Monday, February 27, 2006

DestiNations 2K6

First in the series of Rafil Bonerston-Smith Travel HotSpots, Ave Maria Florida:,,2089-2058771,00.html
Bring the kids, and the obedience!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Resident Weevil

A Review of Resident Evil 4

We live in an era in which our desires are identified and answered before we even become aware of them (thanks, marketers!). For instance, I had no idea that I had an intense desire to be terrified and to shoot virtual Spaniards until I played Resident Evil 4.  This latest entrée in the series (and the only one I’ve ever played) leaves the Engrish shores of Raccoon City for a vile and nameless Spanish village.  The story starts out idiotic and then takes a back seat to the amazing, absorbing gameplay; basically, the President’s suspiciously Japanese-looking daughter has been kidnapped by some manner of Spanish cult (perhaps on her semester abroad in Seville?), and the task of her rescue falls to superagent Leon Kennedy.

     Poor Leon!  Over the course of this game his fate dooms him to being shot with arrows, burned, caught in bear traps, vomited on by gigantic insects, pummeled by gigantic oafs, shot at with catapults, attacked with chainsaws, and condescended to by a guy named Luis.  This is only in about the first two hours, too.  As in all Resident Evil games, Leon’s primary duty if to fight zombies, although in this case he is fighting uniquely Spanish zombies (only at this late date in the Playstation 2’s career have we possessed the technology to convincingly animate the Spanish zombie).  These zombies initially seem a little off, since they are not dead nor do they wish to eat Leon’s brain; eventually, you figure out that they have been infested by a parasite called the Plaga.  These creatures occasionally emerge to wave their hideously deformed and barbed limbs when Leon shoots the villagers heads off.

     The game is unremittingly gritty and unpleasant looking (without the white-hot intensity of the Silent Hill series, which is a good thing since it can be played without a double fistful of Xanax).  Plenty of surprises keep the tension up, but the game actually manages to instill dread, the acme of a horror series.  It’s just as scary to turn a corner and see a flock of parasite-riddled degenerate Spanish monks lurching slowly towards you as it is to hear the plaintive shriek of a Novistador, the game’s resident giant homicidal insects.  Resident Evil inaugurated the survival horror genre, and the staples are still here: restricted supplies, save point, and stiff controls.  However, someone at Capcom bucked the trend of Japanese software design and decided to emphasize fun.  Thus, ammunition and weapons are scarce but sufficient (you never have to ask yourself, “do I really have enough ammunition to shoot this blind, insane gladiator?”), and the controls are slow enough to instill a little bit of anxiety, but responsive and tight nonetheless.  You will rarely find yourself blaming Leon’s truck-like turning speed when you get killed, but you will get killed, and frequently, until you get the hang of things.  The game has a forgiving continue system, and is generally so fun that replaying most sections is actually pleasant.

     The plot and voice acting are pretty weak, and the writers keep doubling up on articles when they use Spanish phrases (“The Los Illuminados” for instance), but the most interesting parts of the story spring from the action itself – all the desperate gun battles and insane booby traps tell a much more interesting tale than Leon’s conversations with his controller or the Castellan, a perverted and diminutive holdover from Spain’s feudal days.  I give it nine thumbs up and a hearty recommendation to anyone (I played it on the PS2, although a graphically superior version was released first for the Gamecube, as if anyone who read all the way through the review didn’t know that).

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

New Russians

A review of Nightwatch

Nightwatch, in one of its many subplots, features a deadly, world-ending curse. The movie itself suffers the curse of The Matrix: a puerile love for building an inconsistency-ridden mythology, the substitution of visual style for character, and woefully uneven plotting. Nightwatch even comes first in a trio, but unlike the original Matrix does not even provide any fun, male empowerment fantasy gunfights.

The movie follows Anton, an unlikable and greasy young Russian who has a bad run-in with a witch that opens his eyes to The Others. These Others live among us and come in two flavors: light and dark, although they all seem to be greasy Russian vampires. And some of them claim that they can change into animals, but they don’t. And his buddies the Light Others drive a magic utility truck. And Anton can see the future, only not very accurately and not after about half an hour into the movie, when the writers seem to have forgotten that he had that particular power.

Anyway, Anton runs afoul of a vampire hairdresser who stabs him repeatedly with scissors. He also finds a mysterious boy who is clearly going on to big things but spends the first part of the movie wandering around with a nosebleed and cowering. At one point the boy watches a few seconds of the episode of Buffy where she meets Dracula (this got a bigger reaction from the theater audience than any of the set pieces). At the end of the movie Anton fights a big villain who uses his own spine as a weapon (inexplicably, this is mirrored in scenes from a fictional video game, which looked a lot more fun than the movie; a similar technique is used to marginally greater effect in the abominable French action movie Samouraïs). He also makes friends with a magic owl who turns into an unattractive Russian actress. The visual effects, which are the only possible reason one might see this movie, are generally headache-inducing and unnecessarily gory; also, like the rest of the movie, they rarely make sense (why does Anton’s arm grow waxy and blue when he and his owl sidekick are voyaging through the spectral realm of the Gloom?). Terrible.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Looks at Books!

The Third Policeman
Flann O’Brian

I was never able to get through Beckett’s Murphy, if that is indeed the Beckett I am thinking of, but I read The Third Policeman in about two days.  Of course, TTP had the massive benefit of not being written by Beckett at all – it’s by obscure, extremely stereotypically-named Irish author Flann O’Brian (not to be confused with Seamus O’Leprechaun or Top O’ the Morning).  The novel follows the misadventures of the nameless narrator, a would be scholar of de Selby with a wooden leg.  For those of you who don’t know de Selby, O’Brian made him up, and commentary on his works forms a footnoted intertext.  O’Brian handles this potentially annoying interruption with a light touch, and de Selby’s bizarre theories remind me of a cross between The Brothers Quay and Ben Marcus’ The Age of Wire and String, both powerfully weird and interesting artists.
     The actual plot, however, follows the aftermath of a murder/robbery, wending its way to a bizarre police station home to two policemen who seem to have wandered off the avant-garde stage and spend their time monitoring bicycle crime.  In the great absurdist tradition of Franz Kafka the narrator becomes embroiled in the machine of justice, with sexy results.  O’Brian handles his narrator’s predicament surely, and his frequent and sure touches of Irish humor give the story a lightness lacking in, say, Kafka’s parable of the door (which itself is of course not without humor, though not Irish, except for the part in The Trial in which K. pisses himself after Colin Farrell kicks him in the stomach).
     The chief joy in O’Brian’s novel is his language – he writes dialogue and action as surely as he does description.  He is funny, trenchant, sometimes moving.  I suppose you could call this a novel of ideas, but it has none of the annoying gravitas associated with people who use phrases like “novel of ideas.”  O’Brian is always and simultaneously puckish and serious.  The finale leaves something to be desired, but you will remember the images and episodes from The Third Policeman.  Quite wonderful.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

More like KRAPka

A Review of Kafka on the Shore

Once when I was a lad I read The Cider House Rules and liked it very much. I must have been around 16, the age at which one is most susceptible to John Irving’s adolescent sexuality and capable handling of language. I decided, as teenagers do, to become a John Irving fan, so I began reading his books one after the other. A Prayer for Owen Meany was the last on my list and I only read the first hundred pages. A Prayer for Owen Meany was so preachy, boring, contrived, egregious, and profoundly annoying that not only did it suck in and of itself, it caused all of John Irving’s other novel to suck by association. Where before I had seen sense and beauty now all I saw were vile reflections of Owen Meany.
I fear that Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore may have the same effect on the Murakami that I’ve read (notably The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, which everyone seemed to be reading about a year ago). In Kafka, Murakami indulges in every sin that mars Japanese pop culture – irresponsible allusion, woefully abstract language, and weirdness for its own sake. The irresponsible allusiveness is what bothers me the most – by irresponsible allusion I am referring to the Japanese taste for selecting Western materials in much the way I decided to become a John Irving fan. John Irving sounded like an interesting, sexy author, so I picked him out without actually knowing much of anything about him. If you have ever played a Japanese RPG you will know what I’m talking about – characters with names from Wagner show up, they throw in figures from Mesopotamian or French mythology, any big spaceship is named The Durandal, yet none of it actually bothers with the substance of allusion – it’s bricolage in which the author has assembled the pieces based on an extremely shallow appreciation of them. They have picked names out of a hat.
Take the title – the book only makes one direct reference to Kafka (a rather shallow remark on “In the Penal Colony”), and unless I am being deliberately thickheaded, it makes no implicit comments on any of Kafka’s work at all. The problems really arrive when Murakami actually tries to allude responsibly, because he doesn’t know as much about his interlocutors as he thinks. Sure, we have a bunch of public-library biographical detail about various famous composers thrown in, which is fine and probably accurate, but he seriously mars his story with, say, his vapid reflections on the Oedipus myth.
Most of these reflections come from the mouth of Oshima, who claims to have a woman’s body but the mind of a gay male. The mystery of Oshima’s body seems thematically tantalizing at first, by the way, but Murakami doesn’t really go anywhere with it and it ends up merely seeming like another piece of charming Murakami weirdness. It’s clear that Murakami thinks that Oshima is very smart, since Oshima frequently and volubly discusses everything from German philosophy to classical music with Kafka, the Mishima Yukio-esque protagonist. The problem is that Oshima sounds like he’s contented himself with the back covers of most of these books (and before you fire across my bow, E. Hastings, I maintain that Murakami ACTUALLY wants us to think Oshima is smart, and is not providing him as a comic pseudointellectual).
Murakami also suffers from a very bad ear for dialogue (and I don’t blame the translator for this). His character spend most of their time discussing things in extremely abstract terms They ask questions like what kind of life should one lead? What is the purpose of memory? Why do men make war? Stoned teenagers ask the same kind of questions, and nobody wants to read about them. Also, and this may border on the racist, but the characters take a typically Japanese conversational track and repeat questions (and quite a few statements) back to the people who ask them. Such a realistic touch feels out of place in the middle of such profoundly mawkish, unrealistic dialogue, plus it is boring as hell.
Murakami also loads the book with an astonishing amount of clichés. On occasion his language indeed does become beautiful, arresting, unique, but more often than not he contents himself with telling the reader what things are like instead of showing. For instance, Oshima keeps patting and grasping and otherwise reassuring Kafka – every time he does this, Murakami tells us it’s a “completely natural gesture.” Why? He also describes a bizarre, otherworldly chord in the song that lends the book its title – he doesn’t, actually, describe it, just tells us that it is bizarre or otherworldly.
His characters lean on clichés as well (which, up to a point, is OK as long as the clichés are in dialogue – people do use them). In some cases, notably Nakata’s frequent non sequiturs about “taking a dump,” this works to comic effect, but most of the time it just reads as if Murakami was trying to pad out the novel. All of his writer’s tics are here: frequent overlong descriptions of meals, uninteresting ruminations on pop music, people driving or getting driven around, things getting compared to wells, cats, missing women, sexually voracious 2-dimensional women, prostitutes, etc. Many people told me that Kafka on the Shore read like a remix of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, which is apt, but I found that Kafka lacked the charm and vulnerability of its predecessor. And I worry that if I ever re-read Wind Up Bird I will be blind to its virtues and focus instead on the faults it shares with this mannered, useless novel. I would recommend reading some decent Warhammer 40,000 novelizations instead (or Steven King’s dopey but entertaining Cell, which I may review anon).

[The image, by the way, is Mishima Yukio as Saint Sebastien. Mishima used to get a boner whenever he saw paintings of Saint Sebastien, so posing for this picture must have been very special for him. I am aware the Murakami and Mishima are not the same person.]

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Giorgio Agamben's Natural Good-Time Family Ban Solution

As many of you may know I am a big fan of Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer. In it Agamben proposes a number of theories about the nature of the state that at first seem really interesting and cool and then after a little while start to seem ridiculous – here’s his short list:

1. The original political relation is the ban (the state of exception as zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusion and inclusion).

2. The fundamental activity of sovereign power is the production of bare life as originary political elements and as threshold of articulation between nature and culture, zoē and bios.

3. Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West.

(Agamben, 1995: 181)

The Homo sacer, Agamben explains, is a concept from ancient Roman law, in which a person is pushed out of the polity but is not actually executed; furthermore, it becomes licit to kill a sacred man, since he has already been removed from the realm of the living (and from human law) and placed under the purview of the gods. Agamben describes the life of the sacred man as zo­ē, the Greek concept meaning biological life. Zo­ē opposes bios, life within a meaningful system (for instance, a political system); zo­ē is life that is alive and JUST alive – Agamben pairs zo­ē with life in the death camps, life that the polity does not kill but does not really allow to live either: “bare life” in his words. Agamben goes on to argue that the fundamental goal of government is to produce as much bare life as possible, to generate killable, barely living bodies.

As I said above this seems very coherent and persuasive at first, then more and more ridiculous. Our very own ridiculous government is making Agamben’s theories look much more persuasive, if not any less chilling. If we think back to the furor over Terri Schiavo, for instance, Agamben’s theories look less lurid and more descriptive – for the Bush regime, Terri Schiavo is the ideal citizen, a body that lives but does nothing else and has no political aspirations or opinions except the ones assigned to her.

Bush’s recent State of the Union address also got me thinking back to Agamben. In it he mentioned animal-human hybrids, something that puzzled a lot of viewers who were not part of his ultra-conservative fundamentalist base. He was in fact referring to laboratory animals who had been partially hybridized (genetically altered to have human-like blood, for instance). “Human life is a gift from our Creator,” he explained.

The problem with this kind of reasoning (other than the fact that it prefers superstition, interpreted in a politically convenient way, to empirical science, which is a pretty big problem) is that it actually licenses surprising cruelties and abuses. Declaring human life sacred places it out of bounds – bans it. Agamben (drawing on Benveniste) observes that arguments about the sacredness of life in fact allow its destruction. If life is sacred, it is outside the responsibility of the political state and must live and (preferably) die on its own. This begins to explain the special congressional session to preserve the corpse of Terri Schiavo, Republican media’s venomous reaction to the idea of national health care (life is too sacred to be trusted to the government), and the Bush organization’s vicious war on science. This may draw its inspiration from fundamentalist religious beliefs, but it has the effect of creating an excuse for the government to produce docile, killable bodies for whatever purpose it desires. I wanted to draw an analogy between the Bush government’s media offensive against science and the bloodthirsty reaction to these now-infamous Danish political cartoons in the Muslim world – we have a government that uses religious reasoning to suppress the pursuit of life-saving science, the Muslim world has a political-media complex that calls for the death of anyone who satirizes their central religious figures. Is this a difference of degree or kind? All of these people need to grow the fuck up.