Monthly Archives: September 2009

On being fed an emptiness

An interesting subject was brought up on the blog The Last Psychiatrist the other day. It starts innocently with an international reader’s response to the author’s entry about lamictal, a mood stabilizer. Essentially, what the reader has come to understand about America is that we are a ridiculously well off country that lives in excess but somehow still needs drugs in order to stabilize issues that may not even be there. And, to a degree, the reader was valid. However, the blog’s author, the titular Last Psychiatrist, spun his response in an interesting direction. America is a country of mercantilists rather than merely capitalists, because Americans want what they’re told that they want. It’s not about having things but rather the idea of having things. Shoes are nice, but Nike shoes say more. A car is nice, but a Lexus says something about you.

There's a certain appreciable paradigm shift in this image. Are we trying to obscure our reactions to an otherwise stressful world, or are we so ashamed of who we are that we obscure ourselves from...an otherwise stressful world? I don’t believe that the proper word is mercantilism, though. I’m trying to make that work, but it doesn’t work in my mind. The closest word I can find is materialism despite the fact that the pursuits of the people aren’t necessarily in objects in and of themselves but a greater idea beyond the physical entity. Again, it’s not just having a car that matters but rather the specific type of car. Capitalism might have started off a theory that pushed toward materialism, but now we sell people ideas.

The media is fueled by the belief that there’s more out there than the material. When you watch commercials, you’re not watching objects for sale but the ideas behind them, the lifestyles they support, and a special metaphysical weight that must be inherent in them. Dr. Dre’s Dr. Pepper commercial doesn’t sell you a soft drink. It sells you Dre’s special party drink. Hedon Penitentiary’s acne cleanser ads aren’t selling acne protection. They’re selling you the high end acne protection that renders zits invisible on television! (Note: In reality, they use makeup to cover it rather than merely cleaning the star’s face.)

But it’s not just present in commercials for store products. America sells much more than that. As The Last Psychiatrist points out, America sells the idea of happiness, or at the very least the idea Gimme gimme more? that none of us are living our lives the right way. If you’re not happy and pleasant all the time, you’re not properly happy. Take some drugs and you’ll be fine. Wait, are you too energetic and focused on achieving completion of work assignments? Then you must be manic, so take these drugs and you’ll be fine. But our culture isn’t intending to sell the drugs. It seems more focused on selling the insecurity. There’s always something wrong. There’s always something else you should do, buy, or think. There’s a baseline that you are most certainly missing – you and you alone.

This insecurity is what sells romantic comedies. Many are an over-idealized spectacle of self-sacrifice or a man’s desire to change entirely for a woman. There is a romanticism prevalent in many of these films that is certainly attainable but lacking in individual expression of love. It’s unfortunate that I report that there are woman out there who use such films as blueprints for the foundation of what they expect the perfect romance to be if someone truly loves them. It becomes disconcerting and frustrating when these expectations are not met by an otherwise acceptable partner.

I’ve also seen these idealized romances breed a total disregard in viewers, too. Instead of believing in the fairytale romance, someone will dismiss the idea of true love as fictional because of how it is displayed in fiction. Instead of searching for the most ideal partner, the viewers may instead opt for more convenient romances or situations where basic needs are met. Another reason not to prey on insecurity is because it breeds more insecurity.

Romcoms aren’t the only perpetrators of selling insecurity. What about the alpha males in action films? What about the wise ass jerk with a heart of gold in comedies? (Note: There are many crossovers here with the romcom.) Hell, even the softer scifi out there suggests that someday our flaws will be fixable thanks to a McGuffin – and it’s usually not the MacGuffin itself that ends up being wrong but someone’s abuse of it instead. These all suggest that there’s something that we’re lacking but exist as templates for a better life. There are things we can get to make our lives better. Memorize these one-liners to be more likeable and/or macho. Follow these steps for the ideal romance.

The inherent problem is that popular fiction presents an exaggerated reality, either too good or horrible to be true. You don’t get reality as it is when you turn on the television or go to the movies. Reality isn’t fun because the message would be that things can be good or bad depending on how you want to look at it and how much responsibility you are willing to take. And why should I want to take responsibility when I can just buy some drugs or a party drink? Why should I look into my nutritional habits as well as personal routines (like how often I touch all over my face) when I can buy the protection of the stars? Why look for a romantic match when I can expect us all to latch to the same ideal of romance? The greatest insecurity on which the media preys is the notion that we are each incapable of taking care of, taking responsibility for, and deciding anything for ourselves.

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Gamer

Of course, the advertising campaign for the movie was misleading. This isn't simply an action epic about a guy freeing himself from the status of video game avatar and confronting his controller. In fact, Kable never even meets Simon face-to-face. Spoiler-free review: Gamer is a film about the inhuman treatment of people of the social undesirables. It’s not a very poignant or salient commentary of our general disregard, but it’s a fun one that includes exaggerated sex and violence. With an anticlimactic ending, it’s hard to say what most people will think of the film as a whole. In short, though, it’s science fiction done with the right mentality.

It’s sometimes hard to tell that people are watching the same movie, given the subjective nature of the medium. I’ve read a few reviews of Gamer as well as merely gleamed the Metacritic page, and few reviewers are kind to the Crank team’s latest attempt at absurdist storytelling. On the other hand, I thought the movie was a fun, albeit far from brilliant, commentary on today’s culture.

The advertisements would have the viewer believe that the film is merely about a boy controlling Gerard Butler’s Kable in his various battles to the death. In other words, Death Race on foot. Or The Running Man. Or a number of other stories, really. However, that’s not the whole story.

Michael C. Hall as Ken Castle creates Metal Gear-esque nanomachines that enter the cerebral cortex and bond to the brain, turning the brain into a wireless receiver with a unique IP address that can only be influenced by one controller. That controller, within the sanctioned gaming environments, has full control over the nanoed individual and can essentially live a second life vicariously through a living alter. Slayer, the game in which Kable finds himself, is an alternative to the death sentence in this film – and it’s also not the only second life people can live. Slayer’s predecessor is a game called Society, in which players have no limits on what they can do – and the nanoed individuals are usually down on their luck types looking to find any means to support themselves or their habits.

Or, as Castle poignantly says during his interview early in the movie, some people join Society because they want to be freed from having to make their own decisions for a while.

The attempted commentary in the film isn’t merely about the games we play and the influence of the media, although I find it interesting that they chose to exaggerate Second Life and the plethora of first-person shooters on the market. The movie is about class and control. Slayer contains convicts, those we often find irrede*gasp* You mean they escape?  Image yanked from The Hollywood Reporteremable for the sins they have committed against humanity. (Of course, Kable is falsely convicted…kind of.) When they’re locked up, we consider them expendable and of no use to society; so it’s more than appropriate to take control of them for our amusement and let them die indirectly by our hands. Indirectly because, let’s be frank, none of us want to admit direct responsibility for their dying. That would make us as bad as they are. Society, meanwhile, is made up of people who slipped through the cracks in the system – the down on their luck, the homeless, the addicts, Milo Ventimiglia, etc. Those who cannot be helped. In both cases, players dismiss the idea that controlling people is wrong because these people signed up for it. These people, literally, brought it upon themselves. The players aren’t responsible.

The lesson the Humanz group tries to preach is beyond the simple idea that the mind control is slavery. Playing the games and watching the Slayer pay-per-views perpetuates the idea that we aren’t responsible for what happens to these people. We’re not responsible for the inhumane treatment of convicts – guilty or innocent. We’re not responsible for the treatment of those who need help.

That’s the commentary I got out of the film. It wasn’t the usual, “This is a goresploitation film about the horrors of our media.” Hardly. In the end, it was media that saved the day. The media showed Ken Castle to be an evil bastard who wants to infect everyone with nanomachines and rule the world. The media showed the public Castle’s first two test subjects, Kable and his buddy, and how Kable was not in control of himself when he shot his friend directly in the head. And, hell, it was Kable’s controllers Simon who was able to take over Kable in the final battle to defeat Castle. The movie isn’t about the simultaneously embrace and rejection of our multimedia world. It’s about how myopic people can be so long as we have our own needs satisfied.

But there was still plenty of violence and sex, and I admit that probably obfuscates the subtext of the film to some high degree. However, it was completely necessary to the film. The games are supposedly be shown as deadly and exploitative, and film is a medium about showing rather than telling. Fortunately, the jarring cuts in the Slayer scenes made the violence easier to handle by simply not lingering on it, and the actual sex in Society was never shown on screen.

The most jarring thing about Gamer, truth be told, was its anticlimactic ending. An ending, mind you, that brought about a series oIt's almost refreshing to find a movie about guns to be resolved with a knife. Most like to escalate the violence, but these guys went the other way.  Image yanked from The Onion AV Club.f unanswerable questions. The most salient question is how Simon, the player linked to Kable, could have a stronger connection to Kable than Castle – who had his brain essentially turned into a wireless router and was standing right in front of him? Regardless, the big bad of the movie was defeated with a simple knife to the gut. The movie ends with Kable driving off with his family into a tunnel (known for causing signal drops in wireless equipment) before the words “Game Over” and “Insert Coin” are show on the screen. For a movie that was otherwise quite sensational, they found a way to make it end with a putter. It seemed appropriate, too. In the game worlds things are supposed to be over the top, but in the real world life can be ended in a completely mundane fashion. It doesn’t add to the commentary in any way, but it enhances the milieu.

Gamer is not quite the best movie I have ever seen, but it is far more worthwhile than most of the fodder that stumbles out into theatres. It’s one of those movies that makes it easy to miss the point, partially due to the art and partially due to mishandling. Still, it presents itself as an example of what science fiction is meant to be – discussion of the real world rife with exaggeration.

Bechdel Rule: Failure. Despite commentary on a world of inequality, I doubt I have to go into why this movie fails the rule.

Reviewing a review – or – What’s wrong with video game journalism

The true sign of a mature title is the shit brown color smeared all over the screen I remain cautiously optimistic for the Wii’s latest science ficiton shooter game, Dead Space: Extraction. I didn’t get the opportunity to play much of the original Dead Space on a friend’s console last year, but it was definitely an intriguing world to explore. Plus the Necromorphs are amazing creatures in that they require strategic dismemberment rather than the usual shoot-until-dead game play style found in other games.

I jumped at the opportunity to read 1Up’s preview of the game, found here. I’m disappointed. Not in the game but rather in the preview itself. Video game journalism is probably already a joke to the world of journalism, and I think I have finally been let in on it. Writer Justin Haywald, one can tell, is doing his best to be an objective reviewer. His enthusiasm is on the game itself, but everything else he writes is suggestive of his belief that the Wii is a video game console for children.

He is not alone in that thought process. Many gamers across America subscribe to the believe that the little white console with motion controls is what you buy for your kids after they graduate from their V-Smile. Nintendo has targeted the system at families as a whole and so produces games that are family-friendly, so it’s guilty of causing the initial association. However, games that are fine for the whole family cannot truly be considered games for children or games that are not adult. Most Zelda games employ brightly colored graphics, but I most would hesitate to dismiss them as games for children.

What the previewer really means to say is that Dead Space: Extraction is the next in the slowly developing line of M-rated games for the Wii. Of the three consoles out on the market, the Wii has the fewest M-rated games. Saying “adult games” instead of “M-rated games” displays a bias, even if unintentional. The connotation when using the word adult is suggestive of being grown up and therefore better, which is why it is used so often when discussing games for consoles. Those players usually mean to imply that the games of choice in their hobby are age appropriate and therefore to be accepted. Mature themes, mature language, and (mature) graphic violence are the things that are appreciated in adulthood.

Which is interesting because those are qualifiers for the Mature rating tag. People don’t simply say that the games are M-rated, they instead say adult or mature because it suggests more than an arbitrary label. It suggests adulthood and having grown up from bright colors and enemies who disappear in puffs of smoke. Sex, profanity, and violence are the makings of a true adult.

MadWorld's mature violence involves ripping out hearts and squeezing them I’ve played both MadWorld and House of the Dead: Overkill, and I would not describe either one as remotely adult. Both are M-rated, but MadWorld is simply a gratuitously violent game with an abundance of swearing and sexual humor, and House of the Dead: Overkill is…damn, it’s the same thing. The swearing and sexual humor are incredibly juvenile, and there’s certainly no rich message to be found in either game. These are simply games painted in the very adult color of blood red to sell better to children – especially adult-aged children.

Coming across a preview like Haywald’s helps me to realize that gaming journalism is far from mature itself. Journalism is supposed to be about objective reporting. What I found here was the writer’s willing perpetuation of a marketing strategy. Video game journalists are not reporters. These journalists are a form of extended marketing for video game companies, meaning that they’re simply salespeople. I’m suddenly very happy that most of the big name video game publications have gone under.

Gamers oppose Orson Scott Card-related game

GamePolitics reports that gamers have proposed a boycott of Shadow Complex due to its being based in Orson Scott Card’s Empire universe. Card is fairly well known for his stance against gay rights, mostly due to his being a devout Mormon. When his beliefs about homosexuality came into fruition some years, many fans of his work felt betrayed and have turned against him. This is just the latest in anti-Cardism.

The issue doesn’t really tear me. If I had an Xbox 360, I would jump at the chance to own a metroidvania-style game, no matter the source. I am a huge supporter of gay rights, but I also believe that Card can maintain what I perceive to be myopic beliefs. I own three books that take place in the Ender’s Game timeline, and I once received Card’s how-to on writing science fiction. There comes a time when it’s not inappropriate to separate the art from the person. If the art is a direct statement, it’s fine to stage a boycott. If you’re attacking the art just because of the name attached but not because of the content, then you’re mostly being foolish and no more myopic yourself.