Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On Conservatism

On Conservatism

Let me start plainly and sincerely: I think that sharing the comment "liberalism is a mental disorder" shows a lack of respect for, and a decided distaste of, those on this mailing list who have liberal leanings. It is cold and at base, unfriendly. All of that said, I value your comments for two reasons: First, they are an example of public discourse, and at the root of democracy lies free speech and the discussion of ideals. Second, they have spurned me to speak up. I will not only speak in defense of my parents, but of Liberalism as a political-philosophical stance.

First, for my parents, how dare you. You?ve tarnished open debate with ad hominem attacks of the worst, most nascent-birth, infantile sort. Do not dare claim facetiousness, because there is nothing jovial in your words. There is no tone of voice that makes them jovial jabbing. The words you?ve said, and I don?t get specific because the breadth of your message has afforded me the fortune of not needing to, they are hurtful and awful. At best they are mindless and at worst are mean-spirited and cruel. They will stand in my mind and in yours, likely, despite any apology. And, as will become apparent in the rest of my message, I?d not be surprised if you retreated from them. It would be fitting.

Moving on, you write that you believe that by this time next year, the media will be "leaning towards the right." (You included The New York Post... a Rupert Murdoch publication, perhaps you meant The Washington Post?) Well, there is no accounting for taste, so I will not criticize your choice of news media. Nor, do I think any criticism of particular policy will change your opinions on liberalism's value (though in further responses, I?d love to tackle individual issues head on.) How then, should we proceed? It is key that we first understand what we mean when we say "liberal" and "conservative." I have no time for name calling and none for inaccuracy, so allow me the space to think fully on this topic. Liberalism and conservatism both take many shapes in their current forms. Most notably there is a line between economic and social philosophies.

At its root, Conservatism is about personal independence and personal responsibility. In concern of over-reaching government, the social conservative believes that the choices that a man or woman makes should be his own downfall or success. The economic conservative, often nearer to Rand-ian objectivism than mild existentialism, would eschew a society that offers more than the barest minimum to every citizen, or which would tax those with higher incomes. In stark contrast, the social conservative wants the government to be a panoptic, omniscient conscience for us, disallowing medical procedures, defining things like "life", and using whatever means necessary to root out those who would threaten the standard. Though conflicting, these sides are under the same umbrella for a single reason: they are in fear of progress.

In the face of progress, the conservative can't help but look back and say "We have it good." They see prosperity for themselves and their loved ones, and fear losing it. They see only stability, and instead of looking for causation, the conservative is certain that traditional acts are what have brought us so far. After all, they'll say, they got us here, and our parents here. The conservative sees no need for progress, because all progress can bring is change, and what is there worth changing? But I think that the conservative is wrong, and betrays his own good will. By denying change, the conservative has clung to the past and has denied a greater good for the many. The democratic cause is one of populism. It is in our nature as a democracy to care for all members of our republic, and it is in these moments of fear for themselves and their loved ones that the conservative forgets the many.

The conservative denies the right for a woman to choose what to do with her body, even in the face of tragedy, because its not their daughter who was raped.

They demand the right to carry an automatic weapon, even in the face of crime, because it wasn't their son caught in the crossfire.

They act in indifference towards any claims of global warming, even in the face of environmental crisis, because after all, even if there is one, they won't be here for its results.

They desire the abolition of welfare programs, even in the face of poverty, because it isn't they who have hit a bad string of luck.

They allow for war, even in the face of the deaths of their countrymen, because in their minds it has to happen somewhere, to someone, and it will not, at any cost, be here.

Most of all, they act in these ways for that last reason. To the conservative, the maintenance of the current comes at any cost. At the cost of liberty of ideas they burn and ban books (excuse me if I've begun to step into Palinian specifics.) At the cost of personal privacy, they demand more supervision, though not for them, only for those who could be "suspected" of anything less than fervent nationalism. The conservative has decided that there will be the safety net of stability, the comfort of the banal same, at any cost. In their fear of anything-other-than-this, they've found nothing but foolish consistencies. They've found nothing but a willingness to praise anything that allows them to cling to the past. If they raise any banner of progress, it is progress to a place of no-change, where they and theirs are assured continued success at no risk. And as a liberal, as a progressive, I have come to my end with it. At these costs we will not stand, because at these costs we've lost the society that the conservative wishes to defend.

I do not apologize for disagreeing, in earnest and serious tone, that we would not be a society of "mental disorders." If we must be any perjorative let us be deviants. Kai T. Erikson, a noted socilogist, writes that deviance occurs in society because the borders of social acceptance need to be challenged. We redefine what is right, what is wrong, and what is acceptable by means of analyzing these instances of deviance and reevaluating what such actions can bring to our benefit or can do us harm. What should we be if we were a world of liberals? The liberal, it stands to reason, is a force of progress. I act and vote as I do because I believe there is more we can do. There are heights we have not reached. I ask for more than the bare minimum because I truthfully see in us great things. What we have done before our now is wonderful, it truly is great. We have put a man on the moon. We have shown the world in our times what true democracy is. We have been willing to give our lives both for particular causes, and for lofty ideals, and in both ways have acted in ways to be proud of. I recognize these things. But I think that we can do better.

That is what is at the core of liberalism: A fierce bravery, a desire to achieve. It is for this reason that social liberals denounce the ?need? to own automatic weapons, to deny that a person controls what happens with their bodies, and that we deserve scientific progress. It?s why the economic liberals believe in spending for the greater and not the lesser ? because we believe that even with greater taxes, the very richest will be able to live outstanding lives, and that with their help many others can begin walking the path to success as well. We are liberals because we look at the past, bow our heads in reverence, and then move forward.

And, here I go uncensored, I loathe those who believe otherwise. I am livid, I am angry beyond myself, at those who would deny us a future of prosperity because they fear they might lose what they have now. Those men and women are despicable. In their claims of self-reliance, I see only claims of isolationism. In their claims of responsibility, I see only claims of blame.

To those who would deny a family down the street the right to a fair shake because it might-maybe-could cost the family in your home a second TV or a swimming pool, I understand. I know you want to be valued by those you love, and you want them to have the best that money can buy. But I have to ask you this - at what point do you draw the line? At what point do you say "ah, we have enough for two meals, and there are 6 of us. Two will go hungry, and not I." That is your line of reasoning, carried to its fullest. By your system you'd as soon jail a woman for aborting the child of rape as you would the rapist. You'd deny a dollar if it cost a cent.

I know I have called conservatism a cowardly doctrine. I?ve said that it is a claim taken by men and women bound by the safe ropes of the well-known. I stand by that, because at its root is a cowardly premise. I know your response. If you are a coward than why do you wage war while I hide behind books. In return, answer this: who is braver, the man who fires first or second?

It is odd to me that you'd be so against liberalism as a concept. It isn't surprising that you love what we have achieved thus far, but it is strange that you would deny the achievements of past liberals. The lives conservatives live are borne on the back of past liberal success. Our freedoms afforded to us by our constitution, the bill of rights, and the ammendments are the work of liberal hands, men and women who fought for progress and change. When women were given the right to vote, it was a liberal movement. When workers came together to demand that there would be no more deaths and no more children in the factories, that was a liberal movement too. When the middle class arose in the middle ages and a merchant society was born, where you could overcome your birth by skill and ingenuity, that was a liberal movement. When the Catholic Church reformed itself (in response to Luther's Protestant Reformation), when it gave the word of God to people in their own language so that they might understand it for themselves, that was a liberal movement too. These and those like them are the those which helped define the world we live in. Do you stand in the way of further progress? Worse, do you call back to a time of the past? A time with witch burning, with slavery, with internment camps? These are the works which liberalism has destroyed, and in your calling liberalism a "mental disorder" you have in one move accepted these things as sacrosanct. It is appalling.

Luckily, we need not wait long for these conservatives to flee, and new less severe ones take their place. This is how it goes. This is how it?s gone. The books once banned are in libraries. The daughter of the puritan becomes a poet. When Cromwell fell in England, the theatre opened again; When the Magna Carta was signed, the age of the king?s lawlessness began to fade; and despite their execution at the hands of conservatives, the religion of Jesus and the philosophy of Socrates are both taught to this day.

It is only a matter of time before we've left the last 8 years of conservatism, even if the next President also shares those views. Compromise will be met - the conservative will accept change because to maintain any of old society he must allow some abjuration. In time the conservative, no matter how strong, dies and vanishes in the wash of progress. It is only in large steps that the liberal, that even the moderate, must fear the conservative and an Orwellian outcome. When our liberties, notably the free exchange of ideas through public discourse and building bases of knowledge, when these things come under attack is what I am concerned over: When books are banned and entire concepts called "mental disorders." It is when the conservative veers towards awful things, towards fascist, totalitarian, awful things, that he has a chance against progress. It was, after all, the barbarians that destroyed Rome and brought us to the dark ages.

This is where we stand: I believe there is a choice. There is a clear distinction that must be made. There is the conservative who for fear of the consequences refuses to accept anything but tradition. This is the conservative I?d call on to be braver and to look for ways towards change. In the specific, look at our health care system. Look and see that there can be universal coverage for us all at very little cost to you and I, it is only a matter of figuring it out. Find ways to reduce our damage to the earth, because even if the science is wrong (I'd I don't for a minute doubt it is) it can one day be right and we ought not leave the repair of our world to our descendents as our predescesors have left it to us. Act against unlawful, and unprovoked, war because you believe that we can build our defenses up well enough to protect us from harm, so that we need not harm others.

To this conservative I ask to consider the many issues at hand, and to really think about what the outcome would be if we pursued them with the tenacity and intelligence that has brought us this far. Everything from net neutrality to stem cell research. Think about the best and worst possible outcomes. There is the conservative who will, I believe, take a more moderate stance on at least some issues. Who will understand that the ?liberal? media is not liberalism, and that liberalism is not cowardice, but is instead a promise to ourselves that we can do better. I ask this conservative one thing: Stop retreating.

To the other conservative, the one who hears this plea and denies me still. Who in fact denies themselves the action of true, deep thought on these issues. Who claims not to be shy of the future, but who really believes that others deserve less than him. Who believes that none but he and his ought to eat the best, have the best, live the best. Who believes that he should come first, at any cost. To him I have very, very little to say, except this, and this in the most derisive tone there is: There is, after all, no accounting for taste.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

This is a Post About Four Albums I Liked

It's been a while since a post, and I don't want to take up your time with non-criticism, but its worth saying: I've moved from northern New Jersey to Brooklyn. I'm a proper New Yorker now, so you can expect my tastes to become a little sharper and my words a bit meaner. Not this post thought. Because:


THIS IS A POST ABOUT FOUR ALBUMS I LIKED


Elvis Costello & The Imposters - Momofuku


Just in time for his national tour with the Police, Costello & Co have released new album Momofuku. Named for Momofuku Ando, creator of instant ramen noodles, this album was made, from concept to conclusion, in 15 days - the naming parallel ought to be clear enough. Unlike ramen noodles, this album is hardly a forgettable filler meal. EC continues to prove his song writing chops well into the new millenium. Stronger than any other Imposters-era album, likely because of Rilo Kelly leader Jenny Lewis' influence. If college radio stations have been blaring EC + The Imposters work for the last 10 years out of some sense of obligation to Costello's earlier work, their loyalty has been paid off with this album. It features both his early-era angry young man (Turpentine), his mid period politco commentator (No Hiding Place), and his more recent nostalgic, dusty self (My Three Sons.) It's definitely a return to form, and I hope to hear more from him like this in the next few years. He's been an icon of adoration in the indie rock scene for a long time - it's just been cool to like Costello - and it's interesting to see him work with and for this new, young set of fans.

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend



I started listening to these guys a few weeks before my recent Brooklyn-bound move, and it ends up they're from my new park slope neighborhood. They're an indie rock band with very very sharp afro-beat/afro-pop influences. They never veer too close to that sound though, and so they present great songs with tight construction and very american tone and lyrical content. For instance, the song Oxford Comma is a song to a girl who cares too much about an "oxford comma", a vague grammar rule about where to put the last comma in a list of things: "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma? / I've seen those English dramas too / They're cruel / So if there's any other way / To spell the word / It's fine with me, with me." Despite (or perhaps because of) their throwback afro-pop roots, Vampire Weekend manages to be a superbly modern band.

Girl Talk - Feed the Animals


In an era of ring tone hip-hop, Girl Talk remains unable and unwilling to be summarized into 10 seconds of hook and chorus, while at the same time presenting no more than 45 seconds of any musical concept. The individual tracks on his latest album are vehicles for these half minute mashups, and are at most unified by a reoccuring phrase working more as bookends than as traditional chorus.

For those unfamiliar with Pittsburgh based Girl Talk (AKA Gregg Gillis), his music is the strongest argument there is that mash up music is more than just a gimmick. After years of making Noise/Glitch music, with light mash up elements, he released 2006's Night Ripper. The album was a breakout success for a small time DJ on a very small label (Illegal Art), and spurned Girl Talk into dropping his Biomedical Engineering career and tour the world, making people music instead of making them healthy. After hearing Feed the Animals, I have to say that he made the right choice.

Naysayers tend to object to the samples GT uses to mine for both back beat and lead vocal, finding them too varied in genre and style but, and I say this knowing it comes with a dose of elitism, GT's sample choices are a lot more complicated than just tempo and melody matching. Listing to his latest release "Feed The Animals" is a lot like reading master comics writer Allan Moore's latest installment in his "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" series. Moore makes literary allusions at a rapid, unaplogetic pace, and Feed The Animals follows suit. It is easy to get lost in eclectic set of references, and easy to feel overwhelemed - worse, underqualified to even partake, but its so damn hard not to enjoy the he'll out of it anyway.

He often chooses to emhpashize a thematic point by contrasting or complementing one layer with the other. In "Set it Of" he masterfully lay's Jay-Z's best "Roc Boys" verse over the first and second halves of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android." The former is a song about making it and moving from small time player to big time success, and Paranoid Android is in many minds the moment that Radiohead did just that.

Other times be plays with our musical beliefs and expecations. On "Here's the Thing" it's odd, but exceptional, to hear personal favorite Elvis Costello back up Atlantean Shawty Lo. He underminds the sincerity of Rick Springfield's pop hit Jessie's Girl by sprinkling in the Three Six Mafia's "I'd Rather (Get Some Head)", throughout.

Girl Talk isn't only about syncopation and mismatch, he can also match up songs that mirror each other's emotional effect and lyrical content. Hearing Chicago's "Saturday In the Park" and 90's jam "C'mon Ride It (The Train) by Quad City DJs, also featured on "Here's the Thing", just works. It's even clearer on "Still Here", where he drops BLACKstreet's R&B smash "No Diggity" into Kanye West's "Flashing Lights." Gillis even drops in the clicking back beat of Radiohead's "15 Step", interesting since Kanye's current side project CRS does lots of sampling from Thom Yorke and co. It all fits so well you might wonder why we haven't heard a collaboration between the artists already.

Gillis is able to draw a chart, showing influence and taste and respect, and he does it with music. Thankfully, a good Wikipedia community does their best to chronicle where he draws his own inspiration from, labeling each song with time stamps and listing what mash ups he uses. Even better is that he's made his album a pay-what-you'd-like release.


Pixies - Bossanova



You may know I'm a huge pixies fan, but I tended not to stray from their first 3 releases (Come On Pilgrim EP, Surfer Rosa, and Doolittle.) I may still think Doolittle is the best album they have, but I started listening closer to their later cuts. One of my favorite songs, Velouria, is from Bossanova, and I got the urge to hear it so I put the record on and really really listened to it for the first time about a week ago. I don't think I've stopped since. Some of these tracks are on that best hits album Wave of Mutilation, so dabbler might be lightly familiar (Velouria, Dig for Fire) but so many other great tracks aren't.

Rock Music, a two minute blast towards the front of the record, is broad and strong despite its length, and is a great way to kick start the album after the instrumental opener Cecilia Ann. Is She Weird, a song debatably about an girlfriend unapproved of, or about a vampire, or about both, has a lot of the early Pixies feel, driving bass lines and rolling vocals with sharp instances of loudness and quiet.

The Happening feels in tone like a song somewhere between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and for good reason as it features a flying saucer crashing in the middle of the LV strip. The first half of the song is lonely, brooding chorus made up of a meandering bass line, an underlying guitar riff that seems to support the bass instead of the other way around, and sharp high notes that poke through here and there like stars in a too-bright city night sky. At the 3 minute mark, frontman Black Francis/Frank Black begins a rambling, stream-of-consciousness narration, featuring abstract lyrical sentiments like "I soon forgot myself, I forgot about the brake/I forgot about all laws, and I forgot about the rain" and "Everybody was remembering to forget they had the chills."



Hang Wire is admittedly and clearly inspired by the 1982 Rolling Stones track "Hang Fire." The song, like many Pixies tunes, would fit in a few years later in the grunge scene, or even in today's indie environs. In just four or five listens, it has become absolutely ingrained in my head. Black sings haikus about late night lovers rendevouzing by the farm house, and it couldn't come off better. The quiet, scathing guitar running in the background of the chorus is suspenseful and builds, like a backwards countdown, to something worth being afraid of. And all of this doesn't even mention the most original use of any old casio keyboard's pre-set beat settings, phasing in just in time with the the title lyric "I'll Bossanova with ya."

The album has very quickly smashed its way into my overall top 20, maybe even higher. While I'd tell you that each of these other albums is worth listen if a friend has a copy, at a discount record shop, or for free from the net, this one is worth every penny it might cost to own.


Next time: And This Is A Post About Four Albums I Was Disappointed By

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

From the Outbox: "RE: A Virtual History Lesson or Just a Shoot-'em'up?"




This is not the post I promised, nor the other one I promised to people I know. Those are coming this week, I swear. This is an e-mail I wrote in response to Ralph de la Cruz's January 8th article about Call of Duty 4 (here.) It's a fairly quick read, and I figured it would at least change the top post here.

Update: Thought I'd stroke my own ego by posting this: Click here. You can read the entirety of my e-mail there, where he posted it to his blog, but not the second part, which is a response to a comment on Kotaku. That is still below.

Update #2: Further ego-stroking. The letter to Ralph below, which I reposted to Kotaku, was highlighted as a comment of the week on Kotaku (http://kotaku.com/344089/a-week-in-comments)thanks to a nomination by Witzbold. Thanks Witz!

Ralph,

I just read your January 8th article, "A virtual history lesson or just a shoot-'em-up?" and was moved to write you a quick (hopefully) email on the subject matter you've touched here. My name is Austin Walker, I'm a 22 year old self avowed hardcore gamer. In 2003 I co-founded Hofstra University Gamers, and currently live with two former members of that club in northern New Jersey, where video games are an integral part of our daily routine (even if our jobs limit the amount of time we get to play.) I'm liberal enough to choose "very liberal" on my Facebook profile, and maybe it was all those Philosophy classes I took in college, but I'm with you on this whole Iraq War thing - it is unjust, unethical, unfair to people on both sides of the conflict, and needs to stop. So, those things said, I feel like I've established myself as familiar with the topics at hand here.

The week before New Year's I found a few days off and my roommate's copy of Call of Duty 4 (CoD4.) I played through it at a breakneck pace, beating it in two game sessions. The guys at Infinity Ward (the developer of the game) had something here - the game was cinematic, something that the Tom Clancy Series (Rainbow Six, and GRAW) often eschewed in favor of "realism." The opening couple levels ('F.N.G.' and 'Crew Expendable' - a training mission and an assault on a quickly sinking ship, carrying nuclear weapons) of CoD4 were equivalent to a summer action blockbuster (starring Colin Farell as Soap?)

However, with the actual opening credit scene ('Coup'), I got the hunch that Infinity Ward - or at least someone there - might have decided to use this game as more than just a virtual history lesson or a shoot 'em up. Much like critically acclaimed (and a personal favorite of the year) Bioshock, CoD4 had begun to use the medium's unique strengths and methods to deliver an experience not duplicatable on film, the stage, or in anything but the most detailed “choose your own adventure” novel. The player is given control of an ousted ruler of the nameless Middle Eastern country that CoD4 takes place in during the last few minutes of his life. You are unable to look a full 360 degrees around, limiting your field of vision (and your sense of safety) as you are jammed in the back of a car and hauled off to your public execution. You are unable to move, try as you might, as two of the game’s leading antagonists end your life. There is something very powerful here, something beyond war propaganda. These scenes act as an argument against war, or at least displaying how terrifying such a thing really is. And it isn’t the last time that CoD4 handles these issues.

Later in the game you take control of a U.S. Marine, searching for the man who executed the country’s former leader and attempting to take back the country’s capital from the newly installed ‘insurgents.” Much of this is reminiscent of films like Black Hawk Down in their narrative and their realism. The missions ‘The Bog’ and ‘Shock and Awe’ (borrowing its name from the military tactic of rapid dominance that was used at the beginning of Iraqi Freedom and in other conflicts), are again standard war film fare for the most part. But under a critical eye it’s clear that what we are being shown is the exact sort of situation that our own military brass (and certain political figures) would never want us to see: Our men out gunned, out numbered, under supplied, and unable to receive additional support because we simply didn’t account for this sort of war. ‘The Bog’ is one of the game’s earliest stumbling points for most players – it simply isn’t very easy to defend a tank from all sides in an open, overgrown courtyard with tons of cover (and none of it for you.) ‘The Bog’ acts as a strong metaphor for this war we’re in.

Metaphors aside, the end of ‘Shock and Awe’ is about as powerful as anti-war a message you can get in an FPS. After a long battle, you manage to rescue a downed pilot from a wrecked helicopter, and carry her onto yours. As you begin to fly away, the city behind you explodes the way we’ve only seen in documentaries and the aforementioned Hollywood blockbuster. A nuclear bomb detonates, and over the next three or so minutes, you (again) live out the last few moments of a man’s life. Your helicopter crashes, and you crawl out, then limp and stumble about as buildings literally crumble away in the aftereffect of the bomb. The screen goes white, and a character that I as a player barely cared about was suddenly martyred for the cause of ending nuclear proliferation. No one who is a reasoning being who played this section of the game could’ve come away with “nuclear weapons are great.” Maybe they came away with “I want revenge on the bad guys,” but what I believe that Infinity Ward wanted here was simple: “this – doing this to anyone, anywhere, ever – is not a good thing.”

There is a final moment that I wish to acknowledge, and it is the same one that you do so (albeit for perhaps the opposite reason.) “There's even a part of the game reminiscent of the infamous "luckiest truck driver in Baghdad" news conferences. You're in a bomber looking down with night-vision goggles at helpless victims scrambling on the ground below — an X-button push away from oblivion,” you write. And you’re right – this is what happens in the mission ‘Death from Above’, but I feel you may have left out some very important things about the context of this mission, and perhaps even misunderstood what the point of it was.

The mission prior to ‘Death from Above’ is called ‘Hunted.’ In it you, as “Soap”, are trapped behind enemy lines. Again, this is one of the most difficult missions in the game, as moving just a little slow or arrive just a little late will cause a stir, sending up alarms and causing a full compliment of enemy troops on you. Eventually that happens anyway. The level is as down and dirty a video game can be. It is stressful, it is tense. This is what Infinity Ward must think of ground, infantry warfare – this is the best they could boil the fear, the intensity, the frustration of being in a place you have no desire to be, into a 30 minute or so section of a video game. And you get to the end of the level, a small village, and finally you get your air support.

And then you play as the air support. It is cold, it is clean, it is somehow non-organic. You shoot down at little white blobs of men and trucks and houses. You’re told early on to shoot anything that isn’t flashing – the good guys have beacons that make them flash – and anything that isn’t the village’s church, where your targets are streaming out of. To anyone watching it is nearly indistinguishable from that “luckiest truck driver in Baghdad” video, and others like it. Running the game side by side with similar footage yields frightening results. As you shoot down – using a caliber of ammunition far larger than necessary – the voices in your ear (the pilot, spotter, and other military personnel) call out your shots calmly. “There’s a runner…. There he goes. Bam, you got him.” “There’s three of them over there. Adjust 34 degrees. Take ‘em out.” “Wow, you were within two feet of that one. Good shot.” These are the voices of men who might be shooting paper targets, not ending human lives. As the level ends one of them laughs: “This is gonna make for one hell of a highlight reel!”

If you thought for a second that this was an endorsement of military action, then I don’t know what to say. Maybe it was because you were only watching not playing. Maybe if you were playing you would’ve felt the uneasiness, the guilt, of shooting these polygons and textures on your screen. There is something eerie about what happens here. Something antithetical to much of the game’s cinematic, “bad ass” feel – this is subtle and quiet and jarring in a way scene’s in Schindler’s List are, or the sometimes sparse, disconnected chapters of The Grapes of Wrath are. Except, again, Infinity Ward is playing on the medium. You pull the trigger; you have to if you want to beat the game. And even though you would know this, I’d bet you’d regret firing, and be put off kilter by the tone and words of those in the gunship with you. This is an indictment of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil in its fullest, in a way that only a video game could provide. You become (just as you did in Bioshock) the man who keeps the trains running on time.

This game is rated M for Mature due to its “blood and gore, intense violence, and strong language.” Let me submit to you that it is rated M for Mature in the same way that last year’s Scorcese masterpiece The Departed was rated R for Restricted. There’s plenty of technical reasons why it was rated that (mostly for the same reasons that CoD4 was rated Mature, but also for sexual content), but even if you remove those things, even if you lower the intensity and frequency of the cursing and the violence and the nudity down to a PG-13 level, The Departed is a movie for mature people. As a consumer and a critic I’m willing to accept that Call of Duty 4 is a game for mature people in the same way. That without the context of the world we live in, CoD4 is “just a shoot ‘em up.” But with maturity comes the ability to place CoD4 in our world, just as we can place The Departed (or for that matter Hamlet, which The Departed shares many of its core themes with) in it.

I’m not sure if your son and his cousin’s had the worldview necessary to “get it.” Hell, I’m not sure a lot of the game’s community “got it.” In fact, I’m not even certain that some of the game’s developers got it – after all, the game after ‘Death from Above’ returns to its cinematic glory, and never really touches on these issues again (despite being a masterpiece of single player FPS action.) My advice to you Ralph is to pick up the controller yourself, play through it. I think you’ll “get it” the way I did.

EDIT: I posted this as a comment on Kotaku, and it generated some responses. I ended up responding, and feel that it should go here too. You can click here to read the comment I'm responding to.

@Garro: I really don't have time for a full comment, but let me echo Witzy and DV8Good by saying that we all appreciate discourse and that I like your comment, you definitely put some thought into it.

A core difference, one to reflect on here, between you and I is that we have different theories of authorial meaning and intention. A very common topic in philosophy of literature and the modern study of rhetoric and language is whether or not the author's intent determines the meaning. Two examples stand against this plainly.

The first is Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. L. James Hammond writes: The chief character in The Idiot is Prince Myshkin. "The main idea of the novel," said Dostoyevsky, "is to depict the positively good man," and Myshkin is that man. Myshkin is a Christ figure - honest, ingenuous, indifferent to wealth and to physical pleasure. Myshkin is a very attractive character indeed. Whether or not Dostoyevsky succeeded in 'depicting the positively good man,' he deserves credit for making the attempt. [www.ljhammond.com] However, Dostoyevsky himself would later claim to have failed at this, his sincere intent.

A second, less specific example is this: imagine a sculptor sets out to create the most wonderful thing - a perfect statue replica of a green Schweppes Ginger Ale bottle. He does his best, but when it finishes, it resembles a coke bottle, and is red. For one, he just wasn't as skilled as necessary, and another, he had only red clay. These things limit us in our creation.

As such, one can build the argument (and many have) that when we are creating things we are often working inside the confines of this reality we are in, and therefore our creations tend to reflect truths of our world, or at the very least truths that we believe. This is how most modern comparative literature and literary theory operates. It's how we can say "Well, Hamlet really 'gets at' the notion of being vengeful" or even "Man, Rick Ross really seems to know a thing or two about Hustlin'." More importantly we can say things like "Gojira really gets at the heart of the nature vs science argument," even if the author's may have intended it as a scathing argument against the US in WWII, or against Japan's westernization, or any of the other proposed "meanings" assigned to the early monster movie.

To be clear, even I as a "liberal civilian" do not see the "bad guys" in this game as anything less than that. In fact my intent in the original post was to emphasize that dealing with them was very Hollywood "evil bad guy" and not well fleshed out etc., but perhaps I too failed at my intended meaning. But in "Death From Above" the men you are killing are still human, and when guys around YOU the player are killed they are the same, except IW did the (very cool) thing of giving them all names, so you feel it even if Pvt. Jenkins who has no lines takes a dive.

The heart of it is, they have (intentionally or not) revealed how shitty war is. The end of Shock and Awe DOES highlight the amazing, frightful power of nuclear weapons. And "Death from Above" does put you in the seat of a very calm killer. I don't need to argue that they intended to show that war is hell, I only need to argue that what they've produced can stand alone in arguing that war is hell, and I believe that it does.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I've Seen Things



In my life, I've heard many films called "an uncompromising vision of the future," and it is after some thought that I'm willing to make the leap and say that most of the other films that garnered this label simply don't deserve it. Blade Runner does.


It's officially been over a week since my last post. I'll use the excuse that I've been waiting, letting you all stew on what that damned eye could even mean. Also, that's a good excuse for me being busy and out of sorts this past week. Also, if you read the comments, my friend Andrew revealed his expert analysis of me, pictures on my blogs, and/or eyes by noting that the screen-grab in my last post in fact belongs to Ridley Scott's 1982 neo-noir, cyberpunk film, Blade Runner.

I recently had the opportunity to see what I came to realize was my favorite film at the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd St. in New York, in it's latest and potentially last "Final Cut" form, and on digital projection at that. The experience highlighted the aspects of the film that appealed to me going in, and made me realize things that may have always appealed to me without being so apparent.

Without art we would be nothing but foreground and live entirely in the spell of that perspective which makes what is closest at hand and most vulgar appear as if it were vast, and reality. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Even though the film opens with a text-scroll, explaining the setting and in as clearly as possible readying us for what is about to happen, and what themes are about to be explored, it isn't the narrative or the story that first strikes me in Blade Runner. It is unsurprisingly the aesthetic completeness that is what strikes me most about the film. The first thing that we see is fire shooting up over a dystopian sprawl. Even as the flying car we've been promised zips towards and past the camera, there is no mistaking this future for the clean, white-washed one of the Jetsons. There is something barbaric, something sparse in these opening moments of the film. Vangelis' magnificent score rolls in alongside the stunning visuals, and each note struck pushes us closer to the edge of our seats. We're about to see something, and we know it. The way the lightning strikes, and how the flame erupts upwards - it is as if Scott has captured that very point in the decay of a thing that resembles its own conception.

Appropriate, since in many ways it is the theme of irreversible decay that helps to keep the film relevant today. Screenwriter Hampton Francher's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is less than faithful, but in the same way that a Miles Davis version of a Gershwin song isn't faithful; It comes with a change in tempo and pacing, which in turn bring along a turn of theme. While the book languishes in the question of humanity, navel-gazing as it attempts to answer it, the film successfully demonstrates the true difficulty of the question by posing it to us in the frame of activity, of a bustling city and quick, snap decisions.

However, it is in the film's ability to show us empty spaces, and thoroughly hollow time (all scored with haunting melodies), that it lectures us about the questions asked in the busy streets. The Tyrell Corporation's monolithic pyramid, J.F. Sebastian's funhouse apartment set inside of a desolate, lonely building, Chew's eye-laboratory,and (especially in the recent Final Cut version of the film) Deckard's apartment, specifically his balcony. These are places of contemplation and creation: the location of the Nexus 6's designs, Sebastian's toys, and Deckard's reclamation of his own humanity, in the form of affection for Rachael.

Ironically, it is in these locations that the differentiation between being a human, and having humanity, is revealed too. While Deckard may change, and become compassionate, he does so while it is revealed to us (and to him) that he is very likely not human at all. It is in Sebastian's world of imperfect (but self-aware) toys that we really meet the childlike Pris, and where we receive Roy Batty's treatise on what it means to be alive. And it is in the killing of his maker, Tyrell, in his plush, sky-high suite that Roy summarizes a core motif of cyberpunk as he asks "Can the maker repair what he makes?": That this world is beyond saving, and god, if there is one, isn't coming to the rescue.


What do I care about Jupiter? Justice is a human issue, and I do not need a god to teach it to me. - Jean-Paul Sartre


In fact, with Sebastian and Tyrell we have two stand-ins for god, both failures in different ways. Tyrell, for fear of being overthrown by his creations, has made it impossible for them live long enough to touch him, knocking down their Tower of Babel, so to speak, and causing them to lose faith in him, leading to his own death when they see that he is either unable, or unwilling to help them. (A common argument against the Omnipotent and Omni-benevolent god's existence is that in the face of disaster and evil, god appears no where.) Sebastian - himself a reflection of the Replicants' "accelerated decrepitude" (or vice versa - proves to fall to the opposite extreme of Tyrell. Instead of exerting mastery over the lives of things non-human, he bows his head to them, unable to resist the perfect beings that he had a hand in creating, and in doing so relinquishes any power he might have had over them.

It is no surprise that the philosophy that is explored in Blade Runner is existentialistic, as it has its roots in the noir films of the mid-century, which in turn were often cinematic tellings of early century hard-boiled detective fiction, which itself was heralded in France by the young existentialists for its examination of life. Just as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald detailed worlds free from divine order and rife with corruption and a dichotomic class structure, so does existentialism struggle with these themes, all of which are central to Scott's film. Blimps overhead remind us that the Earth is done for, and that (if we're rich enough) we should move off colony. Deckard's boss, Bryant, tells us that "If you're not cop, you're little people." And as the film's two gods are done away with - one going blind by his creation's hands as he died, and the other left alone to his mediocrity - we are left with the message that life will go on without them as much as it ever would've with them. "It's too bad she won't live," says mysterious but knowledgeable, cosmopolitan detective Gaff in reference to Rachael, "But then again, who does?"

The film echoes these early 20th century sentiments, while doing so in a then-30-years-from-now setting, emphasizing their eternal nature. And it does this so convincingly. Between the still awe inspiring sets and models, the most attention to extras I've ever seen, and the layer of Vangelis' musical brilliance, Scott creates a compelling world that makes the viewer concerned for its characters in ways that even some of the best film noir didn't. Despite the weight of the setting, it remains above all else a human story - using the force of the backdrop and atmosphere as a frame for the lives and questions which are center. It is by all means my favorite film.

I was assailed by memories of a life that wasn't mine anymore, but one in which I'd found the simplest and most lasting joys. - Albert Camus

But does that mean it is the best film I've ever seen? What does something being your favorite really mean? What does this mean about how and what I value? Sometime this week or next, look forward to my thoughts on these questions, with which I'll start a series in a new label-type: Meta-criticism.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

It makes you feel happy like an old-time movie.




Over the past five years I've struggled to answer a very simple question: What is my favorite movie? I know, I know, that question isn't as simple as it may seem, but at its heart it is not very complex. It is as simple as asking what film I value most, or what film could I simply not live without. In the last few years of my young adulthood my answer has floundered about.

I held up Doctor Zhivago as a perfect blend of romance and epic, while capturing the time and feel of its setting marvelously, especially with its use of color and light, and for a time this was what I would call my favorite film. Over the years though, my love for it has decreased. Despite the power at which Strelnikov's arrival still has over me at the end of the first half of the film, the films slow-but-steady pacing has begun to wear on me, making the experience of a film more like a chore, despite its appeal. It is like a change machine that, upon entering a single dollar bill, you get a dollar and fifty cents in quarters back. it certainly is a profitable experience, but I'm not quite sure I want to expend the time necessary for that sort of profit margin.

Ask anyone I knew in my first few years of college what movie I held most dear, and they'd likely tell you that I was a Fight Club sort of guy. As I aged my appreciation of the subtler message of the film grew, and it became clear that Palahniuk's story was less an anti-consumerist statement and more an anti-extremism one. Despite the appeal of the acting, and its surprising longevity (considering that it is a film with a twist ending) it simply has never been enough to make my number one spot. Maybe it's because that while I get to associate The Pixies with the film, I also have to remember that Taking Back Sunday co-opted it, and in a drastic turn of heart my love for those two bands has been dramatically inverted in the time between the film's release and now. Take a guess which one I still like.

Even though, in fact perhaps despite, that it is a comedy, I have also made clear that my love of Woody Allen's proto-mockumentary Take the Money and Run is nearly unparalleled. Even among the filmmaker's later, more serious works like Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters, and more recently Melinda and Melinda (all films I also cherish), this is the one that to me most adequately illustrates Allen's genius. This is the first film that he appeared in, acted in, and directed, and the passion for the work oozes out in every scene. The writing is crisp and surprising, and even today I'm taken off guard by how funny bits I've already seen still are. Even still, the shallow nature of what is at base a comedy alone coupled with my sometimes elitist nature (and general interest in more than just laughs) has thus far, and will continue to keep it out of my number one spot.

There are others that make it close. Recent contenders include City of God and The Departed, both of which provide the pacing I desired from Zhivago, but an inkling of doubt that they'll remain evergreen nips at the back of my mind. Classics like Chinatown and M easily make the top ten (and even top five on a good day), but fail to break into the very highest tier.

So, what is my favorite film of all time? Well, I guess that it should have been obvious to me from the get go. And only recently have I come to realize that I'm out of my gourd for not coming to this conclusion more recently. There's a hint in this post's picture, but you'll you'll have to wait until my next update for confirmation, and as full an analysis as I feel it deserves from me to boot.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Not Agreeable, But Necessary

This will be among only a few non-analysis posts you'll see here. As the headline reads, this is a place for analysis. I won't post bare links or copied news stories, and you won't have to put up with my sloppy fiction or poetry. Instead I will do the one thing I feel I am adequately skilled at doing: explaining why some things are worthy of your time, and why others aren't so much.

This past summer has been filled with things that have sparked my critical mind. I've been brought to an analytic state by Radiohead's daring release, and bold content, of In Rainbows, the debate of racism in the videogame Resident Evil 5, wonderment over how Aaron Sorkin hit a home-run with SportsNight, but fell flat on Studio 60, Wes Anderson's retreading old ground (albeit with a different tractor) The Darjeeling Limited, finding two familiar and worthwhile reads in Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, and the state of political affairs in this country and world wide (including, but not limited to, the thankfully more active investigative eye being placed on Blackwater USA.)

Despite all of these things, my writing on them has been minimal at best, and honestly, something needed to be done. Keep on me about this. If you know me and know I have something to say, tell me to write it here. If you read something I wrote and think I'll have something worthwhile to say about something I haven't yet written about, comment and tell me to. I need the writing samples, after all.

I'll be using a few simple labels to help organize posts. You'll notice that this post has Landmark and Not Critique, both of which should be rare to a fault. Landmark posts will come at key points in the blog's life, and probably in mine. Changes in format, hosting, basic content, etc. that are announced will be done so alongside a Landmark label. Not Critique posts should be limited to things like "I'm sick. Stop asking me to post. Leave me alone," and "I've won the lottery. Stop asking me to post. Leave me alone." Other labels will include the types of things I'll be looking at, as listed above (in no order worth figuring out: Film, Books, Music, News, Video Games, Politics, Television.) Due to the non-exclusivity of many of these properties, you'll probably even see a few posts with more than one of those labels. Finally, I'll bring out a few unique labels if I feel I'll be posting on a given topic excessively (Jay-Z for instance, or The Office.)

I'll have a new layout hopefully by the end of the week, as my good friend and roommate Matt "Bloise-san" Bloise will be whipping one up for me. If you have any advice for a look or style, comment here. In any case, stick it out with me, let's see how this goes.

By the way, the title of this post comes from a bit attributed to Winston Churchill, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”