‘Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

61ctwxzsuzl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Every year there are a few obvious books one can expect to give or receive during the holidays- it’s a wonderful tradition and makes everyone very happy. Culled from the Times Top 10 and other sources, these end-of-year listicles indicate what material publishers have been emphasizing, or what critics are getting behind- often these are books for “our times”. That Oprah chose The Underground Railroad as one of her Book Club selections speaks volumes about the novel’s accessibility, but after Jonathan Franzen openly rejected her stamp for The Corrections, most best-selling authors, perhaps kowtowed by harried publicists, know better than to cross the O. Also, a Book Club selection exponentially increases sales, and no fiction writer worth their salt would reject that. I received two copies of Colson Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad, which suggests either I’ve willfully gotten pedestrian with my literary tastes or this was definitely the novel to read this winter.

Whereas so much literature seems to denote its “literariness” through rote experimentation and bourgeois social realism (and the drama of an MFA seminar), Colson Whitehead’s newest takes a more mainstream route, to great effect. Imagining the underground railroad as an actual railroad system connecting disparate areas of the slave-holding South to transport escaped slaves to freedom, he touches upon magical realism territory while still instilling in his characters emotional and moral strength and perseverance- banalities sure, but in a contemporary social environment where frat boys carouse in pickups throughout the country emboldened by a radical new president’s good ol’ nostalgia for Law & Order (two words that have disproportionately affected African-Americans when bandied about), Whitehead succeeds in transcending expectations and in many ways the novel form, creating something at once rooted in history and very much a necessary reflection – and revision- of one of history’s darkest chapters.

Having said all that, there is a strange element to the book, most likely my own projection therein- that is, Underground Railroad accomplished very clearly what it sets out to do, with little deviation from its largely functional path. While a best-seller written for the casual reader, there is enough to chew on here for any fan of the novel. Sometimes obscurantism and experimentation are not what the reading public needs, and so books that can package the multivalent joys of fiction reading into a “page-turner” deserve commendation simply for that feat alone. Plus, the plot-driven linearity of The Underground Railroad is exactly what lends it such a pleasurable strength. He communicates with the past, present and future in one deft maneuver.

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American Honey (2016)

In analyzing current cinematic trends, one need only emphasize the word “trend”, supplying an additional “y”, to convey a particular style of filmmaking as embodied by A24, Annapurna Pictures, and several other production and distribution companies producing unique, contemporary films, often involving long shots dwelling upon neon signs or Slushees or other iconic American “trash”, fetishistically filming close-ups of half-pints of generic brand vodka being passed back and forth somewhere in the Midwest or South. Harmony Korine, the ur-auteur of trash Americana, crafted a new template for contemporary “heart of Mountain Dew America” films, first with Gummo and Kids and further polishing it with Spring Breakers, which actually made money while serving as at once a lacerating critique, fever dream, and stoned exhalation (and exaltation) of drugs and pleasure.

The fine aesthetic lines that must be traversed in order to pull off those kinds of films is perhaps what makes them so interesting and frustrating- at once anti-elitist, endeavoring to depict real life for young, lost people throughout the country, left to pick through signifiers of poverty such as seedy motels, gangsta rap and the aforementioned Mountain Dew- films such as American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold, are mood pieces that at once loathe and love the convenience store sleaze that they depict. A thread throughout the film, unspoken, is that this is Real America- not a Hollywood production about some historical character but the contemporary, late capitalist environment where the homeless, drug addicted and abused exist alongside mainstream work-a-day society. The film mercifully lacks any kind of sociopolitical ideology- power struggles and hierarchy play out within the small group but they aren’t self-described anarchists or affiliated with any particular belief system, other than maybe Star Wars. Similar to other films in the genre, there is no attempt to intellectualize- if you’ve been there, you recognize it, if not, you can begin to understand a nomadic life of small highs, , where one’s tattoos and piercings limn personality.

There is also an element of slum tourism- an exaggerated narrative of cash, guns, booze and weed that has come to occupy a symbolic and near-mythic importance. The stuff of hip-hop videos, these familiar images of pleasure-seeking are reflected throughout youth culture, and serve to indicate authenticity, realness and truth.That the main character of American Honey is played by Sasha Lane, a Houston native discovered by the film’s director while sunbathing on a beach, adds a significant degree of verity to the picture- her face is extremely photogenic, betraying at once a stubborn, hard-scrabble defiance and a search for love and/or belonging. The director, a Brit, drove through the Midwest and South in preparation for the film, though the specific vision of “America” she references owes more to Spring Breakers, Terry Richardson and Complex Magazine- a music video slathering of imagery- than it does to lived experience.

The entire endeavor reminds me not only of a surfeit of other movies, but also Jean Baudrillard’s America, where notes the post-modern jumble of influences and architecture he finds in the American West. In America, he declares:

…the mirror phase has given way to the video phase. What develops around the video or stereo culture is not a narcissistic imaginary, but an effect of frantic self-referentiality, a short-circuit which immediately hooks up like with like, and, in doing so, emphasizes their surface intensity and deeper meaninglessness.

Shia LaBeouf’s somewhat fascinating career turn as an experimental visual and performance artist has yielded mixed results, and here it is difficult to separate the individual from his character, a winking, sly salesman. American Honey is intentionally saturated with familiar symbols and objects of capitalist excess and poverty, and LaBeouf himself takes on the qualities of a televisual totem, his scrappy salesmanship transcending the film as he winks at us, the viewers, knowing that he must be winning over a few despite his recent negative press.

American Honey is influenced as much by “real America” as the pop music playing from speakers throughout- car speakers, grocery store PA systems, jukeboxes. A naturally occurring commercial soundtrack heightens moments between its characters, a nod to the ambient soundscape of contemporary society, filled with Gucci Mane emanating from a passing car or Rihanna playing as you browse deodorant at Target. It is an America steeped in itself. While I’m not sure we can be any more steeped in our own excess, American Honey presents that sensation in a new, vibrant way, a film inspired by our cultural environment and contributing to it as a long, two and a half hour journey, at once a shallow music video and a visual poem of and for lost youth.

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Alone in Trumplandia

The clinical depression that appears to have beset wide swaths of the U.S. since Trump’s election suggests a shared hopelessness, or shall we say raw displeasure, with current socioeconomic reality. Without entering into the nitty gritty of late capitalist critique, of whichever a certain subset of us seems to experience a perverted, icy pleasure, the role of mass entertainment in Trump’s cartoon balloon world of giant inflatable Cheetos cheetahs and Rockettes suggests that attempts by the “cultural elite”- a complex web of authors and institutions- have largely fallen flat. That an individual might have at one point experienced a sense of exhilaration at a sparsely attended performance of avant-garde dance or some such, the Fibonacci sequence of descending obscurity that has characterized serious art and literature seems to have allowed its ramparts to be ravaged and overrun by the Uruk-Hai of post-capitalist barbarism and suburban savagery. Reflection and refraction have been shattered.

As many of my ilk may benefit from doing right now, we can murmur “this is water”, bask in the cynical/arch back-and-forth of Twitter, and plant our feet firmly in the leftist tradition of consumption and critique without much action. We can read texts such as N+1’s “What Was The Hipster?” and engage in a conflagration of #firstworldproblems. That seems to be the most likely outcome from Trump’s election and the now daily stream of head-shaking news coming from D.C. Cynicism and irony were supposed to be a means to an end, a dialectic, but have become the day-in day out M.O. Then again, “consumptive society” has long indicated a burger-laden world of escapist pleasures, and Trump has served since the 1980’s as one of its unofficial- and now official- spokespeople. A man of such vast wealth that he can put his name on enormous phallic buildings, to remind everyone of his vast empire of extrinsic flows of abstract capital. In his absurdity, he actually gives rise to a realization: we shouldn’t be surprised. We just can’t forget, in our frothy rush to lament every missive emanating from the White House, that there are coherent and tangible steps to ensuring justice, evening the playing field and reducing human misery.

For too long, over-educated liberal arts grads et al have sliced and diced society apart in the hopes of 1) becoming famous, receiving accolades and 2) obtaining truth and reaching for utopia. The former has often usurped the latter in terms of immediate results. Yes, that is an oversimplification, but so are most “facts” about human nature in our contemporary situation. When we participate in the Oppression Olympics, when we waste years infighting and squabbling over semantic distinctions while demagogues speak to the South Park contingent with clarity, there’s no chance for victory or consensus, because we’ve already lost. The error in thinking that has been displayed by notable magazines, pundits and individuals and groups that have been aligned with a worldview rooted in leftism and cultural elitism. That elitism- which is a belief in one’s superiority of intelligence and understanding, and which is a form of classism- has been more detrimental to the redistribution of capital and political progress than perhaps any other factor in cultural studies.

That’s not to say high-brow art and complex liberal economic policy don’t have their place- they’ve just failed to provide practical, immediate actionable items and benefits to the citizenry, and will continue to be secondary to the almighty dollar, which governs what so many of us do throughout each day. In a way, both parties got what they wanted- the right, a cartoon version of what they think they believe, and the left, something to critique. No one told me that the “social” in socialism stood for social media, but that’s unfortunately what we’re left with- magazines and pundits who profit- whether you’d like to admit it or not- from cultural observations that have little effect on the status quo, on fundamental injustices that are rooted in disparate micro and macro factors. While that might sound like apathy and surrender, it is an important opportunity for reflection, to make sense of the lofty goals intrinsic to progressivism.

Academic theory, the humanities, and cultural gatekeepers need to take Trump’s win not as an illegitimate victory buoyed by the electoral college, but a sharp reminder of the day-to-day (day-to-die) reality of not just Americans, but people across the world. Rather than attempt to describe the average Trump supporter- a writhing snake underfoot that cannot be placed- anticapitalists and antifascists and the literati must escape the confines of their meritocratic bubble and engage on a more human, less ideological level. I for one am excited- I anticipate that the rapacious Idea of Trump will spur action on every level of civic discourse. The world is not going to end- we are cursed to live in it, and as if in a dream, we have the pure freedom to stand for the values and lifestyles we believe in. There’s no right answer to the question of life- or paraphrasing Socrates, the best place to start is knowing that you don’t know.

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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 Elberse- 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.

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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

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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.

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L.A. Movies: Falling Down (1993)

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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.

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