Star Wars in La La Land

As of late, I’ve had relatively few opportunities to go to the movie theaters, due both to a lack of funds (combined with avg. ticket prices of around $17) and a surfeit of media options at home, included better, older films catered to my exact mood at any particular time. Interesting that it would take two nostalgia-tinged films, Rogue One and La La Land, to bring us all back to the multiplex. December often brings everyone to the theater for one reason or another. Last year it was The Force Awakens. Typically Oscar bait and big-budget blockbuster franchises are enough to attract even the most entrenched couch potato to rise to the occasion and consume cinema in a public location, though increasingly the reasons we gather in public are materialistic, fascistic or escapist. Case in point: Marvel and Star Wars movies.

To go on about Marvel and Star Wars is a bit like beating a dead horse, though that horse is not dead, and is in fact the size and density of an AT-AT, that is, extremely dense and difficult to damage. Still, it is worth saying that the franchise-zation of both Star Wars and Marvel, which need not be expounded upon in detail, establishes an unprecedented scale and scope for blockbuster action movies, one that speaks to not so much a lack of originality as a lack of focus group commonality between people in our stratified cultural ecosphere. Perhaps owing to the fact that we constantly want to be self-affirmed by the external world, including cinema, the business approach to blockbuster filmmaking- written about in Blockbusters by Anita Ekberg- is actually indicative of a risk-averse, unpredictable filmgoing public. Safe bets like Harry Potter and Iron Man actually enable Kristen Wiig to star in 140 indie movies about 30-something disaffection every year, because the tentpole pictures account for somewhere near 90% of studio profits. That a budget of $200 million couldn’t drum up enough writers and producers to limn a single human or alien or robot character with humanity in Rogue One is downright head-scratching, but disappointment at the theater is as expected as busy carpet patterns in the lobby.

The surprising critical praise for Rogue One has inured me to wonder if I saw the same movie as Christopher Orr of The Atlantic, who while offering up the caveat that Star Wars is largely and sadly a monolithic boardroom moneygrab, still seemed to enjoy it. Sure, it wasn’t quite the goofy failure that Force Awakens proved to be, personified by a bored Harrison Ford, but Rogue One‘s cliche-ridden formula and (again) risk-averse plotting is almost more inexcusable considering it wasn’t supposed to be as indebted to the original trilogy. Underneath the whole reboot and all-in mentality of Disney seems to be a kind of central nervous system that is “Star Wars”- an idea that is seen most clearly through advertising for the franchise, through the poster art and action figures and sentimental car commercials. The “idea” of Star Wars is such: sci-fi fantasy escapism. As a concept, it is extremely appealing, and I believe that our desire (neigh, need) for quality escapist fun, especially in a schizophrenic late capitalist matrix of solipsism and consumption, is made apparent by the multi-generational hysteria surrounding the Star Wars Empire. Our collective imagination really seems to fuck with the Death Star, light sabers, Jabba the Hutt, and Darth Vader a lot.

The crushing and obvious blade hanging over the entire charade is the not-so-subtle business approach to the entire ordeal- and it is here that I found a critic to agree vociferously with in Richard Brody. His New Yorker review aptly targets “the kind of corporate Kremlinology that would rightly take the place of criticism in assessing the substance and tone of the movie.” The film doesn’t make any egregious missteps like throwing in a Jar Jar Binks. In its cold and mechanic delivery of plot and faces, Rogue One performs the simple duty of being a new Star Wars movie in the Star Wars universe. That is no longer a duty worth performing.

The other film whose title has escaped the mouths of many Americans in December of 2016 is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. While I’m not entirely sold on his jazz + creativity/passion/determination thematics as a recurring schtick, I viewed the film as an exploration of just how cold our hearts have become, and whether there still is even a small spark of true joy and love that Hollywood might be able to unearth within us. I would say that the looming Other of La La Land is modern society and deep, lacerating cynicism- the fact that the film takes place in contemporary Los Angeles is even more curious, as it turns Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s relationship into a kind of bubble protecting them from the hideous and crass modern landscape- the world of lame tapas/samba restaurants, bumper-to-bumper traffic farting pollution balloons into the atmosphere, overproduced electronic music, and artificiality in all of its forms. Shaving away artifice, what you are left with is beautiful music with real instruments, and emotion.

Considering Donald Trump is our new President and we are all glued to our phones drooling in a swirl of simulated ideology, a simple reminder that we each have an equally precious beating heart is a welcome respite, a breather as we continue the march towards techno-apocalypse. What’s more, like a thumb war, Chazelle successfully lures in and courts ironic detachment and distaste for saccharinity- basically understanding Twitter’s unique brand of spiraling, failed discourse, and offering a welcome palliative. The film would certainly fit under the oft-misunderstood “New Sincerity”, a kind of post-modern gesture towards literalism and empathy that seems nearly foreign when films are either too stupid or take themselves too seriously, or aren’t really movies, such as Rogue One. To all the real dreamers, the real artists and poets etc. who aren’t adopting and regurgitating shallow mass culture in a circular way but instead endeavoring to create true, lasting art- La La Land is a much-appreciated nod. It is the kind of movie that makes cinema worth thinking about, worth learning about, and worth looking forward to.

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

Hunting Down Manhunt and Playing Manhunt

In keeping with the spirit of writing somewhat generic video game reviews ala my 8th grade self, I wanted to pen some words on Manhunt, which came out in 2004. I had initially intended to write about video games but bring a more nuanced, perhaps cerebral approach to the prose, crafting a piece that would leave the reader both impressed by my acumen and stroking his/her chin with new thoughts regarding the efficacy and sociologic value of “video games”, which are, in the grand scheme of global society, extraordinarily trivial (apart from the fact that they’ve sucked eons of time away from us and made some people very rich). There have been numerous attempts to imbue video games with an elevated literary lens, most notably Tom Bissell’s excellent if uneven Extra Lives, but largely video games remain untouched insofar as compelling critical inquiry is confirmed. That video games are not taken to be worthy subject matter for writers is curious to me, considering they are no different than all the other simulated experiences we dive into on a daily basis- the news, sports, films, and critically-acclaimed serial televisions for which the AV Club writes they’re slapdash and- I’m sorry- but pretty awful reviews. Anyway I played Manhunt recently and this is my “blog”, so I want some of my thoughts on “record” (?).

I’ll get one shot across the bow right off the bat (a favored weapon in Manhunt): we live in a selfish tear-down culture where disagreement is the starting point and enjoyment of any thought process is subject to the gnashing metal jaws of the IronyBot. The majority of people barely read anything, so most of this is purely futile and the “market”, i.e. indoctrinated trends and norms, concepts which I would have thought literature and serious writing could challenge and subvert- are actually deeply entrenched in the “think-piece” and literary community. Alas, I digress. Back to Manhunt.

Manhunt is a spatially engaging stealth game developed by Rockstar. As a nondescript player-character, you’re thrown into various urban environments with a weapon or two and must use the shadows to hide and hunt different gangs that have been hired to kill you. Rather than stomp through abandoned buildings and alleyways guns ablaze, you’re required to exercise patience and stealth in the process of surviving each level. The city is a dystopia, crumbling and cruel, and you have to use the natural hiding places of the physical environment to your advantage, hitting walls and luring enemies towards you, watching them from secluded corners and sneaking up behind them, executing them with a three-pronged range of severity. The tension that arises by simply switching the procedural mechanisms of Rockstar’s RenderWare engine display that engine’s revolutionary ingenuity- simply replace the sunny, car-filled maps of Vice City and improve enemy AI- now you have the framework for the game Manhunt.

And that’s what is so important about video games, and about discourse- there is no theoretical underpinning, no over-abstraction capable of landing the final resounding rhetorical blow. Video games are a neurological hamster wheel created because people were already sitting in front of their televisions. Passivity as the starting point, we’ve developed ways to surround ourselves with mediated storylines and simulated emotion. Video games are a fun diversion, but also a reminder of the corporeal limitations of our slouching skeletal skin sacks, and ultraviolent entertainment- in Manhunt you can suffocate enemies with plastic bags- makes us feel alive in an era when we’re spoiled rotten with complacency. The controversy surround Manhunt‘s release was not surprising, as it’s clear that Rockstar was courting controversy and continues to do so. Over a decade later, it is not so much transgressive as gratuitous in the same way that comic books are gratuitous.

What fascinates me, I’ll have you know, requires some solipsistic reflection, so apologies in advance. As a fourteen year old living what in many respects is one of the most prototypical East Coast suburban lives imaginable, games like Manhunt were an opportunity for me to engage with what was, especially at the time, a fascinating “alternative” culture. Hardcore violence, mature themes and blatant nihilism were signifiers to me of a widened scope of human emotion (or lack thereof) as well as a political statement. The game was purely terrifying and extremely difficult, and so felt like an escape from suburbia or an aesthetic affirmation of my own maturity. That I never completed Manhunt in 2004 but really enjoyed it, bugged me until recently when I finally played through it entirely. I was struck not by it’s bleak ultraviolence or visceral, gray-blue urban landscapes (both of which are well-imbued with cinematic ambiance), but by the realization that the very act of playing this particular game, with this particular sprite, was not so much an opportunity to objectively analyze a game, but instead, it became apparent that the whole isolated performance of my sitting there, controller in hand was in fact a regression backwards, with the express purpose of affirming my own subjectivity which had somehow gotten locked up with a game from Rockstar.

It is difficult for me to explain my thought processes but I will attempt to do so: the bleak cityscape, the abandoned mall and the zoo in Manhunt are a reflection of my own interiority, perhaps. Reaffirming my own interests (which I had recently and arbitrarily decided would include writing reviews of third-person games), I was hoping to close a circle that I’d started years ago when I first played the game. Not simply a belief in Manhunt, but that video games in general have to have an aesthetic and near-literary quality to them which makes them worth looking at from multiple angles, thinking about through multiple theoretical frameworks, not to ruin them, but to indicate that they (and I) am worthy of serious consideration. So you can see that playing the game was not just playing a game- and though I’d argue that it never is, or shouldn’t be, perhaps I pulled back too far on my bow and my arrow just skitted randomly through the sky.

So anyway, the game Manhunt is intense, jarring, and well-constructed.

4/5 stars

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

Blood Pixels

In an era defined by personal technology and scale, the opportunity to control a God isn’t particularly unique. Considering we can order pizza and track its journey to our doorstep with nary a word spoken aloud, in many ways we all play God at one time or another, controlling and ruling over our small dominions. With the same greasy fingers one uses to order up a lip-smacking Meat Lover’s, one can control a virtual Greek God named Kratos and hack-and-slash (H&S) his or her way to victory. To understand the average American man-child and the hidden wonders of 3D third-person console platform games, God of War is as good a place as any to start.

The third in Santa Monica Studios’ God of War series, GoW III starts in media res as Kratos, a Spartan warrior, is climbing up Mt. Olympus to kill Zeus. The plot of God of War III is insignificant, as like so many video game plots, it exists to facilitate continued action, with cut-scenes written and inserted around the game, the chief objective being to garner slack-jawed “whoa, awesome’s” from the cave-dwellers firing it up. The God of War story-line is largely forgettable, serving more as a vehicle for endless and repetitive battles and puzzles than offering a nuanced, engrossing “story”, though not for lack of trying.

While the game-play mechanics have been ported from the previous installment, the developers utilized Playstation 3 hardware to create high-quality environments and sprites for the player to explore and/or destroy. The improvements in graphical output are evident immediately, in the opening sequence in which Kratos climbs the Titan Gaia attempting to climb Mount Olympus, and the game does not cease to amaze at virtually every turn from thereon out. While a familiarity with video game aesthetics and the logic of the H&S platform genre can enhance appreciation, even your little sister might note, walking by the TV, that the game looks really good.  To call GoW III  a prodigious exercise in scale is to avoid acknowledging its jaw-dropping precision- SIE accomplished the impossible, in terms of vastness and visceral size and scope of game environs. This makes sense, given that Santa Monica Studios is a subsidiary of Sony and the God of War franchise is a flagship title for Playstation.

Which is to say, GoW 3 was an event. Developed over the course of about four years on a budget of $44 million, the game’s graphics and attention to detail should put any and all questions about video games and aesthetic value to rest. SIE Santa Monica’s GoW III- led by game director Cory Barlog before he abruptly resigned eight months into production, replaced by Stig Asmussen- built upon the best parts of the franchise to construct a near perfect third-person platformer with beautiful environmental designs painstakingly rendered. Whether the ornate Greek architecture, overgrown with vines, or Hades- a flesh and muscle-lined cavernous nightmare- SIE showcases mind-blowing particle and water graphics and physics, with innovative use of blended normal mapping. The attention to textural detail shines through in every frame, in the visceral dismemberment of foes as well as the rare moments of respite, when Kratos (you) finds himself standing in a reflecting pool, the moonlight seeping in through cracked columns and marble slabs reduced to rubble.

The mechanics of play are a highlight, and they were revamped and updated to reflect the more robust system capabilities. Combat works on several levels, one of which is a fine balance of slaughtering  hordes of enemies and a nuanced array of attacks available, and with with every weapon- only possible through the developers’ exceptional attention to detail and time. The Chains of Olympus, Kratos’s iconic weapons throughout the franchise, offer extended combination attacks involving all manner of whirling destruction and grappling etc., punctuated by occasional QTE execution combos for larger enemies. The result is a masterful blend of styles that feels at once cinematic and beyond cinematic, an opportunity to dance to the beat of one’s own internal appetite for destruction, whatever that Rorschach test of decision-making might reveal about the player.

Kratos complicates his quest for vengeance through acts of increasing hypocrisy and hubris. Terrence C. Carson, the voice of Kratos, is a central element of the games’ narrative success, though through no fault of his own Kratos isn’t an appealing protagonist. On that front, and several others, the game is brought down like one of its own monsters- the gratuitous pornographic nudity notwithstanding. The storyline is rife with cliches and filler- the character Pandora is notably disposable. In one segment, Kratos stumbles upon a lesbian threesome, and must satisfy Aphrodite in a button-mashing sex mini-game (GoW contained the first pornographic sex mini-game I’d ever seen). In those respects, it becomes a parody of the “sex and violence in video games” debate- it is unapologetically savage in nearly every respect.

The utter barbarity of Kratos’s actions is a rather surprising and negative addition within the already muddled plot, as he betrays every character he meets and seems to relish stepping on the hands of his few remaining allies as they dangle from various cliffs. There’s a corny nu metal-like Xtremeness to his (your) actions, a nihilistic video game brutality that is best enjoyed by 14-year olds with garlic bread grease dribbling down their chins. It all blurs together into a stream of high-res graphical violence and puzzle solving, though, and like gore in cinema, Kratos’s violence does have an aesthetic quality of its own, a statement regarding our willingness to play through acts of cruelty for a larger narrative payoff- in this case, stellar state-of-the-art graphics and gameplay. The blood is an aesthetic tool, a sign of life.

At this point, it’s hard to argue that violent video games have been entirely innocuous. Their societal effects depend on a person’s upbringing and mental health. Similar to criticisms thrown at Eminem, Odd Future and Game of Thrones, the hyper violence of GoW 3 is heightened in its simplistic barbarism. Not only does Kratos look to destroy all of the Gods, but he does so in vicious fashion, beheading and disemboweling his way to Zeus. There’s an artistic statement hidden somewhere in the putrefied guts and corpse piles left in Kratos’s wake, but it isn’t “life is tough, sometimes you have to break a few skulls”. The underlying suggestion seems to be rather more cynical than that: redemption is impossible and life is nothing but one tragedy after another in a long string of tragedies destined to play out on the cosmic harp of meaningless cruelty.

Despite the boatloads of carnage, there is catharsis in pushing “O” and tearing a zombie warrior in half. The gameplay mechanics perfect a fantastic engine developed by Santa Monica Studios with the original God of War for PS2. A wide variety of interchangeable weapons and magic spells allows each player to bring a degree of individuality- I preferred using the Nemean Cestus once I acquired them from Hercules (voiced by Kevin Sorbo). Others might prefer the Chains of Olympus or Blades of Hades. Really, the game requires smooth button-mashing and a general understanding of the different attack and block moves- many fights towards the end are extremely difficult simply because of the sheer number and dispersion of enemies. For any gamer familiar with the hack-and-slash elements of third-person combat, the options for killing sprites are multitudinous, and in an almost Zen-like way, becomes hypnotic and frequently satisfying.

The God of War trilogy occupies a unique, blockbuster place in gaming and male violent fantasy entertainment. In many ways, it has succeeded where countless sword-and-sandal and fantasy films of the past 10 years have failed- creating an immersive story arc and personal stake for the player. Kratos is vastly more memorable than most of the other bare-chested warrior-heroes in recent entertainment- but he’s been relegated to the rather unfortunate demographic that buys and plays extremely violent third-person platformers, an unseemly crew. Though it has a weak plot and repetitive fighting, GoW III empowers Kratos (you) to look up at the endless heights and depths of Mt. Olympus, Hades and the Labyrinth and march him forward towards and into and through an “epic” sensory experience- a fitting word, as it is one that is so over-used among ‘gamers’.

The success of the God of War franchise is no fluke, nor is it an indicator of the declining tastes of the market- it is a work of art with as many surprising twists of logic and moments of pure precision as Daedelus’s labyrinth. Its misogyny and formulaic faults are worth straining to ignore in order to appreciate the jaw-dropping results of a team of expert designers and writers and countless others firing on all cylinders, building software beyond mathematical imagination. The cultural stigma around video games, even within open and liberal individuals, seems to target the consumptive, sedentary nature of the medium and the pointless Sisyphean violence; God of War III crushes the skulls of those who doubt whether video games are works of ‘art’. They are, and GoW III is.

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

L.A. Movies: Falling Down (1993)

Image result for falling down movie

Attempts to “describe” Los Angeles abound throughout art and theory and anthropology and urban development and every facet of socioeconomic analysis available. The topic of hating on L.A. is itself so cliche as to be a moot point- “I just can’t deal with the traffic” is a common complaint, to which LA responds with unwavering stoicism- the traffic is staying, at least for the time being. For all the articles I’ve read in the past four years about various facets of LA and its many neighborhoods,  there’s been little progress in terms of traffic congestion and trash and the other problematic aspects of urban existence, but all of those issues and so much else make up an enjoyable, 40 oz.-accessible city- Los Angeles allows you to remain in microcosms, dipping your toes in different experiences with the safety of the hood to retreat back to. It’s at once “your” city- you being any individual resident who would like to be a unique and independent individual. We share the streets, the restaurants and malls, but in a city made up of many kinds of “transplants”, there’s no particular ethos or lifestyle you have to subscribe to. Of course, many choose to comically embody their neighborhoods- the fashion slaves, Hollywood Kardashian wannabees, USC frat boys, hipsters, etc., but there’s no compulsory obligation to be any one Angeleno “thing”.

That being said, LA exists in a kind of simmering tension- there are frustrating moments where you’re pushed around a bit, or saddened by the “scene” around you, or think about the reality of a car-based city- that it’s a true “drive-thru city”, in all the negative connotations that evokes. For the most part, though, it’s a beautiful, strange, palm-tree laden place with a lot to offer- and that is an epistemological understatement, as it is consistently psychedelic and iridescent, or at least, thinking about it is. The “urban mosaic” image established by urban sociologist Robert Park is the best description that can be applied- a fluid mixture of lives and communities passing by one another but rarely interacting.

It’s from that swirl of urban mosaic that Joel Schumacher’s 1993 movie Falling Down begins, in an obvious reference to Fellini’s 8 1/2. Michael Douglas, stuck in hazy, orange-lens traffic somewhere on the 10, gets out of his car, leaving it in the middle of bumper-to-bumper traffic, ditching the urban malaise for some unknown voyage. Not exactly the quintessential hero’s journey, as Douglas plays a middle-aged, nondescript pencil pusher, but certainly an aspect of the mosaic bubbling up and floating out for a moment of cathartic actualization. He ends up going on a “rampage”. He’s frustrated for a number of reasons including domestic issues, but the most memorable and emphatic statement is on urban decay and misery- and often that is embodied by minorities.

Beyond critiquing the film’s similarity to the ire-inspiring Crash, and the limp portrayals of Cholo gangsters in East L.A. (really the whole film is a crude mosaic of cliches), it is a film with its bazooka aimed at “gritty social realism” and a particular apocalyptic image of Los Angeles that proliferated throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Granted, the city was outrageous, hard-hit by the crack epidemic and explosive rates of homelessness. The Rodney King riots, which seem to be where Falling Down drew some of it’s “simmering rage” inspiration, were real and occurred- racial tensions that “came to the fore”. The sense of time, place and era in Falling Down is that of a nightmare Los Angeles filled with poverty, sheeple, and violent crime, another film to put alongside Boyz in tha Hood and Menace II Society and Deathwish. In seeking a real experience of L.A., so much of what we all know about the city comes from films, where it often serves as a (Hispanic-leaning) tabula rasa of urban experience- perhaps exacerbated by the fact that so many L.A. residents are movie nuts that see the world through Hollywood shades.

One of the more memorable scenes in Falling Down is when Michael Douglas is waiting in line at some facsimile of McDonald’s- Happy Burger or something- and they tell him they’ve stopped serving breakfast. His impotent frustration is at once sympathetic and ridiculous, a clever play of irony by the filmmakers. For a second, you think, “ya know, it really is silly, I mean they have the ingredients back there”- but then he brandishes his case of machine guns and holds the whole fluorescent fast food restaurant hostage . The film is an “astute social critique”, representing the tensions of Los Angeles and one man who has simply “had enough”. It’s cynical sociopolitical commentary with an Angry White Man (AWM) archetype as foil. The banal, consumer hell of the fast-food joint is intentional as the movie is taking sharp aim at pretty much everything, including mass culture and the drudgery of daily life.

Image result for falling down michael douglasWhen considering the totality of an urban environment, with all its layers of interaction (I often imagine a sprawling, heaping mass of bodies in my more abstract daydreams), it’s easy to think about concepts such as “Los Angeles” through a ballooned praxis. In focusing on the city’s negative (too often conflated with “real”) elements, Falling Down and so many films like it serve as a cinematic form of ‘slum tourism’- displaying an inability to understand the multifaceted reality of a place and instead turning L.A. into a pseudo-gritty hellhole. These movies “confirmed for suburban filmgoers their images of an inner-city permeated with burnt-out, graffiti-scarred tenements and concrete-block housing projects, and their fears of feral drug dealers and wasted addicts”. Where the real Los Angeles begins and the fictionalized Los Angeles ends is difficult to ascertain.

So Falling Down is a product of the early 90’s, when depictions of urban decay proliferated. The urban theorist Kevin Lynch argued that “in their spatial organization modern cities have become too disparate and complex to be adequately mapped in human consciousness”. Action movies attempt to counteract that complexity through digestible uses of city as character and as environment for negativity. Whether Los Angeles is really a a polluted wasteland or a pleasure-filled oasis on the beautiful waters of the Pacific is really up to each individual. Regardless, it has produced a stream of fascinating and often polarizing films that attempt to denominate an amorphous place with cinematic permanence- an impossible task.

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

Legend is Awful, Except for Tim Curry

The movie Legend has all the tools to be a completely fucking dope (bad) 80’s fantasy movie, and in certain ways it actually is, both bad and good (?). Considered to be a significant failure at the time, it derailed Ridley Scott’s directing career for a decade-plus and was largely forgotten, with good reason. The shooting script seems to get misplaced  about halfway through the movie and the lack of exposition gives the film a context-less quality; there is a deficiency of world-building. Legend was one in a slew of fantasy movies churned out at that D&D-crazed time and Ridley Scott and William Hjortsberg weren’t able to get escape the confines of the genre, and producers probably figured the young audiences  just wanted to see their favorite pewter figurines and imagined table-top battles reflected in cinematic form.  Now Legend has a cult following and showings at arthouse cinemas and dorks spend time thinking about its aesthetic significance and multivalent readings. It also has some weird dialogue about dreams.

Dreams make perfect sense when it comes to fantasy. Legions of hardline neckbeards aside, the fantasy genre is fantasy because it involves entirely made-up, mythical and surreal worlds of spectacular wonder etc. and the world of Legend is no exception. Ridley Scott and crew’s elaborate set at Pinewood Studios is replete with babbling brooks and purple grass and sparkling unicorns and cost Universal an exorbitant $24.5 million. The cinematographer Alex Thomson, who also filmed Excalibur and Labyrinth, worked with Scott to give the film an ethereal, fairy tale look- until the forest set burned down three days before shooting wrapped (thanks, it would seem, to Thomson’s extensive rigging of HMI lamps to create the idyllic forest). What they were left with was a jumbled film that takes place in a disgusting S&M-style black castle.

The main antagonist is Darkness, played by Tim Curry, who appears to be the traditional Christian representation of Lucifer/The Devil, but there is no reference to Christian doctrine- he’s just the figure of absolute evil (w/o which, as he continues to mention, good can’t exist). He emerges from a mirror and speaks to an unseen “Father” but very little is explained as to the structure of their cosmos. Instead, he’s the psychosexual image of “evil”, and a monumental achievement for make-up designer Rob Bottin, replete with blood red rubber skin, bulging muscles, enormous gait, and cloven hooves- the Devil as imagined by the WWE, with phallic horns and libidinal aggression. He’s gone on to have a cult status as one of the “Top Movie Demons”.

Darkness’s sexual obsession of Princess Lily is at once violent and repulsive and unbridled in its primitive masculinity. He is antagonism itself, whereas the Princess is innocence and virginity, and Tom Cruise’s forgettable Jack is youth + good. The film’s deconstruction of fable, without much plot or context, is “movies” as (bad) dream- there’s no logic to keep the viewer tethered to ‘reality’, i.e. there are few reminders through plot machinations that it is a narrative film, except for its obvious elements of the “Hero’s Journey”. Through lack of traditional diegesis and exaggerated mise-en-scene, Legend taps into a well of subconscious nightmare, the kind which emerge without context during sleep. There are minimal winks at the camera and little need for logic, transporting the viewer into a dreamlike stupor in the context-less world constructed by Ridley Scott and co.

It is ironic that the film would turn out so oneiric, as it would be half-remembered by Gen-X’ers who’ve hunted it down on DVD and Blu-Ray twenty years later- “what was that movie with the huge demon and Tom Cruise again?” Movies and dreams are adjacent- they both require a shutting down of motor functions which results in a suspension and forgetting of reality, followed by reawakening into the light, bleary-eyed and disoriented. Darkness says: “dreams are my specialty- it is through dreams that I influence mankind”- a non sequitur which surpasses the boundaries of its filmic context. The key difference between movies and dreams is that the viewer is aware they are watching a movie- movies like Legend, perhaps in part because of shoddiness and extended producer-initiated edits, lack the reality principle-logic of most contemporary and Hollywood film, where a Barthesian “third meaning” seems to emanate contemporaneity and reality throughout.

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

Buddhism and Social Media

Buddhism speaks to a truth regarding the death of the ego- to eliminate desire, and essentially shut off all the anxiety-inducing aspects of corporeal existence, to move towards transcendence or Nirvana. By doing so, one needs to, as mentioned, shed all “desire”- i.e. wanting (or “needing”) a giant SUV, new pair of sneakers, reservations for the restaurant opening up down the street. In Buddhism, the concept of “dhukka” (suffering) is essential, as life is suffering, as we attempt to cling to impermanent and transitory “things”. It produces the fundamental nature of life: suffering. Buddhism stretches back almost a millennium, and of course not all it’s tenets can be made parallel to our modern world, but it is worth noting that social media is both a hindrance and a benefit for Buddhism, or at the very least, seems to bring up fascinating questions regarding Buddhist thought in the age of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Within Buddhism, the Self is an object to overcome. You don’t need that quadruple cheeseburger, three-story McMansion, extra Master’s degree, or hot model that is currently your desktop wallpaper to be whole. All desire is the cause of suffering. There’s quite a bit of tearing down preconceived notions about society and culture to obtain Nirvana or Enlightenment, but the basic gist of Buddhism remains the same: eliminate desire, which emanates from within and without, and you’ll eliminate suffering.

The problems of social media are obvious- young kids lack empathy, friends sit around, silent, staring at phones. There are clear psychological issues stemming from the need for self-worth and self-esteem that skews towards absurdity online- the need for attention, the display of framed self-image. The “narcissism” manifested online is, for many, debilitating- a desperate need for likes or external affirmation, a form of desire and a major source of “dhukka”. Social media is also not going anywhere (and is healthy and/or extremely helpful for many). Complaining about social media creates more “suffering”.

Buddhists have used social media to establish online sanghas and in many ways, it’s the perfect religion for the Internet. There’s a reason why Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have been prominent techno-utopianists as well as Buddhist practitioners. The minimalism, the cloud-based software, and the emphasis on ethereality over real-life objects goes hand in hand with much of what Buddhism stands for. The broader individualism/end of suffering in Eastern philosophy is acceptable within neo-liberal Silicon Valley capitalism, a palliative milquetoast catchall pseudo-spirituality that goes hand in hand with the Singularity, itself a kind of techno-Nirvana.

The Dalai Lama gave the thumbs up on social media a few years ago, when he said that “if the person [using social media] has a certain inner strength, a certain confidence, then it is no problem. But if an individual’s mind is weak, then there is more confusion. You can’t blame technology.” A conversation between two Buddhist monks on led one to claim that monks should not use computers. He claims that “…there’s something about computers that exaggerates this “desire brings suffering” paradigm. Could it be that with computers, you have the shortest possible connection between the mind and outside the mind. I mean there’s only a keyboard and a few small circuit boards between what’s going on inside (in the mind) and what’s going on outside (in the computer).”

He continues: “When we manipulate the data inside a computer, we’re spending time manipulating things inside our minds (like a patient spending years on a psychiatrist’s couch), rather than spending time letting the outside world manipulate things inside our minds.” He takes an objective-reality stance. The “real world” should be the focus of the Buddhist monk. Go outside. Be “one with nature”. Computers are a man-made distraction- but they also seem capable of disciplining the mind and its global infinity into a potential grander historical nirvana. Let’s just hope the robot monks are chill.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Prolate Spheroids and the Many Problems of College Ball

“You can learn more character on the two-yard line than anywhere else in life.” – Paul Dietzel

On January 11, 2016, there was a football game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona between the  University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers. The Crimson Tide won 45-40. The game garnered 23.6 million viewers, the sixth-largest audience in cable television history. Nick Saban, the head coach of the Crimson Tide, was very pleased with his team’s performance, complimenting their camaraderie after receiving criticism at the start of the season. Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s head coach, was proud of his team and what they’d accomplished and looked forward to next season. Two white guys talkin’ football. Historic cable numbers. Big-time sports. Yet the spectacle fell flat to me, a sign of a bloated sports landscape, an abscess in need of draining.

The media coverage of the NCAA and its attendant conference rivalries and bowl games are somewhat mind-boggling, in both scale and complete disconnect from the colleges and universities they represent. To some fans, the NCAA is just more football, a competitive proving ground for the nation’s most accomplished and disciplined athletes. The SEC, Pac 10, ACC, Big 10 eyc. are basically proving grounds for the NFL, with quality players minus the salaries. The presentation of college football is illuminated by the cartoon glow of marketers seeking to mainline a coveted source of revenue: eyeballs affixed to live TV. Popular college football is a combination of the efficient, vertically integrated media landscape and a wished-for cultural narrative of masculinity within the hallowed halls of the country’s oldest universities. NCAA football suggests that we’ve reached a point of no return with laissez-faire rapacity in the United States, athletics spun completely out of control into a strange, pseudo-provincial exercise in branding, a collection of corporate entities juking to reach a financial goal line that no one can clearly see, dangling carrots in front of the finest student-athlete-football players in the country, baiting them to sacrifice the bulk of their education to the Football Gods for the promise of an NFL career and the social spoils of modern day gladiatorial combat. It’s escapism and empty platitudes, brought to you by Stouffer’s Reheatable Snack-Paks- but diving touchdown catches are tight, though.

There’s a distinct line in the sand dividing those who watch college football at Buffalo Wild Wings and those who’ve never given college football a single thought. On the surface, the difference appears to be Red and Blue America- conservatives love college football and weird liberal types not as much, and the reasons are clear: the huge Southern universities like Alabama and Auburn and Ole Miss and Florida State have the most successful football franchises, and propagate conservative Christian values, so the big student bodies rally around their teams and show populist pride, presumably because there’s nothing else to cling to but prepackaged, provincial cultural allegiances. Many college football teams and athletic departments have been more than happy to sell themselves to private capital in crass ways, like state-of-the-art Jumbotrons and skybox restaurants. What’s more, the fascistic rage on display at college games, where ninety-thousand fans wear the same colors and chant (often racist) fight songs breeds aggression and violence, or at the very least reflects it.

Whether it’s time wasted watching, talking and reading about football, mostly from the comfort of my couch, or the fact that so many football players demonstrate such acute anti-intellectualism, football fandom is not without its fair share of egregious contradictions. I’m a fan of the New England Patriots, but I worry that my sports consumption is just a primitive trap meant to divert my energy from more worthwhile endeavors, and take my money- while watching others rake it in. It doesn’t help that through all levels of football there’s a head-slapping tendency towards masculism and misogyny. Watching football is not as cognitively rewarding as ‘reading a great novel’ or ‘going to a museum’ or ‘having a conversation with someone about something other than football’, but perhaps it is appealing both for what it is, which is straightforward, and what it isn’t- that is, difficult in any way. I mention this to offer up a more nuanced framework: the argument against college football as it stands isn’t about jocks versus nerds, or even conservative versus liberal. I get the appeal of the sport itself, and have no problem with the majority of the athletes who play the game. It’s the intermingling of superficial mainstream sports culture and the purpose of college: to, in the words of David Foster Wallace, learn about “the choice of what to think about”.

Rallying against college football is nothing new- in 1939, then-president of the University of Chicago Robert Hutchins withdrew the Chicago Maroons from intercollegiate football, writing in the Saturday Daily Post, “it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without ever learning to write one”. There have been a rash of books on the problems of college football recently, because business has been booming. In Billion-Dollar Ball, Gilbert Gaul rifles through boxes of tax documents and internal university financial records, pointing out myriad fucked-up tax loopholes awarded to athletic departments and the exorbitant salaries of coaches like Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, who are the highest-paid public employees of Ohio and Alabama, respectively. While Gaul’s book is necessary, financial inconsistencies are a given when you’re talking about handshake-happy country club types. Florida State professor Diane Roberts’s book Tribal profiles the Southern allegiances to big-time college football and built-in emotional rivalries, and Christian fundamentalism, but again, I would argue that her critique fails to offer a substantial enough indictment of college football as a whole. One need only tune in to ESPN to see some footage of Alabama coach Nick Saban going fishing and then golfing, and then maybe fishing again, jabbering about how golf is “kind of like life”, wearing an immaculate moisture-wicking polo shirt, to understand that college football is where a particular brand of American identity is attempting to assert itself, and where a significant rethinking of the game’s support structure needs to take place.


There are now billion of dollars flowing into and throughout Division I football programs, and there is real opportunity for both professional and personal success, but athletic achievement has come to represent a self-actualization in American consciousness that belies the fleeting benefits of a life dedicated to sport. For a student-athlete, being famous and on TV and a player permeates pretty much everything. Cardale Jones wasn’t wrong when he tweeted, “I didn’t come here to play SCHOOL”, and the bloated system of recruitment, scholarships and hype surrounding athletes is itself a predictable mill of prepackaged storylines, a bubble of importance that we inflate with mimetic recognition. The fame causes creatures like Johnny ‘Football’ Manziel to emerge, who, after winning the Heisman trophy and entering a much-publicized draft, has been cut from the Cleveland Browns, dropped by his agent and is now despised on a national level. He played poorly in the pros because his scrambling technique, in which he utilized his speed to exploit the weaknesses of opposing defenses, failed against the monstrously agile linebackers of the NFL, and he kept showing up to work hung-over, or not showing up at all. Without a team or agent, all he’s been left with, strangely enough, are his millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter, who seem to be serving him fine. Famous for being famous. Get in where you fit in.

In the enormous gear-work of the televised sport machine, ‘College Football’ is entertainment designed to crank out our favorite pumped-up stars and generate maximum advertising revenue, with little regard to the players themselves. ESPN is the most successful television endeavor in history, and its lucrative contract with the NCAA- $7.4 billion over 12 years to broadcast the college playoffs and National Championship game- is unprecedented. That’s where characters like Manziel come in. A well-crafted narrative was produced, linking his impropriety with any number of factors including stress, idiocy and alcoholism, and the story chugged along at a cinematic pace. The blank-faced audience (us) were spoon-fed soundbites, enough to develop dissenting opinions on the matter: he’s either a spoiled piece of shit, or he’s due for a major comeback, or somehow it’s Justin Bieber’s fault, or whatever gets you talking beside the water cooler. The press have played up the divisiveness and downward trajectory of his story arc to great effect, when in a just world, he would have been left alone, or helped, or not thought about ever. The real ‘lesson’ to ‘glean’ from Manziel is that in America, you’ve got to make it on your own, because it’s survival of the motherfucking fittest, and if you cannot hack it then you don’t deserve to live.

There have been scandal-prone players throughout NCAA history, but Manziel is different: within the current big-money dominance of the sport, there is a magnified quality to his woes, the lens zooming in on him so that any misstep has been a failure of duty to God and country, his mid-air engine stall acted out live for all of us to see in 1080p. Manziel is one example in a larger, shallow menagerie of human narratives shaped by college football. The cliches put forth are ludicrous- clowns like Tim Tebow and Case Keenum, and head coaches like Urban Meyer and Hugh Freeze can be found tweeting Bible verses, peddling a saccharine brand of Chicken Soup for the Soul Christianity, attributing every meaningless win to the Guy Upstairs. The performative politics of college football are as hilarious as they are obvious, making it perfect entertainment, a product to put on the same shelf as Avengers and Star Wars, to pair with commercials for Sandals Resorts and Bud Light. College football commodifies Christian conservatism and turns it into a parody of itself, and the fans down South gobble it up by the millions.

The surreal line between college football players and reality- the fact that students can see the players in class and around campus (though many athletic departments have built state-of-the-art private tutoring facilities), is intrinsic to all sports and is part of their appeal. These semi-famous student-athletes are in a weird limbo stage where they are playing on national TV and seen as ‘role models’ by fellow students, who see the social spoils of a televised athletic career- i.e., tons of women and partying. For young athletes, the intermingling of media and corporeal existence establishes identity, or requires a retrenchment thereof, and the student bodies echo that sentiment, placing student-athletes on a pedestal. When Jameis Winston was caught stealing crab legs from a grocery store near the FSU campus, he pointed to the fact that they gave food away to players all the time- a community effort. Much has been revealed about the more lenient academic requirements for athletes, allowing them to pass classes with very little actual coursework. In a media-saturated world, coverage denotes significance in a way that nothing else can. In a country where you can become famous for doing a backflip in a weird place or being a rat carrying a slice of pizza down stairs, any inkling of stardom is blown out of proportion. We are living in a glut of celebrity and individuation, which is carrying college football to it’s current chaotic brink, sponsored by Capitol One, all praise due to Jesus Christ.

Americans bang the drum in celebration, valorizing athletes, supporting a competitive attitude towards challenges- “it’s our time!”, “hard work and dedication pay off!”, the idea that sheer will and stamina will earn you victory. Football, more than any other sport, embodies the technical efficiency and specialization of the U.S. economy, echoing the ruling class sentiment that you must do your job and compete, play the ‘game’, and abide by the rules, and you will experience the conventional notion of ‘success’. What is strange is that, given the absolutely brazen display of consumer culture in college football (Phil Knight’s endorsement of the Oregon Ducks comes to mind), the NCAA still refuses to allow players to be paid even a meager stipend, indicative of a classic conservative dilemma: sometimes outmoded systems and ways of thinking simply aren’t worth preserving. On top of the ideological violence in the college football machine is the forgotten fact that these teams represent schools, which represent learning– what could be a brief respite from the harsh, crass world of late capitalism in America. Instead, ESPN and the NCAA and the various athletic conferences have chosen to reinforce conformity and exploitation.

“Huh huh, duhhh, football!”

What deserves consideration, also, are the traditions that are being clutched to, the flags being waved in the name of a particular college. Torbjorn Tannsjo, writing in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, argues that the exalted status and bloodthirsty allegiance to an abstract image- a mascot or logo- is a form of Nazism. The fervent fan base of the Alabama Crimson Tide worship the symbol and the colors above all else- death to all rivals (especially Auburn). Tannsjo argues that it is fascistic to believe that “the nation can get strong, it can be successful, even if each and everyone of its citizens suffers”. One need only see images of a crowd of 90,000 crimson-clad Roll Tiders screaming at the top of their lungs to understand that there is a deep-seeded “contempt for weakness” that was at the core of Hitler’s nazism, the unified fury of the crowd on par with the Nuremburg rallies. Again, college football encourages an abstract fanaticism revealing the weakness and hypocrisy of conservative ideology, especially when it is mined (and undermined) for profit.


It’s challenging when writing or thinking about sports to broach something that often goes unacknowledged:the absurdity of throwing a ball around a field and scoring imaginary points. Though it might sound histrionic, a consideration of the intangible value of sports is more useful than ever. With increased media coverage at every age range of competition- high school highlights are shown on SportsCenter Top 10 all the time- the vicarious experience of sports is going to become more and more disappointing, especially for men who feel alienated from traditional displays of masculinity and family values, or Norman Rockwell notions of community. We’re far beyond the old adage that ‘sports build character’ or are good for health- they are a huge cultural institution, and no other sect of that institution is more in need of rethinking than college football.

The most important stakeholder involved in college football’s continued success is none other than ESPN. Forget the traditions of each stadium, the decades-old rivalries and legendary match-ups.While not the first or only network to broadcast NCAA football, ESPN takes the dramatic moments and blows them out of proportion, setting the scene for the world that we are living in now- a virtual bed of sports to lay in at any time, whether in the morning, while at work, as we fall asleep or even as we fly over the country, spewing CO2 into an increasingly wrecked atmosphere. We are whisked through a pleasant coterie of off-season moments, trade rumors and humorous Vines, all linked to properties that ESPN controls. It’s a media monopoly that dictates how we see the game, how the players see themselves, and how large swaths of America see their culture. Yes, the dream world offered is pleasant as such- riding a televised wave into the future, replete with iridescent manicured grass, the very thing we miss while we watch. One hope of mine would be that conservative America finds a way to divorce what ESPN, and by proxy the entire culture surrounding college football, has taught us to think, whether it be the artificial narratives and emotional arcs of the teams or the blatant clarion call to consume, which permeates every corner of every stadium- and decide for ourselves what we find worthy. We still control our own thoughts, actions, and eyeballs when it comes to entertainment, which is still only one facet of life, I think.

Posted in Features | Leave a comment