Monday, June 27, 2016

Feminazi Tomb Raider and the Unshakeable Curse of Cinematic Adventure Games

With the possible exceptions of Avengers, Avatar, or any reboot directed by J.J. Abrams, whenever a Hollywood blockbuster trades logic and pathos for flashy special effects and chaotic bursts of red, it’s lampooned as a puerile, vapid, Michael Bay explosionfest made by and for an audience of undiscerning teenagers.  Whenever a triple-A video game blockbuster does the same, it’s hailed as a “cinematic” joyride with dazzling “set piece moments” and amazing graphics.

This is OK, because it’s 2016, and video games are still perceived as stupid, expensive toys produced for teenagers’ amusement, while movies’ status as high “art” is never called into question.  This is also the lesson taught by the phoned-in 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, a game possessing neither art nor soul that nevertheless seduced critics and commoners alike into fawning over the high-definition rendering of Lara Croft’s youthful, always mud- or blood-streaked face.  Crystal Dynamics’ Lara is to the gaming press what Scarlett Johansson was to a lot of unfortunate Scottish men in Under the Skin, a pristine and irresistible example of how pretty and “progressive” games have become – look, a strong and hardened female protagonist who does everything Nathan Drake can do and more!  The difference: as strange and mechanical as Scarlett’s beautiful extraterrestrial appeared to viewers of that film, she still made a far more personable, sympathetic, and human entity than this decade’s quasi-Feminist Lara, who’s more of an SJW-inspired construct for a character than a character herself.

Tomb Raider feels very much the same as a game, never deviating from its packaged Indiana Jones-y plot or giving one a reason to care about anything that happens to its “characters”.  Visually it’s one of the better-looking games I’ve played – or shall I say experienced, as getting through its lifeless narrative often feels more like work than play.  As Lara, I virtually dragged myself through the last hour and a half, not out of duty to any boring comrades or interest in solving the mystery but merely out of fairness to the designers who had already succeeded in wasting so much of my time.  In retrospect, maybe I played so long under the delusion that the writer was obliged, or maybe indebted to give me a satisfactory ending, though I like to think I’m smarter than that now.

But I was about to talk about how gorgeous this thing is.  The landscapes and lighting are indeed befitting of a tropical paradise retreat, one where hundreds of well-armed plane crash survivors converge to pointlessly murder and get murdered by you.  There’s truly no greater reward in Tomb Raider than getting to pause and gape at the lovely mountain ranges between one forced firefight or untimed rescue effort and the next.  The weather effects are impressive and varied enough that you can run through a snowy, a rainy, a nighttime, and a sunny level in one hour of real time without leaving the island.  The character animations are astonishingly true to the adventuring life, and I never tired of watching Lara jumping, climbing, somersaulting, grabbing onto ledges while plummeting, and never getting tired through any of it because she’s a weightless “platforming game” character.  The best fun to be had from this title, besides setting scads of random, bloodthirsty lunatics on fire without remorse, stems mainly from charging around wide, open villages where the game isn’t bossily directing you down a tunnel to the next pit stop in the story.

These sections, it goes without saying, are very few and far between.  Most of Tomb Raider’s so-called gameplay involves running and occasionally jumping down a straight path while structures blow up and collapse around you in spectacular, preordained fashion.  To save Lara from falling to certain doom with the rest of the crumbling, largely unexplained ancient architecture, the player follows predictable on-screen prompts to press this or that button or to jerk the joystick back and forth maniacally.  None of these “quick-time events” will challenge anyone who knows the layout of the controller, nor do they amplify the intensity of the scripted cutscenes they replace. Rather, they serve as an obnoxious reminder that one is simply furthering a fictional, deeply linear interactive movie, and a really uninvolving, tensionless movie at that.

The omnipresent non-threat of A.I. bad guys, who are especially susceptible to arrows in the head and can very seldom make it to the end of the map where you’re hiding, also draws attention to the artifice of the game’s world, a lost island infested with savage cultists who have no connection to outside civilization and who ostensibly slaughter anyone who wanders into their domain.  Since there are no female, childbearing cultists observed within the game and the bad guys have a marked hostility to anyone who might prolong the survival of their circle, it doesn’t make sense why there are literally hundreds of bad guys to begin with, bearing literally hundreds of firearms and molotov cocktails.  Are plane and ship crashes such a recurrent phenomenon on this isle that arch-villain Father Mathias is able to recruit enough unfortunate passengers to settle, patrol, and randomly disperse lanterns, scrolls, and arrow quivers (recovered from the wreckage of transports that just so carried such things?) all over the place?  The only logical explanation for the magnitude and prevalence of the cult is that the developers were afraid of alienating anxious Call of Duty gamers who’ve grown accustomed to looking for and stylishly disposing of scores of nameless, mostly impotent baddies.  And disposing of them is pretty fun, up until the point you realize that the only reason you can kill so many people with such ease is because you’re playing a mindless, dumbed-down movie-game, and the people you’re killing exist in such quantities only because the medium of an Uncharted-esque tentpole release calls for them to be there, because the unskilled, unrefined masses would cry foul if they got anything less for their $60.

When performing awesome, death-defying feats is as easy as pressing the X button and the bland protagonist is for all intents and purposes invincible against man and nature, it’s impossible to form the slightest investment in what happens to her.  She’s Superman without a conscience (if I had a dollar for every time she yelled, “Die, you bastards!” or “Go to hell!” or something of the sort), and watching her narrowly skirt catastrophe over and over with little to no agency outside of basic directional commands makes for possibly the least involving experience one could derive from a game.  Even if cutscenes and camera changes didn’t constantly yank the player out of Lara’s boots, the game’s passive method of forcing Lara into a “sneaky” crouching stance whenever danger arises would accomplish that just as well. Tomb Raider doesn’t have a “cover system” per se, as has almost every 3rd-person shooter in the wake of Gears of War and Uncharted, but that doesn’t preclude it from reminding the players at every turn of the sheer disdain the designers held for their basic competence.

Normally I would say that the developer should have just made an uninterrupted cutscene, more commonly known as a movie, but Tomb Raider’s story is so fundamentally broken it wouldn’t work as anything.  I don’t want to ramble too much about the actual script as I’m more concerned with the storytelling methods broadly, but here’s a quick rundown of Tomb Raider’s many inanities.

* Battle dialogue. Again, the Die you Bastards thing, but also creative stuff like:
[Cultist 122] “She’s just one girl!”
[Cultist 123] “That one girl is kicking our ass!”

* Other dialogue:
“Look, I know this is a crazy plan.”
“It is, but right now crazy is all we got.  Let’s do this.
“You think you’re a hero, Lara?  Everything I’ve done I’ve done to survive!”
“Oh my god.  Sam – a vessel for the sun queen’s soul.  I have to stop this madness.”

* The mythological sun queen plot actually being treated seriously, despite it being the least appropriate thing to put in a story about the formative molding of Lara Croft.  The only adversaries needed were a band of loony cannibal cult-worshippers, some vicious wolves (the wolf-to-human ratio on this uninhabitable, storm-ravaged island is and should be something like 50:1), and the elements of the island itself.  Instead of a bracing, primal survival story about a frightened woman outwitting and fighting men who’ve forsaken any moral boundaries, what we get is a silly, unbelievable fantasy romp wherein the crazed savages are actually right and the hero must appease the angry, mythical sun creature to calm the storms enveloping the island.

* The hero having to prove her ability in order to honor her family name, which should mean something to us but depends entirely on unearned nostalgia.  “You can do it, Lara,” says the grizzled beta male companion in a scene sampled by a lot of advertising materials.  “After all, you’re a Croft.”  “I don’t think I’m that kind of Croft,” protests Lara, but the older man quickly rebuts that notion.  “Sure you are.  You just don’t know it yet.”  Before playing the Body Positivity version of Lara Croft, it never occurred to me that I might appreciate an origin story about the legendary tomb buster besting her weak self-confidence or sense of familial isolation.  Tomb Raider made sure to dispel that uncertainty within the first two hours or so of the game, which is equivalent to verbally dropping daddy issues in the first twelve minutes of a mainstream movie without ever bothering to show said daddy in the flesh.  Guardians of the Galaxy kind of did that, twice, but at least it wasn’t boring.  Tomb Raider’s story, however, is a more violent, overblown riff on an American Idol or Chopped episode; all are built around disgustingly manipulative backstories of people losing elder family members and trying to “prove themselves” by overcoming some challenge for the deceased, but while the character development on reality TV offers an antidote for a main attraction – bad karaoke, cooking, wedding dress shopping – that is frankly unbearable, the character development in this video game injects an unbearable distraction from the only possible attraction, which is setting off explosive barrels and stabbing people in the face.

A Lara I cared more about than the one in Tomb Raider

* Internalized misandry, or perhaps just misandry, because the lead writer was a woman.  Right around and subsequent to Tomb Raider’s release, much hullabaloo was being raised on the left side of the interwebs over supposed “misogyny” in the video game industry, by which accusers were referring either to the unsatisfactory proportion of vaginas on game development teams or to what they considered unflattering depictions of female characters in mega-successful game franchises.  Tomb Raider seems to have been commissioned directly in response to these complaints, not just in the way it desexualizes a character once embodied by young Angelina Jolie, but in its larger, subtler scheme of making almost every man in the game a ruthless, sadistic monster answerable to no greater code or principles but the dictates of an even crueler monster.  If GTA can be condemned as sexist because all its female characters are helpless or – less offensively – whores, then detractors of that major series should apply the same logic to the minor Feminist Tomb Raider reboot.  I forget if any one of the enemies go so far as to levy rape threats, but I don’t recall playing as Lara to be a very pleasurable or relieving experience, and I would have left with a profound distrust of all men if I didn’t know that this was fiction.  Goons in Batman: Arkham City often make leery, sexually charged threats against Catwoman, but that game’s prison setting takes for granted that its denizens are the lowest, most far gone drecks of uncivilized society.  Tomb Raider, on the other hand, might as well be labeled a 3rd-person patriarchy murder-fantasy simulator, and one of the worse ones in the genre.

In case I haven’t been clear, make no mistake that killing patriarchs as Lara can be pretty fun, and after an hour, I had gotten really good at killing them.  The problem is, in modern video games, killing people has gotten far too easy.  Any kid, heck, any crazy person who doesn’t even play video games, can walk into a shop, or go on Craigslist, buy any 1st-person action game, and start senselessly mowing down tons of people with assault weapons, and whenever someone tries to stop them, they can just duck down and let their health recharge.

Now there are two ways we can respond to this.  We can pretend the problem doesn’t exist, keep praising crappy military-style games like Tomb Raider, saying that Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Jonathan McIntosh, and other Feminists are trying to take these games away, which… is just not true.  We can tell ourselves that Tomb Raider is an A+ story when it’d really be a C- movie, because we think the jokes are funny, or the violence is provocative, or we like watching buildings fall down and blow up.

Or we can say enough is enough, admit the problem exists, and start working on tough but common-sense solutions to the “cinematic”, self-playing okey doke that is Tomb Raider.  Solutions like a modern Metroid game that isn’t Other M, or even Half Life 3.  We’ve got a long way to go, and the choice of how we go there lies with us.  But the time has long since passed for doing nothing.  The road ahead is clear.  With the courage and determination of the gaming community, Tomb Raider will be just another bump in a very rocky road.

6.5/10.  I have nothing good to say about this game.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

NWTE – A Forgotten Blake Lively Movie and The Expendables 2

Not Worth The Effort was conceived in early Fall of 2015 with the aim of succinctly documenting and summarizing movies (and possibly other media) that simply aren’t worth the effort of a full review.  This month’s issue is dedicated to The Shallows starring Blake Lively, which looks to be an amazing big-screen outing for the boys.

Savagess –

I’m trying to think of a movie that has used first-person narration to its betterment.  1st-person voice works well in writing because authors aren’t bound by technical limitations and can place the reader in whomever’s head they desire, but with the exception of the Maniac remake and some found-footage movies to an extent, filmmaking is a 3rd-person medium of storytelling, and throwing voiceover into that formula pretty much always undermines the structure.  Memento pulled it off really well.  Dogville’s omniscient narration was great, and The Lobster and Doctor Zhivago both used supporting characters’ voices to strong effect.  Flipped was decent.  I must be reaching to be talking about Flipped in a movie review.  Please Hollywood, stop using dumb voiceovers to tell us about the world, the characters, and details we can gather from visuals and dialogue.

Savages is all about terrible people doing terrible things to other terrible people.  It’s crushingly dark, depressing, and nihilistic up until the ending scene, when it tries to introduce some black comedy and leaves a nasty aftertaste of WTF in everybody’s throat.  The final ten minutes are an unmitigated catastrophe of filmmaking, a giant middle finger to the audience that basically says, “Yup, none of this was real, gotcha!  All this dream-sequence violence and drama was just a ploy to shove more exciting action shots in the trailer and get you into the theater!”  If you’re going to watch this film, just stop it before the hostage exchange scene.  The worst of all the bad guys gets away without punishment, John Travolta’s corrupt bureaucrat comes out on top, no one lives happily ever after, and Blake Lively doesn’t die as she’s been hinting the whole movie through voiceover.  How are we even hearing her obnoxious voice in the first place?  Did her character “O” (short for Ophelia, which she doesn’t like because it reminds her of Hamlet – ugh, moving on…) record her narration after the events of the film took place?  If so and this is ostensibly a true story, why does the cinematography look so crisp and why does she mess with people by saying she may be dead by the time they’re hearing her?  If it’s truly an inner monologue and fits within a fictional framework, why does she break the fourth wall and address viewers directly like she’s a real person?

Aside from the Blake Lively voiceover lines, which seem like they were written by an entirely different, much less competent person (“Chon ____s; Ben makes love.  Chon is earth; Ben is spirit.”), there’s a lot of good dialogue and characterization that’s enhanced by really powerful acting.  I don’t get why the critical consensus universally held that Taylor Kitsch and Lively were weak links in the casting; the former played his pragmatic, short-tempered Seal veteran to a T, and the latter exuded surprising depth and frailty in the part of a wealthy, emptyheaded Cali-girl slut, or so she describes herself.  The part where she implores her captors to send her some dope and confides that she’s been taking drugs since the eighth grade may be the saddest, most revealing scene of the film.  I guess reviewers had to come up with some concrete, surface-level reasons why they didn’t like the film, and when you can’t articulate any problems with the scripting or direction, making up bad acting and attacking that is an easy cop-out for would-be critics. Salma Hayek is a stupid race-baiting twat, but she’s a stupid race-baiting twat who can act and curse phenomenally, and Benicio Del Toro is also terrific as one of the most revolting and sadistic and irredeemable villains I’ve seen in a long while.

Verily the whole movie revolves around revolting and sadistic deeds, and while there’s a definite place in cinema for films that expose the scum, the desperation, the violence of the real world, Oliver Stone doesn’t infuse Savages with nearly enough philosophical meat, let alone hope for anyone but Del Toro’s Lado, to make it a redeemable use of anybody’s time.  Ben and Chon, who share O as a mutual girlfriend in what Hayek points out is a fundamentally dysfunctional relationship, have occasional verbal bouts over morality and justice, the former guy identifying as a pacificistic Buddhist, the latter as an ends-justify-the-means “Baddest”.  This is Blake Lively’s voiceover evaluating the two.

Screw it.  This just wasn’t very good, at all.  Click here for the Good Parts Version some other blogger made of Savages, and by Good Parts I mean unintentionally hilarious.

Twice As Expendable –

The Expendables 2 is a piece of crap.  Sold on the star appeal if not the acting of its ensemble cast, it relies entirely on nostalgia and cheesy throwback one-liners to cover for its auto-pilot direction, acting, and script, and it sadly seems to have worked, as 66% of critics gave it their stamp of approval.  Like the failed Battleship board game adaptation of four years ago, it feels like an attempt at making a Michael Bay sensory overload but with none of the directorial prowess behind it.  If it had actually been a Michael Bay movie, it would probably have netted a whopping 6%, but that’s just the funny world of double standards in which we live.

The movie opens with a compound infiltration scene straight out of Predator wherein Sly Stallone and his buddies mindlessly shoot hundreds of Bad Guys and spill countless gallons of fake-looking blood before rescuing Schwarzenegger, riding down a zipline while shooting more Bad Guys with perfect accuracy, and jumping into an amphibious plane that completely blows up a worthless bridge just by shooting it three times in the center.  Jean Claude Van Damme kills Gale from The Hunger Games after we’ve known him for some fifteen minutes, which gives Sly and his friends, including “Christmas”, “Gunner”, “Trench”, “Church”, and Maggie an excuse to “track him, find him, kill him”, you know, for revenge.

Along the way they get dragged into a typical Eastwood Western plotline about a helpless village living in fear of an evil El Guapo figure.  Stallone (who technically has a name but isn’t really a character) steers a plane into the Bad Guy’s mine and breaks it in a sequence fraught with shaky-cam effect, all so that his partner can look at him and say, “You’re going to need a different plane.”  Ha ha ha.  Stating the obvious in a dangerous situation is funny.  Arnold Schwarzenegger frees them from the mine and says, “I’m back,” which is another recurring reference – I mean joke.  Chuck Norris, who previously had a one-minute scene establishing that he works alone, shows up unexpectedly to lend a hand and they all converge to cause a chaotic bloodbath at a crowded airport terminal that’s full of innocent travelers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Stallone confronts Van Damme, who makes the fatal error of mocking his opponent instead of killing him and of forgetting the name of the Expendable he murdered in cold blood earlier.  “His name was Billy!” growls Stallone while twisting the bad guy’s own knife into his stomach, which inadvertently triggers the biggest snorts the movie’s bound to get out of anybody.

There’s not much else to say about The Expendables 2.  Chuck Norris can’t act, Bruce Willis chooses not to, the cinematography looks gray and boring and cheap, action and reaction always happen in separate shots except when Jet Li’s on camera (which isn’t long), and the whole thing comes across a gimmicky pet project that a bunch of friends co-wrote and pulled together over a month.  If you loved Predator with Arnold Schwarzenegger, then you’ll merely like The Expendables 2 with Arnold Schwarzenegger.  If you’ve seen The Raid: Redemption or Saving Private Ryan or Crouching Tiger or something like that, then you’ll only barely be able to tolerate The Expendables 2.

* Editor’s note: Both these reviews were written about a year ago and carefully preserved for a rainy day.  The Author might have revised them but wisely opted not to, seeing as how that would defile the spirit of an issue of Not Worth The Effort.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Serious Man – Asking the Unanswered Questions

The following essay was written for the same Religion In Film class that enabled me to talk about the spiritual themes of obscure vampire indies or disgusting Lars Von Trier art flicks and get credit for it.  As with most of my papers for that class, half of it was written overnight while the other half was rushed out just before the “end” of the “day”, but due to laziness I have refrained from making any major changes to it, even though I hated having to use 1st-person (it was a personal assignment).  While I wrote my Byzantium critique assuming the intended reader had no prior knowledge of the material, I approached this film knowing well that my professor already held it in high regard, and so decided to disregard boring plot synopsis and just spoil everything in the process of defending my thesis.  If you have not yet seen A Serious Man and tend to like the rest of the Coen Brothers’ filmography, I would advise you to go hunt it down, form your own opinion, and then return here for enrichment, because it’s definitely one of those movies you should see if you like movies.  Spoiler.

Over my many years of critically watching and writing about movies to extract whatever message the filmmakers were trying to convey, I can’t recall feeling spiritually or theologically swayed by any film.  The films that have impacted me on an emotional level number many, as do those that have influenced my feelings on politics, the psychology of man, his basic goodness or badness, and his general relationship to the divine.  However, due in part to my own wariness of film’s inherent artifices, to my pretty firm beliefs, and to my general distrust of Hollywood, I would tend to shun or at least question films that bore overtly religious themes or claimed to hold the answers to all our questions.

With that in mind, it came as a frustrating but respectable surprise that the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man poses far more questions than it attempts to answer.  While not outright denying the existence or the justice of God or really making any judgment on the faith of its Jewish subjects, the movie subtly remarks that many of our most earnest questions regarding God will always be incomprehensible, and yet this doesn't exclude the reality of an order and a reason behind everything that happens.  The most a serious man can do is live with the limitations of his knowledge and gracefully accept whatever comes his way, for good or (in the case of its main character) devastating ill.  As such, A Serious Man is both exceptionally pious and aggravatingly agnostic, at once extolling the wisdom of God’s plan for all of us and bemoaning our inability to appreciate or notice that plan in the present.

The Jewish fable preceding the main events of the film does little to clarify the complicated messaging, though a quote from the Rabbi Rashi does provide a sort of framing ideal for the tests that the protagonist (and audience at some point) will undergo.  “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” counsels the prologue, and while the quote has seemingly no correlation with the opening chapter, it will come to shed a light on the central narrative’s conflict.

Nothing in life seems to be going in the favor of Larry Gopnick, a physics professor and devout Jewish father who's defeatedly witnessing his family life crumble around him.  His son and daughter endlessly assail him about fixing the TV or other meager problems, his wife Judith demands a ritual divorce and remarriage for no valid reason, his brother Arthur leeches off his generosity whilst working on a nonsensical book, and others at his school make his workplace living hell.  All these calamities he abides not because he’s patient or long-suffering but because he lacks the willpower to make a declarative stand for his or anybody else’s rights.  “But I haven't done anything!” is his refrain when pleading with his wife, his co-worker, and a record salesman on the phone.  This raises the perennial problem of pain: how a just and benevolent God can cause so many misfortunes to befall a man who seemingly does nothing wrong, who, in fact, has an established habit of doing nothing at all.

Throughout the dissolution of his marriage, Larry and his family consult with three different rabbis, each older and less insightful than the last.  The junior rabbi advises him to find a “fresh perspective” on Hashem and see his ailments as “expressions of God’s will”.  Once Larry tries this and finds he’s still not satisfied living in an endless downward spiral, he goes to Rabbi Nachtner for guidance and leaves more frustrated than before.  “Why does He make us feel the questions if He's not going to give us any answers?” he wonders, but all the teacher offers is, “Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer.  Hashem doesn’t owe us anything.”  Just as Larry believes that he’s entitled to a reasoned explanation for his suffering, his slacker brother has fallen victim to a similar delusion, believing that he deserves a baseline level of blessings and cursing wildly about how little Hashem has given him in comparison to Larry.

The reality, according to the film, is that God owes neither prosperity to Arthur nor theological certainty to Larry.  Others have compared A Serious Man to Job, and I wouldn’t deny the commonalities between the two.  Like A Serious Man, Job is mainly about accepting the mystery of God’s purposes and humbly receiving everything that goes one’s way.
“You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know… My eyes had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” ~ Job 42: 3, 5

But Job is not the end of the biblical parallels and references implicit in the film.  In the long-anticipated march towards the ancient rabbi Marshak, the camera at one time focuses on a painting of the Akedah, i.e. Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac in accordance with the Lord’s commandment.  Yet another example of God nearly subjecting a follower to extraordinary pain and loss for reasons not immediately known to him, this image can hardly be an incidental detail.  Larry also evokes King David in 2nd Samuel when he climbs up on his own roof, catches sight of his beautiful neighbor sunbathing, and proceeds to seduce her in the absence of his wife’s affections.  This thread’s relationship to the broader thematic fabric of A Serious Man is less obvious, though the Bathsheba story from David’s reign does caution us against holding discontentment towards the gifts the Lord bestows on us.  For Arthur, that discontentment stems from his inescapable poverty, for Judith it stems from her marriage, and for Larry, of course, it stems from having to live with his own ignorance.

The storytelling structure of A Serious Man itself plays into the film’s concern with God’s unseen, unknowable plans.  The script frequently meanders into subplots and tangents that appear superfluous until passing dialogue later fills in their meaning.  The critical letters sent to Larry’s tenure committee remain a mystery up until the bar mitzvah scene, when Judith remorsefully lets slip that Sy Ableman had been writing to them.  This turns out to be a narrative moot point, as Larry is granted tenure anyway, indicating that Hashem turns even the most malign and jealous motives to His own good plan.  When Larry’s son finally fakes his way into the presence of the revered Rabbi Marshak, he is high on marijuana and the elder does nothing but babble song lyrics, but the boy’s misdeeds in getting to that point nonetheless enable him to recover his radio and the money he owes the bully Fagle, possibly leading to reconciliation between the two.

On a presumably grimmer note, Larry’s X-ray examination at the beginning feels wholly disconnected from the rest of the plot until the ominous phone call he receives in the movie’s final moments.  Whether this is building on the rambling story narrated by Rabbi Nachtner is open to speculation, though I doubt the Coens, in such a tightly scripted movie, would have interspersed that scene for purely comedic value.  Isn’t it plausible that Larry also has the will of God (“Helping others… couldn’t hurt.”) engraved inside him, literally and metaphorically, without his knowledge, as did the goy in the rabbi’s far-fetched, incoherent parable? It’s certainly no coincidence that he notices both the call and the storm precisely after he determines to pass the student who bribed him earlier.

If I have any quibble with the movie, it’s that the ending, either by purpose or by accident, dispels so much of the mystery the Coens have woven around Hashem and how he works.  By so suggestively linking Larry’s fraud with the onset of the tornado, the concluding frames make God’s plan out to be fairly predictable and retributive and well within our human comprehension.  As a whole, though, I found A Serious Man a deeply thoughtful, debatable and darkly comic take on our innermost longing (and inability) to understand the ways of God.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Even More Stuff That Larry Twicken Says

This being the final chapter of an epic trilogy of things that Saddleback professor Lawrence Twicken says. The great thing about taking classes with Mr. Twinkett is that one could theoretically never run out of new and exciting Twinkettisms to share with all the world.  The not-so-great thing is that one would have to keep taking classes with Mr. Twinkett.

On the souls of black folk:
“If you thought black people were animals, why were you having sex with them?”
“People still want to study why black people run faster…” 
[Imitating a hypothetical black mother while explaining how blacks are “super-spankers”]  “Tonight – and she’s fingering her belt – I’m gonna whoop your black ass!”
“The black middle-class of today would not exist without affirmative action.” 
“There are two groups of people we don’t talk about: upper-middle-class black folk and Asian criminals.”
“We still are under that slavery, that system… even to this day.” 
[On the 3/5ths Compromise] “Shows you how important diversity is…” 
“Black folk have to buy a white anniversary card.” 

On females:
[Possibly facetious, possibly earnest] “There should be twice as many bathrooms for women.”
“Women are a numerical majority, but we talk about them as if they’re a minority because they have less power.”
 “… patriarchy…”

On his wife:
“My wife’s been trying to teach me to appreciate smooth jazz.”
[Recounting an anecdote about his wife getting caught in traffic, or a car crash, or some tense situation.  The only necessary background is that his wife never swears, but when she does…]  “So this guy is screaming at her, ‘I’m going to come over there and ____ you!’  And my wife says, ‘You don’t have anything to ____ me with!’”

On parenting:
[A long digression]  “Spanking children.  It doesn’t work.  All the psychologists say so.”
“I used to take my son, throw him up in the air and catch him, but you’re not supposed to do that – spinal injuries… When I figured out, I was like, ‘Oh, shoot.  That’s a violent act.’”  And he told another dad in a parking lot not to do it.

On Global Warming:
“Let me just say that there is global climate change.  The earth is getting warmer.”
“You shouldn’t write articles saying Global Warming isn’t real.” 
“We can solve it… it’s not a left-right issue, it’s all of us.” 
[Talking about the Hummer motor vehicle]  “It’s like you take your penis, flap it around, and say, ‘I’m going to rape the environment, I’m going to ____ the environment!’” 

On technology:
[Addressing a student checking his phone, while he’s setting up an HBO movie he’s about to screen for almost 2 hours]  “Put that away please.” 

On court packing:
“Adams thinks that Jefferson state’s rights people are gonna ____ things up; so he fills up the courts with Federalists… Basically they said, ‘____ you, ____ you, no ____ing way.  Not gonna happen.’” 
“Then Jefferson says, ‘How great is this?  I can destroy the mother____ing court forever!” 

On law and order and law enforcement:
[On de jure segregation, or de facto, not that it really matters to him]  “Whites know they’re privileged; blacks know they’re being ____ed with…  No matter how many opportunities they get, they’re ____ups.”
[Referring to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments] “… The Second Constitution…” 
“We have some pro-life groups which go out and shoot doctors…” 
“Most police don’t live in Los Angeles or give a s____ about people living there.” 

On the Confederate flag [snippets of a 35-minute intro to one class period]:
“The Confederate Flag was not just a battle flag.  It was a flag of slavery, meant to replace the United States flag.”
 “The flag was used to intimidate black folk.  It came back in the 1950s because of the civil rights movement.”
“It’s a symbol of terrorism… the same as the swastika.” 
[Anecdotal story about someone drawing a graffiti swastika in his neighborhood, school, wherever]  “My kids couldn’t sleep in their beds for months.”

On what conservatives and liberals want:
[Talking about mutual sacrifice and racial equality]  “Liberals just want to make the pie bigger, but the pie always shrinks.”
“John Roberts did the conservative thing [on Obamacare]… There’s no doubt Roberts is a conservative.  It’s a very logical argument he made on Obamacare.” 
“The NRA’s views on guns are not in line with the average gun owner’s.” 
“So conservatives don’t want to change the two-party system.” 
“Affirmative action is pretty conservative.” 

On himself being conservative:
“I’m pretty libertarian that way.  If people want to do [Operation Chaos, or similar electoral sabotage], let them do it.”

On checks and balances:
“The division of powers was logical, but not rational.” 
“How is the president any more qualified [than the people] to select the judges?” 
“The limit on that federal government is us.”  Says like he cares about limiting the government. 
“The layer cake analogy of government is bad because there are a lot more forces at play.  It’s really more like a marble cake.”
[On Congressional committees]  “The truth is no one’s going to read the ____ing bill.”

On demographics:
[On Social Security] “They ____ with young people cause they don’t vote, but old people do vote.”
“In the California suburbs, they want to be super-Mormon.  In Salt Lake City, they have Mormon drunks, Mormon gay people.” 
“The core of blue states’ voting blocs is black people.” 

On fairness:
“It’s unfair to ask a truck driver to work two more years to get Social Security… it’s unkind.” 

On homosexual marriage:
“Scalia’s outrageous, mean-spirited rant…” 
“The only argument against same-sex marriage is religious or that it’s icky… but people only think gay PDA is gross because of the government’s disapproval.” 
“Marriage is a civil institution… Marriage is a right.  It’s one of those privileges.” 
[Mockingly] “Horses and people are going to have sex with each other and have horsey babies…” 
 [On incest, speaking sophistically, I think]  “Why is it wrong?  What rational reason is there for fearing it?”  [Waits for student response.]  “Just no ____ing way!”
“Scalia was so wrong on Obamacare.”
“You have to go back 100 years to find a Supreme Court this crazy.” 

On other stereotypes:
[A lengthy tangent concerning a particular Irvine high school]  “I’m against every Indian mascot.”
“There are Asian people who are tall.  Not every one is super teach-smart.  Some of the most vicious gangs…”  [The Author’s notes end here.]
“If I say nigga, no one cares.  If I say the same word for Jew, then everyone is up in arms… [Demonstrates.]  Nigga, nigga, nigga!  … I’m using the Kanye West version.” 

On his grading rubric:
“I’m not ideological – I’m a pain in the ass to everyone.”
“If you make a dumb argument, I’m gonna be pissed.  I hate stupid people.” 

On himself:
“Most people want to challenge Mr. Twicken the first week.  But most teachers know more than you – not necessarily smarter, they just know more.”
“A student journalist here once got outraged that I said Thomas Jefferson raped a slave and wrote about me in the paper.  So I got my whole class to wear hoodies for Trayvon.” 
“One reason my wife married me is my hairy chest… and that I’m really smart, which I am.” 
[Of the John Adams government and the Alien Sedition Acts]  “They’d probably use the death penalty three times on me.” 
“That’s why this class is such a bargain.” 

Fast-travel to other parts:
Stuff That Larry Twicken Says
More Stuff That Larry Twicken Says

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Spotify Is Bad For Civilization – on Genre, "Music Discovery", and the Decline of Taste

I don’t often learn anything new in liberal arts classes, but when I do, it’s a revelatory experience.  Such an awakening occurred during the 5-minute break of a literature class when the conversation turned to one student’s musical tastes, or deficiency thereof.  “I’ve been listening to a lot of EDM,” remarked the three-year student of epic poetry, theology, and philosophy.  “EDM when I wake up, when I shower, when I drive…”  Everybody laughed, except for the Author.

As a somewhat avid listener of most kinds of music except for jazz and soul, which – let’s admit it – are horrible by themselves, and as the sole curator of a 177-hour-long list of hand-picked songs, I’ll confess that I, more so than other people, am predisposed to hate the implications of this statement.  Most people in this situation wouldn’t think anything of the student listening to EDM, and they certainly wouldn’t make it as far as passing judgment on that lifestyle.  “Live and let live,” they would say, or, “You do you,” or, most heinously, “It’s good that you’ve found something you’re really passionate about.”  I, conversely, found nothing whatsoever celebratory in it, and spent the rest of the class period mulling over such questions as, “What kind of EDM?” and “Who’s your favorite artist?” and “What the hell do you appreciate in EDM that’s any way artistically redeeming?”

Putting aside the banalities I associate with EDM (which is a euphemism for electronic dance music, which is itself an even more vapid incarnation of electropop music), the tendency of Millennials and consumers in general to blindly seek out and wolf down types of music based upon their disposition suggests a regrettable indifference towards the artistic process used to bring the music to them in the first place.  It’s easy to boast about your generation receiving arguably the worst pop music in the history of the world; I had thoroughly convinced myself of this dark reality back in 2014, a year that introduced and continued to feed us such innovations of musical gayness as Sam Smith, that Beyoncé album, Macklemore, One Direction, and so on.  Yet one could make this case for just about any year in music; if you only listen to whatever plays on radio, you will probably end up thinking yours is either the greatest or the worst era ever, depending on your temperament.

However, there can be no dispute that the youth of today, beyond producing and consuming the worst music of all time, have additionally assumed the worst methods thus far pioneered of discovering, listening to, and critically dissecting music.  This is on account of many things, some technological, others sociological, but music as an art form is undoubtedly declining as a pillar of our culture.  Whereas music formerly could only be experienced in public performances eagerly sought out by the middle-class, and later through radio and individually purchased physical records, the advent of the internet and of streaming services has enabled nearly everybody living in 1st-world countries to access untold stores of albums from every era and movement.  In theory this should come as a boon to musical literacy and – dare we say – diversification, but in effect these platforms have proven cancerous to their users’ acumen and mentality, systematically connecting them with whatever they already like and nothing else.  People develop an addiction to EDM, to metal, to Top 40, to whatever gets them “turnt up”, and gladly stay in ignorance of real music.  Their musical intake has backslid into something like Starbucks coffee or cafeteria chicken tenders: courses they consume just to sustain themselves, not knowing of or not having any better options.

“What kind of music do you like?” is a common icebreaker among Americans, one that has the potential to reveal a fair amount about an individual’s personality.  Of a man who says he listens to Kendrick Lamar or Public Enemy, one might induce he fancies himself an intellectual, politically conscious and keen to the demands of African-American neighborhoods.  Maybe he’s just like me and appreciates music that tries to say something, anything of pertinence to society.  Of a man who exalts the U2 of the olden days (before they totally sold out), one could presuppose a certain degree of spirituality and segue from that into a conversation about faith, the afterlife, or something as corny and poetic as the oneness of humanity.  Of a woman who says she likes Radiohead and thinks The King of Limbs is severely underrated, one could judge she’s either a tranny or a keeper, because women don’t listen to Radiohead.  Of a man who says that he likes Radiohead and believes Thom Yorke to be a messenger for our times, one could guess he’s probably a liberal male, and deal with that accordingly.

One’s favorite musical artist can be as telling a characteristic of one’s identity as one’s favorite author, city, pastime, historical leader, etc.  Bradley Nowell, Lou Reed, Fiona Apple, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Tupac Shakur: these were more just content creators happy to make a living entertaining the masses.  These were (and continue to be) cultural icons, even idols who shaped minds and inspired hundreds to hone their craft, their voice, their style, or their sex lives.  At the mere mention of these names, one could form a mental picture not only of the artists’ outer bearing but of what traits or virtues they symbolized to their fans.

A collage of extremely wealthy and popular EDM “artists”

What could one possibly assume about people who admit to “listening to a lot of EDM”, except that they probably don’t have great taste in music?  What distinguishes a Kygo from a Skrillex or a Calvin Harris or a Tiësto or a David Guetta, artistically or as celebrities, and would an EDM fan be able to blindly source a new track by any of them?  Such a person would be a blank slate from their EDM taste alone, as would a majority of my generation, which has all but disavowed the celebration and disciplined study of idols in the arts.  Yes, there are the Beyoncés and the Kanyes and the Lady Gagas of the industry, people respected in most circles less for their music than for the ideals they represent (women’s liberation, not caring what others think about you, and being gay), but by and large Millennials have exported the rock god in favor of the pop star.  What do Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Drake, Ariana Grande, J.T., Rihanna, and Taylor Swift mean to those who play their music?  What does the music mean to them, and could they explain the meaning to someone not acquainted with the record?  Would they listen to the record front to back more than once?  These, alack and alas, are dying practices in the 21st century.

This is not to call the pop star a strictly Millennial invention.  Indeed, every generation has had its share of safe and featureless junk that rapidly fades into obsolescence, only to be resurrected in a hastily made Totally 80s playlist and exposed to a whole new batch of suckers who think they love the pop music of their parents but wouldn’t bother themselves to buy or listen to any older album in its entirety.  This is the paradox of claiming to love music from the 80s or any other decade: by the very denotation of “80s music”, one both demarcates said music to a separate category from contemporary music, suggesting it’s less relevant or pure as art, and subtly dehumanizes the authorship of the older music by attributing its genesis to cultural trends instead of individual composers and performers.  Talking Heads, e.g., were not an amazing “80s Music” band; they were a very influential and creative band who were known for working in the new wave and art pop genres, who happened to flourish in the 80s, and whose lead singer went on to have a semi-successful solo career.

Nor do I wish to say that genuine musical artistry has expired; quite to the contrary, the internet, self-publishing, and crowd-funding have parted the floodgates to a deluge of artists who in past days may never have reached an audience outside their own town.  The sphere of music at our disposal has compounded in volume over the last decade, and yet Millennials have somehow conceived more and more efficient means of homogenizing everything that reaches their ears. Instead of listening to artists, stories, or sonic landscapes, we listen to genres and “moods”, effectively screening out any music that doesn’t match our spirits at a time or that we don’t already find pleasing.  We have music for pumping iron, music for hitting the beach, music for drinking fake, expensive coffee, music for getting drunk and upsetting the neighbors, music for spiting male conservative friends, and according to Spotify, even music for having sex.  Wired has an interesting article examining how exhaustively the company has wrapped itself around the lives of its customers, but this should already be apparent to anybody who has used the program more than once a day.  While music as a mindless supplement to other activities steadily proliferates, we see music for music’s sake increasingly regressing into an intimidating, alien concept, and not the kind that European leaders welcome into their society.  This is detrimental to any thriving culture.

A collage of song collections that are only good for one distinct occasion

For a service that seems ready-made to facilitate musical branching out and learning, Spotify habitually reassures users that they needn’t branch out or come in contact with anything they don’t immediately like. From its thousands of specialized playlists to its automatically generated personal recommendations to its front-page pop music advertisements (VIEWS by DRAKE available now, CLICK HERE!) to its archaic, Pandora-inspired radio functionality, which prioritizes or buries artists based on the user’s input, Spotify offers a wide assortment of tools to connect its paying subscribers with a decidedly narrow selection of music, and to shield them from most everything else.  This makes perfect sense from a strategic standpoint, as most businesses depend on satisfied, returning consumers, and most consumers want a fairly similar experience every time they visit a business.  In promoting such user-friendly systems, streaming providers like Spotify and Apple Music follow rather surefire regimens for building consumer trust, but in so doing they also undercut the very advantages of their existing at all, that being the freedom to listen to any album on demand.

Spotify bombards users of the free version with advertisements enticing them to subscribe and “skip away” until they find a song that’s just right for their current company or state of mind.  In the dark ages predating the internet and ADD streaming services, skipping away was not a viable or easy option, requiring one to record a mixtape or burn a CD in order to jump between several unrelated songs in a row.  Alternatively one could fumble through a collection of physical media to sate one’s longing for a radically different song, but the hassle involved in this exchange intrinsically motivated the listener to focus on one artist for 40 minutes at a time.  Certain LPs, such as The Dark Side of the Moon, played out as two unbroken, sweeping pieces of music, defying anyone twitchy enough to skip around and achieve the same emotional high encapsulated in the whole.  Pink Floyd’s albums, and others’ to a lesser extent, rewarded those who listened intentionally and persevered through the slower instrumental sections.  They were theatrical exercises in balance and contrast and bombast, ones that deserved to be heard in whole even by those who didn’t take to the band’s style.

The media distributors of today, in contrast, reward impatience and lackadaisical listening at every turn, encouraging people to downvote and hide away whatever uncomely, dissonant, or boring sounds accidentally pop up and disrupt their studying or cleaning or cooking.  If you don’t like that one song in Afternoon Acoustic, fret not and flip it over to Indie Chillout, where you may have better luck.  Are you really not digging the first 40 seconds of that weird 23-minute song called “Apostate”?  Skip that self-indulgent rubbish and never listen to another Michael Gira song again.  And by all means don’t try to make it through the last David Bowie album when you can just put on the “This is David Bowie” list for dummies that Spotify scraped together after he died.  Why would you run the risk of hearing a song you don’t instantly like when you could limit the breadth of your playlist to songs that millions of other like-minded people have already sanctioned?  Why would you bother finishing a 300-page novel either?  You’re a busy full-time employee or college student, most of the inspiring/poetic/so-true quotes are on Buzzfeed or Sparksnotes, and you’ll be able to watch the Hollywood adaptation in six months anyway.  And do you really have to stand for all those plodding, arty scenes of setup in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Surely there are hundreds of better entertainment options you could stream instead, and when those outwear their welcome too, you can change the show again.

As the shrewd guys at Red Letter Media noted in one of their 100-something Half in the Bag movie reviews (I remember not which one), modern men get DVDs out of magical grocery store dispensers, and in like manner they also get their vinyls out of magical thinking phone apps that know exactly what they want and when.  Somewhere along the line, frequenters of the Redbox became so numbed to what they were paying for that they forgot the films were even made by humans, that they could be viewed and evaluated critically as art.  Art films like It Follows and Goodnight Mommy would appear right next to franchise movies like Insidious Chapter 3 and Paranormal Activity 5, and at $1.50 each (or a paltry quarter with coupons), nothing was ventured or lost on any of them except a little gas and free time in the evening.  The element of risk removed from the equation, the layman’s perception of DVD rentals degenerated into an inexpensive form of momentary sensual stimulation, one release being as good as any other so long as it didn’t confuse or bore him.

The same principle applies to Netflix streaming, which highlights so many scores of B-movies on the front page that most people don’t feel burned if they waste 90 minutes on a made-for-TV presentation.  People could dig a little further into the app and find meaningful, visionary films by Park Chan-wook, Lynne Ramsay, Gaspar Noé, Bong Joon-ho, Stanley Kubrick, or P.T. Anderson, movies including Victoria, Upstream Color, The Shining, Nightcrawler, Risky Business, Oldboy, and those are just ones I already know to be good.  Nonetheless, whenever my friends fire up Netflix in the dorm lobby, we end up watching something like “Kung Fu Dunk” or “Timerunners” or “School of Rock”, because those are what show up first and they don’t really care what they watch for free on somebody else’s account.  We have more – and more varied – written entertainment sources within our reach than any other people in history, but we’ve lost the will to get anything other than entertainment out of them.

The same principle applies to digital music providers, which throw heaps of junk at unversed, probably busy listeners and congratulate them on “discovering” “new” music, when in fact they couldn’t put a name to what they’re hearing or differentiate it from the artist who played just before, and when they may have suppressed or skipped a bunch of truly different music to arrive at the cuts they tolerated right away.  The instant gratification model of Spotify (and Pandora, and Netflix, and any other Orwellian media assistant) is one that virtually precludes the user from learning to love any of the better artists working today.  I would not have become as big a fan of Bjork’s music if I had taken Spotify’s word that she was not for me.  Ditto with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, an album that repelled me on first listen, didn’t grab me on the second, and utterly enthralled me on the third, so much so I now agree it’s one of the seminal rock records of all time.  For others, this difficult album may have been Radiohead’s Kid A, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, Swans’ Soundtracks for the Blind, Grimes’ Visions, Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra, or King Crimson’s debut LP, but following the recommendations of Spotify wouldn’t have led one to any of them. Then there’s the matter of Death Grips, an avant-garde electronic/hip-hop trio so musically abrasive and violent that I had to force myself to listen until, ten tries later or so, the separate layers started to feel harmonious, exhilarating, and frankly brilliant.  They are one of many groups that deserve to be heard despite the discomfort they initially instill, and that demonstrate how music can deliver terror and anxiety in equal measure as joy and reassurance.  Yet with the possible exception of some crossover Grimes tracks, streaming services do little to expose these bands to the uninitiated.

A collage of albums that wouldn’t benefit from skipping away

It’s often generalized that ordinary art comforts the disheartened while extraordinary art challenges the comfortable.  Liberals especially love to invoke this bromide in praise of whatever semi-fictional social-justice film is currently making the rounds at festivals, glibly passing off narrative flaws or distortions of truth under the façade that it’s a movie “ripped from today’s headlines” that “demands to be seen”.  If only these poseurs, and the streaming platforms they utilize, heeded the same guidelines of great artistry in their musical preferences.  When I told one of my Beatissima friends that I’d finally listened to The Life of Pablo and wasn’t all that impressed (along with many one-time fans of Kanye West), his response was something like, “To be honest, Cote, I really don’t give a ____ about your taste in music.”  And I don’t really blame him; after all, most of the people he grew up with didn’t give a second thought to “white people music”, erecting a kind of protective wall around the urban artists they most respected.  Likewise, the county and the homeschooled community in which I grew up never listened devotedly to rap music unless it came from Eminem or Lecrae, and the pop-ridden airwaves largely reflected stereotypes of Southern Californian superficiality.  My peers and I didn’t partake of much of any “black people music” as traditionally understood, but we didn’t partake of the best white music either.  As with 99% of Americans, we bonded over what the radio cycled ad nauseum and what our friends deemed cool, which in my case was a lot of film and video game scores.

Everyone is influenced by their surroundings, and one could argue that the bonds forged in these shared surroundings form the backbone of our culture.  Radio, paradoxically, has played a principal role in both reinforcing and poisoning the culture, uniting millions in enjoyment of certain artificially catchy hits while severely degrading the quality average people come to expect from music.  What differentiates and sets radio above streaming sites is that FM stations don’t attempt to lie to those who still make use of them. Enthusiastic radio listeners have always had a 1 in 12 chance of guessing what they’ll hear when they get in the car, and if they use that medium more than any other, they probably don’t mind the repetition and would freely admit to liking most mainstream music.  Spotify, on the other hand, sycophantically seduces listeners into thinking that they’re taking strides to explore new musical voices, when almost every feature of the program is modeled on pampering consumers with music guaranteed to comfort, never challenge them.

Streaming services, it goes without saying, don’t care about introducing listeners to extraordinary art, and most of their signature practices are antithetical to the promotion of extraordinary art.  Hipsters love to rag on Pitchfork and its slavish fanboying over certain rappers, but Pitchfork at least recognizes the expressiveness of music and endeavors to call readers’ attention to artists they would normally turn off or ignore.  The only thing that music streamers respect is the monthly fee they cash from all their users, and the EDM that keeps the money flowing.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Marketing the 100-Something Movies List

Back in late November of the last year people could still say, “It’s 2015,” to justify their politics, The Author’s Files decided to run a narrowly segmented print advertising campaign targeting students of Beatissima who were preparing to turn in for the long winter and watch a lot of subpar television on their iPhones.  The fliers were to be posted on the so-called “Freedom Wall” outside the cafeteria in such quantities and visual variations as were absolutely necessary to catch the attention of an extremely inattentive demographic.  It didn’t work, but we put too much effort into the project to let the posters just disappear after the run.  Maybe they’ll find a more understanding, cynical audience right here.  If there doesn’t seem to be any binding logic or textual theme behind any of these, that was the idea, because Beatissima as an institution doesn’t think in logic or in text.