A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Same War, Different Culture

"Don't shoot!  I'm not so bad.  See look, I'm a Nazi."  Wait, what?
The other night I watched a fantastic Chinese film called City of Life and Death about the Nanking Massacre during World War II where hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were slaughtered by Japanese forces.  For all of the drama and brutality the first thing that really stood out to me was a little, white, grandfatherly man speaking in English and being identified as German...in fact, he was a Nazi!

The reason this character jumped out at me was because he was speaking English with a flawless American accent, which certainly would not be something the average German would do.  See, Germans speak German, a language that is not English, and when they attempt to speak English they often retain a German accent.  If an American speaks German s/he retains an American accent.  If an Englishman speaks German s/he retains a British accent.  But most likely, a Chinese audience is not going to care if a German speaking English in a Mandarin language film has the proper German accent.  It would be like an American caring if a German speaking Mandarin in an English language film has the proper German accent in Mandarin.  While that perhaps took me out of the film for a few seconds, it certainly was an interesting moment in my own personal linguistic experience.

That was not the only time my perceptions were tested in the film.  This German, Nazi person was John Rabe, a man considered a hero in China for his selfless efforts to protect Chinese civilians during the massacre.  I had never heard of Rabe until this film and I can probably guess why.  He's a heroic Nazi, and I'm an American.  If there's one thing Americans hate in this world it's Nazis.  They often play cartoonish villains for the American imagination, and we like to pretend anyone associated with Nazism was evil.  Turns out, they weren't.  I did some reading on Rabe after watching the film and came to the conclusion he might be one of the most fascinating human rights heroes of all time.  If Rabe weren't a Nazi he would have lacked the political influence to help much of anyone at all.

Characters like Rabe are continuously stripped of their power throughout the film.
Here he is called back to Germany and forced to leave the Chinese civilians
to an oppressive and unknown fate.
The Germans and Americans in City of Life and Death have a hard time figuring out why they are not always in control of situations.  They're a bunch of missionaries and businessmen, used to privilege and getting their way.  At one point a woman says literally says, "I'm an American and this is my room!" as she tries to keep Japanese soldiers from ransacking the building.  A soldier smacks her across the face and she instantly crumples, powerless.  That might sound cruel, but this woman is never raped or murdered, and even without any military or political power she is able to negotiate the safety of some captives later in the film.

City of Life and Death is not about white people from the western world.  It's about the Chinese and the Japanese, and the horrors that occurred in Nanking.  The white people just play interesting roles throughout the film that intrigue me...well...because I'm white and western, and this film often uses them in ways we don't typically see in western media.  The Nanking Massacre itself is something we rarely mention when discussing the atrocities of World War II, despite all the (justified) emphasis we place on the Holocaust.

The treatment of Jews, Africans, and homosexuals in Europe parallels the treatment of Chinese, Filipinos, and Koreans in East Asia.  You would think this other side would receive more attention.  But they don't.  We typically deal with our own culture in art and history, as China tends to deal with their own culture in art and history.  Taking the time to observe how other cultures examine the same war we hear about from time we're tots can change our understanding and better educate us.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Video Games: Game of the Year

If you haven't noticed by now I like it when a game's structure and narrative function hand-in-hand.  I like it when game has a series of Rube Goldberg style puzzles for the player to set into motion and then has an increasing complex plot, both of which have desirable conclusions, as in Ghost Trick.  I like it when a game manages to use nothing but visuals to tell a love story, as in The End of Us.  I like it when a video game uses its gameplay to comment upon how video game narratives are told, like Portal.  That's when you really start to see video games blossoming into something more than an endless series of action sequences.  That's where you'll find creativity at work.

My game of the year (for whatever it's worth) was a free, Half-Life 2 mod everyone should play, The Stanley Parable.


Here is a part of the blurb on the download page for the game:
"You will make a choice that does not matter
"You will follow a story that has no end
"You will play a game you cannot win
"...it's actually best if you don't know anything about it before you play it..."
This is completely true, and I would hate to spoil too much of the game for the off chance someone will read this and actually play it.  So please, please PLAY IT NOW!  I will probably spoil something in this text.  The Stanley Parable is about choice and narrative.  In video games there is often the illusion of choice.  Those choices matter little in the grand scheme of things.  Sometimes it can be an arbitrary good or bad ending, or a decision to let someone live or die who will never appear in the story again either way.  But that's not really the illusion of choice The Stanley Parable examines.

It examines the long hall way, how there is no world beyond the invisible walls of a game, and how you do not have the freedom to go where you want or do what you want.  You should probably just follow the path set for you or risk "breaking the game."  the Stanley Parable explores topics like the relationship between player and developer, if we prefer reality or fiction, free will, who knows best for us (ourselves or our authorities), and oh...the meaning of life, why not?  It's an existential fairy-tale, brilliant and beautiful, creative and hilariously fun.  One of my favorite games of all time.

Honorable Mentions

  • Balloon Diaspora and Ruins by Cardboard Computer: Two free computer games by one of the most talented writers working in the medium today.
  • Bastion by Supergiant Games: A PC and Xbox 360 game about religion and extremism with the second best narration in video game history (the first best being The Stanley Parable!).
  • The Binding of Isaac by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl: A PC game I discussed more in detail on an earlier post.
  • The Cat and the Coup by Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad: A free computer game about the life of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, as told through the eyes of his cat.
  • Lesbian Spider-Queens from Mars and The Case of the Missing Entree by Anna Antropy: Two free, adult-themed computer games by a master of her craft.
  • Osada by Amanita Design: A virtually incomprehensible, free computer game that's so bizarre it's worth playing on that merit alone.
  • Pirouette by increpare and Starfruit Games: Another strange and slightly nonsensical (free!) computer game about a man and his many dying wives.
  • Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP by Capybara Games and Superbrothers: Like an iPhone interpretation of (a good) rock opera.
  • To the Moon by Freebird Games: An interesting computer game about lying to ourselves and the lengths we will go to encourage those lies.
Happy New Year, everybody!


Other 2011 in Video Games Articles: Not Every Game's a Winner, Tales of Mechanics, Theater and Performance 

2011 in Video Games: Theater and Performance


Back in 1994 a game called Final Fantasy III was released, and with it came one of the highest points in video game design, an interactive operatic scene where the player took on the role of an actor.  This scenario was later imitated by Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX, but neither time was it so effective or classy.

Over the last year I've been thinking about why theater, and the powerful moments from great dramas, are left out of games.  Apparently, some developers had been thinking the same thing, perhaps not in the same way I had been, but still along the same lines.  Performance is a compelling theme, especially in a medium where it is literally the point (you perform a role in every video game; you are the player, as in play).  So let's look at how some game developers approached it.

Nin2-Jump


In Nin2-Jump you take on the role of a ninja in a children's puppet show.  You go through a series of adventures as a black silhouette, lit from behind, as a crowd of kids watch and cheer for your victory.  It's a neat idea with an interesting execution.  The game was developed by Cave, a company know for their ridiculously difficult "bullet hell" shooters (like Asteroids or Space Invaders, but harder).  The game is, in fact, quite challenging, and slightly broken at times.  Controls can feel flimsy and unintuitive, which is not a good thing for a game where precision is key.


But the over-all charm tends to win out.  Nin2-Jump is not a great game, but it is filled with great ideas, and with slightly better execution or a more solid narrative draw it could have been amazing.  Instead, we have a decent action game with a cool art style.

The Play


The Play is a free, browser-based, text adventure game by Deirdra Kiai.  The word free means you should go play it now.  Kiai is a talented writer, and her games often focus on that.  Usually they're simple adventure games with no "combat" or explosions, but a lot of characters and story.  The Play is about a group rehearsing for an impending performance, and your job as the director is to get them organized and keep each one from having a break down before the show.  These being "theater people" that can be a lot harder than it sounds.


While "text adventure" might not sound like a fascinating description to a lot of gamers.  Characters in The Play are often much more interesting and realistic than those you'd see in some of the best 3D rendered, big budget, AAA games.  I enjoyed it a lot, and think it needs as much attention as it can get.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective


This is not a game about theater, nor does it have any great "theater" moments in it, but Ghost Trick is a game about performance that anyone with a Nintendo DS should buy.  Essentially, the heart and soul of the game is in acting through others.  You play as Sissel, a recently deceased ghost, who needs to discover the truth behind his fate.  You do so by possessing objects scattered about the room and using them to influence the actions of other people, often without them realizing it.


You control every scene like a stage hand, yet also take on the role of leading man.  The game has an astonishingly deep and complex plot that leads to incredible, if not ridiculous, events and locations.  The implausibility, the humor, and the lovable characters all lead to fulfilling and fun adventure with its own unique concept of how games can be played.  If you're a Rube Goldberg fan then this is the perfect game for you.  It's definitely one of my favorites from the year.

Stacking


Another one of my "definite favorites," Stacking by Double Fine Productions lives up to its name in more ways than one.  The game takes place in a Dickensian world occupied solely by Matryoshka dolls, where the littlest has to rescue his family from harsh labor under a cruel corrupted business man.  Like Ghost Trick this game is more about "performance" than "theater," but unlike Ghost Trick you are not just manipulating every scene.  You are playing many roles.  To save your family you have to leap inside of other people, stacking up multiple bodies to get inside the right one and achieve your goals.  If that doesn't sound like perfect material for your Queer Theory class than you need to go back to school.


This is not the only instance of "stacking" in the game.  The story is about rebuilding a family, and ultimately focuses on coming together as a single unit to help each other.  It can be touching at times (sidesplittingly funny at others).  I find it strange that I can think of few other games that focus on family and actually have the heart to develop family members beyond dead daughters and kidnapped lovers.  It's refreshing to see something so different and so sincere.  While it is about taking on many other roles a large portion of the story is devoted to finding acceptance in being oneself.  Stacking is a special kind of game that left me feeling ambivalent and warm.  It's one of the best from the year.


Other 2011 in Video Games Articles: Not Every Game's a Winner, Tales of Mechanics, Game of the Year

2011 in Video Games: Tales of Mechanics

Yesterday, I talked about some games that were noteworthy but imperfect.  Today, I going to discuss games that are near perfect.  They might be shorter, smaller experiences, but they manage to tell their stories completely with their mechanics.  That doesn't mean they are the kind that drive me wild.  They aren't the greatest games of all time.  But from a structural stand-point I feel they do everything right.

NightSky

NightSky is a downloadable puzzle game by Nifflas where you take on the role of a glass ball.  There is little plot to follow.  I would argue none at all, aside from gameplay.  Every level is in a three act structure.  First you have a slightly challenging introductory puzzle that teaches you the current mechanics.  Then you have to complete a more challenging, maybe even frustrating puzzle.  The last one will be a very simple "end of the level" resolution to alleviate tension.  This allows the player to exercise the mind consistently, figure out problems, and bask in self-satisfaction.


The atmosphere adds a lot of zen to puzzle solving.  Luminescent backgrounds, ambient music, and black silhouettes treat you to a calming mood even when you feel like tossing your computer across the room at a particularly tough moment.  It deftly experiments with video game physics that sometimes lead you to believe a level will be much harder than it actually is, but one successful run almost always guarantees repeats.

PewPewPew...

PewPewPewPewPewPewPewPewPew is a two-player Xbox Live Indie Game title with some rather unusual gameplay.  There is only one character to control.  One player works its jetpack by blow into a mic.  The other controls the firearm by making the titular noise.  Together they must maneuver through a pixelated labyrinth while fighting their tiring jaws and tongues.


Like NightSky it doesn't have a plot, but there certainly is a narrative.  The game is thematically about teamwork and as two friends sit in a room making ridiculous sounds, they have to deal with the constant missteps made by the other.  Both players are completely dependent upon the other for survival.  The psychedelic, Atarian graphics add a lot to the encouragingly fun feel of the game, and it can make any party a little more goofy and entertaining.  This is one of those games that's designed with community in mind.  It's not a competitive online co-op.  It's a sit together and enjoy the camaraderie style of play that, in my opinion, is a lot more fulfilling.



Pathos

Unlike the two games I mentioned above, Pathos actually does have a story.  A dark, dark story.  I would hate to spoil too much of it for you, so why not play it FOR FREE here, and finish reading when you're done.


Pathos is like a traditional, puzzle-adventure game where the play does not seem to directly control the protagonist.  As is the Monkey Island series, your clicks are leading the character around, but you have no physical control over him (like you would in a first or third person shooter).  This is where the gameplay and story become intertwined.  You are definitely not controlling the character through responsive, physical controls.  You are forcing him to obey your will even when he clearly does not want to.  The game is deceptive, as you initially will presume control over the protagonist but find by the end you are a wholly different entity altogether.

The End of Us

This is another free-to-play, browser game so you should also play it first.  It's incredibly short, just in case you're worried about time.


If you didn't notice The End of Us is a wonderfully told love story where the only characters are meteors.  At first the orange meteor will fly out of nowhere and ram you!  Hey!  So you try and ram it back (of course you do!  That jerk...), and it's hard to catch initially.  So it constantly eludes retaliation.  It's satisfying when you eventually do smack into it.  Then it becomes a race for stars, another competition.  There's no trophy or achievement for doing so, but you did anyway.

Eventually, you ram into an asteroid and crack, so selflessly the other meteor protects you from a second.  Then there is a choice.  Do you sacrifice yourself for the orange meteor, or let it do that for you.  Either way, a single meteor finishes the game, this time it is alone in the universe.

It's a pretty and sweet game that is able to draw emotions and humanity out of the rocks themselves.  There is no dialog.  No explanation of what you're doing.  There is a story, but it is only explained to you through your interactions.  It's an absolutely perfect game in my eyes, and definitely one of my favorites from the year.  I hope you enjoyed it too.


Other 2011 in Video Games Articles: Not Every Game's a Winner, Theater and Performance, Game of the Year 

2011 in Video Games: Not Every Game's a Winner

It's the end of the year, and as you are all probably aware it's time for everyone and their mom to make lists of their favorite media from the past.  I, myself, feel the need to go along with this trend, so apologies in advance for forcing anyone to listen to my inexpert opinion.  And like the rest of the internet, I enjoy a few video games.  Over the next four posts (and only the next four posts) I will discuss some of the video games from 2011 I found particularly interesting.

If you're worried my collection will come off as the typical praise of big budget, AAA, blockbuster style games then you have nothing to fear.  I'll only be mentioning a single AAA title and we're going to get that out of the way almost immediately.  The reason I'm focusing on video games instead of books and movies is because I see them as the great, new form of entertainment, and want to discuss what was really compelling within that medium.

I could write individual posts on every game I bring up, but I'm going to try a keep them short and simple, so we should probably start before I take too long with this preamble.

2011 in Video Games: Not Every Game's a Winner -

Portal 2

This is a big budget, AAA, blockbuster title and sequel to a small-scale, experimental game that turned into a surprise hit.  Portal 2 is a fine popcorn game with some incredible set pieces.  Unfortunately, it lacks the massive depth and exploration of narrative through mechanics the original had.  Portal was not as much a great story as a figuring out of how to tell a great story in video games.  The sequel takes the gameplay and geek humor from the previous installment and works it into an epic narrative that examines the history of the facility the player's character is trapped within.


That's all well and good.  A truly great game could have been crafted from that idea.  But learning the facility's history is not enough.  Players did not need to know the origins in order to fall in love with Portal, and without the exploration of how a story can be told (as found in Portal) or a truly compelling plot of its own (with an actual point to get across) this game is nothing more than a series of disjointed puzzles tied to an unneeded narrative.

It's not a bad game, and I like a lot of puzzle games.  The one I've probably played more than any other this year is Scrabble on my iPod.  Is Scrabble a great artistic achievement?  No.  And I don't ask Portal 2 to be either.  But, Portal 2 has to live in the same space as the first, which was great, making its flaws all the more noticeable.

A Closed World


A Closed World was a RPG created for an LGBTQ audience, where one plays an an unaccepted youth using dialog themed turn-based combat to convert or rebuke oppressive family members standing in the way of love.  The game's website throws up this blurb:
"Have you ever been so frustrated, so fed up with where you are, that you just want to throw it all away and run off to somewhere new? In A Closed World you play as a young person who has decided to do exactly that. This console RPG-like game puts you in the shoes of a young resident of a village just outside a forest that everyone says is a place of no return. Supposedly home to hungering demons and a beast that would destroy the village, the forest is forbidden and nobody knows what's on the other side. However, our hero's beloved -- tired of the oppressive attitude of the villagers -- decided to go there, as anywhere would be better than home. Now it's your turn to follow after. Are you willing to risk everything to find out what's on the other side?"

Upon it's initial release a few journalists within the gaming press hailed the free flash title as a modest achievement.  The game itself has mediocre design at best, and wouldn't be worth much attention without the subject matter.  What made the game interesting was the conversation that arose from within the gaming community, and particularly from the extremely vocal, transgender, game designer Anna Anthropy.  She wrote a critical blog post and designed a parody of it.

She noted that there have been queer game developers working in the medium for years without receiving the press awareness that this game garnered.  She was absolutely right, the works by people within the queer community are almost always deeper, more interesting, and complex than A Closed World.  Her explanation for the game's success follows:
"...it’s not challenging. i’m not referring to the game’s difficulty, although you can’t ever lose the game. what i’m talking about is that in a closed world, homophobia is an rpg monster that you defeat using skills like ETHICS and PASSION. it’s not a complex system of interwoven and often subtle oppressions. it’s not the reason most of the trans women i know are on food stamps. it’s a bad guy, and you kill it, and you win.
"it doesn’t ask straight people to acknowledge their own privilege. at the end it gives you some shallow, non-threatening message about how WE’RE ALL THE SAME..."
For the modest attention A Closed World received, it failed to give anything more than an escapist fantasy that kind of insults the intelligence.  Games are inherently queer, and that can be explored beautifully, as it has been by people like Anthropy.

Inside a Star-Filled Sky

Jason Rohrer has developed some of my favorite games.  If you remember you're high school English class and being forced to read a poem by W. C. Williams called Red Wheelbarrow you probably thought to yourself it was stupid and not worth your time.  It was just describing a farm!  You were wrong.  That poem is a short experimental work showing just how the medium of poetry can create imagery with ease and how lengthy poems filled with abstract concepts were ineffective.  Rohrer is really good at making short form, experimental works that show instead of tell and use game mechanics to drive the narrative.  If you want understand great game design play his early works like Passage and Gravitation.


Rohrer's game Inside a Star-Filled Sky was not a brilliant, minimalist, short form game.  It is an endless, incomprehensible mess... and if I had not played it I would not believe it.  The game has no end, and the player is meant to keep going down into other creatures to go up out of other creatures.  Every creature is its own universe filled with an endless number of other creatures that are each their own little universe.  It's a grandiose effort, and probably a resounding success, but it's painfully repetitive and irritating.

I would like to see Rohrer move into bigger, more complicated things, bringing along his signature style.  Inside a Star-Filled Sky is bigger and more complicated, but to a virtually unplayable fault.  I still like what Rohrer is doing, but this was far from the best of what he's done.

Other 2011 in Video Games Articles: Tales of Mechanics, Theater and Performance, Game of the Year

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas and the Holidays


I would like to spend a rare moment praising giant, multi-national mega-corporations for a moment.  Not for their use of child labor or for their eagerness to profit at the expense of their own consumers' well-being, but for trying to be "all inclusive."  Yesterday was Christmas, the American high holiday that every company tries to make sure it's lowliest patron is prepared for, yet still the goal of most corporate intentions is not to solely celebrate the season of Christmas, but the season of holidays.

There's very little reason why big businesses should have to be all inclusive considering  around 96% of our population celebrate Christmas.  If we were to ignore holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa there would be little fall out (in the United States).  It is safe to assume that society would not collapse and money would still exchange hands.  I'm currently working retail as a cashier, and have found that despite religion, race, and language barriers pretty much every group has walked into our store looking for the perfect gift for a friend or family member.  Odds are, and this is pure speculation, they are going to be giving that gift in a nice little box on Christmas, which is exactly what retailers want.

That doesn't stop them from using the word "holidays" which can probably be attributed to two things.  The first being "political correctness."  Businesses don't like to make waves.  They don't like it when people find out about their sweat shops.  They don't like it when protesters gather outside their stores.  They don't like it when people declare them evil and soulless.  Regardless of whether these legal human being have souls or not, they still want to be thought of as caring, caring about everyone, not just the Christian majority.

There are very few minorities working at my retailer.  It is majority white women (even in building management), the store manager is a white male, and the majority of employees if not openly subscribing to Protestantism are cultural Protestants (something I and most atheist/agnostics in the US could be considered).  But our company has a diversity policy that ensures, no employee or customer should be treated unfairly based on race, religion, gender, and sexuality.  That's not something the company does because it loves everyone to itty-bitty bits.  It's something it does because it would get in a lot of trouble if it started up an anti-homosexual policy.

My company, like nearly every company, wants to appear accepting to every community, which leads us to second reason for the word "holidays" - customers.  Retailers like customers.  I dare say they love them, and it's an unhealthy romance.  Stores will abuse their consumers and consumers will abuse their stores.  Lord knows, I've seen both.  But at the end of the day retailers always want to go on a second date.  "Please, come again" is the plea that comes to mind.  That phrase really means, "Comeback, baby.  I ain't like those other stores."  Every major retailer wants as many people coming in the door as possible, even those tiniest minorities.

If you didn't hear about it, Macy's recently fired an employee for telling a transgender customer she couldn't go into the women's fitting room.  Macy's did this because of the two reasons I mentioned.  One, they didn't want to look bad.  They wanted good PR and to appear accepting.  And two, they did not want the small transgender community and their much larger allies avoiding the store especially in the lead up to Christmas.  People can take their money someplace else (and they do).  JC Penney and Sears are a stroll through the mall away, and they also have diversity policies.

Yet for using the word "holidays" instead of "Christmas" business are given little more than grief by other groups.  People with the idea that their consumerist indulgences should be Christ-centric.  So they make statements about how it's not "happy holidays," but "Merry Christmas."  And they're sort of right.  People are shopping for Christmas.  They come for Christmas.  Nearly everyone celebrates Christmas.  But, and this is an assumption, businesses would like it if we celebrated every holiday with gifts and decorations.  We can also see that there is nothing but grumbling at the word "holidays" by these groups.  No protests or boycotts.

And I'll be honest, I like the word "holidays."  It makes the season seem bigger than Christmas.  It doesn't end yesterday, we still have a whole winter filled with celebrations and memories.  So I can still say to the shoppers, "happy holidays" even though the biggest of the bunch is bygone.  Now put up your New Year's decorations or people will think you're no fun!

I don't usually buy into holiday hype or praise the extremely flawed, large-scale, capitalist system for much, but I do give them credit for trying to seem progressive and accepting.  Christmas is that time of year where people are wont to remind us, "it's about the birth of the Christ child."  But the holidays are about community, family, giving, and love.  They're about the things that made Christmas popular.  There's no excuse too small for taking a day off of work, eating turkey and pie, and smoking outside in the cold with your cousin pointlessly arguing about global economics.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stories for an Agnostic Christmas

It's the Winter Solstice, which means... CHRISTMAS TIME!!!  But wait.  I'm not Christian!  Do I have any right to celebrate a holiday dedicated to a two-thousand-year-old martyr of questionable lineage?  Unfortunately, we don't have much choice living in the United States.  It's almost entirely inescapable.  But you can at least enjoy some good Christmas narratives outside of the Christian canon.  So below are four examples of good, agnostic narratives one can embrace during the season, since you're going to be forced into it anyway...


Oh, Henry...

Humorist writer O. Henry wrote many a Christmas narrative in his life, but none have survived the test of time like his seasonal opus "The Gift of the Magi," a fantastic short story about the gift giving tradition of Christmas.  The protagonists are a destitute couple forced to give up the thing they love most about themselves in order to buy the other one a present.  By doing so, the unknowingly give away what the other's intended gift was meant to celebrate.  The gifts are for the exterior and are as material as the valued items lost, but the intention is love, and the two appreciate and love each other more for their selflessness.

If you want to ignore Baby Jesus.  This is a beautiful place to start (despite the story's title).

A Seussian Christmas

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is a wonderful children's book by the late Dr. Seuss, and often considered his magnum opus.  It was adapted into a short, animated film that is near perfect in every way.  The Grinch tries to steal Christmas from Whoville but ends up discovering that Christmas is not in material things, but in community and caring.  This moral lesson is a lie, as illustrated by the following musical number.



But it's a good lie, one parents should teach to their children.  If you have heard Christians say that "Christmas should be celebrated all year long, not just one day" (saying this usually before throwing a fit because they can't return a sweater for anything other than store credit with a gift receipt), they aren't too far off.  The idea behind charity and community should be celebrated all the time.  Unfortunately, we all too often only remember to be charitable during the Christmas season.  Remember, we don't need to attribute that kindness to obeying a god.

Seasonal Baggage and Childhood Trauma

Charles Dickinson's novella "A Christmas Carol" is probably the most well-known, parodied, and adapted Christmas themed work of art outside the nativity.  It explores the psyche of Ebenezer Scrooge, from his childhood and love lost to his fears of mortality as three ghosts haunt his dreams, teaching him to be a better, kinder person.  This is a rare non-Halloween ghost story!  It is virtually unavoidable this time of year, so you might as well embrace the source material.

It is also, like "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," the origin of one of the great Christmas insults.  Calling one a "Grinch" or "Scrooge" is a fabulous way to put those who criticize the holiday back in their place, dismissing them as nothing more than a killjoy.  I'm here to tell you that not celebrating Christmas does not make a selfish, mean-spirited, shell of a human being.  Being a selfish, mean-spirited, shell of a human being despite religious affiliation and festiveness makes you a selfish, mean-spirited, shell of a human being.

The Brutal Realities We Ignore at Christmas

"The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Anderson is one of those stories that doesn't let up on the harsh realities of life, even around Christmas.  For that, I feel every family should gather 'round the fireplace and read it during this time of year.  If a copy of the book is out of reach then you can watch the demoralizing animated version adapted by Disney, which will break your heart a thousand times over.



Nothing says "Holiday Cheer" likely the untimely death of an innocent child.  This really is one of the most beautiful works you can find, and the heavy subject matter should not stop you from giving it your attention.  It makes you think about how difficult and complex life can be when most Christmas stories take much softer routes.

So there you go.  Four fairly agnostic stories to share with the family this time of year.  Hopefully, you can find a way to enjoy yourself despite your belief system and unbearably, religious family members.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hip New Animals

If you've ever looked at our current pantheon of popular animals and thought to yourself, "raccoons and sharks just ain't cuttin' it for me anymore" then do I have good news for you!  Every year hundreds of hip, new animals are being discovered and its about time we began inserting them into the popular imagination.  But what makes an animal iconic?  Appearances on cereal boxes like frogs and toucans?  Television adds with geckos and bacon obsessed golden retrievers?

Sure, marketability plays a major role in popularizing your favorite animals.  But one can only get the much cherished ad time by having a distinct look whilst not terrifying children.  Sometimes that's easy; cats and dogs have an instant advantage.  Children of all ages love things that are small, furry, and wide-eyed.  Some other creatures became popular thanks to media altering of their normally horrifying appearances.  Comedic, cartoon sharks rarely have those murderously blank faces (with their DEAD EYES!).  Happy, dancing turkeys will always lose that raptorian look about them.  And we typically choose to portray those adorable vampire bats over those hideous fruit bats (it's all in the nose).

So let's look at a countdown list of potential future favorites:

5. Smokey Honeyeater
If somebody took a picture of a rooster made it into one of the deviantart "kawaii anime" images it would look a lot like the Smokey Honeyeater.  It's minimalist color scheme gives it an instant advantage when it has to share a bland silhouette with about 40 bajillion other birds.


4. "Elvis" Monkey
What better opportunity arises to create an animated musical about the environment than when a monkey with what's been described as a "pompadour" hair style appears along the threatened Mekong River.  The big problem with this animal is the lack of nose, which gives it a slight skeletal appearance.  But people love monkeys regardless, so I think this one could sell.


3. Jumping Cockroach
You might be thinking I've gone mad, but rest assured the jumping cockroach could be a potentially adorable candidate.  We all love that little cockroach friend from WALL-E, and tiny things leaping around all innocent-like is something everybody enjoys!  This cockroach isn't particularly ugly.  In fact, I dare say it's cute to begin with.


2. Chinchilla Tree Rat
I'm not a big fan of this one's name, but the Chinchilla Tree Rat is cute as a button.  It's big and shaggy, and disarmingly cute (probably more so than any animal sharing it's name: chinchillas, trees, and rats).  And look at the picture!  You can pick 'em up and all they do is give a big dumb smile.


1. "Psychedelic Gecko"
This is the big one!  This is the animal we need to incorporate into the popular imagination.  The "psychedelic gecko," as the kids are calling it, is cute, colorful, and instantly recognizable.  Of all the animals I did not know existed this is the one we could love the most.  This is the hip, new animal you should be sharing with the entire family.


Alternatively, there are a lot of ugly, new creatures we could probably do without.  New leeches and aquatic mushrooms aren't exactly going to charm audiences across America.  It probably doesn't matter if we let big oil or whatever kill them all off as they don't have the adorably endangered staying power of pandas and polar bears.  But I can't care enough about saving the lives of our psychedelic gecko pals.  

It's like the difference between children and the homeless.  Children we care about because they're innocent and naive.  The other one is probably diseased, and if not I still don't wanna see them.  Can't we just get rid of all the ugly things and keep the nice ones?

OH GOD!  KILL IT!  KILL IT DEAD!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Art with Depth

There has been a steady rise in the film world of 3D; we all know that just by going to the theater.  Most movie theaters will have listings for shows in both 2D and 3D.  With this new approach, a small stream of filmmakers seem to be crafting some interesting narratives about the history of art and cinema based around the technology.  The stand-outs here are Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, both shot in 3D, both about the history of art.


Because of "poverty," I went with a friend to see Hugo expecting to watch it in two-dimensions.  He, having a never watched a 3D film, thought this would be an important occasion (as an avid Scorsese film) to witness 3D in all its glory, so I let him trick me into the 3D viewing.  Hugo is a wonderful family film about remembering early cinema: the black-n-white, silent era, where film was much more of a "theme park" experience, closer to big budget, 3D movies than their contemporary, "indie scene" counterparts.  Hugo twice reminded us that the first novelty film for the masses was of a train rolling into station, and as it did so audiences thought it was going to leap off the screen and into the seats.  How appropriate to play this scene to 3D aware viewers!

We, as people of the future, can look back at early cinema and think of those panicked individuals as primitive, but that would be a fairly jaded perspective considering our films are now literally jumping off the screen and people couldn't be any more complacent.  Back then it was damn near magical.  My friend (a cinephile and filmmaker himself) noted on the strangeness of adapting Georges Melies' films into 3D.  His perspective was that the original films should not have been altered.  It is arguable that this is for the sake of modern audiences, to insert the actors from Hugo in place of the originals and such, but really I don't want to argue either way.  They are two interesting perspectives on how we should discuss art preservation and reinterpretation.  But certainly the film aims to (like a good hip hop beat) sample from the best, and build upon it.  The result is in the opinion of the audience.


Cave of Forgotten Dreams reaches back much further than Hugo (millenniums back, actually), to the earliest known cave drawings.  I think anyone would instinctively wonder why a film about cave drawings should be done in 3D.  But after hearing so much praise about this film's use of 3D, Herzog's own reasoning for doing it, and watching it in 2D, I do lament not witnessing the work in its intended medium.

There is so much effort and depth put into the cave drawings themselves, it is awe inspiring.  I would have expected to see stick figures and cartoons.  Instead, there are beautiful and carefully crafted drawings of animals and a single human form.  There is use of shading and some of the drawings give animals multiple legs to imply movement.  Herzog describes it as a form of "proto-cinema."  Watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams did not instinctively remind me of how far we have come.  The art in the film was leaps and bounds ahead of anything I could make!  It reminded me of how young we were when we felt the itch of creativity.  It was so long ago, and yet art was in our blood and on our minds.

Here we are in the futurist times of 2011, finding new, high tech ways to play with art, and we are looking back on silent movies and cave drawings with love and nostalgia.  At one point in time those things were new and innovative, and it is nice we are able to observe that they are still incredible.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Will Somebody Please Think of the Children

Remember that post I wrote yesterday about Sasha Grey reading to children.  I've been noticing a few similar events in early November, so I thought I'd compile their strange existence here.  I assembled four topics (three news stories, and one just for fun) that all pertain to the childhood, the meaning of childhood, and how we are allowed to interact with childhood.  So let's start with the biggest story...back along the ol' Mississip...

Life in Mississippi

Mississippi is a very conservative state, so when we heard that they were going to be voting on an issue that would define life as being created at the moment of conception, a lot of us rolled our eyes and said, "This'll be nothing but trouble."  It turns out a lot of pro-life Mississippians thought the same thing, voting it down. The "personhood" movement in Mississippi most likely did not get the backing it wanted because it's extremely conservative effort to create a definition for life was really, really inconvenient and too strict.

Banning things like the morning-after pill and abortion might sound appealing to the ultra-conservative, but a lot of moderately minded people think there are some circumstances when it is fair to have an abortion (illness and rape being a couple of examples).  If the presence of a fetus threatens the physical and mental health of the host (fun word right there), then many believe that it's wrong to force her to carry it for nine months.

Then there was in vitro fertilization.  With IVF doctors take eggs and mix them with a bunch of sperm and see which ones work so a lady can have a baby... And that was probably the stupidest definition for a medical practice to come out of my head (check this link for a better explanation and discussion).  But that's the general gist of it.  If the law had passed it would have done a lot of damage to this process, potentially making it impossible.  A lot of Mississippians (and a lot of people in the country as a whole) disagree with abortion, but you will find much smaller numbers that see IVF as murder.

What really killed the personhood movement in Mississippi was the ambiguity and broadness of their definition.  It lost support on the right, but I'm sure this isn't the last time we've heard the word "personhood" in the United States.  Please god, let it be the last time we hear that goofy non-word, "personhood."

Michigan Protects Bullies

Most states have laws preventing bullying, but none have one quite like Michigan, which essentially lays out instructions on how to get away with it.  Ohio's neighbor to the north recently passed a bill called "Matt's Safe School Law" that allowed bullying on the grounds that it was "rooted in a 'sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.'"

I'll just say it: "The terrorists won Michigan."  After all, bullying is if nothing else a form of terrorism.  It's coercion by one party, through intimidation and violence, to prompt submission by the other party.  Often times it is spawned from religious convictions, like in say...9/11!  The law allows anyone with a moral code, of any religion, to openly harass others for being different.  If a student is Jewish, homosexual, transgender, or of any other frequently attacked group they are free game for religiously based persecution.

Our own bigotries tend to come from a cultural perspective usually influenced by what is right and what is wrong (morals, if you will) and are typically founded in Christianity, as it is the central basis for Western civilization in the contemporary age.  Christian children are often taught that homosexuality is a sin, and that people of other faiths will end up in Hell.  Children rarely receive adequate education about cultural relativism, and will not instinctively understand that just because someone is different they shouldn't be treated as a deviant.  Anti-bullying laws are created in order to help children understand that laying a deviant status upon others is cruel and dangerous, except in the state of Michigan where the government has decided that there are certain situations in which it is appropriate to be cruel and hurtful.




The Wonderful Use of a Pen-Name

Another instance of an unlikely person endorsing literacy appeared in early November.  Female, Canadian, environmentalist writer and recluse J.D. Bauer is actually a pen-name for Canadian serial killer Charles Kembo.  Um...Neat!

Kembo wrote a children's book called The Trinity of Superkidds: Quest for Water which was surprisingly successful.  That would be terrible if he were just some senseless serial killer trying to make it rich off of the stupidity of kids.  But it doesn't seem like that was his intention at all.  Kembo is in prison, and all proceeds from the books go to the World Food Programme.

The question that arises here is whether or not Kembo should be allowed to influence the minds of children as he is clearly a negative role model.  Actually, he isn't "clearly" a negative role model.  Kembo's not a good guy based on the fact he murdered people, but he is currently trying to do something for others, to help the world.  That's a wonderful change.  He could actually stand as an example to others, showing how even people who do something terrible can make a positive impact.  

It certainly sounds like he wasn't trying to turn youths into rampant serial killers, and if nothing else it's a fascinating situation.

The Binding of Isaac



Finally, I want to look at something that is not specifically from November.  I've recently been playing a computer game by Edmund McMillen called The Binding of Isaac.  The player acts as Isaac a happy, young boy who's mother is instructed by god to kill him.  To avoid death, he climbs down a hatch leading deep beneath his home and has to survive an onslaught of his horribly warped/undead siblings.  To describe it in the most technical terms, the gameplay is a dual stick, Zeldanian rogue-like.  It's a fairly adult affair that would easily appeal to young audiences with extreme cartoon violence.

The player is forced through what could be described as a trial by fire as Isaac struggles through a series of corridors and levels of increasing difficulty with only one life to lose.  Dying results in a complete game-over and the player will have to start from the beginning all over again.

McMillen, while not the most academic developer working today, has for a long time been talented at creating strong voiceless characters for players to embody and creative uses of symbolism.  In Super Meat Boy the titular protagonist is a boy without skin who needs to rescue Bandage Girl (a girl made of bandages).  While he is trying to rescue her, she is also responsible for protecting him.  Bandages are the perfect item to seal up wounds and to complete Meat Boy as a person.

In The Binding of Isaac the hero, by avoiding his mother's personal, religious decision to kill him, is physically rebelling against her beliefs, and not allowing himself to be devoured by the questionable morals that dictate her life.  Everything he perceives as innocent and good she denies him as sinful, including his own life.  He must then go through a shockingly violent and uncompromising world in order to save himself.

There are some very powerful messages throughout what appears to be a "silly fun" game as it manages to (comically) discuss growing up and deviating from the will of one's parents.  If you have the time, some coins in your pocket, and enjoy having either dumb or smart fun, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sasha Grey, Adult Entertains Children


A couple days ago a news story broke out showing photographs of actress and former-porn star Sasha Grey reading to children in an L.A.-area elementary school.  Some local parental reactions were less than enthusiastic about it, and the school denied her ever being there (despite photos of her there).  Grey, who hasn't appeared in porn for two years, told folks,
"I committed to this program with the understanding that people would have their own opinions about what I have done, who I am and what I represent.
"I am an actor. I am an artist. I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am a partner. I have a past that some people may not agree with, but it does not define who I am.
"I believe in the future of our children, and I will remain an active supporter and participant in education-focused initiatives."
 The program she is talking about was "Read Across America."

So, what exactly was Sasha Grey doing wrong?  Pornography, while being the most popular form of entertainment, is considered unseemly and deviant.  People with ties to pornography are also seen as deviant.  Americans tend to have a fairly hypocritical view of pornography.  Many adults watch pornographic content, but they don't usually want to be associated with it.  They would rather keep it hidden and keep any sign of its existence out of public sight.

How many of those kids watched one of Sasha Grey's porns?  Probably none of them.  Most kids at the age of five or six don't understand celebrity in the same way adults do.  Children have to be told when someone is important, special, or deviant unless there is a significant physical difference between themselves and the person they see.  I can't imagine the children in that classroom thinking of Grey as anything more than that nice person who read to them in class.  The parents, familiar with Grey's works or name, were the one's who recognized and condemned her deviant status.

My ultimate conclusion from this minor news article is parents don't want their children reading.  In celebration of an event called "Read Across America" a woman read children's books to kids, that was the problem.  If Sasha Grey had acted appropriately for her stereotype and instead of reading to children made a daddy-daughter porn (about reading), no one would care.  But once children see and experience people in the world who act contrary to morally forced beliefs about them, then they stop considering them deviant.  They might even grow to speak openly about or with them.  Guess where people start to observe and pick apart stereotypes and preconceived notions of the world...books.

Often times schools have required reading lists that include Romeo & Juliet (a play about falling in love with someone you're supposed to hate), To Kill a Mockingbird (a book about unfair stereotypes), and The Crucible (a play about unjust persecution).  If kids read these things, despite finding them "boring," their brains might slowly realize that just because someone is marked as deviant it doesn't mean they are bad.

Though, I doubt Grey was reading The Crucible to 1st graders...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ode to an Under-Appreciated Monster

Halloween is a time for horror.  A time to have fun being chilled by everything that would in reality bring us to tears.  Monsters are the most popular attraction when it comes to Halloween scares (though certainly creepy human antagonists have given us their share of fright with films like Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Misery).  Monsters are inherently queer.  They are strange creatures that threaten the normal order of things.  So we jump and shudder at ghosts, demons, Frankenstein's monster, werewolves, vampires, zombies, and Lovecraftian horrors, but it seems like one monster really gets the short end of the stick: Skeletons.

People never seem to give the skeleton its due.  In video games, books, and movies it's often a minor monster.  Rather than being the big baddy or even a mid-boss, it's more like cannon fodder.  Alternatively, skeletons will be the extension of the villainous being rather than the villainous being itself.  In The Mummy (remake) the monster begins as a skeleton, but in order to gain power has to give up his creepy skeleton ways to become more human.  In Psycho the mother is a skeleton, but the "monster" is her demented son.

"The easiest opponent in Puyo Puyo is far from being scary or even spooky… until you start to think about where all that tea he drinks could possibly go. WOOOOOoooooooooOOOOOO" - Ashley Davis
Poor skeletons.  It seems like nobody wants to recognize their spookiness.  If you really think about it, skeletons are pretty disturbing.  You can explain away why most other creepy crawlies exist.  Zombies, werewolves, vampires.  They all have skin and muscle moving them about.  Skeletons?  How does a skeleton walk around?!  It has no flesh, no tissue holding it together.  That's not supposed to move around.

How do you kill a skeleton?  Chop it's head off?  Nothing's technically holding it's head on!  It has no physical brain, eyes, or tongue.  Somehow removing the head from it's inexplicably capable body only causes new problems.  Now that you've removed the head you have to deal with both the head and body trying to kill you at the same time.

"But Aaron," you say determined to ruin my day.  "A skeleton may be a frightful foe in theory, but in practice they're just plain silly."  Oh no reader, I have a wonderful example of a movie that uses skeletons beautifully. Remember how some people say Die Hard is one of their favorite Christmas movies?  It's often over looked because its tone is drastically different from How the Grinch Stole Christmas or Miracle on 34th Street.  Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is similarly a strong contender for a Halloween film.  It's a fun adventure movie, but when that moment pops up when we realize all the pirates on the Black Pearl are undead (pardon the parlance) shit gets reals.

Some of the skeleton pirates are silly, but the main villain, Captain Barbossa, plays a powerful nemesis for our heroes.  Most good horror monsters are complex beyond "wanting to kill."  Barbossa and the rest of the skeleton pirates long to regain their humanity.  During the day they appear human, but that's not the same as being human.  They still thirst to enjoy all the pleasures of being alive as Barbossa illustrates by desiring nothing more from humanity than to taste an apple again.  The skeletons lack that aspect of humanity.  They lack the ability to feel like humans feel.  Barbossa's final words are "I feel...cold." This is both a terrible realization and a moment of closure for the character.  Skeletons, when given the chance, can be just as interesting as any other movie monster.

But rarely are skeletons given their moment to shine.  We're all too happy to let aliens and vampires bask in our hard earned attention, leaving skeletons trailing behind, broom in hand, cleaning up the aftermath of our holiday thrills.  This Halloween I want all of you to keep in mind how important skeletons are as part the season.  They're our decorations, our candy containers, and candle holders.  Putting one up gets the point across, loud and clear, that it's time once again for Halloween.  This October 31st I think all you should thank your own skeletons by not being hit by a truck.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Nostalgia

It's my birthday, something I almost entirely forgot about.  But since I didn't, I'm going to "sort of" discuss it.  I'm going to write about two distinct kinds of nostalgia.  One form I deem "healthy nostalgia," the other is an obviously pathetic and pleading nostalgia.  But I'll open with something that is seemingly unrelated to the topic.

I think Farmville, and Cityville, and Pioneerville, and every video game like them are a complete waste of time.  That may be because my experience playing video games has lead me so far away from some of the most popular casual games I don't understand them.  They're strange to me, and I find the Farmville formula virtually unplayable. And yet...



...I find the above footage of a Farmvillian Peanuts game completely irresistible.  Peanuts is something I hold sacred.  It's a beloved childhood memory I have only grown to love more over time.

I often like to believe myself immune to the worst kind of nostalgia: consumerist nostalgia.  Gobbling up anything based on an intellectual property or products from one's childhood.  That's completely false.There are things I grew up with, like the Peanuts, that I will unfailingly devour.  But as I began to figure out what exactly I wanted to write I began thinking of the warm memories of my childhood and my picturesque home in the country.  I was reminded of the video my parents still have of me creating a beanie baby parade, complete with a band of frog musicians I had acquired from Kincaid's gradually with my allowance.  Warm feelings of a loving home, wonderful memories, seeped into my being, whitewashing the negative moments of my life, leaving me with a feeling of...nostalgia.

That is exactly what nostalgia is supposed to feel like.  Momentary longing for home.  Momentary longing for a simple, simply magical place in time when one was clearly happy and at peace.  No struggle.  No cynicism.  There were many things I loved during my childhood: Rugrats, Beanie Babies, Lego's, Littlest Pet Shop, tiny, plastic cowboys and Indians toys and the large, plastic rock they would battle over.  But I don't have an internal desire to relive those things through mediums outside their original format.  Actually, I don't have a longing to relive them at all.  I'm not going to play with Littlest Pet Shop toys in order to revive some lost childhood...that seems unhealthy...

A couple properties seemed to improve as I grew older.  The Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes jokes I didn't quite understand as a child became increasingly hilarious.  I still absolutely love reading those strips (in the numerous collections I own) today.  Looking at Calvin & Hobbes, the strip's creator largely avoided exploiting mediums outside of the original comic strip.  As an adult it seems almost sacrilegious for a studio to even consider adapting that wonderful comic into a format that could not do it equal justice (film, for example).  It would lack Bill Watterson's wit and his ability to tell sophisticated tales about philosophy and childhood.  Many, many modern, cynical recreations of Calvin & Hobbes depict the character of Calvin going mad or as a stunted adult.  There are many ways it could be corrupted.  Perhaps Calvin & Hobbes is best left a remnant of the past.  A wonderful comic strip I can read to laugh and think.


I have a right to question the quality of potential, future adaptations of Calvin & Hobbes because we have seen it done with soooooooo many other properties from my generation's childhood alone.  Transformers stands as the magnum opus of bad examples.  The original premise for the series was to be a thirty minute commercial for a toy line, and as the audience grew up it turned into a series of horrible action films, "darker" and "more mature" to keep the product popular among aging consumers.  It's garbage and you should be ashamed of yourself for encouraging the creation of such pathetic, escapist nostalgia.

And yet, how dissimilar is Peanuts or Winnie the Pooh?  Two things I adore from my youth.  Certainly they were born from drastically different roots, but most modern recreations of the Peanuts universe are arguably as soulless as the Transformers films.  A Farmville clone is a Farmville clone, despite the quality and whatever skin is slapped on top of it.  It's a gimmick.  Maybe there are people who genuinely love the franchise working on the new material, but if they really cared about preserving the spirit of Schulz's works then maybe they would let it end with Schulz.

For my participation in Peanuts consumerist nostalgia I am just another part of the problem, greedily sucking down whatever slop might be thrown my way because of brand recognition.  How can I possibly condemn others for the speck of sawdust in their eye when there is a plank jutting out of mine?  I can't.  At some point I hope all of us learn to leave our warm childhoods in a state of preservation, rather than reusing their remains until they are completely unrecognizable.  One day we might have to face the present, or worse yet, the future, where there are no warm childhood memories to be found.

(Note: The date on this post reads October 28th, I guess I posted this a minute too early...)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Should the Villain Receive Her Come-Upins?

Last night I went to see Hairspray performed at my Alma mater, and I loved it.  If you've never heard of (or watched) Hairspray it's a lighthearted musical about racial segregation in the 1960s revolving around an overweight, white, teenage girl and a local Baltimore, dance-themed TV show that's based on a film by John Waters.  It addresses discrimination in multiple less than subtle ways.  But it's a campy musical that takes place in the 1960s, so subtlety is certainly not going to be a priority.


After the show a friend mentioned to me that the villain, Velma Von Tussle, doesn't really get punished for being a conniving and cruel bigot.  She is promoted to vice-president of a line of hair products.  The irony is it's a line for "women of color."  That's still not a bad deal for Velma, and her reaction to the reward is equivalent to saying "Awww phooey!"  For that I can see why my friend would find her "ironic punishment" less than appealing.

I could argue that at the end of the play, during a dance number, she is harassed into dancing with everyone else, black and white, so maybe she learned something.  Maybe she'll change her ways and become a manipulative, backstabbing good-guy for a change.  Certainly having her flesh melted off or bursting into flames a la Medea would be tonally inappropriate.  I could see her getting the boot, but even that would leave the audience with one unhappy character at the end.

It seems like the goal was to get everyone together.  By having Velma fired she would not have learned anything.  She would be just as bigoted if not more so.  She could blame fat people and black people for her losing her job.  Instead she joins everybody else in a dance and maybe (maybe) has a change of heart.  At her core the character shouldn't really be defined by her racism.  She was part of a older, white generation.  One which valued a traditionally white and skinny concept of beauty.  In a happy, campy, and transparent tale about discrimination I'm not so sure a five second conversion at the end of the musical is unfitting.  After all, in the logic of the play, the best way to defeat racism is through dancing on national television.

In this situation I find that the villain receiving her come-upins is largely unnecessary.  I'm well aware my argument is built on some fairly shaky soil, but the musical was already extremely heavy-handed.  Rejecting the racist instead of converting her would have felt like a rather mean move for such a happy and fun story.  Realistic?  No, and I don't think it was supposed to be.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Is Christianity a Cult?


I've been hearing a large amount of criticism towards Mitt Romney and Mormonism lately, the first of which was presented by Pastor Robert Jeffress condemning Mormonism as a cult while celebrating the superiority of his own Christian religious views.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume out of the seven billion definitions for cult given in Merriam-Webster the one Pastor Jeffress was referencing was "a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious."

That's the thing about the word cult.  It doesn't have a great, clear, singular definition.  It can mean a lot of things.  Films and television programs known as "cult classics" can have "cult followings."  The word can be used to describe less threatening religious bodies.  The earlier uses of this word are largely different than how the American imagination has redefined it over time.  That's not particularly unusual.  We do that with a lot of words.  The contemporary American has a Mansonian understanding of what a cult is: A small body of extremely devoted followers to a supreme leader isolating themselves from family and friends, fasting (or malnourished), and celebrating potentially dangerous rituals and practices.  Probably the most picture perfect fictional embodiment of the brainwashing cult is in The Simpsons' episode "The Joy of Sect."

So what exactly makes Mormonism a cult?  Slate Magazine's Christopher Hitchens points out a few of the similarities Mormonism has with the popular American cult:
The Mormons have a supreme leader, known as the prophet or the president, whose word is allegedly supreme. They can be ordered to turn upon and shun any members who show any signs of backsliding. They have distinctive little practices, such as the famous underwear, to mark them off from other mortals, and they are said to be highly disciplined and continent when it comes to sex, booze, nicotine, and coffee. Word is that the church can be harder to leave than it was to join. Hefty donations and tithes are apparently appreciated from the membership.
I'll use that paragraph in that article as a good example of cult behavior.  Let's make a list:
  1. Supreme Leader
  2. Shun Deviants
  3. Quirky or Distinctive Rituals and Vestiges
  4. Abstinence
  5. Controlled Community
  6. Member Supported through Personal Donations
Now, that Slate article is not arguing that Mormonism is a cult - still, it does take pains to make sure the readers are aware of cult-like similarities.  It also gently touches on the point I intend to make; so I'll get on with that:

An ancient Jewish journalist for Israel Today might discuss the Christian movement in much the same way we'd address contemporary cult behaviors as a devoted following guided by a single questionable authority. This superior leader might not necessarily be Jesus, but the self-proclaimed Apostle Paul (often credited as the first pope) who had a religious experience striking him blind and being told by a vision of Jesus, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do" (Acts  9:5b-6).  Paul is of course the only one on record who accounts for these events as no personal records of anyone else involved exist.  This allowed him to justify his arduous journey as the new leader of the early Christian movement.

If we are to ask if Christian communities often shun deviants or have controlled communities I would guide you to a statement by Jesus himself, "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:29, similar verses can be found in both Mark and Luke).  Jesus tells followers that it is not entirely wrong to abandoned their families to go with him promising greater gifts in the next life.  This is not dissimilar to cult-like behavior where followers often abandon their material lives for an isolated, spiritual one among a new "family."

Contemporary Christian language is also very familiar with exclusive, centralized thought.  Christianity is the focus of the American Protestant's vernacular.  Words like fallen, struggling, non-Christian, and stray may be used to define those outside their religion or those who have left their church by their own terms.  A former Christian atheist might not necessarily be an atheist but a stray sheep or a non-Christian.  This potentially keeps their mindset safely within the confines of the flock.

Christians have not had a great history of accepting outsiders.  Those who do "fall from grace" even today may be shunned.  Christians might speak to them differently or encourage their return.  To use a fairly radical example, the Westboro Baptist Church has become well known for their complete rejection of former members.  While the majority of devout Christians do not resemble that one sect, they might show their lack of comfort for deviants in small, subtler ways.  The word "disappointed" comes to mind when I think of my own upbringing.

The Christian religion is certainly not free of quirky and strange ceremonies and vestiges.  Priestly collars and robes, advent candles, speaking in tongues, snake handling, foot washing, and communion are a few examples.  Our local Amish population takes part in an extremely unique form of dress, but most any devout Protestant would not condemn them as unfaithful Christians.  It is the religiously Amish perspective that has them adorned in such unusual garments.

Abstinence is a major factor in Christian circles.  Avoiding alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex (as well as homosexual relationships and many other deviant sexualities and gendered behaviors) are important to maintain the body as the Temple of God among many of the more devoted believers.  There are groups with less rigid views (Methodists for example), but orthodox Christian sects have been integral into politically minded abstinence movements, like prohibition.

Finally... tithing.  I don't think there's any reason to delve too deeply into that one.  It's fairly self-explanatory.  Christian doctrine demands donation.

Christianity does show marked similarities to many cults, not the least of which is being an off-shoot of another, more established religion or being a movement within another, more established religion. Mormonism is a break away group from mainstream Christianity much in the same way early Christianity was a break away group from Judaism.  And as Hitchens says, "The fact is that what we have here is a clash between two discrepant forms of Christianity, in which the good Pastor Jeffress holds no especially high ground and in which the Latter-day Saints, unless they lie, are among the fastest-growing churches in the United States."

The discussion over Romney's religion is not about whether or not he's in a cult, it's about discrediting the opposition.  The word "cult" is a great way to do so because it evokes specific images in the American imagination that appear to be dangerous and deviant.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Strange and Wonderful Animals of the American Midwest

Whenever people travel to another part of the world one of the first things they notice are the strange and exotic creatures.  They might think to themselves, "Aw, I wish we had interesting creatures living in my home," but the people who say that are silly.  You see, there are strange and wonderful creatures living in every part of the world.  The only problem is that you don't think they're strange because you're used to them.  Living in the Midwest is especially problematic since most of our crazy critters become so media exposed through television, film, and literature.  But let's look at some amazingly bizarre beasts living in the Midwest (complete with deviantart interpretations!):

The Opossum

The opossum is the Midwestern marsupial.  A creature known for carrying its young on its back and hanging from its tail (two things I have never seen one do).  Its other claim to fame is a tactic called "play dead" where the opossum drops to the ground and pretends to be a corpse so predators won't devour its delicious body.  This has proven ineffective against moving vehicles.  The opossum looks notably like a massive, disease-ridden rat.

A opossum performing pantomime (by Orangehusky)

The Skunk

The skunk is a supposedly adorable cat-like creature that is entirely black, but with a big, white stripe down its back.  The truth is skunks are more like fat weasels with puffy tails.  They can unleash a spray from their backside which leaves a horrible odor upon their assailants, which has resulted in every living thing trying to avoid as much contact as possible with the skunk.  This, again, has proven ineffective against moving vehicles.  Skunks are hilarious as they don't walk so much as waddle.

A skunk dressed as a PS1-era Final Fantasy character (by hibbary)

The Praying Mantis

The praying mantis is a beautiful and elegant insect that slowly stalks through gardens crushing captive bug-life between its large, nutcracker-like pincers.  Primarily the mantis is known for biting the head off its spouse mid-orgasm, but they are also masters at horrifying children.  A classroom at a local elementary school my mother works at once welcomed in a butterfly chrysalis in hopes to see the nature's splendor first hand.  Days later it burst forth with hundreds of tiny, white praying mantis babies swarming the school and probably forever scarring the neighborhood kids.

A "steampunk" praying mantis that is clearly not steam powered (by CatherinetteRings)

The Alpaca

The alpaca are clearly not native to the Midwest, but there are a few alpaca ranches near my home so they certainly seem part of the ecosystem.  Essentially miniature giraffes, the alpaca has a long neck, is covered in woolly hair, and has a pension for spitting on me.  This probably has nothing to do with the alpacas themselves but I believe my dog wants to be one.  Whenever it escapes it can be found irritating or "playing with" the closest group of alpacas in the area.

An androgynous anime character riding an alpaca (by grkoch)

The Hummingbird

Hummingbirds are probably the most exotic Midwestern animal in appearance.  The tiny, jittering bodies, their rapidly spinning wings, and their long, thin beaks make them a sporadic joy to behold.  These birds drink nectar from plants like butterflies and other garden variety (used...literally) insects.  A myth exists saying that if a hummingbird ever stops flapping its wings its heart explodes.  But they sleep and nest and raise their young.  They clearly can stop flying and be just fine.
A hummingbird going through the rebellious teen years (by ursulav)

So those are just a few of the wacky and fun animals living in the Midwest.  I probably gave incredibly misinformed accounts of all of them, but that's because I'm not a zoologist or park ranger.  But observing what people find to be strange and exotic when visiting other parts of the world always gives me that "grass is always greener" feeling, like they haven't taken the time to observe their native bizarre qualities before looking at how odd something else can be.