Thursday, March 29, 2007

7-24-2007 – Latitude 53

Even after all the wonderful gifts he’s given me, even after Manimal, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive Glen A. Larson for ruining whole genres and numerous subgenres of music for me with his Knight Rider theme. Ever since that hypnotic staccato riff was sampled, remixed and bhangrafied in the late ‘90s, I haven’t been able to hear Indian music – or any of its Romani descendents that came paintwagonning over the Carpathians – without seeing a vision of David Hasselhoff, head to neck in black leather, neck to crown in glossy black permcurls, leaning against his robotic Trans-Am.

So there he is in my mind’s eye as Tza and Zza Gabor, the Slavic Sibs, spin their ass-moving gypsy beats for the arterati filling the room for Latitude 53’s “Love Bytes” fundraiser. Art and Hasselhoff… the combination wanders my thoughts back to my longest period of sustained work in a single style, in elementary school, painstakingly drafting elaborate KITT-inspired control panels, sometimes five sheets of paper taped, stapled – or “tapled”, for extra security – into wraparound panoramas of buttons, dials, joysticks, switches and screens. I remember making one that had three ejection buttons, one for each passenger seat – as the imagined driver, I knew I would gladly perish in whatever southern Californian pyrotechnic cliff-plunge claimed my beloved futuristic ride…

“Have you tried the mini-cupcakes?!”

I have indeed tried the mini-cupcakes... and the cream-cheese rollups, and the spring rolls, and the bruschetta, and the rosemary/black-pepper spread that’s basically herbed butter; a beautiful spread illuminated by “LOVE” spelled out in fairy lites, perfect for sopping up all this generously-poured wine. I hadn’t planned on “doing the alcohol thing” tonight, but… but it’s for a cause! It’s for Art! This place supports emergents and wayfinders, and if Latitude is to survive and thrive, it is every art-lover’s duty to make the scene and get as buzzed as possible without lurching into the walls and pulling down the pictures. Note, also, that beyond a certain point of unreliable glass-handling it’s considered polite to switch from pigmented reds to non-staining whites.

The silent-auction pickings are, you know, kind of just there. A few interesting pieces sharing wallspace with some terrifically dire material, same as it ever was in this unpredictable Freeport of a gallery. Not that a night like tonight is about the pictures, really; it’s about the laser-intersection of people and scenes, the meeting and chatting with the people you last met and chatted with at some similar event a season ago. All around me sparks of conversation, ideas, plans, “email me!”… and the place a showroom of beautiful people, every type and style of fox, like the Shopkeeper of the World has lined up all his samples for our perusal. It’s the kind of scene where you have to consciously control the creepy threesome-troll impulse:

“Um… my wife and I think you’re very beautif-- UWAAEEEAAAKKKK!

Jesus! What’s that noise? I thought this was a “silent” auction? No such luck. Our glamorous emcee, “charmingly neurotic culture snob” T.L. Cowan, has taken the stage and begun the hour-long process of shrilling out the results of the chance-auction draw. All our hopes and dreams for donated art and miscellaneous middle swag are nestled in those draw-baggies, our numbers destined to come up – how could they not? We put ten dollars of tickets in there, and we know how odds work. Slowly, the lot-drawing process screeches its ear-splitting way around the room…

Does everybody love a winner? Not so in this case, friends; in a random-draw situation, one person getting multiply lucky draws whispers and suspicions. When it’s just wine and t-shirts and gift certificates, OK, whatever… but there’s a darling blue handbag up there, the object of many a young lady’s covetous ticket-stuffing… and when one of the Lucky Buddies is announced as its proud new owner, and she has to carry it hung on her arm because her hands are full of all the other junk she’s carting away, the rhubarb boils with more conspiracy theory than a JFK convention:

Overheard by the canapés: “It’s gotta be a fix.”

Whispered by the wine bar: “They had a system! I totally saw them signalling!”

Out with the cigarette smokers: “Did you notice how she didn’t actually announce a number?”

Such excitement! To be fair, it really was an adorable little clutch… I’d be sour-graping it, too, if I’d been denied some congruently desirable treasure – a new-in-box Dreamcast, maybe, or a case of Yellow Label. But, really, in the end, everybody wins: it’s drama like this that makes the art world go ‘round, right? Drama… plus the cash money we’ve all, win or lose, freely showered upon our beloved 53, long may she live.

Goldilogs & the Three Bears

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Ready to snap at all the endless bullshit"

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Danny Glover and Levon Helm

You know what the dismissed left really needs to do? Strike back. With bullets. And napalm. And high-powered explosives. That would certainly make the U.S. government think twice before slyly suspending even more civil liberties.

This is the message of Shooter, either as wish-fulfilment or warning, and it’s frankly scary. For years, Hollywood had to look back and mine the rotten, maggoty idiocy of Vietnam for source material. Everything from Apocalypse Now to, on the sillier side, Rambo. Yet thanks to the current Republican warlocks, today’s headlines are enough to justify the boiling anger of Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg). But what really got his goat was how, as a patriotic military sniper in Ethiopia, he and his spotter were left out to dry after protecting a covert operation to stop rebellion against America goals - oil.

His partner dead, we fast-forward to the rural and mountainous supposedly not B.C. The peaks of Kansas, perhaps – doesn’t matter – where Swagger now lives with his dog, a well-worn copy of the 9-11 Commission Report and plenty-a Ol’ Glories. Into this nest of abused patriotism drive up Col. Isaac Johnson and the guy who played Casey Jones in the original Ninja Turtles, now reekingly scummy, both. Despite protests from the sniper that he doesn’t like this president or the last one – set after 2008? – Johnson plays up Swagger’s sense of duty and democratic belonging to get experienced assistance and stop an impending assassination. Wellllll, it’s pretty clear from the posters who’s going to get set up for the fall, and soon enough, after an Ethiopan minister is blown away right beside the Prez from a mile away, Swagger is on the run, framed for a crime only he could’ve committed. His framers, meanwhile, sit cackling in an expensive-looking room, surrounded by icons of Reagan and Bush Sr.

Lucky for Swagger, shot and bleeding and on the run, the rookie FBI agent he overcomes (Michael Peña as Nick Memphis – love these names) is hung out wet by the agency for failing to stop the invented assassin. Slowly with surety, their two fates pretzel in some of the most fantastic leaps of logic and plot nonsense ever slapped onto this Molden Age of cinema. Just for starters, each of our two victims is aided secretly by ladies who conveniently have exactly the skills and information and pass codes they need. Oh, and pointy breasts, of course.

Lucky for us, Wahlberg is a captivating actor. The topographical wrinkles on his furrowed brow keep us going as Swagger and Memphis kill literally dozens of federal agents, two modern Rambos who no way in hell should be allowed to live to tell their tale to clear their names. And yet.

Like the crew on Boston Legal weekly, screenwriter Jonathon Lemkin is couching very serious condemnation of Republican behavior vs. public apathy in the last six or so years - Abu Ghraib, WMDs and even, thanks to the Band’s rickety Levon Helm, the Kennedy plot all rise to the surface by name. Lemkin is more than hinting that even the most loyal and partisan and guns and apple pie among Americans is ready to snap at all the endless bullshit. And that if they do, led by misused soldiers instead of blue-state liberals, it’s going to be a fucking bloodbath.

Valid enough. But a better film, please?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Food, water and medicine as treasure

No game has ever made me this thirsty.

Wandering around the earthquake-shattered ruins of Stiver Island, shouting into the evacuated silence for help that never shouts back, dodging falling rubble knocked loose by aftershocks, one thought lies above and around everything else: water. Dripping taps, stagnant pools on cracked asphalt, bottles forgotten in ransacked convenience stores… any and all nontoxic moisture is a treasure to be seized, hoarded, dripped as sparingly as possible down my parched throat.

Yeah, Disaster Report, the PS2 quake-survivor adventure from out of '02 – another happy recovery in this, the New Golden Age of bargain-bin diving. All the Wiitards and XBoxers and… and PlayStation 3 Owners… have been dumping the last-gen B-listers from their collections for credit towards the latest and greatest, and the used-game stockpiles overflow with quality titles at everything-must-go prices. There’s a lot of forgettable crap – twenty copies of Mace Griffin, anyone? – but lots of gold, too. Thus I rebuild my library of swapped-away favorites. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be Monster Rancher 2, or Suikoden. Or maybe… Bushido Blade? Too much to hope for.

Anyway, Disaster Report. Developer Irem took the survival-adventure genre and removed the zombies, creating a man-against-environment game that presents some ye-olde-fashioned puzzle solving (i.e. MacGyvering) in a disturbing setting in which the eerie silence of the deserted city is punctuated by moments of rumbling terror – collapsing walls, exploding tankers, and lots of terrifying dangles. Sprinkle it with an unfolding conspiracy backstory, and you’ve got some pretty unique gaming.

It took a non-gamer, though, to point out one disturbing aspect of this thirsty crawl through virtual rubble: is Disaster Report a post-catastrophe training simulator? The idea that videogames are, either by conspiracy or through unconscious cultural genius, conditioning gamers for real-world scenarios is as old as games themselves. Remember the schoolyard rumour about Zaxxon and/or Gorf and/or any other game with a flightstick-style controller? That there was a secret direct line to the Air Force coming out of every cabinet, and that high-scoring players would be visited by men in uniforms and recruited to do battle with Commie air aces when the shit came down? That’s some powerful terror/fantasy, right there; ever 80s arcade dweeb dreamed/nightmared The Last Starfighter.

There’s no doubt games can be powerful trainers and conditioning tools; anybody who’s logged enough time on any game knows how in-game reflexes creep into daily psychology. A Tetris juicer friend of mine describes the sensation of seeing all geometric shapes – buildings, cars, people – as pieces of a packing puzzle to be solved; when I was playing Duke Nuke’m heavy there for a while, I couldn’t see a ventilation grille without twitching to kick it in and crawl through. That the US Army uses videogames for recruitment and subsequent training is no big news – multiplayer squad simulators are an essential part of readying modern gunts for combat.

So. If Zaxxon was getting getting us ready to shoot down Russian MiGs and Tu-160s, and first-person shooters are cutting months off basic combat training, what does that say about Disaster Report? With global warming a surefire reality, was a relatively obscure Japanese game publisher prepping us for the war against – or, more accurately, the desperate holding action in the face of – nature itself?

Well, let’s not get carried away. For one thing, though the game’s environment is supposed to be a disaster area, it hardly corresponds to what anyone could expect in a real catastrophe zone. Stiver Island is crumbling, but it’s mostly clean and seems more-or-less unlooted, and it's totally emptied of people – the fact the evacuation was so near-perfect actually makes the fact your dude got left behind rather crazy-improbable. Think of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina: the chaos, the confusion, mad looting, the near-total unreliability of official authority, the health crisis, the formation of gangs and mobs, the hellhole of the Superdome. In that context, the only thing Disaster Report really simulates is the critical importance of water supplies… and, depending on who you believe, the presence of an amoral conspiracy of greedheads at the top of the blame ladder.

The more of I think of Katrina/New Orleans as a sim scenario, though… Jesus, that would make for some intense play! A massively multiplayer post-catastrophe urban survival game? Survivors gathering into clans for protection or raiding… guns and ammo being coveted as magic weapons… food, water and medicine as treasure… inter- (and intra-) gang politics and warfare… unpredictable cops and militias… fear upon fear... jeez.

Now, there’s a game that could have real-world training value, given enough accuracy in its modelling of civil-defense and survival techniques. Even if it gathered only a few dozens of thousands of players (half-decent numbers for a MMOG that’s not World of Warcraft) that’s a few thousand more citizens with serious VR training in coping with a massive disaster scenario – and we’re going to need every one of them, sooner rather than later.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Millionth Man


Don't forget, the Catfight! still rages at ArtsHab...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

03-11-2007 – East of High River

“Take it from a ryeman / head held high and / something something something / dah dah dah dah!”

Wow. Quick reminder, everybody: the Smalls were perfect. If there’s a better driving tape than Waste & Tragedy (other than Paul’s Boutique, duh) I’d rather not know about it; rocking the MOPAR deck too hard is a safety concern, basically driving under the influence. The burbling subterranean river of (Take it from a) Ryeman’s bassline alone has subliminally rock-massaged my foot down to 140.

Got to slow it down, take it easy; I’m driving like I’ve got a bus to catch, which literally makes no sense. Enjoy the freshly-thawed browns and tans of this south country, blue mountains deceptively distant through my windshield, zillions of miles of Canada in the rearview. Four hours of cruising Highway 2 lie in my future, and though that drive’s gone transcendentally tedious over the last few months – how many times can even the most die-hard Star Trek: Voyager fan find a chuckle in the sign that reads “Blackie Vulcan”? – this run is special; this time, I’m haulin’ dreams.

They’re all in the back, the boxes and bundles of a foothills girl making a never-in-wildest-dreams relocation to Edmonton to be with her man… me. It was enlightening, watching her pack that cargo once worrying gave way to determined doing; where my moving style has traditionally been a hasty shovel-and-dump “let God sort ‘em out” affair, all shoddily-taped liquor-store boxes with things like “Misc. useful objects” and “WIRES (?)” Sharpied on their flaps, my girl made each container a sacred capsule, clean, dry and sweet-smelling, topped with magical mementoes and neatly labeled with whimsical bits of collage. Her commitment to beauty unshakeable even in the midst of moving-day madness.

That worries me a little, given what Edmonton can be and often is – on the surface, March-melting Browntown has little to offer the eye of the aesthete. Sidewalk lakes requiring detours over the treacherous crags of dirty plowpiles, your shoes fucked either way. All outdoor surfaces, for four months untouched by clean water, layered in dingy grit. Shit… now I’m depressing myself

But the greening is around the corner! And with it some wonders, the magical vibrations of a winter city coming out from under. There’ll be plenty of time – plenty of Edmonton time -- for walks and laughs, casual creation and sunshiny grins once April hoses off the bus benches. I have a girl, a woman, a human, an artist in my hands… we’ll find the love in Edmonton’s nooks and crannies, crooks and grannies. Her new eyes will be mine; maybe we’ll spend long afternoons on private anti-tours, secret safaris:

"If you look to your left, you’ll see where some bored vandal bricklayer laid down his everlasting tag… over there’s a security-guard booth that looks like a robot buried up to its chin… fifteen feet above that parking lot is the exact spot where I first necked with a girl… next stop, the World’s Largest Donair!”

Red Deer, and even Pity the Man with the Fast Right Hand’s lost its drive the fourth time around. Pull into the A&W to stretch cramped legs and switch tapes; this one’s a fiancée favorite, all country and folk, Gram Parsons and Dylan and clips of Kris Kistofferson doing Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah. Road music for the home stretch.

“Mama, take this badge offa me…”

The sun on my left’s shining saved daylight as I get back on the blacktop, and my van’s got that Highway 2 smell: Husky coffee, regular unleaded, pepper jerky and Colts mild. Somewhere under all that, there’s a hint of homemade herbal room spray… a smiling scent of love as I get behind a hurrying oilman and let his company truck jackrabbit me back to my new/old home.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Awesome Chinese Holdout

"The villa owner refuses to move, so the real-estate developer has had to dig out all around it to force him to," says a saleswoman at Weilian Real Estate Sales Company.

"He wants 20 million yuan, or he'll stay till the end of the world."

link (from BoingBoing)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Why the hate?

Videogames are shit

Gamers put up with a lot of shit. Not shit for being gamers – though that, too – but shit from and in games themselves. We all know it: the great majority of games are witless retread junk garbage wastes of time for losers with no taste. Eggheads (like me, sometimes) can beak all they want about how games are a legit new art form bleah bleah bleah and draw comparisons to film, but the truth is that in all shared aspects of games and film – plot, dialogue, art direction, etc. – your average game is a million times shittier than your average movie (which is pretty fucking bad).

But we eat it up with a smile, because what else are we going to do? We praise some samey role-playing game about an orphaned boy finding his magic-orb destiny by eliminating some shadowy bad guy for its “involving storyline and engaging characters” when the same script in a film context would be basically barfed on. We play the same lame scenarios in the same boring locations against the same retarded enemies over and over and over again and pretend to like it. Is Hollywood “afraid to take risks”? The game industry is terrified to get out of bed in the morning, because almost every time it does, it loses money like an Alzheimers VLT addict with holes in her pockets. Gamers basically want to buy/do the same familiar things, over and over again. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising.

What really set me off this time was the fucking elements. I am so fucking sick of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. It’s pretty much a law that every RPG has to be based around this fucking ancient bullshit grid of ontological rock-paper-scissors, sometimes dressed up a little with some other metaphysical dualities – dark/light, etc. Without fail, these forces will be embodied in Orbs, Crystals or Talismans of some kind, each with an associated magical fairy or something. I was playing Lunar Knights when the dam burst; I saw that godawful little cartoon asshole pop up and introduce himself as the elemental (“Terrennial” in this case) of Light – I’d already met the spirits of Dark and Fire – and I yelled “Fuck you” to my DS and walked away. To hell with the elements, and to hell with the brainless “fantasy” consumers who can’t relate to anything else.

When will gamers quit eating the same shit, over and over? We’re like some kind of shit-eating Ouroboros, our mouths open beneath our own assholes. We want videogames to get some respect as an art form... but our money makes a game featuring a dude named “Marcus Fenix” and his cliché sci-fi Heavy Metal army weightlifter grunt buddies and their sub-Starship Troopers adventures into a dectuple-gold megahit. Our most wondrous flights of magical fantasy – those we don’t import from the psychotically formula-bound Japanese -- are Z-grade riffs on Toklien via Dungeons & Dragons, written and designed by nerds who think shirts with flames on them are the coolest things ever. “Brooding loner haunted by the past” stars in 80 per cent of titles, and any game without exploding barrels is fighting an uphill battle on the charts.

It’s so bad that anything even remotely departing from formula is hailed as genius innovation. Beyond its terrible beauty and thoroughgoing good taste, Shadow of the Colossus blew gamers' little minds because it actually made them wonder, for a second, whether their colossocidal little sword-dude was doing the right thing. In gameplay terms, Katamari Damacy was basically Mr. Do or Pac-Man… but we went crazy for it because – if you can believe it -- its art design didn’t come right off of a junior-high metalhead’s math binder or an manga nerd’s little sketchpad.

It’s only going to get worse. Games are big business, and the market is only going to expand, but the cost of producing a triple-A game to meet next-gen expectations is rising fast, so risks are even riskier. In the interests of financial safety, sequels, formula pieces, and "licensed" (ie. movie cash-in) games must rule. Making it worse is the fact games don’t get the same downstream revenue movies enjoy; any movie can eventually make its money back, but for a variety of reasons games have to bust the block immediately or they’re fucked forever. Indie games exist only on the fringes, their channels to success even narrower than those of indie film.

Exploding barrels, annual sports titles, wasp-waisted tit-racks, grimacing gun-men, mundane fantasy and juvenile writing -- that’s the now and forever of mainstream gaming. Videogames are pieces of shit... and I guess that's all gamers want or deserve.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"What were medieval pie crusts like?"

Hello, friends. If by some chance you're not checking out the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society on a semi-regular basis, you're missing out on semi-regular weirdness. And not just your run-of-the-mill Intenet wierdness, either, but classy weirdness and miscellany.

Today, thanks to the Proceedings, I learned a lot about how all those D&D wizards and warriors from the catapult days kept body and soul togther, and got the straight dope on the still-mysterious -- but certainly non-James-Bond-related -- origins of the noble broccoli.

So, what were medieval pie crusts like? I still have half an hour to kill before my next incredibly boring meeting, so let's find out!

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Horror of Mr. Chippers

OK, so this widdle chipmunk totally snacks down on mouse brains.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

02-23-2007 – Stabtown

So, I just had a dude pull a knife on me for the first time.

Walking home from work down 104th street, right by the venerable Lingnan, through a bit of urban wastespace that’s spent decades within “Coming Soon!” distance of some kind of glistening downtown revival, this kid purpose-striding up the street southbound calls me out, Hey Buddying me as to whether I “got any brick.”

A very vague term, but in every possible sense the answer is “no, man.” Busy cellphone-talking some intense shit with my girl, I walk on.

Don’t you fuckin’ walk away from me!

Uh-oh. I keep on walking and talking, approaching sneakers krrking on the winterlong snowpack behind me, until I feel the slap on my shoulder. I turn to face a kid who couldn’t have been over 16, his mouth pursed and turned down into the kind of battle-scowl that looks like its wearer is about to cry, doing that loud tough-guy nose-breathing.

“I asked you a fuckin’ question. You don’t got any brick?”

“No, man; I don’t have anything.”

“Some guys didn’t stop you and sell you some shit?”

"No, nobody sold me anything.”

“Don’t you fucking lie to me. Don’t you fucking lie to me.”

That’s when the knife comes out, pulled from the left-hand pocket of his coat. He doesn’t brandish it or wave it in may face, just holds it there. There’s nothing romantic or picturesque about it – it’s not “wicked”, it doesn’t “glint” – it’s a utensil this kid happens to have, and he’s showing it to me.

I don’t really know why I’m not shit-scared at this moment – that very morning, somebody got knifed on the street in front of my the building where I work; some office dudes watched through binoculars as the blood-pools cooled – but at no time do I feel like this kid is going to knife me. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel alone -- I still have my phone clamped to my ear with my fiancée on the other end; can the cellphone oblivion that turns drivers into blind/deaf missile pilots numb one to an imminent knife attack? Maybe it’s the false protection of “broad daylight”.
More likely it’s pose of the punk himself, and the status of his little knife. The moment he pulled it out, he didn’t get harder or tougher or braver; it was almost like he was embarrassed, like he’d played his hand too early and knew it. His eyes lost their tough-guy focus and started to wander around my face. The knife became part of a dorky uniform, a lame formality.

What is it with this town and knives? We’ve gone stab-happy. I suppose that from a global – or even merely North American -- perspective our emergent stabbiness is kind of quaint; we’re in the Stone (Stainless Steel?) Age of mindless civil violence, country cousins trying to imitate our way to that dreamed-of “World Class” by being all hard with a blade. Or maybe the filthy greed-flood of dirty money that runs through our streets and the arrogance of zero unemployment have turned us stone-cold sociopathic – how can we all be in the same boat when half the city is riding on his-n-hers jet skis?

It’s going to be a stabbin’ madhouse around here when the goddamn downtown arena gets built – and it will get built, have no doubt; the same sort of narrative of inevitability is being woven for it, courtesy of Edmonton’s awesome cabal of moneymen, boosterists, homers and press lackeys, as the one that preceded the invasion of Iraq. I see an apocalypse, friends; once we trudge through the next few bastard years of false choices, false promises, false threats and false estimates and emerge 800 million dollars poorer and one [YOUR NAME HERE CHEAP] Centre richer, downtown will become a drunken post-game carnival of bloody daggers… at least until the also-inevitable 100-million-dollar CCTV public surveillance web goes online.

Anyway, about this punk kid and his knife. I finally manage to convince him I’m neither carrying drugs nor concealing the location of the “some guys” that are. He nods and tucks his threat-utensil back into his pocket.

“OK. Peace out, brother.”

"Yeah. Take care of yourself.”

And off we go on our separate ways, two perfectly civil Edmontonians.