Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Big Lebowski

When I told my friend Pat that I had never seen The Big Lebowski, he threatened to hurt me.  The immediate spoken threat was of physical violence, but darker undertones in his voice hinted at more insidious psychological and emotional tortures.  From the look in his eyes, I inferred that these tortures would only increase in severity the longer my error went uncorrected.  What could I do but watch it that very night?

But so what, if I'd never seen the movie?  I haven't seen lots of movies.  You give me any list of great movies, compiled by whoever you please, and odds are I'll have failed to see about half of them.  I don't see quite as many movies as some people do!  I think it's a little weird that people get so uptight about these must-see movies.  Of course I'm being a massive hypocrite right now; I've browbeaten plenty of people who haven't seen critical entries in my own personal canon.  I respect the movies tremendously as an art form, but by and large I put less emphasis on it than other fields.

Of course, having watched The Big Lebowski, I have now joined the legion of fans who believe that every right thinking American should also watch it.  Regularly.  Preferably with a White Russian in hand, and I don't even care for mixed drinks.  It just seems like the right thing to do. 

Be warned, everyone: I will browbeat you into seeing this movie, if you haven't already.  If you have, I accept your scorn for being so late to the party.  But I will make amends, by bothering all of the other people. 

It should go without saying that the movie actually merits watching, beyond the imperatives issued by cultists like myself.  It's very, very funny, in a way that really puts most genre comedies to shame.  It's beautifully shot, has great music throughout, and resides comfortably in a plane of delicious strangeness, where preposterous events generate knowing smiles rather than sighs of disbelief. 

Really, why didn't I just put aside an afternoon and see it years ago?  It's not like I was busy.

Being a big fan of Philip Marlowe movies (particularly The Long Goodbye), it didn't take me long to gather just what exactly the Coens were up to.  Just like Marlowe, Jeff Lebowski (AKA The Dude, the only name he really needs) sort of stumbles in an intoxicated haze from one clue to the next before solving the mystery before him in a flash of insight.  Events just keep pushing him through the plot long after he's decided it would have been better if he'd never gotten involved.  Then, once all is said and done and the story is resolved, things are more or less exactly as they would be if he hadn't.  Apart from the violence and massive property damage, of course, but it's hard to fault The Dude for taking it all in stride.  Not when the alternative would be even weirder.

As funny as Jeff Bridges is as The Dude, he's actually more of the straight man in his own movie.  The real comic force is his friend Walter, played by John Goodman as the angriest angry white man in the history of comedy.  A movie about Walter would probably be pretty terrible, consisting of scene after scene of self-righteousness, misplaced confidence and indiscriminate violence.  Set up against The Dude's prevailing nonchalance, Walter manages to fuck things up just enough to keep the movie rolling through Shabbos without making him terribly unlikable. 

I could go on and praise more or less the whole cast, particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore.  They are two of the brightest spots in a planetarium of loonies who pass in and out of The Dude's orbit.  The way Hoffman's character interacts with The Dude, particularly after their initial meeting, is a multifaceted running joke that just keeps on giving.  Moore's portrayal of an artistic feminist as a willful force of nature is almost a painful cliche, but the lengths to which she carries it are simply amazing.  It is but one example of how Lebowski takes risks that more than pay off for the audience.

There's actually a few things in this movie that, were I not so captivated by its brilliance, I'd probably call flaws.  Several characters show up once for funny scenes and effectively disappear, and others seem underutilized.  Sometimes it seems like someone in The Dude's half-baked state of mind had a hand in organizing the screenplay.  There's some pathos near the end that isn't quite as meaningful or earned as it should be, and hints about a "Little Lebowski" don't really do much to bring one of the film's odder subplots to a conclusion.  There's a scene with a Malibu police officer that really highlights the absurdity of this world's relationship with the law that doesn't go nearly as far as it should in a Marlowe spoof.

But mostly, the movie is brilliant, satirizing itself as often as it satirizes the detective genre.  Despite spending most of its time dressed as the world's sunniest film noir, it's narrated by Sam Elliott in an over-the-top cowboy idiom that rambles into the story whenever it damn well pleases, rhyme or reason be darned.  When Lebowski mixes genres this way, it's pretty clear that a certain amount of fuzzy disorganization is a feature, and whether you like the movie or not will largely depend on whether you think that's a good thing.

Of course, you should think that.  It's a great thing.  A lot of comedies try to get by on being wacky, but the really great ones fly by a much more interesting plan: insanity.  There's a sense of humor that's infused in the whole production, from intense musical cues to lunatic visual effects.  Why settle for less?  Go watch The Big Lebowski and repent.  Then maybe go bowling?  That's fun too.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Seattle's EMP Museum: Rock and Roll and Monster Movies

Vacationing in Seattle this week, I was advised by my thoughtful girlfriend (who loves it when I mention her in blog posts!) to check out Seattle's Exploring Music Project Museum, or EMP.  Located under the shadow of the Space Needle (at least on days when there's enough sun to cast any shadows), the EMP is kind of a funny little museum, dedicated not only to the obvious arena of popular music (particularly rock), but also to science fiction and popular culture.  Over time, these latter two elements seem to have been toned down, but frankly that's alright with me: music is one of my great loves, and I was genuinely excited to go exploring that field, and maybe get a little sci-fi bonus at the end.

The museum closes at five each day (which is something of a crock), so I didn't get to quite do everything I wanted.  Among other things, I left a potentially very interesting display space on the technology behind the movie Avatar largely unexplored.  But I had a great time; apart from the typical museum fare, there were plenty of interactive installments that made the place seem a lot more adventurous and fun.  With my terrible camera phone in hand, I thought I'd share the highlights with you, my loyal readers.  Do check out this place if you're ever in town, and give yourself lots of time to explore.
Right off the bat we find this thing.  What is this thing?  It's sort of a tower, densely framed with guitars, basses, banjos, and all manner of stringed instruments on all sides.  You may notice that some these instruments have strange mechanical contraptions attached to their fret boards; these machines hold plectrums which pluck certain strings on cue.  Put on the headphones conveniently located at the sculpture's base, and you can hear their combined symphony, which periodically shifts between musical styles.  You can also watch a series of videos detailing the concept and execution of the piece.  The name of the sculpture is If VI Was IX; the artist is a fellow named Trimpin, who speaks in the explanatory video with a German accent and is clearly a bigger fan of Jimi Hendrix than he lets on.
If placards are to be believed, this is the very glove won by Michael Jackson at the Motown 25th Anniversary television special, the one where he did the moonwalk.  That's also the very jacket he wore, but the placard doesn't say much about that.  Where the pillow fits in, I'm not too sure, but it suits the glove tremendously.  The glass case holding these artifacts just sort of sits in the foyer, devoid of context.  But what can you do, as a glove and a jacket do not an exhibit make?
Off to the side was the Sound and Vision exhibit.  The text is basically legible in the picture so I won't be too redundant here, but suffice to say there are a lot of interesting recorded anecdotes and scholarly analyses of popular music.  Some of it's audio only and some of it's video.  I moved around a bit and heard from a diverse group of artists, and quickly realized I didn't have nearly enough time to listen to even half of it.  Many recordings included the complete songs that the artists were commenting on, and I rocked out for a good half hour before figuring I'd better move on.

Oh, and also there was science fiction stuff!  Mostly snippets and interviews with fellows like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, among other authors of much note.  There was also a clip of Nichelle Nichols talking about the first interracial kiss on television in that episode of Star Trek.  Between that and the story about her and Martin Luther King Jr, I wonder if anyone ever asks her about anything else. 
Back in the 90's, when rock music still mattered and grunge ruled the charts, the Seattle music scene rose to legendary status as a source of innovation and authenticity, and the EMP would like to remind you of this at every possible opportunity.  Here we see a close-up section from the Seattle Band Map, which shows a number of bands that have connections to the scene, either by having actually played in it, collaborated with a band that did, or shared a member with some such group.  This leads to the inclusion of a few acts that are barely even tangentially related to the Pacific Northwest (The Smiths!?), so if the purpose of the chart is to glorify Seattle, perhaps it overstates the case a bit?  But if the purpose is to simply celebrate the national and international reach of music culture, it's pretty neat.  I like the fact that it looks as if it were actually scrawled out by passersby and gradually added to over time.  Maybe it was?  I wish I could go back and read the placard again.
The most prominently advertised exhibit is dedicated to Nirvana and the grunge revolution they paved the way for.  Within the halls of Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses, Cobain and friends are regarded as cultural champions, something akin to a real revolutionary vanguard.  And you know, maybe they were pretty awesome and revolutionary, but the turns toward hagiography can be a little stifling.  There are a lot of cool artifacts from Kurt and the gang, like letters and handwritten lyrics and photographs, not to mention recordings of home demos from their angsty teenage years.  That's cool; that's the sort of thing museums are made for.  A little more out there is the booth in the darkened room where you can step inside and tell the camera all about how Nirvana changed your life; a small theater outside then intersperses concert footage with clips from these fan testimonials.

This is, in some ways, a really cool idea, so I don't want to criticize it too much.  Inviting museum goers to respond to the exhibits, and displaying those responses, is an interesting way to make the experience more interactive.  But lavishing all this special attention on Nirvana seems to take things into the realm of the creepy.  One testimonial I saw ended with a kid remarking that what he said "probably sounded kind of stupid."  After reading all the notes on the wall detailing Cobain's complicated relationship with the media and the music industry, I can't help thinking he might say the same thing.
The most interesting part of that exhibit, for me, was the wealth of historical background for the grunge movement: video interviews with alternative and punk bands and producers, not to mention selections from albums of the underground and indie rock scenes of the 1980's.  I've been known to give 80's music a hard time; I've even been known to describe the 80's as a cultural wasteland of infinite despair.  Stations like this, however, are reminders that a pulse was really beating in the culture after all.  I much prefer the "alternative" to the "punk," but there's a really good case here that they shared a common cause.
The EMP's second favorite artist is far and away Seattle's own Jimi Hendrix, who gets his own exhibit (Jimi Hndrix: An Evolution of Sound), filled with historical background, recordings, and an impressive display of guitars.  The terribly blurry, lens-flared picture here is of three different instruments smashed by Jimi at various shows; the foreground fragment has words from "psychedelic poems" written on the side.  I couldn't actually make out any lines from this alleged poetry, but their psychedelic character is not to be denied.  Unless your only basis is this illegible picture, of course.
The Hendrix exhibit has all the usual things, like lyrics, session notes, and biographical sketches, but the best part was clearly the mixing consoles in the back corner.  The slides on the board allow you to hear different parts of the studio arrangements at different volumes: you can isolate vocals and slowly bring all the other parts into the mix, or experiment with radical ideas (like removing all of Jimi's leads, or taking out drums and pushing percussion to the max).  It's a lot of fun to play producer, and besides you get to rock out to Hendrix for a while.  Nothing wrong with that.
Upstairs is the interactive Sound Stage area, where museum goers are invited to play your basic rock instruments.  Experienced players can rock out freely (well, the instruments are bolted in place, but you can play whatever you want), while beginners can do simple tutorials and make a bunch of noise.  For the truly adventurous who don't mind spending a little time and cash, there are recording booths with a variety of instruments that allow you to cut your own CD, which you can then purchase in the gift shop.  I almost considered doing this, but by this time I'd been in the museum for several hours and we were now within half an hour of closing time.

I really kind of regret not allotting more time to that section, because the hands-on exhibits are usually the most fun at places like this, and it would be pretty fun to have a little record of my bass-playing skills to share with the world.  But with time running out, there was still one major exhibit I wanted to see...
The Experience Music Project is also a science fiction museum, at least in theory.  But rock n' roll dominates the agenda, and as I understand it the dedicated science fiction exhibit was recently closed.  Downstairs, however, is a temporary exhibit called Can't Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film.  There are a couple of cool artifacts and effects here; my favorite was this projector wall, which alters your silhouette with constantly shifting, spooky shapes.  There's also plenty of information on genre elements and tropes along the walls, and a "scream booth," where you can record yourself screaming in affected terror.  Yay?
Along one wall there was a list of one hundred horror movies the curators considered essential viewing.  Being a wimp, I generally cannot stand modern horror movies, but I have a lot of respect for the old classics, which make it easier for me to admire the artistry without wetting myself in fear.  I also appreciated getting to see video clips from the Cabinet of Dr. Caligary, a film I've been meaning to see since my Freshman year in college, but have never quite gotten around to.  I think I may have to make time for that someday soon.  The exhibit didn't really change my mind on the genre, but it has somewhat revitalized my enthusiasm for really old things.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Einstein on the Beach

One of the benefits of living in this brave new world of ours is that, if you really want to hear or see something, someone else on the internet likely wants to give it to you for free.  Once you've satisfied yourself that this person or company actually has the right to do so, you can then enjoy the desired content with a clear conscience.  You can just steal it too, but we don't promote that sort of thing here.

Upon some idle musing while browsing Spotify (which you should get if you don't have it now) the other day, it struck me that I had never actually heard any music by contemporary American composer Philip Glass.  This struck me as an oversight, since he is kind of famous and important and all that stuff.  Clearly, this was something I had to do promptly, so I sought out his discography, did a little research, and gave a listen to his most famous operatic work. 

Einstein on the Beach is an opera, but that doesn't really tell you much about it.  I've listened to operas before, and suffice to say this wasn't really anything like what I knew.  Parts of it do resemble "classical music" as the term is commonly understood, but on the whole it is devoted to abstraction in a way that you can't really be prepared for until you've waded into it for a while.  In full, the performance is over four hours long: the 1993 CD version I listened to clocks in at 190 minutes.  There are no intermissions or natural stopping points, but mercifully, opera-goers are encouraged to walk in and out whenever they please during performances of Einstein.  I took this as permission to divide up the listening over three days.

The opera is about Albert Einstein, but without knowing the title or any background information, I don't really know how you'd put that together.  It's one thing to not know what's going on because everyone is singing in a language you don't know.  It's another thing to make sense of something when the words are mostly numbers and solfège syllables.  Occasionally a poem or monologue is recited over the music, often repeatedly, but these are usually non sequiturs about women's liberation or Carole King songs, or ruminations on bathing caps at "prematurely air-conditioned supermarkets."  Of course, they can't really be said to distract from the plot, because there is no plot: just endless sound, of the sort you might expect to hear echoing around in the head of someone crazy enough to think up general relativity.
Hearing this opera without seeing its staging (originally done by Robert Wilson) is a little maddening.  It forces you to engage directly with the sound, without forming any connections between the sound and visual symbolism.  There's a lot going on in this music, and yet not very much.  Most of it boils down to keyboards, strings and voices, all repeating in tight, intricate patterns which occasionally border on the impossible: I just don't know how humans are supposed to sing some of these sections, particularly when they come in at such high speeds and feature so many abrupt and arbitrary changes in speed and rhythm.  There are points when I can't honestly say how the singers are able to breathe, but I'm sure they teach those people some tricks so they don't pass out on stage.

Do I sound like I'm confused?  I am a little confused.  I don't know anything about modern classical music.  I think I gave my roommate doubts about my sanity as I sat listening to this for hours.  I often asked myself just how many repetitions were necessary to get the point across, or whether there was even a point at all.  The music is often very pretty, but would the average listener be wasting his or her time?

But I like strange things, and I find I can enjoy them infinitely more when I abandon the effort to impose plain logic on them.  The point, so to say, doesn't come from a given number of repetitions of "fa-fa-la-si-do-si," but from the act of repetition itself: accept that, and you can start to notice all the small changes that fade in and out of each piece.  With a background of seemingly endless repetition, every modulation in key or meter jumps out like a meteor in the broad night sky, and they rain down with such surprise and wonder that it's hard not to be captivated once you've learned to spot them.

And anyway, there's a lot in this music that does make a strange kind of sense to me.  I like the way "Train 1" contrasts with "Night Train," even while they share so many sounds and themes in common.  The way the two "Dance" sections evoke a furious spinning ballroom without actually adhering to any recognizable dance beat is a source of endless fascination.  The abstract poems (written by Christopher Knowles) have a peculiar sound to them that I find inspiring, if a little intimidating: they seem to frighten the listener with their ability to be abstract and mundane at the same time.  Something like that is in the heart of every piece of Einstein on the Beach.
I think I'll be getting into more of Philip Glass in the future, but I'll see about getting him in more digestible chunks.  190 minutes of no-kidding avant-garde music is an awful lot to handle, and you risk coming away from it with the same reaction every time: "I like it, but I can't really say or understand why."  Of course, it's hard to really put into words why we really like any music, but it's always better if you can say something.  Even if it's "fa-fa-la-si-do-si," over and over and over again...

One last thing.  I praised Spotify early in this review for making this and other works accessible to me, but it did hamper the experience somewhat.  Spotify is a commercial service, and they make their money by playing very loud commercials every couple of tracks (or, when they average ten minutes long, between every track), and these commercials seldom have anything to do with what you're listening to.  There's something very, very odd about jumping immediately from "Trial" or "Bed, Aria" to a snippet from the latest single by Juanes.  Of course, this whole business was very odd, so I just went with it; it's the price we pay for this brave new world of ours.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

When a new Legend of Zelda game hits the market, the question on the minds of critics is usually not whether the game is "good" or "bad."  After fifteen major releases over twenty five years, a certain expectation of quality from Nintendo has set in.  Playing a Zelda game is something of an idealized experience, and new games are typically judged by how closely they approach that particular ideal.  Does it come with the same sense of excitement and wonder as the titles from the series' golden past?  Is it representative of an upward or downward trajectory in the series' recent history?  Is it even possible to compare it to games that aren't Zelda games, or have they become a genre unto themselves?
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The question that's been most on my mind with regard to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is simple: is it a better game than Twilight Princess?  The comparison comes naturally, as both are flagship titles for Nintendo's Wii console, and more or less equally representative of what Zelda is in the "modern era."  It's also a lot easier to consider than a comparison to, say, Ocarina of Time, which is separated from today by thirteen years of history and technical improvement.  Nevertheless, the golden ideal of Ocarina is difficult to escape: somehow, every conversation about Zelda comes back to "Zelda 64," and how that game transformed players' expectations for games generally, and this series in particular.

Indeed, Twilight Princess was more or less a transparent attempt at recapturing Ocarina's specific appeal.  The art direction veered toward a dark fantasy-realism; not exactly a match for the style of the 64-bit era, but widely interpreted at the time as a retreat from the cartoon approach of The Wind Waker and the various handheld games that arrived in the interim.  Originally designed for the GameCube console (and belatedly adapted for the Wii), control and game play were strongly rooted in Ocarina's precedents, as were the story structure and the geography of the overworld.  Despite the rather odd decision to flip the entire game map east-west (a quick fix to make Link right handed and increase "realism" for Wii players), this iteration of Hyrule was recognizably based upon the familiar model; its larger and more stylized appearance is representative of Twilight's overall relationship to Ocarina.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Conversely, Skyward Sword seizes more firmly on the chances for innovation afforded by the Wii, and fits more comfortably in line with Zelda's more experimental installments.  It is about as different from the traditional Ocarina model as it can comfortably get, and the controls don't quite line up with the Wii version of Twilight.  The running, rolling, and spin attack functions in particular seem to have been completely rethought, and it took me a few sessions to fully internalize the new order.  In a subtle nod of recognition that other adventure games do in fact exist, other elements like equipment upgrades and customization have been added as well.

The most noted innovation is the sword control, which now responds to the motion of the Wii remote on a more or less one to one basis.  Not everyone has agreed that this is well implemented, but in my experience the sword controls are at least adequately responsive about 95 per cent of the time, and become easier to control with greater experience and concentration.  The ability to control the sword so precisely is helpful far more often than it is disorienting or dysfunctional.  

Skyward reaffirms the visual developments of Wind Waker and its sequels by resembling them; it doesn't quite have the same Saturday morning cel-shading style, but it features much brighter colors and familiar cartoon explosion and other effects.  Combined with a realistic base provided by Twilight Princess, the end result is a look that seems to reconcile the diverging styles that have been applied to the series.  It isn't a revolutionary look; it's not even as dramatic or spectacular as Twilight Princess.  But it does feel a little more homey, and inclusive of the entire series.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
The biggest structural change is also the most daring aspect of Skyward Sword.  Traditionally, the world of Hyrule (or wherever the setting may be) is divided into a two-layered structure: an "underworld" consisting of separate dungeons and labyrinths, filled with monsters to fight and puzzles to solve, and an "overworld" that links them all together with various locations like towns and castles.  In Skyward, there is effectively a three-layered structure.  Dungeons are still embedded in the overworld, but the overworld itself is divided into three discrete parts.  Link cannot travel directly from one to another; instead, he must return to the hub world in the sky.  Obviously inspired by the oceanic overworld of Wind Waker, this hub is populated by a number of floating islands, and navigable by flying on the back of a large red bird.  Mercifully, the distances between islands are not nearly as intimidating as they were in Wind Waker, and the process of treasure hunting among them is not nearly as tedious.

The effect of all this is that the areas we are accustomed to thinking of as "overworld" feel more like dungeons.  The actual dungeons, meanwhile, are more simply structured than before: most labyrinths consist of only a single floor, something that hasn't been true since the first Zelda.  The creative interplay between underworld and overworld elements takes the focus off of the design of any particular level, and they combine into a more interesting whole than they ever have before.

By these measures, Skyward Sword is significantly more original and inventive than Twilight Princess.  Nostalgic fans like myself, however, may feel that a certain something has been lost.  In Twilight, it is possible to ride a horse across nearly the entire land in one unbroken path, marveling at vast plains and mountain vistas in a geography that seems natural and holistic; this was a central part of the appeal of Ocarina of Time.  The three overworld zones of Skyward might as well be different planets, as little as they have to do with one another.  As large as this game is, I often felt that the world had a kind of smallness in common with recent handheld titles, particularly The Minish Cap.  I love those games too, but if we measure Zelda games by their fidelity to the classic experience, Skyward is an anomaly that doesn't fit with familiar classifications.

But of course, a Zelda game remains a Zelda game, regardless of tweaks and alterations.  The puzzles are as inventive as ever; in fact, the "time shift" puzzles in the desert region are among the most creative that the series has ever done.  The story fills in a great deal of detail to the lore of Hyrule, without locking out the possibility of future revisions or elaborations.  The new music, while not rising to the same iconic level of previous soundtracks, sounds lovely in full orchestral arrangements.  The difficulty is extremely well balanced, offering perhaps the best contrast between challenge and enjoyment since Ocarina

Twilight Princess was a fantastic game with plenty to recommend it.  However, Skyward Sword is a much more original experience, with considerably more confidence in its own identity.  Where it changes the formula, it does so boldly, while familiar elements help tie the experience to the familiar games that fans still love.  It's set in the distant past, but it indicates the endless potential of new ideas to energize a solid foundation.  Skyward Sword comes together on just about every level as a latter-day masterpiece of design.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Aftermath of the Storm

You think I was overreacting to mild weather conditions yesterday?
Never underestimate the destructive force of a snow flurry, my friends!

Truth be told, this tree and a fence were the only things I saw that suffered serious damage in yesterday's freakish snowfall.  All things considered, I'm not exactly sure how the mere falling of snow caused this tree to take a tumble.  Were there winds?  If there were winds, why didn't any other trees fall?  Is snow really just that heavy?

Oh well.  The snow is melting now, because it's spring and it really had no business falling in the first place.  What's left is still suitable for throwing snowballs or whatever shenanigans one might be interested in.  I threw one myself a little while ago!  I didn't hit anything, though. 

Anyway, the blog!  Let's talk about the blog.  My little March marathon of reviews has been going quite well, if you ask me.  They might not be classics of the form, but they've been by and large very fun to write.  And since we still have a little bit of March left, I don't see why I can't keep on keeping on.

I'll be in Seattle all next week, but I don't see any reason that should stop me from posting two more reviews before the month is out.  Three maybe, if I can think of a third thing to write about.  Either way, March 2012 is turning out to be a banner month for this site.  Banner by my standards, at any rate.  I only hope the bann-iest is yet to come.

I am so, so sorry for that.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

So I look outside today...

...and what do I see?

Holy crap!

Now, I've lived in Eugene for a while.  I have come to accept that, unlike in Southern California, it is not uncommon for water to fall spontaneously from the sky.  I have even come to understand that it may occasionally arrive in the form of fluffy white crystals (the most adorable state of matter yet known).  But something inside me still bubbles with glee every time I find myself in the aftermath of a flurry.  A flurry!  The most we ever got in Poway was a few seconds out of class to go stare at the hail which fell every once in a million years.

Nevertheless, my joy is tempered with some practical problems.  The main one is that I need to get to my girlfriend's house.  Well, need is a strong word, but I really want to.  It's warm there, and my girlfriend wants to cuddle, and also maybe breakfast?  That might be there too.  Regardless, that's where I want to be, and that isn't here.

I'm not going to drive there, because it looks scary.  I keep thinking I might need to put chains on my tires, and how do you even do that?  I don't know how.  I certainly wouldn't want to go spinning off some patch of ice and explode into an ironically fiery death.  I also wouldn't want to embarrass myself by putting chains on a car for a flurry.  I imagine the battle-hardened souls here are used to wearing chains for nothing less than a blizzard.  I don't want to appear weak in front of the battle-hardened souls.

That means I'm hoofing it, I suppose.  But make no mistake, it's cold out there.  Thirty two degrees.  If my understanding of physics is correct, prolonged exposure to these sorts of temperatures will cause all the water in my body to freeze solid, and I'm pretty sure that would be bad for me.  Dying in a heap under some modest snow dunes isn't really my goal, either. 

So it's sweaters.  Plural.  And also a jacket, and gloves, and maybe a portable space heater tied to my back?  I haven't figured out how to keep it supplied with power while I walk.  Some hefty socks wouldn't be a bad idea either.  I've seen some pretty grisly depictions of Valley Forge, and I like my toes too much to put them through that.  Thermal underwear?  Perhaps a mug of warm soup?  Or one of those Saint Bernards with a cask of brandy tied around its neck.  But that would require making it to a pet store first.  Damn!

Anyway, I'm going now.  I'm needed elsewhere!  If you don't hear from me later this week, assume I died nobly, crossing a windswept frozen plain.  Or that I forgot to update again, as I so often do.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

WFJ Book Club # 8: The Hunger Games

 I sometimes wonder why, in a world where young people supposedly never read and the printed word is fashionably considered obsolete, the most visibly popular fiction seems to be from the "young adult" section.  We had the long decade of Harry Potter mania, which was mostly fun and helped turn a generation of children into sometime-nerds.  On its heels came the dismal twilight of, well, Twilight, which was much creepier and nearly ruined vampire fiction forever.  Regardless of their relative merits, books like these and their many imitators have sold many copies and made their authors very rich people. 

Why all the popularity?  I think we can say, without speaking to the quality of any particular book or series, that young adult books are written at a level that can be clearly understood by a typical high school student.  It follows that, mechanically speaking, they are not particularly challenging reads for anyone looking for something light and entertaining.  They are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the hungry consumer who doesn't actually want to cook anything.  And you know, there's nothing wrong with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!  I don't really care for them myself, but they are certainly tried and true.

I had one such sandwich recently, digested slowly over about a month in audio form (the latest in sandwich/book delivery technology).  Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is, like many young adult books, a story about "young adults."  The basic premise is of a nightmarish future America, ruled by a totalitarian government that calls once a year upon a handful of teenagers to fight to the death on live TV, to entertain the masses and remind them of the power the government wields.  It is, you might imagine, pretty depressing, as the heroine (Katniss Everdeen, sixteen years old) spends most of the book dreading, avoiding, or inflicting death.

It's not hard for me to realize why The Hunger Games became popular, because I like it pretty well myself.  It's a very competent piece of science fiction that doesn't get too hung up on the speculative science to tell a compelling story.  It is filled with violence but doesn't really glamorize it: most of the violent deaths occur "off screen," and much more time is devoted to the more mundane aspects of survival.  Best of all, the book is intelligent, critiquing social institutions and reflecting the harshness of inequality.  There's little holding back against the powerful and the privileged.

The prose of The Hunger Games is not especially artful.  It is effective and communicative, but not subtle or very interesting on its own.  If a character makes a sarcastic and patronizing remark to Katniss, she will go on at length in her narration about how the comment was especially cutting because it was delivered sarcastically and patronizingly.  It isn't awful, although one wonders how Katniss, a girl of few spoken words, can maintain such a detailed first person, present tense monologue at all times without being stabbed by a fellow contestant in the games. 

The generic prose style has some strength: it doesn't usually get in the way of what is otherwise a well-plotted story.  It's not exactly perfect, but it moves from place to place in a series of credible events.  The story never drags or lingers in one place too long, and is seldom repetitive. It has the forward-thinking pace that a good adventure story demands, and it keeps the action rooted in the plausible.

The book also has a number of interesting supporting characters, but the nature of the Hunger Games competition does not allow the story to do most of them justice.  Of the twenty four teens fighting for their lives, Katniss manages to have real conversations with only about four or five of them, and some of the more compelling ones are not given nearly enough time to develop.  Katniss herself is a good lead character, though she is too consistently lucky for the good of the story.  In a game that is supposedly about killing off the entire competition, she is never forced to murder anyone who isn't clearly set up as a "bad guy." But she is capable and intelligent and easy to root for, without being idealized to the point of annoyance.

As frequently noted, the games themselves are a cruel mixture of the Olympics, ancient gladiatorial contests, and reality TV.  In fact, the most fascinating aspect of the book is the weird disconnect between life or death moments of truth in the arena, and the morbid voyeurism and vapid celebrity culture outside.  "The Capital" is a term with many meanings in The Hunger Games, but two are primary: a center of absolute political and economic power, and the home of a privileged class of people who regard the suffering of the lower orders as potential entertainment.  They tend to have Roman names (like Flavius and Caesar) and speak with ridiculously affected quasi-British accents, which of course are common shorthand for imperiousness and superficiality.  But the Roman and British empires are history, and Collins' story was written against the backdrop of America's imperial adventures in Asia. There's not a lot of question as to who she's actually critiquing.

Katniss's weird imperative to constantly seem loyal and even grateful to her oppressors in the Capital, even as she seethes at them in her heart, puts the real plural in "games."  There's never any doubt that Katniss, who hunts with a bow for a living, has the ability to kill her opponents.  The open question is whether she can survive the machinations of the Capital, or win the support of her audience by affecting a compelling personality.  With her every move recorded on hidden cameras, the book recalls 1984 in predictable ways.  When Katniss does rebel on camera and defy her oppressors, her actions can be edited out from the broadcast, or spun in a more acceptable light.  The goal is not to destroy Katniss outright, but to first make her into a celebrity in the process: that means redefining her image. 

From the selection of the Hunger Games contestants to the mutilation and slavery imposed upon political prisoners, the book is dotted with instances of cold, inexcusable cruelty by the powerful, and contrasted with the drudgery and plight of the poor.  In fact, the games themselves are a kind of ritualized class warfare, waged by the rich against the poor.  The contestants are raised up, and one by one knocked down at the capricious whim of the game makers.  Whether even the winner has any say in the matter  is the most politically significant issue as the story comes to a close, setting the stage for further conflicts in the book's two sequels.

All of this is rather ponderous to think about, but it's lightened by the accessibility of the text and a few standard elements of the young adult genre.  There are a few moments of humor and mild sensuality to lighten the gloom, and a love triangle for all the busy shippers in the audience.  But these are thoughtfully integrated with the story's central themes: Katniss's romantic feelings are as subject to media manipulation as any part of her performance, and the question of who is truly in love with whom remains somewhat unanswered by the end of the book.

So, is The Hunger Games worth reading?  In answering that question, I find myself confronting a bias.  As a well-read, proudly literate man, I instinctively believe in a hierarchy of high and low literature; books for teens are not often grouped with the high.  But that's a prejudice, and I think The Hunger Games offers more intellectually than anything that could be considered a base form of literature.  I don't want to call it a guilty pleasure; instead, I'll call it a welcome surprise.

There's a line in children's art and literature, between works that respect the dignity and intelligence of its audience, and those that do not.  The same should be true of art and literature for teenagers (not to mention adults).  Suzanne Collins may not be a "great" writer of prose by a more elevated standard, but there is a sincerity and depth to her story that demands a modicum of respect.

A note about the audiobook: the story I listened to was narrated by Carolyn McCormick, of Law and Order fame.  Having never evaluated an audiobook before, I don't know exactly what grounds I should use to judge her performance.  All in all, the experience was something like a cross between an old-timey radio show (minus the awesome sound effects), and simply being read to; being quite used to reading independently, I found that a small bit uncomfortable.  McCormick adopts a distinct voice for nearly every prominent character and speaks their lines with a certain degree of nuance and intonation, but there are limits.  Is it possible to read a line like "Noooooooooo!" in an audiobook context without sounding horribly, horribly fake?  I'd like to think it is, but my heart goes out to McCormick for trying and failing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Pet Sounds Sessions

I don't think it's far-fetched to say that discovering Pet Sounds, the 1966 studio album by the Beach Boys, was one of the happiest finds of my life.  I first came across the album in its entirety when I was fourteen, on a long airplane flight, through tinny earphone speakers and a crackling barrier of static; I don't believe I listened all the way through.  When I was seventeen I bought the CD, curious to verify the rumors I'd read of its artistic brilliance.  Alongside Brian Wilson's recreation of his lost masterwork, Smile (which I discovered at about the same time), I listened and I listened, and I was soon satisfied that the rumors were true.  The band that I'd been lead to believe was largely inconsequential had made a work of art that I wanted to carry with me for the rest of my life.

Listening to Pet Sounds changed the way I thought about art; in many ways, it made me really think about art for the first time.  I realized in a moment of clarity what beauty there was in desire, loneliness, and sorrow.  There was life in those feelings, spilling out of my stereo in rays that illuminated the room with glorious harmony.  There was license in Pet Sounds for me to feel those emotions, rather than deaden myself to them, or bury them where they couldn't be seen.  In time my whole worldview came to be colored by these songs, and I heard echoes of them in my life and everywhere else.  And whenever I felt truly sad, and I often did, I could listen to those songs and feel the same life affirming force like I'd rediscovered them all over again.

It's pretty obvious that I love Pet Sounds; I've baffled many a roommate with the depths of my devotion, but even more casual acquaintances have heard me preach its gospel.  This year, for my twenty fifth birthday, my girlfriend bought me The Pet Sounds Sessions box set, a four disc compilation of outtakes and alternate versions.  At that point we had only known each other for about six weeks; but in that short time, she seemed to have no trouble determining what would touch my heart the most.

To say I was happy is an understatement; I was positively inarticulate.  It was as though I had the vocabulary of a child, which was just as well because it felt like Christmas when I was ten years old.  The one thought I managed to express coherently (apart, perhaps, from boundless gratitude) was that we needed to listen it.  Right.  Away.  God bless her, she agreed.  I don't know if she could hear the album quite the way I did, but I wanted desperately for her to hear the heartbeat of the music that was so incredibly close to mine.

In a certain sense, there was very little in the box that was new to me.  I wouldn't describe three discs of sessions highlights, studio chatter, and a cappella tracks as essential for casual listeners; as for the album itself, I still have the same CD I bought nearly eight years ago.  But that didn't matter to me.  For one thing, I am exactly the sort of hardcore fan who is meant to listen to this sort of box.  More than that, I the box set is a way for me to reaffirm my connection to the music, and the special place it holds in my library.  I won't try to convince everyone in the world that they need to buy this box, but I do want to talk about what makes it worthwhile for me, and why I'm glad to assign it precious shelf space.

Disc one contains a stereo mix of the original album, which had never been done until 1996; the Beach Boys did all of their 60s recording in mono, for aesthetic and practical reasons.  I'd heard it before, of course; the CD I already owned contained the entire album in both stereo and mono.  As to whether the stereo is better than the mono, that is a question I've turned over in my mind multiple times.  When you've listened to them both as many times as I have, there are marked differences: the lack of double tracking on the lead vocal in You Still Believe in Me, or the removal of the quiet studio chatter from the bridge of Here Today are only the most obvious changes made to the stereo version.  I find both of those changes to be more or less positive, but I much prefer the mono version of God Only Knows; it seems to have a more restrained, intimate, sound than the stereo.  I'd rather not be forced to pick between them; suffice it to say that whatever the abstract concerns of a purist might be, the stereo remix is expertly done.

Spread out over discs one and two are highlights of the recording sessions for each of the thirteen songs from Pet Sounds, plus their finished backing tracks, sans-vocals.  Also included are sessions for Trombone Dixie (an unreleased instrumental), and Good Vibrations, which was meant for Pet Sounds, but ultimately held back and rerecorded from scratch.  It's this section of the box that I find most fascinating, because it reveals so much about the creative process: there's Brian, tweaking arrangements and guiding to completion the ingenious compositions he'd made in his head, with infectious enthusiasm and humor all the while.  The backgrounds themselves are stunningly beautiful and sophisticated, and I was even startled by a few of them.  How could I have never noticed how angry those horns sounded in the chorus of Here Today?  These songs contain worlds, and it's almost always worth following the path of any one instrument in the whole arrangement, because each is full of clever surprises.

Disc three begins with the isolated vocal tracks from each song, and they make a decent listening experience on their own.  The Beach Boys could sing a cappella beautifully, but these aren't a cappella arrangements, and unaccompanied voices always sound strange.  Still, these tracks represent the only contribution by the non-Brian Wilson members of the band, apart from some lyrics and a few guitar parts.  There's no mistaking that it's his album though and through, but the sound they produced when singing together was by no means worth losing: on an album noted for the technical achievement of its arrangements, the sound of multi-part harmony is always the defining instrument.

The Sessions end with a collection of demos and alternate versions, which are mostly of historical value rather than a pure listening pleasure.  God Only Knows never needed a saxophone solo, and hearing Mike Love make an attempt at the lead vocal of I'm Waiting For the Day is something between bizarre and unsettling.  On the other hand, it's very interesting to hear Caroline No in its original key; the released version was sped up by a half step, and while that may not sound like much, the difference is enough to make the song sadder than ever seemed possible.  As for Hang On to Your Ego (an early version of I Know There's an Answer), it isn't terribly different from the final product, but it does have a more interesting title.  This section of the Sessions is probably the least essential, and it requires a high degree of knowledge and familiarity with the band to really appreciate. 

Finally, disc four is the album itself: Pet Sounds in the original mono.  It goes without saying that it sounds good, because it always has.  You Still Believe in Me continues to rise into the heavens like an earnest prayer.  Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) still sounds like the hidden music of silent, post-coital bliss.  I Know There's an Answer vibrates with nervous alienation and paranoia, even without the explicitly psychedelic jargon that originally informed it.  And sometimes, I still tear up when I hear the heartbreaking bridge of Caroline No.

Brian Wilson was twenty four years old when he produced Pet Sounds.  It shouldn't be possible to make something so timelessly beautiful with so little life experience, but it wouldn't have been possible to make Pet Sounds without the sensitivity of youth.  Given the economic realities of the music business, it would have been easier not to make this album.  But miraculously it exists, and I'm forever grateful for that.  It's the crystalline standard of pop music: a transcendent representative of the genre, and a window toward what lies beyond.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Learning Languages with Duolingo

I think we, as humans, take language for granted.  We spend our whole lives talking and writing and otherwise producing an endless string of words, but we do most of it on autopilot.  We treat it like a sterile, practical medium for ideas, without stopping to appreciate the beauty of the medium itself.

Isn't that crazy?  A simple analysis of language is an absolutely brilliant and wonderful thing: it makes fascinating questions in philosophy accessible to anyone with the ability to hear or speak.  What is the real relationship between sounds and the things they describe?  Why do we use the sounds we do?  How do these sounds actually get put together?  Spend a day thinking about these things, and you'll begin to see how language is possibly the single most interesting thing that humans have ever invented.

Of course the best thing about language is that there are so many of them.  With thousands in existence we have a vast number of possibilities to consider in our musings.  A tree may be a tree, but it's also een boom, un arbre, një pemë, and any number of delicious sound-concoctions.  And it's not just words: relationships and events can be symbolized in any number of ways, depending on which language you use.  Learning multiple languages can give insight into the nature of meaning itself; and I get chills just typing that!

Being fascinated by languages, but limited in my knowledge, I spend a great deal of time looking up etymologies, foreign words, and translations.  As rewarding as this is, it's also very time consuming and leads to a lot of retreading of familiar ground.  Much as I'd love perfect knowledge of every language, I can barely claim meaningful knowledge of two.  Quick recall of at least a basic body of words would help my linguistic explorations tremendously.

All of this is a painfully indirect way of introducing Duolingo, a website which promises to teach languages quickly through simple translation exercises.  It's currently still in beta, and I waited a long time to get invited in, but it's something I think most people should definitely get in line for.

I have two Duolingo accounts, each of which I use for slightly different purposes.  The first one is dedicated to Spanish, a language I studied in school for more than five years, whose basic grammar and vocabulary I am comfortable and familiar with.  The second is dedicated to German, a language I know only through generalizations.  These are the only languages presently available, but the sign-in page promises French, Italian, and Chinese very soon.  I initially believed that each account could learn only one language, but that is because I am a very silly person who doesn't read everything before he gets started on nifty projects.  You can learn as many as you want!  Hopefully they'll have more than five choices in the future, but considering the scale of work necessary, I'd call it an adequate start.

Spanish of course is a very useful language.  As a sometime classroom teacher in public schools, I often encounter students who come from a Spanish background.  Understanding their language is a clearly valuable skill.  The case isn't quite as strong for learning German, but that isn't really the point here.  Learning languages for their own sake is what draws me to Duolingo, but the site is also there for you if you only want something practical.  There's no reason that fun and useful can't be one and the same.

You progress through the system by completing a series of translations, incorporating text and spoken words. Vocabulary builds up slowly, and it's always possible to mouse over a word to find a list of possible meanings, so there's very little pressure to memorize.  Learning the words by heart is obviously the goal, but this happens through familiarization rather than cramming. 

Once you get pretty good at the canned exercises, you can try your hand at some real world examples from foreign language web sites.  Duolingo will hold your hand, offering literal translations of every word, but assembling them into a grammatical and natural English sentence can be tricky regardless.  User submissions are being used in the actual process of translating these sites, so there's a real tension here between sticking to the literal meaning (to conform with what is "correct" by consensus) and coming up with something a little more idiomatic.  Most of the users seem pretty on the ball with their efforts.  A few, however, could probably use a few more lessons in writing their first language.

Duolingo is, of course a fantastic way to learn a new language on the cheap and on your own schedule.  But all good learning requires discipline, and Duolingo's primary mode of discipline is the guilt trip, as delivered by their cleverly named mascot, Duo.

To quote the website: "Learning a language requires practice. Duo will cry if you don’t practice every day."  My guilt is steadily rising.

I think Duolingo is pretty damn awesome.  I'd like to see it grow, both in number of users and in number of languages.  It's not hard: it's actually very inviting to use.  It does require some level of commitment to actually get anywhere with it, but that goes without saying. 

Refreshing my Spanish skills has been mostly old hat; my greatest obstacle in that regard has been typos committed while answering too fast.  But learning German has been a very stimulating experience indeed.  I'm still on the basic vocabulary, but it's filled with cognates and morphological similarities to English, and learning them has answered some of my lingering questions about the relationship between the two.  I've also spent a lot of time repeating that das Mädchen isst einen Apfel, but you've got to crawl before you can walk.

So give Duolingo a try, everyone.  Revel in the joy of learning new words, and maybe think about English in ways you never have before.  It might not inspire as much curiosity in you as it does in me, but it is a fun and easy way to do something that's usually much harder.  That's got to be worth checking out.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Prettiest Blog

Let's be honest, this isn't the prettiest blog.  I'm not going to pretend it is, or offer a conceit as to why, hypothetically, we might pretend it is, as though that could prove some larger point.  That would be a silly thing to do, and blogging is serious business.

But even so, wouldn't it be nice if it were?  Supposing I had the design sense to actually produce an appealing layout or color scheme or, God forbid, a logo?  Perhaps a more appealing default text, or a more readable flow might bring some joy to the proceedings.

Sadly, I'm not a visuals guy.  I'm more of a goofy words and sounds guy.  Strange noises get in my head, and after a fitful period of teasing and re-contextualization, they turn into blog words.  Blog words are a lot like regular words, except they echo endlessly into the meaningless void; regular words, being sounds (or physical symbols), generally drop out of existence in the lack of a physical medium.

See what I mean?  I do crazy stuff like that.

The point of all this is that my blog is not optimized for good looks.  But that doesn't mean that it couldn't be, or that I couldn't try harder.  In fact, lately I've been trying to do just that.  Months ago I made some archive pages for the top of the screen, for Essays, Reviews, Fiction and Poetry; just the other day, I finally finished putting all of the relevant items on those pages.  All it took was, like, two hours of work!  And most of that was dawdling and procrastination.  But it got done, and it helps bring the whole blog together.  Things like that just make the blog a little prettier.

And you know, there's other things I can do to make it prettier.  I could trim all of the links sections, move some templates around; hell, I could even have a guy who knows colors help me fix the visual stuff.  Because I do know a guy.  I know a couple.  And I'm sure they'd have opinions if I asked.

Oh, and also, more content.  That's kind of the whole point of all this, right?  The internet (or the Internet, as it pretentiously insists on being capitalized) hungers constantly for new content, and rewards us when it is fed.  The rewards are abstract and often of dubious value, but it's nice to feel needed.

This month will probably see a few more reviews, as there are some things I'd like to do some analysis on and spread my thoughts.  I've probably mentioned this before (I'm pretty sure I have), but writing reviews is hard.  If you like something, it's hard not to praise it to death.  If you hate it, well... genuine, juicy hatchet jobs don't always come easy to me.  And of course, the tendency toward abstraction is so overwhelming, you can end up writing sentences that only barely qualify as English.  The words are all there, but the meaning is not so very much.

I say "you" because I assume at least someone else has these difficulties, but I really mean "me."  You don't have to assume I was talking about you.  In any event, I want to get better at reviewing.  So I'm going to practice it a little bit on a couple of different things.  If I get really confident, I might try it on something I don't like!

Once I've gotten those reviews out of my system, I'll get back to generating really original content, like poetry and fiction.  That is the ostensible reason I do this, after all.  It's probably vanity and it might be a little weird, but above all else, I like the idea of having a written corpus associated with my name.  Organizing all of my work on those pages, I started realizing that I had actually produced a few things I'm genuinely proud of.  If I've got nothing else in this world, I can at least say I made some art, in my own way.  I put in a little thought and a little focus, and I made something a little good.  Maybe even a little pretty.

I think I'm mostly talking about Rabbit Bar.  What a cute little story that is!  I'm proud of that one, I don't care what anybody says.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Chairlift - "Met Before" Interactive Music Video

First of all, thanks to my buddy Bau Kim for bringing this video to my attention.  He writes a music-sharing blog called Tastes Bad, and it's pretty good, so you should definitely read it if you want to know what's what and which in the indie music scene these days.

A bajillion years ago when this blog was new, I gave a little review of a neat interactive music video by a Spanish band called Labuat.  Being a lover of music and a lover of games, you can imagine that I think an interactive music video is just about the coolest thing ever. It's not really startlingly new or original anymore, and it may not even have been back in 2009, but I don't think it will ever stop being just about the best way to have fun with your speakers on.

Today's joyful bit of internet ephemera comes from an electropop group called Chairlift for a song called Met Before, with a video that is evidently about the multiple universe interpretation of quantum physics, as it applies to chasing after attractive people on a college campus.  Put the video in full screen, then use the arrow keys to pick a direction whenever the arrows appear on screen.

It took me three tries, but I managed to unite the heroine with a ruggedly handsome fellow who chases storms (or something) in the woods.  Other paths took me to the brink of a major breakthrough in neurological research, as well as a crazy psychedelic snowflake freakout in the sky.  That is to say, there are many interesting choices to be made.

Interactive videos make good music sound better, by forcing you to involve yourself in a way that's really just a step below playing the instruments yourself.  I'm not especially keen on electropop, and if you aren't necessarily down with warbly synthesizer madness you may find the music to be a little weird.  But a great melody is a great melody, no matter how you record it, and the use of synth in pop music has come a long way in the past few years.  I'd listen to this gladly, even if I didn't get to press buttons and direct the singer's world as I saw fit.

The choices you get to make are generally straightforward; they usually seem to be about moving toward or away from someone.  The results of those choices come in a remarkable variety of tones, but they always seem to hang together as a complete narrative.  That kind of attention to detail is a real joy; you never really feel dissatisfied with any of your decisions, even if curiosity compels you to go back to the beginning and find out what might have been.

Speaking of which, I just played it a fourth time, and wound up doing science with a cute girl and a swarm of bees.  You can't tell me that's not a good time.