sanitized night vision videogame that was the depicted Gulf War. (I distinctly recall staying up after Johnny Carson and seeing the Desert Storm lightshow and thinking how much it resembled the Martian war games I was playing from five-inch floppies on our old IBM PC.) Sure, there were feminist issues, and gay rights battles to be fought. Environmentalism is never a cause that runs out of urgency. There were the L.A. Riots, which was no small matter, but for the majority of white (let’s be honest) East Coast suburbia, I think its safe to say that the counter culture—a substantial percentage of—was suffering a little bit from ‘rebel without a cause’ syndrome, reading, listening to, and watching (thanks to the movie adaptation and soundtrack of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) Hunter S. Thompson’s “wave speech” and embracing flannel shirts. The media charged battles became more about having more (more sex, drugs, violent content, etc.) than having the right to have at all. The Nineties generation often gets labeled the nihilistic, anarchic generation, and that’s exactly what Fight Club and The Matrix appealed to, the desire for things the crumble, for life to feel more urgent and for issues to have more immediacy, for there to be, as Tom Waits put it, “a world going on, underground.”

With September 11th, we all pretty much got what we thought we wanted. The Aughts was a time of a strong anti-war movement, seemingly more passionate civil-rights issues (gay-rights, immigration) and essentially the kind of political and social antagonisms that the Sixties had glorified through the music and films that remained of them. The only problem was, it all came with the actual price of itself: the death and loss of the Sixties unglorified. Perhaps one of the best symbols of this experience was the conclusion of Bertolucci's The Dreamers, where the sexually decadent upper-middle-class students have their suicide attempt disrupted by a brick smashing through the window as the Sixty-eight French riots reach their street and crash into their world. Like Neo, having taken the red pill and awakened from the matrix, staring at the destroyed cityscape, we were welcomed “to the desert of the Real.” And as Zizek and many others pointed out, the millions of us not running in the streets of New York reacted very much in the same way as we did to the images of the Gulf War, comparing it a video game, to narrative media. We assimilated back into a familiar text the intrinsic event that ruptured our insular realities, referring to the experience again and again as ‘cinematic.’

The ‘passion for the Real’ wasn’t completely stifled at this point – this was the actual moment when popular torture horror came to rise, when television shows got really gory – but what followed in cinema was again this fixation with assimilating the intrinsic into narrative order. We became saturated in prequels, ‘origin films.’ The great monsters from the Seventies to Nineties needed to be explained away. We needed to know Hannibal Lector’s childhood misfortunes with the Nazis and the economic conditions of Leatherface’s family that made both men into cannibals. Perhaps most significant was the Rob Zombie's Halloween remake, which took Michael Myers, a figure whose horror was that he was a force of pure inexplicable evil (even credited as “The Shape” in the John Carpenter original) and explained away his upbringing and harsh family conditions. Monsters were no longer allowed to be monsters. Much as we had done with the red scare in the 50s, Hollywood needed to assert the kind of authoritative institution that diagnosed Norman Bates in Psycho and Cody Jarrett in White Heat, and even hunted down the queen ants in Them!, only, instead of displaying a competent institution, Hollywood needed nothing but the power of narrative.

(And on a side note, it wasn’t just villains, but heroes! Batman Begins, as well as nearly every other superhero movie of the decade has began at the very beginning of the heroes emergence and devoted its first film to explaining why they are the super beings they are. In this regard one the greatest villains of the Aughts was the Heath Ledger Joker from The Dark Knight, whom repeatedly tells victims his origin story, “You want to know how I got these scars?” only to tell a totally different story to the next person, refusing to be anything but—as the films score emphasizes with his theme music—a one-note character. He is evil without depth, and ironically as such is unfathomable.)

The End of the Passion

Where with most decades there is a sense of spillover from one period to another, that what people mean by the Sixties is really the Mid-sixties, or how punk music is seen as a Seventies phenomenon when its main phase is more that of the Late-seventies to Mid-eighties for example, the Aughts were a neatly framed decade, cut off from the Nineties by both the Bush administration and September 11th and then largely felt to be concluded (as in the sense of a chapter with many things continuing on in the next under different conditions) with Obama’s inauguration. In some ways the cut feels too neat, as if the same act of imposing narrative on the intrinsic event that kick-started the Aughts had spread down through the entire decade. I voted for Obama, and yet even I was taken back by the sheer scale of the spectacle that was his inauguration. While under any number of contexts I understand people’s sense of jubilation (I wasn’t exactly depressed myself), there was something of a sense of absolute enthusiasm and optimism—that ‘everything was going to be fine now’ about the whole event that I couldn’t help but be a little disturbed by. It was as if, the symbol was enough. Even Obama himself cautioned everyone not to get too excited, but it was only after a few months of things not magically changing (I honestly think some people thought the economy was going to instantly be fixed the moment he took office) that reality sunk in and we could turn on the television without being bombarded by ads for commemorative plates.

On some level, I can’t help but see the event as one of the first indications of a serious popular change, at least in the consumerist counter culture from the ‘passion the Real’ to a kind of passion of the UnReal. I don’t mean to sound like a conservative. (I am after all talking about a term used by two of the most radical leftist intellectuals alive.) It’s genuinely not a criticism of Obama that I am trying to articulate, but one of that desire for him to do the miraculous, to be more and do more than an idealist president in a politically divisive country with a massive debt to deal with can be expected to do. I’m critical of the desire for Obama to allow us to stop worrying about the future, to stop being critical, and above all to allow us to say, “everything is going to be okay.” I fully sympathize with the desire; we’ve had eight years of color-coded fear assaulted upon us by the Bush administration, let alone the actual terrorists. It can hardly be blamed of anyone.

But wait, what the hell does all this have to do with big blue cat people in space? Am I trying to imply that, despite all the other escapist films of the decade (and lets not forget the damn Zombies with all their films of cathartic release, providing us unhuman humans we can massively kill and mutilate without moral conflict), Avatar is somehow special (perhaps because it’s in really fancy 3D?) in how it marks our desire to be escapist and not engage in the political system’s realities?

No … and yes.

Avatar is more than just pure escapism. The ironic twist of films like The Matrix was that they always offered escapism with an anti-escapist message. They were fantasies of the Real to indulge our ‘passion for the Real.’ Avatar on the other hand, despite its showy revolution resisting the evil corporate colonial empire, in no way seeks to indulge any sense of the ‘passion for the Real’ whatsoever. Instead of indulging an audience of Neos, it seems better fit for an audience of Cyphers – Cypher being the double-crossing member of the human resistance against the machines who, having like the others also taken the red pill and seen the “desert of the Real,” asks Neo with rhetoric cynicism “why didn’t I take the blue pill?”

Like Neo, Jake Sully of Avatar has a key moment where he awakes in another world that changes his perceptions of virtually everything, but unlike Neo, his is a ‘jungle of the UnReal.’ He does not awake to discover the weakness of his own flesh, long atrophied from a life as a digital avatar in the matrix, where he was capable of superhuman powers limited only by the illusion of limits (“There is no spoon”). He is instead a crippled man who leaves the limitations of his flesh to embrace a giant, superhuman avatar of a Na’vi – which is, in terrible appropriateness, blue.

When I said above that I felt that the film was more than ‘Dances With Wolves in Space’, that it was more than a new coat of paint on an old fence, I meant that the derivative nature of these two elements is not being considered by most critics for exactly what the function of each element is and are together. In using the Dances With Wolves formula and following it to a nearly monotonous tee, Cameron is breaking away from the narrative formula of ‘passion of the Real’ films. There is no grand reveal in Avatar. There is no formal artificial world, with a curtain we are not supposed to look behind and then somebody does. There is no Fight Club, Sixth Sense, Matrix plot twist (don’t forget, people seeing the film for the first time did not know what the ‘matrix’ of The Matrix was). Reality is never warped. Even with the evocative spectacle of the great tree falling down, everything is mapped out for us in advance, depriving us of an intrinsic event. We almost always know what’s going to happen next.

Then there is the paint, the blue paint which is the ‘in Space’ part. What is largely seen as Avatar’s original concept is how the alien world is completely connected – not in the Disney's The Lion King “circle of life,” Pocahontas “paint with all the colors of the wind” sense, but as a complete biological network—network as in, literally, Pandora is a massive organic computer network (and yes, when the animal reinforcements come at the end to fight beside the Na’vi, it is the equivalent result of the tree sending out a massive Twitter event) and everything has a USB Port. (The closest we get to a twist is this general ecological discovery, but it’s so drawn out and paced that there is never a sense of something big being revealed, even when it technically is in Sigourney Weaver’s big speech.)

The cyber punk genre has of course been dealing with humans wiring their brains to the internet since at least William Gibson’s Neuromancer, with the Ghost in the Shell franchise being a notable bridge between that groundbreaking work and The Matrix, which of course is also working with this idea, but in all of these works we see again and again the tension between man and machine. At best there is a unsettlingly nihilistic indifference to the issue, seen often in Gibson’s work, but more commonly, like in Ghost in the Shell, we see an existential anxiety brought on by digitalization of the soul. In The Matrix there is even a moral prerogative to liberate the unconsciously enslaved people from their artificial lives as in mecha utero sleeping batteries for the machines’ super-generators. When Cronenburg explored the further softening (‘soft’ being rather in the William S. Burroughsian sense of the word) of the machine with the in utero nature or our reclined electronic modern lifestyle in his film EXistenZ (probably the closest thing to a cinematic predecessor to Avatar’s bio-net), a film where VR gamming involves organic controls that look like something out of an anti-stem-cell research activist’s worse nightmare, we see his sexualized matrix end with a crisis of realities. Where Major from Ghost in the Shell questions if her digitalization has made her no longer human, the players in EXistenZ become too close to the illusionary world so that by the end they are never certain when or if they are really out of the game. In Avatar, there is nothing like this (though it is food-for-thought when regarding the reports of post-Avatar depression of late), because there is no machine, no cold metal or biomechanical intermediary to call artificial; there is only the ‘great tree’ (another evocation of Disney’s Pocahontas), which in a fashion not unlike Pinocchio’s blue fairy, makes the Na’vi disguised puppet avatar controlled by Jake Sully into, “a real boy!”—I mean Na’vi—at the film’s end.

This is what troubles me about Avatar. There is no literal illusionary world like the matrix, but in place of one there is … a CGI created, completely illusionary 3D heightened world that’s purported to be real. The tangible actor becomes digital entity in a much more literal sense as Na’vi than as Neo (who was still physically shown and played by his actor, Keanu Reeves, when in his matrix avatar form “Mr. Anderson”). With everything being excused as biological, the film offers an example of how our present day existence, as beings that spend hours upon the web, semi-anonymous, living through avatars in simulated worlds, semi-omnipotent, feeding off an endless flow of information, could in fact be displaying perfectly ‘natural’ behavior in a ‘natural’ world (every WoW player’s dream come true to get their parents off their back!). There is of course no real-life example of such behavior, but that’s the point: Avatar provides us with one, that is what Avatar sells. It even goes a step further, when showing Jake’s real body weakening as he spends more and more time in his avatar, he in one scene suggests that the human world seems less and less real compared to that of the Na’vi. Suddenly the terrible dialogue of the human antagonists and the incomprehensibly heavy-handed preachy political babble of all the humans seems less the work of a sloppy screenwriter (I don’t mean to sound an apologist, but … and as hammy as Titanic might be … James Cameron has had a hell of a track record to be producing lines this bad by accident). There is a seemly deliberate effort not only to make cyberspace natural but meatspace (to use Gibson’s classic term for being outside the matrix) seem unnatural. That is what Avatar threatens, appealing in a much more direct and subversive way to the masses desire for ‘the symbol to be enough’ by saying the symbol IS enough.

The success of Avatar, its record-breaking, phenomenal success, is in many ways a sign to me that we are more and more prone to taking the blue pill. I think the success of The Dark Night and Watchmen were oddly foreshadowing – both films ending with the moral that, sometimes to keep order, to do the right thing and save the day, the masses need a massive lie (respectively, that Harvey Dent was a good and incorruptible man – Gothem’s “White Knight,” and that there is a super ominous force out there—Dr. Manhattan, or the original graphic novel’s giant alien squid—that has wiped out millions, and that all nations must put aside their differences—i.e., the Cold War—to save the human race from), a fiction to live by. But in both films’ cases their lies were morally problematic, costly, and strikingly cynical in a manner seemingly intended to be labeled as cynical (with the later, the film ends with promise that the lie will even be disclosed). Thus, we can see these not so much as films simply promoting lies, but as films wading in the murky waters of what Zizek proposes as a "third pill." With Avatar, there is no moral dilemma. It was for me a rather belated afterthought when I realized the hero might have potentially betrayed the human race—our very species—in some big real way by preventing the evil corporation from mining unobtainium. It has no examination of itself to suggest such a direction as Zizek insists we need in a post 'passion of the Real'. The film hardly even suggests that there is a red pill to be considered. It just sucks you into its spectacle, saying, ‘welcome, to the jungle of the UnReal.’

I don’t like that.

Otherwise it was pretty fun.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My Top Eleven Video Game Soundtracks Part 7

With the top eleven finished in parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, this part is about some honorable mentions. They aren't in any real order but the first few were omitted do largely to technicalities that should make clear why a few other choices didn't even make this list despite possibly seeming likely.

Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers (NES)

I love Disney's old school cartoon line up, and like many of their movies, found the game adaptations quite good. I have to agree with The Game Heroes that Chip 'N Dale is the best, but as that NES version of the theme song is, it's not an original score. That was a big issue for me throughout this and the reason there are no movie-based games on the list, I wanted the scores to have been composed for the games, not adapted.

The Legend of Zelda (NES)

The only song likely to be more recognizable than the Super Mario Bros. 'exterior theme' is of course the the main theme of Legend of Zelda. It's wonderful. I love it, both the opening title and in game renditions of it, but the rest of the score from the classic original doesn't quite have any weight for me. The dungeon them isn't bad, but I don't love it, and the other jingles though out are really just short jingles, so thats two versions of a song I love and a few other tracks that are ok. Super Mario didn't have many tunes either, but they are ALL classics. Again, one of if not the greatest Nintendo tunes, hands down, but for me one great tune does not a great score make.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Play Station)

I never owned a Play Station, and more than any other, this game made that a painful fact. For years I heard how great the score was, that's sorta the point when you give a game a name like Symphony of the Night. But I have to admit, it's a little hit and miss for me, despite it's epicness, this was not an uncommon phenomenon with (SNES) games for me. For all of the grander and potential, the arrangements for so many games just came off weird. (I hate the Link to the Past version of the Zelda adventure theme.) It's all a little too sweeping and bombastic, sorta like Gothic opera pop. They're trying to be too 'enchanted' sounding. Thus for every track I really like there is two I don't, and not having the in-game experience, I'm just not really able to say how well they flow for the game. A great score in scale, but overall not quite my thing.

Sonic The Hedgehog & the original sequels (Sega Genesis)

I forgot! I suppose that says something about them, but while I didn't have a Sega of my own, I took up every opportunity and my cousins' and friends' houses. Great games, and the opening music is as classic as any of the iconic greats, but a few of the other tunes are me personally hit and miss. More hits than miss, but again this one just didn't have enough something to make it. Much like Legend of Zelda it's loved for a couple tunes passionately, and disregarded for the rest. Still, had I remembered it at the time, it would have been a tough call.

River City Ransom (NES)

When it comes to Beat 'em Ups, Double Dragon was fun, but the music actually got on my nerves. River City Ransom was, for me, so much better on all levels to Double Dragon, including music. I'm much more into these rock 'en roll-surfer-disco influenced hyper-frenetic score. It just worked better for this kind of game for me, even if it was a little more repetitious.

Donkey Kong Country (SNES)

Near the end of the SNES's life they pulled out all the stops with a handful of games that were able to hold their own with the next generation of consoles. Few achieved this quite as well as Donkey Kong Country. Along with its graphics was a wonderful score which fits perfectly with the environment and attitude of the game. I can never really remember the tunes from it, but I always found myself bobbing along to them as I played. They fit perfectly, at the price of sometimes being invisible, which is hardly a detractor.

LinkSuper Metroid (SNES)

Now we are talking! Consider this where the excuses stop and I start fully praising games as really tough-call runners up.

I wasn't a big Metroid guy, but more than one fan have argued this as the best SNES game without losing my respect, and goddamn that score. It's like they took everything that was great about the scores to Alien, Aliens, The Terminator, T2 and Blade Runner and combined them with about a dozen other wonderful things. At times really rich and evocative of more fun-going space adventures (a wee hint of Wing Commander I do detect) and at others the score is totally unnerving, laying down all the cues for future sci-fi survival horror games to take note of. It only just barely didn't make the list on account of low nostalgic value for me having not played it much (didn't own it) but I must confess I'm inclined to boot Street Fighter 2 in its place. It's the better, but not precisely the more memorable.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)

You know how I said the problem with the original was it had one great tune and a few eh numbers? Well, here's the answer to that! A wonderful game, with a vast and rich score filled with numerous tunes That I love. In many ways I can't help but compare it to King's Quest 4, and were this a more fantasy exclusive list... oh yeah, it would have made it. It's epic, but also solid. A really marvelous game. Again, a really hard one to leave out.

Tomb Raider (PC)

Lara Croft became such a ridiculous sex symbol during the major wave of 'pixel tits' heroins in games that it's easy to forget how absolutely wonderful the first game was (well other than the whole running around shooting endangered species part... that was a bit ethically iffy). The sequels I don't think were terrible as far along as I bothered (2 and then a bit of 3) but the formula was something of a case of lightening in a bottle. It was a slow game about exploration, and as the sequels became less about looking at the sublime spaces your played in and more about action... they just lost touch. The first game's score stresses this sense of exploration, of looking off in wonder at the sublime. I love the opening theme and the orchestral accents throughout the game. It was a wonderful score, perhaps loved more for its nostalgia than quality but still a great score of high quality.

I could go on and on and on... Mega Man, Kirby, Star Tropics... there are tons of them! Again, I really recommend checking out Garudoh's massive channel on The Music of Games as well as those from the others I've linked to.

Well, that's it. Feel free to leave comments and opinions. I'd love to hear some suggestions people feel I've left out as this is a personal list more than a best of. What are your favorites, and if not the same, which do you feel are the best?

Horror Movies That Don't Suck: Bedlam (1946)

Of the Val Lewton Collection I got for Christmas, Bedlam is not the greatest, but it was certainly the most delightful surprise. Having already seen most of the classics like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and the underrated Leopard Man, not to mention Karloff's finest performance in The Body Snatcher, I was largely under the impression that the remaining films would be much lesser inclusions, but Bedlam is simply amazing. It's a period film set in the late 1730s inspired by the works of Hogarth, and while it's morality might seem a little preachy in its morals, it is a film I could not say really talks down to the viewer.

Anna Lee (Nell Bowan), a moody and sometimes irrational woman who has charmed her way into high society, becomes the rival of Master George Sims (Boris Karloff) when she aims to reform his cruel methods of running Bedlam asylum. When her political influences prove a genuine threat, Master Sims has her committed for her at times spontaneous behavior. Once inside, the film becomes a theatrical showdown. Imagine if you will, a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckcoo's Nest and Marat/Sade without the post-modernism, and even a shade of Shanley's Doubt. Where from her comfy place in society it was easy for Lee to judge his cruel methods, she now finds herself among the beasts, begging a Quaker friend to forsake his vows and give her a weapon to defend herself in the dark. Soon however, she learns to see the inmates as lost souls and rises above her fears to find humility where Sims could only find cynicism.

Sims never makes it easy for her and in the film's most powerful scene he thrusts her into a moral test that goes to the very heart of Lewton's psychological approach to horror. He presents to her a man, a hulking brute caged for being too violent to have among the others and tells her she is to share his cage, that it was one thing to pity the pitiful, but was she really willing to show compassion for someone who could endanger her, who was deeply disturbed, a seemingly true beast, or was all of her idealism just talk. It's a wonderful scene, beautifully shot, where both actors step up their performances and the script suddenly becomes something of literary consideration.

I can't get over how intelligent this film is, and how much credit it gives the viewer to figure things out. It never has the characters stop and explain the politics of the period. It is filled with characters and shots right out of Hogarth paintings, and so much information is conveyed subtly through acting and withing wide shots as opposed to explicit close ups. Take for example the simple cue that Anna has a spade hidden in her skirt to defender herself with during a card game. Any other film of the time would have done a close up right on it, but this simply shows her fingers touch it under her fabric, almost unnoticeable. Director Mark Robinson trusts you to be paying attention and catch it. I don't want to spoil too much, but when the spade is finally used note the implied motive for why. This stuff is startling for a 40s film.

Val Lewton produced and wrote the final drafts (uncredited) for several masterpieces, but as I hear The Leopard Man more and more getting recognized as much, much more than a feeble attempt to milk the Cat People 'franchise' one last time, I feel this is the new under appreciated gem to consider from Lewton's great series of films.

Thoughts on the Harry Reid Controversy

The outrage over Harry Reid's racist comments is actually one of the more interesting controversies I've heard about in awhile.

I'm not aiming to give him a full defense, but rather I find that with a little analysis and thought, there are a few things about this controversy that are curious and worth contemplating more than mere voter points. Let's look at the quote from Halperin's book that keeps circling around:
He [Reid] was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama's race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.
First let us address the context statement and form of it's offense, then move on to the specific language. What we know about the context of this is that it was said in private; it wasn't a speech or a formal interview. I don't note that because of some acceptance of a politician's personal racism behind doors, but rather because this was something said during the champaign. Rather formal or informal, Reid appears to have been providing campaign analysis on how, 'the country' would respond to Obama, not necessarily how he felt about him. It was an opinion of how voters would react to Obama as a black candidate and why.

This is the problem with comparing it to, say, Imus and the Rutgers women's basketball controversy. The offense comes in a different form, closer actually to the John Kerry on Iraq goof. It isn't that Reid says something offensive towards Obama through which the country responds; it's that Reid says something offensive through Obama towards the country, which then responds. As Kerry, in talking about Bush, ended up (accidentally) implying that American troops were basically dumb highschool drop-outs, Reid in discussing Obama's race as a factor implied that most of the nation is essentially racist. Both for being influenced by race at all and in how.

Something being an opinion in no way relieves it from being offensive or racist, and even if the form differs the content can backfire, which brings us to the language. We have only two direct quotes to examine, that Obama is "light-skinned" and, "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Again, as presented by Halperin, Reid is essentially saying that 'America is ready for a black president... especially one that isn't too black.' Obama certainly doesn't fall into the stereo-type of liberal 'political blackness', personified by Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson. For all their popularity, neither are strong candidates, but Obama dosen't talk as they do, or act as they do. He is a very different kind of politician from them, if anything perhaps closer to Shirley Chrisholm. However, there is still the word choice. Who on earth still uses the word "Negro"??? If he does mean "Negro dialect" in reference to other black candidates like Sharpton, is it too extreme to say he might as well be calling them monkeys?

This use of Negro to me is the core of Reid's folly with regard to being accused as racist. While not a racial slur, it's a loaded word, an old word with a lot of history. Though, what word should he have used? Black dialect? That's obviously too broad, too many dialects. Low in-come urban/rural dialect? Ah! Dialect is a problem too.

Like Karry, he's wondered into a class tension. Obama isn't acceptable merely because he's not 'too black' but also because he isn't too poor and uneducated. In a weird uneven way, isn't it basically that he's 'white' enough? While it's still projected as what "the country" thinks, we are left still with the monkey angle, which cannot be excused. If one says, 'all these racists aren't ready to treat these monkeys equally', they're still calling someone a monkey. This is specifically what he should be held at fault for, if he isn't. But I think we shouldn't ignore the larger implication of his statement.

The big curiosity of this for me is that Reid has given us an opinion on a very frequently talked about issues of the election: will Obama's race be a factor? Were not many of Obama's critics frequently bringing up that the appeal of finally having a black president was overshadowing the issues, that some people were voting for him because he was black? Were not many who voted for him happy he won because he was black?--alright, perhaps not exclusively, but in part because he was black? I couldn't help but be happy during the inauguration speech, thinking that a whole generation of black children were going to grow up with evidence that their skin would not be an obstacle between them and the highest office in the country. There were other issues, of course, but it certainly was a factor. It was an obstacle for voters looked beyond, for there is in its best intentions a certain reverse racism to it. Which is what I find particularly fascinating about Brian Walsh's statement.
For those who hope to one day live in a color-blind nation it appears Harry Reid is more than a few steps behind them. Unfortunately, this is just the latest in a long history of embarrassing and controversial remarks by the senior Senator from Nevada. He always shares exactly what's on his mind with little regard to perception or consequences, and it's one of the reasons he is the most vulnerable incumbent Senator in either party facing re-election.
In no way does Walsh say racism is ok, but isn't that last sentence odd? "He always shares exactly what's on his mind with little regard to perception or consequences, and it's one of the reasons he is the most vulnerable incumbent Senator in either party facing re-election." Is what is on his mind really the problem, or is it that he says it? When people talk about a color-blind nation, it always sounds so nice and Utopian, but I can't help but wonder if it is a place where racism is broken down and dissolved or a place where it is repressed--or worse, persists in denial. Would a color-blind nation have no racial injustice, or would it simply not see it? In short, after so much talk about Obama's race, is Reid's comment outragious because of it's poor and loaded word choice or because of its implications about society and the voters that make it up? Furthermore, is it upsetting because of how obviously false it is, or because on some level, there's a small element of truth to it? At the risk of sounding contradictory (and slightly pessimistic), I can't help detect in out general fixation on his race, the likely answer. For me, this is the thing to walk away from this pondering.

Friday, January 08, 2010

My Top Eleven Video Game Soundtracks Part 6

Here we are. The final two!

#2. King's Quest 4: The Perils of Rosella (AGI)Link

This one is a bit tricky. I've had a heck of a time finding a sample as the AGI version of the game is much rarer than the improved SGI, but this is a rare case where faced with a full orchestral version, one of the first of its kind for a computer game even, I find the blips and beeps version completely the way to go. I have only been able to find one youtube example of this version, and it sounds much clunkier than I recall it. While nostalgia may be the culprit I think I had the polished up re-release of the AGI which was supposed to smooth-out the score a bit.

Whatever version you listen to (overall for game play I recommend the SGI for better in-game sound effects and graphics), the melodies of King's Quest 4 are classic. My personal favorite being the diamond mine of the seven dwarves, I commonly find I still whistle these all the time. Utterly classic, and one of the most beloved video games of my childhood. There was no way this wasn't making the list.

#1. DOOM (PC)

Best soundtrack ever. As blips and beeps or orchestral sweeps I love every note of this game's soundtrack. From the most air guitar inducing opening to the eerie operatic epics (my personal favorite), it's video game perfection. Each song gets you into its level, building urgency, intensity or outright dread. For many, this was the first game to truly scare the crap out of you. No game since to my knowledge has created such a sense of from hell and back as Doom. It's brilliant, and the music lives on as a testament to that.

Well, that's my list! There's one more episode of honorable mentions to come but that may be a bit delayed as it will be a from scratch write up. In the mean time, feel free to leave your own top five, ten, or eleven lists below or wait for that to come out.

My Top Eleven Video Game Soundtracks Part 5

#4. Super Mario Brothers

It was inevitable. I don't even feel I need to explain it. Probably the most recognizable jingles in gaming history. Constantly covered and parodied. We all know the tunes. I love them. Let's just move on.

#3. The Last Ninja Trilogy (C64)

If there was only one reason I wish I owned a Commodore 64, it's to play The Last Ninja games. Actually, not really play them so much as make it through each insanely difficult level just to hear the score for the next. Like Maniac Mansion, this is a music driven game first and foremost. Unlike Maniac Mansion, there are NO SOUNDS. All three sound channels of the C64 were devoted to music, resulting in a score that made its NES counterparts look like a joke. The first game's score is the greatest chopsocky score ever. The second is a love letter to 80s and early 90s 'in the city' action movies, as well as over the top cheese like Commando and in some respects Lethal Weapon. It's epic and bombastic, at times rather funky. It's like the score to the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game you always wanted in place of the one you got. The third game had a lot to live up to and one can feel the style of the series starting to get tired, but the music's change in direction is one I've grown to appreciate quite a bit. Instead of another heavy score of building intensity that pumps you up, it is more somber and subtle. It's a more eloquent score, mixing elements of the first two while going very much in its own direction, creating a more atmospheric experience. I find it is often the easiest to listen to as a stand alone work.

Overall the three scores are amazing, with the first being yet another break through and essential in the history of game scores.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

My Top Eleven Video Game Soundtracks Part 4

#6. Quake

The music for the game was programed by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Need I say more? The rich ambient industrial works composed for the game are eerie as hell and show no lack of attention. I can't help but detect some of Aphex Twin's influence on Reznor, notably with his album Selected Ambient Works: Volume 2. My favorite composition for the game, "Castles of the Damned" with it's saxophone-like wailing, also evokes a rather unappreciated David Bowie track entitled V2 Schneider from the album Heroes, his second collaboration with the godfather of ambient music, Brian Eno. To be drawing from Trent's own musical heroes like this should indicate explicitly that this is as much a work of art for him as any of his albums. As a NIN fan, it's a wonder I don't place this higher on the list. It opened the doors for just how disturbing horror game scores could be. And the next entry illustrates one artist who perhaps more than any other walked through those doors to unnerve the hell out of gamers.

#5. Silent Hill (I-IV)

Normally, I'd feel a little cheap listing four game soundtracks in one place, however, the music for the entire Silent Hill series (at least the official games) has been done by the same composer, Akira Yamaoka and as the series has experimented in its approach (in later games changed developers' hands) his aesthetics have held as the consistent spine of the series. From the classic original's opening theme, to the fourth chapter's Room of Angel, he's a chameleon!

One of my favorite works comes from Silent Hill 3, again, an opening theme, You're Not Here. I just love how effortlessly he seems to make an angsty emo-goth girl pop song that is so much better than... well... the angsty emo-goth girl pop songs that angsty emo-goth girl pop bands like Evanescence and Nightwish produce. But seriously, when I suggested Yamaoka was the follow up to Trent when it came t0 unsettling ambient scores for games, I didn't mean these opening songs, nor the emotional umph he adds to the dramatic moments within the games (though that might be what I love most about him). No, there's another side to Yamaoka, a much, much, much darker side, and god bless him for it. For a game series praised for its stretches of dead silence that put you on edge at 3AM after hours of playing... the spaces between those patch of silence are quite powerful as well.

My Top Eleven Video Game Soundtracks Part 3

#7. Final Fantasy (I & VI)

Welcome to the first franchise selection, where I pick more than one game from the same series as a sort of tie. Picking Final Fantasy opens up several cans of worms, none so large as the issue of it being an RPG. The problem with addressing RPGs is, were this a top eleven best game soundtracks, it could be filled with nothing but RPGs. Seriously, while many games from other genres incorporate professional composers to score them, since nearly day one RPGs have taken their music very seriously. There are hundreds if not thousands of of RPGs throughout the consoles that have utterly breathtaking scores, from full orchestral numbers to eloquent piano pieces. So, why not Breath of Fire or the often prised Chrono Trigger or the very underrated Lufia series???


I'm not making a top eleven RPG Soundtrack list!!! It's a certain style, and I like it, but it's not everything game music has to offer. Overrated or undisputed, Final Fantasy is the series I played the most and loved the most (though Lufia 2 is really amazing and I highly recommend it). Its scope set the bar for other RPGs. It's tunes are the most instantly recognizable for me of any from the genre. The first game is classic. As for VI (released as III on the SNES in the states) it is my favorite from the series, and in my opinion the peak (I haven't been able to really get into another title until XII, although I must admit IX and X weren't really given a chance, and as sacrilegious as it is, I'm not a VII head). Kafka's theme (3:11) and even the silly Opera piece (4:47) are some of the greatest moments in an overall great series.

My Top Eleven Video Game Soundtracks Part 2

#9. Street Fighter II: The World Warrior

Were this a list based on which scores were the best, of course Maniac Mansion blows this out of the water, and shamefully too since it is an NES score that's superior to an SNES score. However, Street Fighter II wins over only for game play nostalgic value. I mean, it's Street Fighter 2! For most Americans this was the first major fighting game (not to be confused with beat-'em-ups) to use dynamic music within fights to pull you into the action. While not all the tracks are classic, no song has ever made videogame show down sound quite as epic as Ken's theme (3:06 in the above link). Perhaps the most underrated tune being Blanka's theme (5:06) which is fairly rich. All around, it's a classic.

#8. Zombies Ate My Neighbors

Lucas Arts and Konami... what a pairing. When I covered Maniac Mansion I evoked the film Night of the Creeps, and this game also is very much in that vein, but there was a follow up film from director Fred Dekker that is even more fitting for comparison: The Monster Squad. Like that movie you play kids up against an all star cast of monsters and like Maniac Mansion the soundtrack pulls no punches on the nostalgia. Each tune evokes the toy solider melting glee of the first time you saw Howard Hawks' original The Thing at nine, or THEM! or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or least we forget Night of the Living Dead. It has that goofy Tails From the Crypt quality to it, mixed with Plan 9 From Outer Space and all the other classics. I love how goofy this soundtrack is. And while some of the tunes add a certain mania to the harder levels that can be trying they are nonetheless wonderful and somewhat cruelly appropriate. It's not an easy game and that insanity actually engages you as you run for dear like though deadly weeds while Dracula and three werewolves chase you around a corner to collide with Frankenstein's lightening hurling monster. Classic.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

My Top Eleven Video Game Soundtracks Part 1

So here's something I meant to get out ages ago and left all but forgotten in my "Blogging Stuff" folder. There's been a lot of attention given lately from nostalgia reviewers at Channel Awesome and it's respective associates to game music of late so I thought I'd dig back through some of the game soundtracks I loved.

A few preliminary things first. You're not going to find Halo 3 or Metal Gear Solid 4 or Assassins Creed 2 on here. I've not played any of them, nor sat through someone else playing them. I'm an old school gamer and I'm not sure I've purchased a game since I picked up Soul Caliber 3 way back when. My first systems were an Odyssey 2 and an IBM computer with two 5-inch floppy drives (you used one to run the operating system disk!) and my last system was a PS2. That's basically my range, give or take, and I certainly haven't covered everything between. I occasionally will sit back and watch a play through, and at least one of these was selected as a result of that, but this is an old school list, composed of games I grew up on or was blown away when later exposed to, and by top eleven, I basically mean top eleven favorite. It's a fuzzy eleven as well, with thought put into the arrangement, but some back and forth about which are better even after completing them. And one thing I really can't stress enough this is a soundtrack/score list, not a best song list. Which means some seemingly obvious choices might not make the list just because they have the greatest song in video gaming history. I'm listing games that have multiple songs (at least three, and even that's pushing it, with an ideal minimum of four) where multiple selections (again, if not all) from each are solid. When I'm done I'll address as few honorable mentions that just didn't make the list and I think you'll see this was somewhat of a reoccurring factor. I'm really not looking to get into a heated battles over which is better with any of these. If you know them, great, if not, I recommend giving them a listen.

Credit also should be given to Garudoh for his amazing youtube channel covering the history of video gaming music. I will link to it among others extensively throughout this.

#11. Dragon Spirit (NES)

Many games have changes in music quality and style from console to console so I'm going to at times stress which version I mean. In this case I found the NES version vastly superior to the arcade versions I found online.

As much as I love Spinal Tap, this is why it's a top eleven list. Perhaps my superior overall love of the other games on the list is a major reason I couldn't knock one out to put this in, but this is a game that's music is too good for an honorable mention in my book. The game while not bad is relatively easy and a little underwhelming, but my god, the music! It captures the scope and adventure of being a dragon flying over vast landscapes like nothing else, sucking you into the action, and making a mostly solid (the boss fights are a little too easy most of the time) but routine top-down flying game feel like a Peter Jackson epic.

Check out this 4-part playthrough by KamilDownna. I think listening to how the music plays with the action will really make clear how amazing an environmental score this is.

# 10. Maniac Mansion (NES)

Again, I only had access to the NES version, and while I'm told the PC was a better game all around I'm going with what I know. And what I know is that this is dripping with 80s bliss. Lucas Arts pulled out all the stops to give this soundtrack every ounce of umph the NES could muster. It evokes everything great about suburban horror. From The Burbs, and Goonies, to Night of The Creeps and the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the 80s were a good time for fun sci-fi influenced horror adventure comedy and this is one of the great examples of that asthetic, both for it's goofy in-game antics that would set the standard along with the Monkey Island games for that long lost golden era of Lucas Arts, but also for its soundtrack, which fully realized and embraced its every jock, geek, hairmetal rocker and leather jacket wearing hero.

I think I'll stop there for now, let people take in the video links and crank these out gradually. For some of these entries I don't have much to say, but others I have quite a bit. In total I think this will be a five or six part series depending on how much I choose to add to what I've already written.