I Heart Katamari

Best. Game. Ever.

To give that statement a little context: I’m a novice gamer at best. My cruel, heartless, Dickensian parents wouldn’t let me have an Atari growing up (kidding, Mom & Dad! I’m the better for it) so I’m a latecomer to all this beeping, flashing, vibrating analog joysticking stuff. A few years ago, I was engrossed in The Matrix films to a degree that seems silly now. But at the time, I was designing the official shop so I can explain away my obsession as having arisen from spending all day every day Photoshopping distressed metal boxes with glowing green screens. Word was that the Enter the Matrix Playstation game was a veritable revolution in gaming, an unprecedented merging of cinema and interactivity, necessary to understand the upcoming sequels, yadda yadda yadda. Sucker that I am, I actually bought a Playstation 2 on the strength of this hearsay, and… the game sucked. I had never even touched a PS2 before and I could tell that it sucked.

Worse than that, it was unbelievably violent. Before you call me naive for thinking it wouldn’t be: My favorite of the Matrix series is No. 2 (yes I know that’s against popular opinion, but what does Popular know?). If you watch closely, you’ll notice that although our ostensible heroes Neo and Trinity mow down dozens of innocent humans (not, technically, their bodies, but their consciousnesses in the Matrix, resulting in their real-world bodies dying) with machine guns in the first film, not a single living person dies in the second. Unfortunately the game takes after the first film and the player’s very first task is to sneak into a post office and kill as many armed guards as possible.

Where to start? First, is it intentional irony that you’re going postal on poor USPS workers? Second, why in the hell are they all packing heat, as opposed to packing tape? I forgot to mention that you start out the game unarmed, and the included instruction/hint book helpfully suggests a complicated combo move (or whatever gamers call it… you have to move the joystick up and to the left, press a dozen buttons in a complex sequence, turn around three times and toss salt over your shoulder) to sneak up on somebody and break their neck.

Now let me say here that I am against censorship in all forms, and all the talk about banning or even creating a rating system for violent videogames sets off all my liberal alarms. But when a game like this actually encourages the player to sneak up on an innocent human being just doing his job (as opposed to a non-sentient but malicious computer program, as the Matrix mythos call a villain) and break his neck instead of confronting them head-on and potentially costing you health points in a fist-fight… well, I nearly had the urge to call my representatives in Congress.

So my Playstation gathered dust for a good long while. I would occasionally take a stab at other games, but wound up selling most of them back. I did enjoy one quite a lot: The Simpsons Hit & Run, a sort of Grand Theft Auto (or so I’m told) without the hookers and whacking and stuff. Great fun! Seriously, you should try it.

But then I read about Katamari Damacy in Time Magazine, and was intrigued. Partly that the media would focus on a game for any reason other than to decry its poisoning our nation’s children’s precious bodily fluids, but also by it sounding totally unique. And it is, as far as I know. Basically, you roll a big sticky ball around the place and pick things up. The bigger your clump gets, the bigger things you can pick up. Soon it becomes clear that if you play long enough, everything around you is pick-uppable, including people, skyscrapers, and even clouds. It’s insane! Totally weird! Addictive!

I just picked up the sequel We Love Katamari this weekend and have fallen in love all over again. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge conceptual advance over the original, but there are many more worlds to explore, more complex goals, and more general loonyness all around. Yay! I’m a gamer!

Spam Poem No. 2: “250 Ways to Thank You”

The second in a series of found poetry taken from spam subjects. I’m taking a different tack this time, avoiding the more absurdist lines that appear in No. 1 “Here we come!” (there’s plenty more of that waiting for No. 3) and aiming instead for a coherent narrative flow.

250 Ways to Thank You

Don’t tell anyone please
about celebration

Are you ignoring me?
do you care?
is it funny?
It’s not a joke

I’ve Got a solution for you
good idea
if you need it
here you go

The Great Experiment
something unusual
nice gift for everyone
Get what you need

Don’t feel bad
You have been selected
Let’s meet up again soon
one more time

My Eyes Bleed

After an entire summer of no TV at all (Netflix, like Ben & Jerry’s, doesn’t count), I watched three hours in a row tonight and my eyes are still uncrossing. Everybody knows the old saw about television being the opiate of the masses (opium must flourish in vast wastelands). But when exactly did TV’s drug metaphor of choice change to crack?

Lost

Gone are the days of The A-Team, where one could switch on any random episode and know immediately what’s going on. Lost, like kissing-cousin action/dramas Alias and 24, depends at least as much on plot continuity as character development. Not coincidentally, these are the only three shows I watch. I’m passing on 24 this year, because no matter how exciting the plotting, the politics became too unpalatable for me (the overarching theme of the entire last season boils down to the following: torture is a great tool for fighting terrorism. OK… I might listen to such an argument… if our inept intelligence community ever manages to catch a terrorist BEFORE striking! Please, give me a break. And making fun of Amnesty International was just wrong. Can you tell I’m angry?). I’ve yet to decide if I’m going to commit to another whole year of Alias. No matter how sexy Lena Olin is, the show has lost its fun plot-driven nature and converted into a more typical wing-it-week-by-week format. So that leaves Lost, the only one of the three about which I’ve actually been impatient all summer.

Like any good drug, with everything Lost gives, it only demands more. The addictive nature of the show is to eke out information in tiny little dimebags… I mean, pieces. So I’ve waited all summer for the answer to countless questions, at least one of which was “answered” tonight. I put that in scare quotes because all it did was metastasize the number of questions to absurd proportions. But disappointingly, I found it a bit of a cheat to discover the contents of the hatch to be a new character introduced just 5 minutes before. Where’s the suspense in that? Imagine if it had been Jack’s father or fiance instead. Wouldn’t you just have jumped out of your chair? OK, maybe just junkies like me.

To add a little spice to the evening, the local ABC news affiliate broke in repeatedly to keep us informed on a Jet Blue plane making an emergency landing with its landing gear twisted sideways. Would they have been so morbidly enthusiastic about the story if Lost wasn’t about the survivors of a plane crash? And just to top all the breathless action off, we’re treated to a Jet Blue commercial! Oops… awkward! (Aside: my friend Dave helpfully suggested they should simply land sideways. Thanks Dave!)

Invasion

Uh… so? In short, this one did nothing for me. I guess they figured keeping “of the Body Snatchers” in the title added up to too many syllables.

On Neil Gaiman and Becoming an Idiot at Book Signings

Neil Gaiman

I went to the Neil Gaiman reading & signing at Barnes & Noble here in New York City tonight. Even though I knew he’s about as much of a rock star as a writer can get, I naively didn’t get in line until after he finished speaking. Neil heroically pledged to stay as long as it took; B&N likewise promised to stay open (would they do that for, say Salman Rushdie?). A slow realization set in that I would have to hunker down for several hours to get my book signed. Turns out I had the whole night free (which is a subject for another time), so I thought what the heck? I have to sit somewhere to read the book, why not here and now?

And so the first hour passes. The Farts & Ignoble carpeting is somewhat less than plush and my rear is a bit sore. But salvation! An employee offers us wristbands freeing us to leave and return at will. Well, at will until 8:45, that is. So I go have an enormous burger and fries (a craving, what can I say?) and come back.

Neil (he of the superhuman wrist) has already signed a hundred or so copies; I could simply buy one and call it a night. So the whole time I’m thinking, why am I doing this? I’m 31 years old! Not an 18-year-old goth chick or a ponytailed middle-aged book dealer looking to make a killing on eBay. I don’t even have anything clever to say or ask him!

Turns out I’m saved any awkwardness around Neil by the woman in front of me. She had a whole spiel prepared, thanking him for turning her on to several other writers. On one hand, I’m privately embarrassed for not having read a thing by any of those mentioned, but on the other, it frees me from the pressure of striking any kind of rapport with him myself. So as he signed my book and a first-edition Sandman hardcover I had brought along (I’m such a nerd), I simply thanked him for sticking it out. He replied that it’s quite easy when everybody is so nice. Poor fellow looked exhausted, standing just to keep his circulation moving, but he remained pleasant to the end.

I’m inspired to recount a few other signings I’ve attended here in New York:

Sarah Vowell

I have a little bit of a crush on Sarah Vowell. Brains and wit (preferably snarky and tart) always turn me on, and it must be said she looked a bit sexy that evening. At the post-reading signing, I asked for it to be inscribed to “Chad.” She looked a bit curious and asked me to repeat it. So I did and managed to say something about how she had resisted the opportunity to make a dimpled or hanging chad joke. I can’t remember what she said in reply, because she looked me straight in the eye and held it for a moment or two, smiling her little curlicue smile. Whew! Maybe she simply didn’t hear my name the first time, but I’ll certainly remember that look and will continue to entertain the fantasy that she doesn’t look at everybody like that.

Dave Sim & Gerhard

The writer/artists of the comic book Cerebus. This was maybe 1998 or so, and I think I had already stopped reading Cerebus; no matter how brilliant a comics writer/artist Sim may be, I couldn’t deal with his sexual politics (in short, he started using Cerebus to explicate his increasingly paranoid and hostile feelings towards women – yes, all women. Personally, I like women a lot). But I found out he was going to be showing some original art and signing at a gallery in Tribeca, and decided to go. The organizers really laid down the law: Mr. Sim and Mr. Gerhard will sign only, and not do any sketches. Nevertheless, people were being quite rude and demanding multiple sketches on their stacks of Cerebus books anyway, and I recall the general atmosphere being a bit negative. So when I came up, all I had was a single slim issue of Cerebus and didn’t ask for anything. And he sketched a Cerebus head by his name. How about that? The tetchy misogynist drew me a cute little cartoon!

Ray Bradbury

This is a good story. Bradbury is quite a character; imagine a huge red-nosed stone-deaf Santa Claus out of uniform and you’ll get the general idea. Amusingly, an assistant stood by loudly repeating in his ear everything people said to him. A film student at the time, I asked him if he had ever considered publishing his Moby Dick screenplay. After a brief delay as my question was relayed to him at greater volume and proximity, he rose up and bellowed (theatrically outraged) “OF COURSE NOT!!! When I was a BOY in ILLINOIS, I peeked behind the CURTAINS at the CARNIVAL and had my INNOCENCE SULLIED! Movies are MAGIC, and reading a screenplay is like learning how a MAGICIAN does his TRICKS!” (etc… I’m paraphrasing) I stammered something about how I was a screenwriting student and I only wanted to read it. His assistant mercifully repeated me, and then Bradbury just as abruptly changed tack: “OH! That’s DIFFERENT!” and proceeded to say something about how a writer can learn a lot by reading as much as possible. So I can proudly state I’ve been publicly and loudly dressed down by no less than Ray Bradbury, but nonetheless managed to save face.

Tarnation

Tarnation movie poster

 

God, I want to jump out a window. I sandwiched a movie as innocuous as Willy Wonka inbetween this recent run of major movie bummers: Tarnation, Kurt & Courtney, Sid & Nancy, 11’09″01, Downfall… but it didn’t amount to much more than a breather. Let’s see… are there any Care Bear DVDs on Netflix I can use to balance out the movies I’ve been watching recently that feature grief, despair, holocaust, addiction, abuse, and terrorism?

Sid & Nancy

Sid and Nancy movie poster

 

And now to raise the gander of another friend. Sorry, Kevin, but I’m still not much of an Alex Cox fan and found this one a little hard to digest.

But no doubt, Gary Oldman is superb (the degree to which he disappears into roles is actually a bit scary – did anybody besides me not even recognize him in Hannibal and The Contender until the end credits rolled?). And some of the dialogue is choice: “What’s happened to Jonny?” “Johnny got beat up by fascists.”

Maybe like Kurt & Courtney, my Punk Appreciation Deficiency Syndrome colored my response the film.

11’09″01 – September 11

11'09

 

A series of short films inspired by or in reaction to 9/11 made by directors from nearly every continent.

At first, I thought for sure I would be giving this one more than three stars, but the quality of the short films takes a steep dive after the first two. The first in particular, by Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf, is excellent. It opens on an entire Afghanistan village emptying their well in order to manufacture bricks to build shelters for when the US will bomb them. A female schoolteacher rounds up all the children and attempts to explain to them what happened in New York, and why the Americans are about to kill them. Step one: try to illustrate the concept of a skyscraper.

The short from Egypt is quite bad, and almost laughable (dig the ghost of a buff American Marine killed in Beruit, walking out of the ocean, soaking wet and topless). And unfortunately, Sean Penn’s contribution was over-edited into oblivion. But a late high point is Ken Loach’s documentary about the US-instigated overthrow of Chile’s democratically-elected government on… wait for it… September 11, 1973!

And a bit of trivia: Mira Nair’s short was written by an old roommate I had back in film school.

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory movie poster

 

Ever know you’ve seen a movie, but can’t really remember it? So after seeing the Tim Burton remake, I decided to put the original on my Netflix queue because I just couldn’t spark the brain cells that contained my recollections of it.

This is the first of two posts that are bound to upset friends… this one will surely hurt the feelings of H the Mean Teacher. First I come down hard on Nirvana, and now I am ambivalent about one of her favorite movies! For that I’m sorry, but I think I can mitigate the damage by briefly explaining my rating system.

In a word, it’s subjective. I’m not trying to be a film critic (or rather, what a film critic ought to be, in a perfect world), whose job it is to evaluate a film’s quality and achievement in light of a deep knowledge of world cinema and then leaven it with a personal perspective. Rather, my ratings are the inverse: the personal response first, and then a consideration of the movie’s history and general critical consensus. I wouldn’t necessarily give an acknowledged classic a high rating if I personally didn’t care for it.

So, I gave this one 3 stars even though it enjoys a cult following that will no doubt gang up on me on the street and pelt me with Everlasting Gobstoppers while chanting the “Oompa Loompa” theme tune. I did like the bit where Wonka spookily intones “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” I could swear that has been sampled in some electronica track, although can’t for the life of me remember which. Sounds like something The Orb would seize on, but I’m not sure. Anyone? (an aside: The Future Sound of London sampled the movie dialogue “Everybody on line… Lookin’ good,” and for some reason I always mentally associated it with Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. Until one day, I’m watching Aliens… and there it is, out of the mouth of a colonial marine.)

Sorry to add insult to injury, Mean Teacher, but I also must say here that I unexpectedly loved the Tim Burton remake.

A Brief Word on R.E.M.

R.E.M. by Anton Corbijn

Being an unapologetic iPod/iTunes addict, I’m not too ashamed to announce I just finished ripping all of my R.E.M. cds. So this is blogworthy exactly how, you ask? Well, I was moved to post here because, all told, it amounts to over 28 hours of music. 28 HOURS! Isn’t that amazing? On second thought, I suppose one could say that a day’s worth of songs isn’t that much considering the band’s recording career is at least 20 years and running. But I’m sure there’s a completist out there with every soundtrack, b-side, and bootleg whose pile o’ R.E.M. MP3s reaches into not days but weeks.

Part of my iTunes obsession involves rating every track (seeing as how I’m constantly ripping more cds, it’s also a sisyphusean Big-Dig-type job). So a quick glance at my track-by-track ratings betrays my favorite albums, in rough order: Document, Life’s Rich Pageant, Up, Monster. Least favorites? The two most recent: Reveal and Around the Sun. What happened after Up? I know that album isn’t well-regarded, but personally I love it for its flaws and honestly, its weirdness. It’s their first album after drummer Bill Berry left the band, and it shows them reaching for a new sound. Perhaps the touches of electronica are a bit dated (Bowie and U2 have also left much of that behind by now), but I like it. Unfortunately, the identity they chose is to follow up on the tone set by the most bland song on Up, Daysleeper. It’s the sort of jangly ballad R.E.M. can dash off in their sleep. It lets the album down, and it’s a real bummer for the next two whole albums to share that feel. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll buy the next one to see if they jump off the cliff again.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie poster

 

Yes, officer, I’d like to file a report. You see, I’m being threatened. I received word that If I don’t actually start writing stuff in my blog, I’m going to have my virtual pants pulled down in front of at least half a dozen complete strangers with well-tended blogs. Or is that if I DO actually start writing stuff… oh, I’m confused. Wait! Officer, where are you going? Oh well, I’ll just get on with a sentence or two about this DVD I just saw, and hope I remembered to put on presentable underthings this morning.

I’m one of THOSE people, you know the ones… while the rest of my peers obsessed over Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, I had my head stuck in Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I would drop my Nerf football or Legos every Saturday afternoon at 3 to run inside and catch Doctor Who on PBS. And for some unscheduled Brit-sci-fi fun, my collection (complete but always far from mint) of Douglas Adams paperbacks always waited for me.

So for me and my ilk, 2005 looked to be a great year — not only was Doctor Who regenerated (seemingly out of nowhere, when there was no hope to be had even by the most blindly optimistic of fans) by none other than the BBC itself, somebody at Disney (Disney?!) finally threw up their hands and actually made that Hitchhiker’s script that had been kicking around Hollywood for decades (not an exaggeration). Surely, some of my geek brethren must have grown up and scored jobs in the entertainment industry.

Not having been broadcast anywhere on this side of the planet, I’ve only managed to see less than half of the new Doctor Who season thanks to the wonders of internet piracy. I’m here to say that it is pure, glorious, totally-different-and-yet-somehow-still-Who. But Hitchhiker’s? It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid. As a lifelong fan, it’s a bit surprising to find myself wishing the film was MORE mainstream. It’s hard to imagine anybody who had not read and reread the book (or at least already appreciative of some Monty Python-style humor) not being totally and completely bewildered by the whole production.

Some of the casting is so perfect as to be impossible to imagine otherwise: the voices of Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry, and wotsisname from The Office was surely born to play the definitive Arthur Dent. But as much as I like Mos Def, it has to be said he’s a mumbler (huh? what’d he say?). The filmmakers had the right idea to go for practical effects as often as possible, including some much-missed old skool puppet work from the Jim Henson Company, but it sometimes just doesn’t sit right paired with off-the-shelf-pow-zoom-blow-your-mind-just-like-the-last-blockbuster-you-saw-this-summer CGI.

I reread the book for the first time in years, and it struck me that the whole thing is actually quite short, focused, and satisfying. It shouldn’t have been too hard to fashion it into a movie, but evidently the producers (and Adams himself, who co-wrote the screenplay) felt otherwise, quickly abandoning the plot specifics of the novel. But if the aim is to create an easily-digested summer blockbuster story, why (just for example) introduce a seemingly significant character who incapacitates a major character, who then promptly drops out of the story and the situation is never resolved? And the whole business about Zaphod’s brain would make no sense at all to anyone who isn’t a Hitchhiker’s expert (I wouldn’t have understood it myself if I hadn’t reread the book so recently).

Anyway, I could go on but it’s late and I need to charge my iPod and myself (ie go to sleep). So I’m going to take my pants off anyway! Ha!