Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Oh Draconian Devil! Oh BABA BOOEY! (With a special bonus for lovers of Pete Hegseth)

[Insert "So Dark the Con of Man" variant here], A Review of The Da Vinci Code
The Da Vinci Code is getting ciritcally panned, and has aroused a Christian furor equaled in stupidity only by the fear that Harry Potter would cause the youth of the world to take up devil worship. All this aside, it's quite a fun movie, capably directed and acted, visually pleasant, and not boring despite its considerable length. Tom Hanks is charming as always, Audrey Tatou is not annoying, and Jean Reno (who many of you may remember from his famous role in Genma Onimusha III: Demon Siege, although I hear he has also been in some French films) is delightful and intense. Paul Bettany shines as the lunatic albino monk Silas. His performance was so powerful and nuanced that it has caused me to develop an indelible prejudice against albinos, who I now believe are all murderous ascetics. I didn't even find the movie's plot particularly confusing - it was much less complex than some of the more baroque storylines in Angel, and the characters naturally had to explain what was going on to one another, so the exposition never bogged down. Delightful summer fluff.

Special Bonus: HegsethWatch 2K6
Again Mr. Rafil Bonerston-Smith has favored us with a delightful news item, a report on Guantanamo Bay which features quotes from Princeton war hawk/lesbian icon Pete Hegseth. It is available here if Mr. Bonerston-Smith has not already emailed it to you (this page will attempt to print when you navigate to it, I believe because of the "Hegseth Code"). I once had the pleasure of watching Mr. Hegseth shoot the leader of the campus Democrats with a paintball; Mr. Hegseth moved like some kind of white tiger robot, designed to protect Lex Luthor's gardens.

All Your Face are Belong to Us

So I had my fieldwork proposal defense yesterday. This is a charming academic tradition in which the PhD candidate stands on a stool in his underwear and the faculty circle with permanent marker all the parts of his body that they feel are too fat. They then take a polaroid which is placed in a "Burn Book" and kept in the thesis room, on file, for posterity. My project was judged somewhat more harshly than others, so they also compelled me to carry a tiny Dora the Explorer backpack around for the rest of the day. All in all, not an entirely pleasant experience.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Please Go Away, Ramesh Ponnuru

I don’t know how many of you saw Ramesh Ponnuru on the Daily Show yesterday. He was hawking his new book, The Party of Death, one of the endless recent parade of popular nonfiction books on politics. This particular book takes the stance that the Democratic Party is the titular Party of Death, encouraging murder and disrespect for life on a worldwide scale. The fact that Mr. Ponnuru is a senior editor at the National Review should let you know what to expect before even reading his book (and I will freely admit that I have not nor will I ever). Jon Stewart took a pretty hard line with Mr. Ponnuru and was gentleman enough not to point out that Ponnuru is a squeaky-voiced little wiener who has never touched a boobie.
Whether or not Mr. Ponnuru is a wiener has little to do with the argument of his book (though it may have quite a lot to do with the fact that he chooses to make this argument). Basically, abortion is the main issue: Ponnuru sees abortion as being wholly and indelibly defined as a lust for death, a state sanctioned murder, and an erosion of “our fundamental right to life.” Ponnuru claimed on the Daily Show that he advances a principled, ethical, rational argument against abortion that does not rely on Biblical interpretation (what this could possibly be I don’t know, and he didn’t say). He also claimed that he could make the same kind of scientific argument about stem cell research (one wonders if he also opposes blood tests, or surgery). Jon Stewart asked him how the President could justify shedding innocent blood in Iraq to defend us from the (imaginary) weapons of mass destruction while at the same time steadfastly opposing abortion and potentially revolutionary research on stem cells because it represents a sacrifice of innocent life to save other lives. Good question, Mr. Stewart.
Basically, this all boils down to Benveniste and Agamben’s Culture of Life. Mr. Ponnuru calls the democratic party a culture of death and champions a conservative valuing of life as an inalienable, sacred right. Yet when we make life sacred and inalienable, at the same time we absolve the state of any responsibility for its quality. No wonder we do not have national health care yet we enjoy unprecedented tax cuts for the immensely wealthy. No wonder the Bush administration and its conservative and evangelical allies assault sex and science education. This insistence on the sacredness of life cannot emerge from a scientific ethics; my opinion is that the current pusillanimous championing of the rights of the blastula comes from a bottomless hatred and fear of women, and a neurotic, consuming desire to control their reproductive organs. I’m really so, so sick of this. See my previous post for a better explanation of the culture of life idea.

Classic Review Corner

A Review of Krazy Kat the novel
Jay Cantor, 1987

Jay Cantor wrote Krazy Kat in 1987, before Michael Chabon wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and before Jonathan Lethem wrote Fortress of Solitude. Krazy Kat contains no superheroes, since Cantor has borrowed most of his characters from Coconino County, home to the titular Kat and setting of the celebrated comic strip Krazy Kat. Drawn by George Herriman, the strip ran in the Hearst newspapers from 1913 to 1944. It little resembled our contemporary comics. The action in Coconino County took place on a full page, and the characters had room to do and say more than, say, Garfield or Beetle Bailey. The core cast was small: Krazy Kat, a natural philosopher and great mispronouncer of words (before Family Circus made the practice nauseating), Ignatz Mouse, who paid no attention to the law or to Krazy, and Offisa Bull Pupp, a bulldog cop who kept the peace in Coconino. Krazy, it so happens, loved Ignatz, and Offisa Bull Pupp loved Krazy; Ignatz, however, did not reciprocate the love of the Kat. He preferred to hurl bricks at Krazy’s head. Krazy took this as a token of affection and Bull Pupp took it as a crime. Many strips ended with Ignatz locked in Coconino’s jailhouse.
Cantor uses Kat & co. as a cast, letting them loose in five vignettes. The technique is academic. We see Cantor’s various themes through the opinions of the Kat, the mouse, and the bulldog: character steps in for theory. His themes too have an academic resonance, and Cantor aims high: he begins with Krazy reacting to the development of the atomic bomb (which coincided with the end of the strip’s press run), passes through Freudian psychoanalysis and revolutionary theory, skewers the culture industy and ends up in an intense consideration of the link between violence and sex. Cantor doesn’t just decorate his novel with these themes: his characters literally live through them, like performance artists. In the section on psychoanalysis, for instance, Ignatz gives a virtuoso reading of Freud by treating Krazy’s neurosis – it’s edutainment and I love it.
Krazy’s neurosis, which she picks up in the first chapter, drives the plot (which scarcely matters because the characters and images are so dazzling). Krazy and Ignatz have been out of work, and Ignatz, always meddling, takes her to see the atomic bomb tests at Alamagordo – after seeing the horror of the bomb Krazy changes; a piece of fallout burns a patch of her perfect black fur white. After this, Ignatz’s bricks begin to hurt, raising stars of pain rather than hearts of foolish love. Coconino County is a plastic place, and Cantor paints its shifting landscape, mesas blurring into clouds and clouds precipitating into cactuses; cartoon Krazy stands still against the backdrop, but after the tests she has to change, she cannot repeat her triangular drama with Ignatz and Bull Pup. No wonder Ignatz reaches for Freud.
So the rest of the book details Krazy’s efforts to become a person, what she calls “round”, as opposed to flat, like a cartoon or movie. Ignatz suggests that sex might be the best route to this, though he has only a hazy idea of what sex is – “I think they pee in each other”, he writes in a letter to Bull Pup. Since Krazy starts out as a full-fledged, interesting character her change works as a classic psychological narrative – she may think of her transformation as change into a new person, the fallout “giving her an inside,” but really she is becoming more herself, emerging rather than transforming.
Despite all its melting landscapes and intense theoretical involvement, Cantor really devotes his novel to character – Kat and mouse both grow and change throughout the narrative, but because they are cartoons Cantor can let them act these internal changes out in arrestingly direct ways. Krazy, for instance, goes rigid after some traumas (Ignatz compares her to “a Danish Modern coffee table”), and Ignatz has a chance to try his crackpot theories, playing psychiatrist, producer, and revolutionary in turn.
Cantor does eventually shift away from the cartoon in the final chapter, “Venus in Furs” (a reference to the classic Velvet Underground paean to S&M), which he originally published on its own in Playboy. Krazy appears here as Catherine Higgs Bosun, patient of Doctor Ignatz and daughter of a prominent physicist – a woman, not a Kat. Ignatz and Kate (The Kat’s new-minted name) waste no time in transgressing the doctor/patient relationship and plunge into a sexually inventive affair. In this final chapter the Kat is no longer strictly speaking a cat, Ignatz no longer a mouse, and Coconino resigns into Boston. We’re definitely still in a cartoon, one that stings and saddens the reader but in places lets the candy colors and startling lines of Herriman’s original vision shine through. Kate and Dr. Ignatz are cartoonish in the manner that most people I know are cartoonish – they fight, mock, and joke ferociously but not in the least unrealistically. When Kate, drunk in some horrible bar and separated from her mouse, leaves Ignatz messages on his answering machine we smile and cringe at the same time, but we never doubt that Kate the Kat would taunt him so: “‘I’m in Paris and I miss you terribly, darling, I wish you were here with me. Why couldn’t you have turned a new leaf over, so your baby could be your slave? Oh Ignatz,’ she snuffled, ‘Why couldn’t you behave?” Ignatz, still a lover of technology, replays the message to search for “French-sounding static.”

Monday, May 15, 2006

I Wish this Game were Bad, so I could call it God of Bore

A Review of God of War

Like most people, I bought this game thinking it was the playstation version of the 1998 Brendan Fraser/Sir Ian McKellen vehicle Gods and Monsters. I was looking forward to a robust pool-cleaning sim interspersed with awkward intergenerational gay sex. This turned out to be something of a misconception. God of War is actually about a pale, extremely violent man named Kratos. Kratos sports a gothy pallor, an extreme sports goatee, and a livid red tribal surfer tattoo, yet he clearly could strangle with his muscular legs all of the subcultures which these affectations represent. He would not put up with any come-ons from Sir Ian McKellen either.
Kratos is living out a healthily bastardized version of the Hercules myth, but much like Hercules he is not enjoying most of it. It seems Ares, as Greco-Roman gods do, has made Kratos go nuts and kill his family. Kratos is out for revenge, big-style, and he will stab any number of people or mythological creatures to get it. The plot, a ridiculous pastiche of Greek myth, commits to being grim and nasty and thereby avoids the pitfalls of the singularly boneheaded Japanese video game style of allusion. You don’t have to collect the three Sacred Stones of HyperOlympus, and if some doe-eyed bobblehead suggested to Kratos that by working together and trying their best they could save the environment, Kratos would probably push her off a cliff. Shion from Xenosaga would last about one minute around Kratos. He would not appreciate it if she brought him curry.
Crossover fanfiction aside, this is a very good game. Kratos is a huge bad-ass, as mean and violent and singleminded as a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel, but he also fights his way through the game with a sinuous grace. Once you master the combat system, Kratos’ leaps and dodges become as important as the wide balletic arcs of his blades, and though Kratos may be a contender against Ian McKellan or a tiny, futuristic Japanese robotics engineer, he’s a little outclassed by most of the enemies in God of War. The game has one of the best balancing jobs I have ever seen: you never face a fight that’s impossible or unfair, but you never face an easy opponent either. Most of the monsters Kratos fights are Greek mythological figures given a sinister update: slavering, mad-eyed minotaurs and skull-faced Satyrs both make an appearance, as well as a colossal hydra and a fair number of centaurs who look as if they have wandered off a particularly savage chest-tattoo. Most of these enemies are bigger and stronger than Kratos, and they come at him in swarms, so be prepared for a challenge that may make you yell so loud at the TV that your frighten the dogs. The monsters are not Kratos’ only enemy: one particular challenge in which Kratos climbs giant, rotating bladed cylinders was so difficult that I developed carpal tunnel syndrome so severe that I now have to keep BOTH hands in leather gloves filled with Vaseline.
These hiccups aside, God of War delivers a much better experience than almost any other recent game (Resident Evil 4 rivals it, but suffers from some annoying Japanese video game clich├ęs). The combat is always fun and rewards deep, ethnographic knowledge of the fighting controls (and the blocks and evasions are not simply ornaments!), there are some interesting puzzles, including a violent, ancient Greek version of Tetris, and Kratos manages to take the typical mindless rage of the video game protagonist and turn it into a satisfying character. At one point in the game, Kratos has just completed a ridiculous, enervating, grueling trial in order to obtain Pandora’s Box, which turns out to be the size and weight of a Toyota Scion Xb. He needs to bring the box back to Athens, and he is out in a giant temple in the desert, a temple that took three days climbing up sheer cliffs to reach. Kratos doesn’t even pause before he begins to push the box inch by tortuous inch back to the city. Perhaps the designers realized that actions sometimes can show character much more effectively than dialogue (and certainly better than the RPG stock phrase “…”), and that video games really ought to be relying on action. Eighteen thumbs up – it’s a Player’s Choice or something now too, so it’s only $20.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

AMDB, yeah you know me

A Site Plug, plus a review of Destroy All Humans

Recently, I have been spending a very great deal of time at somethingawful.com (having navigated there from x-entertainment). This site is probably beyond old news to everyone, but they seem to be consistently pretty funny, in a nerdy way, and they also relatively recently added a feature called the Awful Movie Database, a pitch-perfect parody of the IMDB. The idea is not that innovative: they copy the format of IMDB, then fill out the template with fictional movies like Hard Eagle (1993, Steven Segal) and Cannibal Barbarian (1982, Dir. Alan Smithee). The execution is perfect down to the smallest ethnographic details (Cyborg Warp's IMDB message board consists of six or seven posts by "CyborgKnight", all variations on "DVD??????"), but the actual substance of the parodies bears all the hoofmarks of a group of rather clever friends cracking eachother up, and furthermore is just very funny instead of impenetrable and in-joky. Take this triva from Hard Eagle:
Steven Seagal was furious when he learned that over sixty bald eagles were killed during the making of the film. In the director’s commentary track on the 1998 DVD release, Harold Wells explains that “we didn’t tell Seagal we were using real eagles, he would have shit his self. But what the fuck, a real eagle and a permit to be cruel to it costs way less than a really good fake eagle. We must have shot fifty takes of the scene where Geoffrey Lewis beats up that eagle and tears it apart. He kept asking for more takes. He loved it, he loved the feeling of power, I think. Plus we needed to kill about a dozen more eagles for the feathers on all those Indian… you know, those hats. We got really good at killing eagles, between Geoffrey and I. About as good as anyone ever has been, maybe.”

Worth a lengthy perusal. SomethingAwful's other sections are also pretty delightful, generally.

Destroy All Humans
If you want an Xbox game under $20, you actually have many, many options, most of which are better than Destroy All Humans. The premise seems like it can't miss: you play a wise-cracking alien in the style of 1950s schlock science fiction, bent on destroying the earth with your death rays and evil plots. The problem is, the developers go for humor with this. The reason that bad sci-fi is funny (much of the time) is that it's NOT played for laughs. But this game is definitely straining the sinews of its digital limbs trying to be wacky. The results brims with all the freshness and verve of Shrek II.

Maybe this would have worked if the jokes were actually funny: hearing an alien (for some reason doing a z-grade Jack Nicholson impression) crowing "It's probin' time!" before painfully electrocuting a kidnapped government agent is not really all that funny, and coupled with the game's extreme violence it embarasses rather than amuses the player. I don't know if they hired a professional writer for the jokes (my money's on "no"), but they are all of the same obvious and dim level. Your alien can (and unfortunately must) scan the minds of the unwitting humans around him, and they are all thinking something stupid that might perhaps seem screamingly funny to a group of foul-smelling men who have developed elaborate tics around their mousing technique. The male citizens of the game make searing assaults on 1950s conformity ("I have to keep up with the Jones! If only I could remember who the Jones were!") and the women think about nothing but sex and their own sex organs ("There's that not-so-fresh feeling again!"). The parentheses contain actual quotes from the game, in case you were wondering. Embarassing.

This would all be OK if the game were good, but it isn't. It's like Grand Theft Auto if your in-game character were a quadraplegic. It gives you very few things to do, and veers maddeningly between soporific ease and unbeatable difficulty. Save your money: only six thumbs up.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Just My Lack

A review of Just My Luck
Starring Lindsay Lohan, Chris Pine, Samaire Armstrong (from Entourage) and some indistinguishable British moppets.

Really, who doesn’t like Lindsay Lohan? From her adequate acting to her basically orange color, Lohan has something for everyone, from the film’s target audience of teenage girls to the balding lone pervert who made this particular cinema experience extra special. Watch it for up-and-coming British “indie” rock band McFly (you can hear their repertoire expand from one to three songs!), an even more twitchy than usual Samaire Armstrong, and a bunch of onscreen animal feces. I give it nine thumbs up. Also, at one point Lohan’s luck gets so bad that she demonstrates an Antigone-like perfect acceptance of the death drive; this places her in the space between life and death, the eerie realm of Das Ding and the Homo sacer, the zone of creation and annihilation populated by monsters and monstrosities. She uses this opportunity to wear bowling shirts and learn to repair fluorescent lighting fixtures.