Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Of Dragons and Demons

Okay, I'm about three days into Skyrim...level 7 Argonian destruction mage, thank you very much.

I should open up by saying that as far as I am concerned, in game writing today there is BioWare, Bethesda, an honorable mention for Rock Star and then a confederacy of wankers. I may be missing a few great things out there, so I'm open to having my horizons expanded, but so far I haven't seen anything else I'd call Dickensian or Melvillian.

Okay, here's the thing. I've joked about this a bit, but there is a serious point here. I really like the Dragon Age series. For a title that looked to be another elves-n-orcs Tolkein fantasy slashfest, DA I and II really surprised me with the depth of the character development and the original qualities of the fantasy world. The Fade alone sets this series ahead of the others.

BUT I T HAS NO BUSINESS CALLING ITSELF "DRAGON AGE." There are dragons, yes. Even a few dragon boss fights. But that's all they are. There is no dragon LORE to be had. Demon lore aplenty. And there are even demon dragons. But the overwhelming theme of the series is the relationship between humans and demons. And the demon lore is FANTASTIC. Demons represent real psychological pathologies and attack humans at a very basic level that is both persuasive and compelling.

But calling the game "Dragon Age" is like calling "The Exoricst" "The Film Director." Yes, there is a film director in the Exorcist. Yes, his death plays a major role in the development of the plot. But the film is not about Burt Dennings.

And there's nothing wrong with "Demon Age." That's a great title.

Skyrim, on the other hand, is so far doing GREAT Dragon lore. Dragons aren't just big boss monsters. They are mobilized geology. They represent the elements: fire, frost, water and earth. They embody the living history of the realms they dominate. They are leviathan. We are but mice where they are men.

I've killed two dragons in Skyrim and gained two dragon shouts. The whole first five hours of the game are all about tying my character to the legacy of dragons, long gone and now returned to a world unaccustomed to living in the presence of flying, fire breathing mountains.

This is truly a game worthy of the title "Dragon Age."

But once again, love both series. It's not their fault that they are subject to the same marketing logic that released a game about dwarves and trolls and called it "Orcs and Elves." I guess it's similar to the way Native Americans became known as Indians.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Black Swan
dir. Darren Aronofsky

"Didn't the emperor specifically forbid the ballet in his opera?"
- Antonio Salieri, Amadeus

"You fuckin' varmint! Dance!"
- Tommy, GoodFellas

"Everybody knows that the bird is the word."
- The Rivingtons, Surfin' Bird

What happens to a person when their life's compulsion becomes self-destruction? That is the question that drives Darren Aronfsky's work. Whether the compulsion is drugs and game shows, professional wrestling, the quest for immortality or just the number 3.14159..., Aronfsky's characters are captured in the moment of crossing personal event horizons. Unable to escape the gravity well of their own obsessive, unfulfillable need, they are consumed.

Natalie Portman is Nina Sayers, the talented ballerina daughter of a ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey) who suffers pain, alienation, indignity and madness in her quest to perform the Swan Queen.

Like Roman Polanski's Repulsion, Black Swan's protagonist suffers from paranoid hallucinations. She admires and resents the elder ballerina in her troupe, whose role she is taking, nearly as much as she fears and suspects her younger understudy, who may be trying to help her loosen up or may be trying to sabotage her career.

But Repulsion was a study of madness and nothing more. There was no pretense of high art in Catherine Deneuve's Carole. She was simply crazy and the film was an exercise in depicting her lunacy in a way that makes the horror of it relatable.

What's missing from Black Swan is so obvious that Aronofsky actually has characters repeatedly say it, whisper it and yell it at a rather stunned-looking Natalie Portman.

"The only thing holding you back is you! Let go! Show me the passion of the character!"

Would that Aronofsky had taken his own advice here. Nina's Black Swan performance is technically flawless but cold and flat, making it a microcosm of the movie itself.

What we lack here is any sense of what ballet means to Nina. We understand that she is dedicated to her career and that she's a product of her overbearing mother who lives vicariously through her young daughter. Technically that motivation is delivered sans flaw.

But it is cold and flat because at no point does Nina tell us what is so important to her about ballet. Maybe the answer is "nothing." Maybe that's the point. Maybe what was missing from her Black Swan was the fact that she was just dancing to please her mother and her director and not to express anything about herself.

All around her, characters are telling her to loosen up, to find herself, to get laid or at least masturbate. She needs a reason to dance that does not involve fear of disappointing someone.

This could have made for interesting storytelling if not for the fact that when we approach that mirror, something goes haywire. Rather than showing us a character finding her inner passion, her personal need to be the Black Swan, we're treated to a series of cheap thrills and jumpy shock shots that don't mean anything because we're pretty well aware by that point that Nina is off her rocker.

So ultimately, her quest for perfection comes off flat. It's perfection for perfection's sake, not perfection in something.

Watching Black Swan is like taking a two hour drive to help someone complete an errand that isn't even theirs to begin with. Though you may enjoy the scenery, the trip is all too forgettable.

Two stars. Jason says, tough guys don't dance.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The British Government Apologizes to Alan Turing

11 September 2009

Last week, I signed a petition to Prime Minister Brown requesting that the British government apologize to Alan Turing for persecuting him because of his sexuality.

Today, I received the following response. Congratulations, Alan. You're a hero.

Thank you for signing this petition. The Prime Minister has written a response. Please read below.

Prime Minister: 2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for
Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who
came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred
in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British
experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to
honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches
of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which
have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take
up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am
both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists,
historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and
celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of
dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on
breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that,
without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could
well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can
point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt
of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that
he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross
indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he
was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison - was chemical
castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own
life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing
and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt
with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his
treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance
to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and
the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted
under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more
lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this
government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT
community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most
famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to
humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united,
democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once
the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in
living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by
anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices
– that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European
landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls
which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is
thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism,
people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war
are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely
thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved
so much better.

Gordon Brown

Monday, August 31, 2009

Inglourious Basterds
dir. Quentin Tarantino

"History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."
- Karl Marx

- Dick Cheney

"Crazy mixed up kid, that Werner."
- Flight Lt. Hendley ("The Scrounger")

Quentin Tarantino has never been justly accused of an excess of insight into the human condition.

In Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, and even the more soulful Jackie Brown and Kill Bill (well, part II anyway), the characters breeze from vignette to nostalgic vignette with the kind of glib wit we all wish we had in the moment.

They live a screenwriter's fantasy, commanding rapt attention for finely tuned and memorized monologues and producing the kind of pitch-perfect putdowns that most real people only think of days after the moment has passed.

Lest any of us think it's easy, Mr. Tarantino takes pains to show that the process can be tedious, repetitive and ultimately rewarding as Reservoir Dog Mr. Orange memorizes his "commode speech," gradually making it his own. Or in the way Jules has clearly enhanced and enhanced Ezekial 25:17 over years of recital to his unique, and almost wholly extra-Biblical, rendition. These characters own their stories, even if the stories aren't true.

In this way, Quentin Tarantino is the opposite part of the other great macho dialogue writer of our time, David Mamet. But where Mamet meticulously sterilizes his films of any hint of ownership on the part of (yech) mere actors, Tarantino constructs elaborate set pieces to highlight and compliment his actors.

He flatters them. He's been called the greatest fan fictionalist of our time. By me. The fun we have watching them is the fun they have being a part of our lives while being apart from our lives.

They are his band, apart.

In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has achieved something I frankly didn't think he had in him (certainly not after the undirected self-indulgence of Death Proof): he has used his fanaticism to say something truly profound about war and narrative.

Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine is a southern-fried Bugs Bunny who lays down the rules of Nazi Hunt Club. And the first rule of Nazi Hunt Club is that you do talk about Nazi Hunt Club. More importantly, you make sure that the Nazis talk about Nazi Hunt Club.

Aldo knows what his weapon is: storytelling. And all good stories start with a premise. In this case, that the Nazis have no humanity.

It is fundamentally permissible to treat Nazi's brutally. And not just the high command or concentration camp guards, but grunts in the field. We revel along with the Basterds at the thought of the permissible, the cathartic violence against these universal villains.

And Tarantino makes it clear that he knows how this appetite for destruction is fed: by movies. By narrative. We know Rick and Ilsa better than we know Goebbels, and not without good reason.

Tarantino has, not surprisingly, made a war movie about war movies. About the power of the war narrative, more than the war itself, to shape our understanding of the world.

He will scalp a Nazi one moment and then invite us into the reverie of a German soldier's fresh fatherhood the next, deftly moving our frame from a cartoon narrative to a universal human story, without skipping tracks or missing a beat.

One can easily imagine Aldo Raine claiming that the Basterds love death more than the Nazis love life, and then queasily imagine the narratives our current enemies rock their children to bed with at night.

This confidence in his subject is what justifies his changing of history.

WWII had a great plot, but it needed a better ending. Hitler is Jaws. Hitler is the shark. The shark doesn't kill himself quietly in a basement. Roy Scheider kills the shark. Everyone knows that.

If Preston Sturges can credit American GIs with an escape perpetrated solely by British officers, then Tarantino can have Eli Roth avenge the holocaust with a blood-chilling thousand yard stare that has as much unflinching truth in it as real history.

Inglourious Basterds depicts history as we frame it, not as it literally was.

We didn't (just) kill Hitler on the field of battle. We killed him in the movies. We killed him in our stories. Even more, we killed his stories. We destroyed his fantasy of the ideal German standing tall astride a defeated world. We didn't just kill a man, we killed an idea.

And we're going to keep on killing it. Sooooooooound good?!?

Three and a half stars. Jason Raine says, when you get home, are you going to take off that uniform?

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Economic Meltdown
dirs. Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Dubya

"There's gonna be some bad shit coming down one of these days, kid."
"Oh yeah? Where are you gonna be? On the moon?"
"I'm gonna be right here headed north at 110 per."
"In this junker?"
- Bud & Otto, Repo Man

"Credit is a sacred trust. You think they give a damn about their bills in Russia?"
"They don't pay bills in Russia. It's all free."
"Free? Free my ass. What are you? A fuckin' commie?"
"No, I ain't no commie."
"You better not be. I don't want no commies in my car. NO CHRISTIANS EITHER!"
- Bud & Otto, Repo Man

"Bud, you're sitting in a car worth $20,000. We take it and split the money, 60/40, you and me."
"Who gets the 60, kid?"
"Well, I don't know, I figure since I found the car first that..."
(Bud draws a gun and cocks the hammer)
"...that you get it."
- Bud & Otto, Repo Man

Okay, it seems that our financial institutions have not been following The Repo Code. How do we sort this out?

The Bad Mortgages

Nothing gets solved until we solve this. This is where the damage started, so this is where it must be stopped.

Long story short: banks loaned a lot of money, a LOT of money, to people who they had no reason to believe could pay it back.

They did this because they believed that the assets that were being borrowed against (homes) would always increase in value and because the risk of default could be offloaded onto an unregulated default swap market.

As we all know, this system worked perfectly, burying risk on an uninformed market and saddling low-income Americans with monumental debts they can't hope to service let alone pay off.

So what do we do? Well, first, forget about asking really nicely for banks to renegotiate these loans or use mark-to-market to revalue assets or anything like that. Banks are in business to make money for their shareholders. They are not interested in writing down any assets to save the global economy.

Instead, the government should take on these loans, either by taking the banks into receivership (ie nationalizing them) or buying the loans from the banks not at their original price, but at the original price minus the cost of foreclosure (which is huge.)

The government then renegotiates these loans with homeowners. Push balloon payments out a decade, renegotiate for 40, 50 or 60 year terms, whatever it takes to get the current payments back down to their original level, keeping homeowners in their homes and buying a little time to sort things out.

Then the government works with the homeowners to either get them on track to be able to afford their mortgages when the 10 year window closes again, or to sell sometime in that decade.

For our trouble, the government takes 50% of whatever future leverage there may be while offering to split the underwater cost of any home that sells in the next 10 years.

Basically, we cosign and gamble that the real estate market will recover at least some of its value in the next decade.

This is feasible because the government can do something that commercial banks can't do: wait for frickin' ever to be repaid. A government bank doesn't have to worry about quarterly profitability, price-to-earnings, market cap or anything else. All it has to do is administer its accounts.

This program, by the way, will create jobs for accountants, real estate agents, home improvement workers, etc while heading off a bunch of unprofitable foreclosures, keeping homes occupied and avoiding flooding the streets of our bankrupt cities with millions more homeless.

It's win-win. Occupied houses retain their value and We The People(tm) may actually turn a profit on this business.

TARP Funding

Okay, far be it from me to wax sympathetic to a bunch of banker CEOs who can't live on less than a half-mil a year, but the fact of the matter is that the TARP asks them to do something which they really can't do: give a a shit about the global economy.

These guys have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders. If you make the bailout money fungible and you put it in their common fund, they're going to spend it on cocaine and massages because that's how they do business.

The fundamental problem is that the CEOs don't work for us. They work for the board and for the stockholders who apparently endorse the cocaine and massages business model.

Asking why they haven't done a bunch of things that politicians (who ARE supposed to serve the interests of the taxpayers) think they should do is silly. Three months from now, we'll be asking where the other $350 billion went.

There are two ways to solve this:

First, any bank that's so bad off that it's about to fail, take it into receivership (nationalize), fire every motherfucker who doesn't stand at a window and greet the public, install government-hired accounting and management teams and work the institution until it's either solvent or can be dissolved without throwing the earth of its axis.

If this institution mismanages TARP funds, we can do something about it because it'll be our property. Later, when the institution is back on its feet, sell it at public auction for a profit.

Second, for any bank that's still on its feet but needs a little help, you give them TARP funds as we have now, but along with those funds comes an Ombudsman.

Instead of mixing the TARP money into the general coke and massages fund, each and every application of TARP money is vetted by the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman will have full access to the bank's accounting and will have the option of saying "No, I don't think you need $100 million to buy your competitor. Take it out of the coke and massages fund."

This accomplishes two things.

First, it separates taxpayer rescue money from corporate money. We'll know exactly how taxpayer money is spent and toward what end.

Second, it puts responsibility for taxpayer money in the hands of someone (the Ombudsman) whose boss is the president. The Ombudsman doesn't answer to the board and doesn't care about increasing shareholder value.

If the Ombudsman doesn't do his job, we can fire him, not just ask him politely if he wouldn't mind telling us why he didn't do his job.

The Stimulus

First, we need to stop wailing and moaning about "where the money is going to come from" and talking about how "our children's children will be paying for this."

There's an idea we all have to start getting used to: money is imaginary. We made it up. It's not like we landed on this planet and found a bunch of money to manage. It's a human invention.

No matter how you slice things up, the fact is that we've got hundreds of millions of people living in an industrialized country with large cities, global institutions, huge agribusiness and a great deal of expertise. That's worth a lot.

If we all just woke up tomorrow, agreed to divide things equitably and implemented a fair and well-regulated market system and social safety net, we'd be fine. The reason we don't do this is because we think it would be unfair and disruptive.

So, if a global depression or crushing national debt ever gets more unfair and disruptive than pushing the reset button, we'll push the reset button. What's good enough for Africa and South America is good enough for us, right?

The question you should ask whenever anyone wrings their hands about all the debt we're incurring is this: WHO will we owe all this money TO?

The answer? Bond holders. That's you and me and our "children's children." All we have to do is regulate the bond market to prevent too much of that debt from going overseas and we'll be fine.

The idea that "our children's children" will be working like slaves in some salt mine suggests that someone besides "our children's children" will be owning these salt mines.

What's critically important is that the money be spent in such a way, and here's the clever bit, as to increase the amount of business that gets done so we can recoup our investment from increased tax revenue.

If we spend it on coke and massages, then the money will leave the economy unless the coke and massage industry stays 100% domestic. The last time we tried this approach to economic stimulus, we ended up having to invade Panama to get our stuff back, like the OJ of global superpowers.

If, on the other hand, we spend it on bridges, hospitals, schools, roads, power grids and scientific research, we then own these things which are valuable, decrease costs, produce revenue or improve efficiencies.

We produce wealth, in other words, that didn't exist before. This increase in wealth is then taxed and the tax revenue is used to buy back the bonds which lowers the debt and allows us to lower taxes.

Everybody wins, except those who profit on poverty, ignorance, misery, resentment, fear and suffering.

If We Don't

If we fail to take this approach, what we will have is large numbers of unemployed homeless people and large numbers of abandoned homes.

You do not have to be a rocket surgeon to figure out what's going to happen.

Homes that aren't burned down by desperate owners looking to cash out with the insurance company will be occupied by legions of otherwise homeless families.

All of this while the cops sit at home on furlough, waiting for the state's coffers to refill.

Why We Almost Certainly Won't Do Anything Like This

What are you, some kind of socialist? Let's just keep lowering taxes. That'll fix it.

J-Dog sez: Planet Detroit.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, let me lay on you: Big Lebowski in Little China!

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Friday, December 12, 2008

dir. Gus van Sant

"Everyone likes to make themselves out to be something more than they are, especially in the homosexual underworld."
- Willie O'Keefe, JFK

"I just want to be loved. Is that so wrong?"
- Jon Lovitz as Harvey Fierstein, Saturday Night Live

"Go ahead, shoot. The best thing about being me is...there are so many mes."
- Agent Smith, The Matrix: Reloaded

There were about thousand ways to screw up Milk, and Gus Van Sant managed to avoid all of them.

A contentious social issue, a flamboyant spokesperson, a brooding enemy, a public tragedy at the dawn of a horrific disease epidemic and a nationwide struggle for civil rights. These are all the fixings for a boilerplate tragic-hero melodrama (see: Valkyrie.)

In films like Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, we see a mainstream director with a penchant for human subtlety and deliberate plotting.

And then there's Psycho, Last Days and Elephant: films that were just slightly less than accessible.

In Milk, Van Sant synthesizes these earlier works beautifully.

Like Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, Milk is a human story that relies on strong performances and an essential confidence that appealing characters are more interesting when presented as-is, warts-and-all. Most especially if they show us the warts themselves.

Like Drugstore Cowboy, it is narrated from the point of view of a social leader whose own personal life is harder for him to manage than the missions he sets himself on.

Like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, Milk is about imperfect, defensive people trying to reach across social and political lines to find common ground with the imperfect, defensive people on the other side.

Like Psycho, Milk is a meticulous recreation of a piece of history.

Like Elephant, Milk highlights the work-a-day banality and quiet but stultifying alienation the precedes violence, putting a lie to the sensationalistic "trenchcoat mafia" mentality that dominates the media presentation of these events.

Like Last Days, Milk is expressionistic, with lived-in interiors and characters separated by chipped walls and scuffed floors representing the long occupied closets in their heads.

Enough cannot be said of Sean Penn's performance, so I won't even try to be adequate. He inhabits Harvey Milk so thoroughly and genuinely that it's not in the slightest bit jarring to see him juxtaposed against found footage from the era.

Josh Brolin, also, deserves a good deal of praise. He inhabits the film like Grendel: a dark, brooding force lurking behind the scenes. He's not in nearly as much of the film as Penn. He isn't even introduced until at least 30 minutes in and very little of his life or back story is depicted.

That's no serious objection. The film is called Milk, not White.

But it does leave him at a significant disadvantage. Like Ginger Rogers, who had to do everything Fred Astaire did only backwards and in high heels, Brolin has to deliver a truth just as central to the story as Penn's by remaining largely silent, by watching his words, by censoring himself. And all while swimming against the sympathetic tide.

The difficulty of this wasn't lost on Van Sant. At a point in the film where Milk's friends question his persistent efforts to befriend and reach out to White, Milk answers that he knows the kind of closet White is living in. He's felt that pain and alienation in his own life and his struggle would be meaningless if he abandoned White to his inner demons.

The tragedy of Milk lies as much in the understanding that hatred is its own punishment as it does in the acceptance that justice does not guarantee happiness.

Van Sant, sitting at the back of our school cafeteria of state, quietly sketcthing images of Kurt Cobain and the Columbine killers, has delivered quite a portrait.

Four stars. Jason Milk says, I'm here to recruit you.