side notes

Under Culture Podcast Crossover!

To the nearly dozen (singular) people who have enjoyed past episodes of the Under Culture Podcast, perhaps you have been wondering, “Where can I go to hear Brian argue over the relative merits of recent pop culture favorites with a dear friend?”

Well let me tell you right now, the wait is over, sort of!

I recently had the pleasure of being a guest on The Brad Bogner Show, and it was a delight as always to match wits and opinions with its host in our first (but hopefully not last) podcast together.

Brad’s show is a lot more free-form than ours used to be, so it ended up being a marathon 2+ hour affair covering a wide range of subjects, not all of them strictly cultural. Though I have to admit, I’m a big fan of his “Watch Out for That Guy” segment and his ability to flow from one topic to the next without missing a beat, whether it’s personal anecdotes, sports fandom or serious literary debate.

So if you’d like to hear our conversation on…

  • The recent films Drive and Red State
  • Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Patton Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland
  • Favorite Shakespeare plays
  • Netflix ‘Watch Instantly’ picks of the week
  • Artsy video games like Bastion

…and don’t mind some detours into the merit of chain wallets, the unsanitary habits of street people, and fantasy football strategies — to name a few — then please give it a listen! It was lots of fun and nice to be back on the mics again.

Check it out on The Brad Bogner Show site.

Or subscribe/download on iTunes.

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playing

Games, Art, and Bastion: Getting It Wrong and Loving It Anyway

[This topic is impossible to tackle without spoiling the ending, so if you have yet to play Bastion, let me just say that you probably should. It’s a compact RPG with a meaningful, well-told story. It constantly gives you new toys to use and new challenges to face. It’s beautiful to look at and the music is particularly memorable — “Zia’s Theme” alone prompted me to buy the soundtrack. If another XBLA game this year tops it, I’d be surprised. So, fair warning, let’s talk about how it all plays out…]

……….

If art is meant to convey or provoke emotion, then surely this is one way that games are unique among all other art (gasp, he said it!): we the players are free to make decisions, and then we have to live with them. Only games offer the firsthand experience of regret. Yes, a book or song or film can get us to empathize with someone’s remorse, even reflect on our own past errors. In a game, though, we can make a choice in the present, and feel for ourselves that very next moment where it becomes painfully clear we’ve made a terrible mistake. That’s something special. That’s an emotion only games can simulate so truthfully.

At the end of Bastion, I thought I was a hero. In most world-ending Christ parables, a character choosing to sacrifice himself for the greater good is the closest thing he’ll get to a happy ending, and as a player, I was ready to make that choice. I did make that choice. I wanted to be the good guy, the selfless guy, the legend; so I gave myself up that the world might be reborn.

At that point, I could have walked away satisfied. I’d enjoyed an excellent little game and my adventure was over. I saved everyone! Bad guys, vanquished. World, fixed. Right?

But I’m not normally a replay kind of guy, and the game was so well done I was curious about what the other, more selfish option led to (and admittedly, what the couple achievements I’d missed might be). Based on what I found, it would seem the alternate narrative is encouraged, subtly, by the game. Had I played through a second time, small cues would suggest that by saving the world, I’d just doomed it all over again. Helpless to prevent the Calamity, destined only to relive its aftermath, a replay would have suggested it’s better not to go back. That sacrificing oneself to return to some ideal past is foolish and naive, and life can only be lived looking forward.

The tricky part is, I totally agree with that as a human being. I don’t dwell. I try not to see the past through rose-colored glasses. I find people who call high school or college the best years of their lives incredibly depressing. Yet I’d never know the game wanted me to shake free of those traps without booting it up a second time. To get it “right” the first time, I’d have to choose what may seem counter-intuitive as a gamer — and less heroic as a character  — the first time through.

BastionAs far as the games go, or films or books or any other stories for that matter, this was the first time the central meaning of a work wasn’t necessarily contained within that work. Some games (or novels or films) contain a twist at the end that make us realize what we’ve been assuming was “wrong” all along. I know I started out thinking I was doing those Little Sisters a favor by releasing them, just as I had to take down a Colossus or two before realizing who the real monster was. I pulled for Memento‘s Leonard right up until the finish, and felt sorry for Verbal Kint just like he wanted me to. But in each of those cases, the work itself offers the realization that mistakes have been made to everyone who engages with it. That’s part of the thrill.

Bastion, not so. The ending offers no big reveal, no winking epilogue. Only by revisiting the work in its updated form do we get the full meaning. Only by seeing what’s changed in response to our actions — another trick only games can play — can we learn the true consequences of those choices. Save the world, start all over with the same problems and a disturbing sense of déjà vu. Move on with your life by evacuating, and get the final achievement (“The Beginning”) and walk away knowing what’s done is done.

Plenty of games offer branching stories, and I generally applaud that. It feels good to see choices affect my version of the story in a meaningful way. But most games also allow me save at any juncture, to go back and retry until I’m satisfied with the outcome. They don’t make me stick with my choices. For those games, choice is more a function of variety than meaning, leaving me to instill my own meaning in the path I take.

Bastion goes one admirable step further by making me commit to a decision and see it through to the end. And with this small adjustment, it drives home the emotional experience of regret all the more. It commits to its theme that there is no going back, no correcting the past, only moving forward and learning from our catastrophes. I made a mistake. I thought I could fix the world and I couldn’t.  Now that decision, and this game, is something that’ll stick with me forever.

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side notes

This American Auxiliary Cable

Driving the same commute for 8 years, it becomes comfortable. Finding a route and sticking to it. About 30 minutes each way. All surface streets, no freeways. Cruising past houses, businesses, intersections; feeling like part of the city. None of the trapped sensation of four crawling lanes. Just a steady, familiar drive. The route second nature. The motions subconscious.

Living 30 minutes away from work is the perfect length, really. Not long enough to drag or rob a valuable chunk of the day. Not so short to incur guilt for not biking instead. Live too close to the office and it’s like always being at work. Never too far to pop back in. Same neighborhood restaurants for lunch and dinner.

I love my car, and I never minded driving it. Now I live in a city with easy public transportation (SF), not one that expects — no, requires — car ownership (LA). And there are plenty of upsides. It’s better for the environment. It’s cheaper. At some point I may sell my car altogether. But the one thing I truly miss about driving: it was the 100% perfect way to listen to podcasts.

30 minutes really was the perfect length. Start one in the morning, finish in the afternoon. But most importantly, it was the perfect the listening environment. There you are, sealed in a private capsule, maybe a window down for the breeze. Your hands and feet occupied enough to never feel physically restless, but the effortless routine leaving your mind free, able to pay complete attention. Walking or running are close, but those aren’t relaxing. Riding a train, there are so many people around it’s hard not to be distracted by all that bustling humanity. What’s the man across the aisle reading? Am I creeping out the woman sitting under the overhead rail I’m gripping for balance? Why haven’t we left this station yet? In a car you’re in control of your own little world, and everyone else is safely encased in theirs. It’s just you and the story, the conversation, the information.

I like it here a lot so far. Now that I’m settled, I hope to get back to writing a lot more. Seeing movies and playing games and reading books that give me interesting things to think and write about. But I have to say, I miss the roads, the wheel, and the podcasts.

……….

[Note: this is an abstract way of saying I’ve moved, among many other life changes this summer — a wedding and honeymoon! a new job! a new living situation! — which is why it’s been all too quiet around here for months. Time to change that. Pleased to be back at the keyboard again. Hugs, –The Management.]

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watching

The Right Kind of Violence

Last weekend, I skipped out on a party. It promised to be full of people whose company I enjoy, with plentiful drinks and good music in their spacious house. Had I gone, I certainly would have had a great time doing what I like doing more than anything, which is drinking and chatting with fun and interesting people.

And yes, this is relevant to what I chose to do instead, which is track down the one theater in Los Angeles playing the super-violent Korean revenge movie, I Saw The Devil — directed by Ji-Woon Kim (The Good, The Bad, The Weird; A Tale of Two Sisters), starring Byung-hun Lee (TGTBTW) and Min-sik Choi (Oldboy).

The premise of I Saw The Devil is very straightforward: a government agent finds out his wife has been gruesomely murdered by a serial killer, and sets out to find and punish the man who destroyed his life. But punishment doesn’t begin to describe what follows. For this agent, simply killing or imprisoning the monster won’t be enough; only by inflicting an equal amount of pain will he feel that justice has been done.

As one can imagine, this pursuit gets disturbing quickly. The bulk of the film follows the main character as he tracks, subdues, and essentially tortures the object of his fury. Though the chase elements make for great suspense, the violence of the confrontations is brutal. I fully admit that this movie made me cringe, curl up in a ball, avert my eyes and hope for scenes to end soon, in more than one place. And yet, I thought the movie was great.

Why is that? The acts of the characters in I Saw The Devil aren’t much different from those of the ‘torture porn’ movies that seem to be cranked out annually, and which I hate for replacing what we used to call horror with vapid gore-fests. Nasty, nasty things are done in this film, as they are in other intense Asian imports like Oldboy and Ichi the Killer, movies which I also love and respect. Why the difference?

At first I thought it may just be international bias. “Oh, sure, gratuitous violence is fine in the confines of an art theater, behind subtitles, in a movie that most people have probably never heard of. But in a mainstream Halloween-time schlock movie, no way. That’s for the animals.”

I Saw The DevilI realized that wasn’t it though, as my stomach unclenched on the way home from the Laemmle’s. The difference is that the violence in these movies is something that American movies are forgetting how to do, which is the right kind of violence for the right reasons. That is, violence that is both a) actually supposed to upset the viewer, not give them a gleeful sense of blood lust, and b) entirely driven by character motivations contained within the film, as conveyed by talented actors.

When we watch Lee’s protagonist perform increasingly savage acts, we stop being on his side. We want him to stop, not because the villain doesn’t deserve it, but because through the fingers we hold up to cover the bloody brutality, we can see him losing his humanity. There’s no pleasure in this, only desperation, anger, fear. Real emotions. Real, but unsettling.

And yet understandable, because the role is played by an actor with real ability. We feel his loss and pain, and can see it taking him over. Just as we know the unfeeling depravity of his victim, the killer, played in an (I’d argue) Oscar-worthy performance by Choi that rivals Hopkins’ Lecter. Though this isn’t the cold calculation of Silence of the Lambs, or the emotionally blunted but occasionally explosive Oldboy. Here he’s unhinged, inhuman. An unstoppable force who does see violence as a gleeful pleasure, which the film is deliberate in condemning. But both characters do what they do for a reason, each character is grounded in their own twisted logic. None of this is pointless B-movie exploitation. One sick individual infects the other, and in watching that story unfold, we are rightfully sickened, but hopefully not infected ourselves.

Which brings me back to seeing this movie instead of going to a nice, fun party. If art is supposed to expand our human understanding, take us places and show us things we might not otherwise experience, this movie accomplishes that no matter how bloody the journey. Chances are I’ll never go to the dark places these characters go. Let’s hope not anyway. I will, however, go to lots of fun parties where I drink and chat with friends, but only once in a great while will one of those parties really get inside my head and affect me this strongly. Sometimes the easy pleasant option isn’t always the most interesting. Just because a thing is shocking, or even sickening, doesn’t mean it can’t be worthwhile.

Though I Saw The Devil may be difficult to watch, it has value as art for that reason. It made me feel something few movies do, as brutal and boundary-pushing as that something may be. That’s why I can “enjoy” these fucked up Eastern horror-dramas that lots of people would just call weird and gross, while feeling totally justified looking down on each successive Saw sequel. The former are rooted in emotion and skillfully performed. They do violence right.

The latter? They’re just disgusting for all the wrong reasons.

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watching

You Know, For Kids: Five Weird Things About Toy Story 3

No one needs to be told that Toy Story 3 was a great movie, and I am admittedly late to the party here. As we’ve come to expect, Pixar does more of their consistently amazing work, and in a rare feat, makes a third film in a series that meets or surpasses its predecessors. It deals with mature emotions and isn’t afraid to get a little dark and scary at parts, yet it’s a joy to watch beginning to end. They even reference classics like Cool Hand Luke, The Great Escape and Return of the Jedi. No one should not like this movie.

Still, while thoroughly enjoying Toy Story 3, I couldn’t help but notice a few quirks to what is ostensibly a kids’ movie. Little details that certainly don’t ruin it, but gave me just enough pause to the point where I couldn’t help sharing — and in enough places I couldn’t fit them all into quick bursts on Twitter.

Since basically everyone’s already seen this movie, maybe someone else noticed these and can tell me whether or not I’m crazy.

1. The voice of the movie’s villain, Lotso Huggin’ Bear, is the same man who played the ‘pig’ in the movie Deliverance. Not to brand a guy for life or anything, but you have to admit there’s something funny about that.

2. The toddlers in the ‘Catepillar Room’ were portrayed as terrible, torturous, unbearable things, in a movie aimed largely at kids in that very age range. The toys would rather risk death than be stuck in a lifetime of service to a room full of small children! Not to mention that the human baby doll was a terrifying, head-spinning Frankenstein. Okay, I take it back: this point is actually kind of great.

**In fairness though, contrast those points with how great the little girl Bonnie was. Her outfit in that last scene, with the yellow galoshes and pink tutu? Oh man, so adorable.

3. I won’t pretend I didn’t laugh too, and Michael Keaton was great in the part, but seeing the toys making faces at each other over Ken’s more flamboyant habits felt like a tiny bit of homophobia, did it not? I mean, Pixar’s a progressive Bay Area company, they did that great ‘It Gets Better‘ video, and right, he’s in love with Barbie. But how does this movie want me to feel about his prancing and glittery handwriting? The grimaces and raised eyebrows by the straight male toys bordered on making me uncomfortable about laughing at the Ken jokes, is all I’m saying.

4. Aside from the whole heading toward ovens thing — which, let’s not even go there — was there also a whiff of old southern plantation racism/anti-immigrant vibe to that bear too? He puts up a front of folksy hospitality with the cane and the hugs, but then makes the new (non-native) people do the shit jobs and sleep in cages while he and his fat cat buddies live the good life? I may be reaching with this one but I guess I just really hated that bear.

5. No joke, here’s one that really bothered me: so Mr Potato Head’s pieces, when attached to a tortilla, retain his ability to move freely. Also, his arm can crawl around all on its own in order to retrieve said tortilla. Essentially, they are ‘him’ without his body. Mrs Potato Head’s mouth, however, when removed from her face by that jerk bear, stops her from talking; yet she can still see out of her eye that’s lost back at the house (ignoring for now the fact that actual Potato Head eyes only came in attached pairs; we’ll chalk that up to artistic license). The question, though, is what exactly makes the Potato Heads themselves? I’m not a religious person, but if their body is just an empty shell, where exactly does their ‘soul’ reside among their discrete physical components? Is a statement being made here that we are only vessels, and it’s our senses of sight, touch, sound, etc. that give us life and self? I doubt the makers gave this level of thought to the existential puzzle posed by the Potato Head family’s conveniently peculiar form of sentience, but I have to say it distracted me through most of that sequence. Also, it was kinda gross how we was all flopping around on that windowsill. I did like when he punched that pigeon though.

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side notes

Our Favorite Shit: The 2010 Undie Awards

[Just in time for the Oscars, it’s finally time to reveal the Under Culture best-of list! Normally we get this out sooner, and both Spencer and I weigh in with choices, but both of our day jobs have been a beast so far in 2011. So much so he was unable to participate on a level he’d be happy with. Still, for posterity’s sake, here are our awards for 2010!]

Admit it. Half the time when making a top ten list for the year, by the seventh or eighth slot you’re starting to get generous. A few choices you ‘respect’ but didn’t enjoy that much if you’re being honest. A favorite artist’s latest work was sort of a let down. At least one gets put on solely for credibility. We all know it happens.

So at Under Culture we nixed the top tens, top fives, or what have you. Instead, we highlight only our absolute favorites of the year — in every category we could think of covering movies, TV, games, books, comics, music, and more — and set about explaining why each one made the list. This way you know everything that shows up here really deserves it. If your favorite isn’t mentioned, maybe it’s because we didn’t get around to it. Or it came in a close second. Or you are simply wrong. If so, let us have it in the comments with your own choices.

Some of these we’ve probably discussed on our podcast too, but it helps to have all the best stuff collected in one place. If you’d like to hear about what we love on a monthly basis, why not subscribe to that while you’re here?

And because we can’t resist a bad pun, we’ve dubbed these awards The Undies. So here they are: a long, thorough list of our favorite shit from 2010, in the third annual Undie Awards.

[Keep reading »]

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watching

Backlog Addiction: A Wonderful and Terrifying Future of Television

It’s fair to say the aughts (is that what we’re calling them?) were an embarrassingly good decade for television. But for me at least, the description fits in two ways.

First, in regard to the embarrassment of riches: so many compelling, well-written shows aired in that time frame, it’s commonly agreed that we’re living in a Golden Age of TV. Since HBO’s 1999 launch of The Sopranos, a raft of other outlets — FX, AMC, Syfy (ugh), even the major broadcast networks — have followed their lead in stepping up production and storytelling quality. Even accounting for the reality TV counter-trend, and the weekly deluge of pseudo-celebrity dreck that produces, a fan of scripted drama or comedy should never find themselves lacking for something to enjoy.

Second, though, is the almost embarrassing amount of time even viewers of good taste are now socially permitted and/or expected to spend watching it all. A common refrain of the 90’s was that, “Oh, I don’t watch TV, only movies,” because the majority of shows were seen as fluff. Now the pendulum has swung to the opposing extreme, where it’s paramount that you’re caught up on Mad Men, Lost, Dexter, and a dozen other landmark series just to qualify as “with it”. We’ve reached the point where not having seen the full run of The Wire is akin to never having read Shakespeare; one can’t possibly claim to be cultured otherwise. (And one certainly wouldn’t.)

Of course, to keep up with this flood of must-see TV, we require better tools, and I for one have been a willing consumer. Since escaping home and high school and setting up my own media kingdom, I’ve adopted Netflix, TiVo, video on demand, even a little BitTorrent. I’ve bought or rented box sets of entire series, and more recently streamed full seasons thanks to Hulu, or Netflix’s Watch Instantly feature on my game console. With this plethora of entertainment technology, it takes near-constant vigilance to stay current. A few days away on a business trip, and I return to hours of pop-culture homework filling the DVR menu. It’s a silly thing to complain about, and I’m not so crass as to call it a problem exactly. But it is a peculiarly 21st-century predicament. There are so many great things to watch, it’s getting hard to keep up.

[Keep reading »]

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reading

5 Odes to Books from a Recent Kindle Convert

These days, a shadow hangs over us devoted fans of the written word. A dark and looming shape in the form of a giant, pixelated question mark: to e-book, or not to e-book?

So many questions accompany this choice, it’s not an easy one to make. Is the transition inevitable, or should I fight the trend? Will it hurt or help the authors I want to support? Will I enjoy reading as much with this gadget as I do with printed pages? The doubt and uncertainty can be paralyzing.

But for my part, lacking the apartment space for more bookshelves, and with the current ones filled to bursting, it seemed like time to make the leap. So a few months ago, I gave in. I bought a Kindle.

Not that months of waffling, wondering, and even a bit of soul-searching didn’t precede my decision. I’ve loved books my whole life, and I’ve only ever read them one way: by turning pages. How strange that one day I’d switch to a form factor totally unlike my prior 25 years of reading experience — not to mention the thousands of years of readers before me. A paradigm shift like this certainly wasn’t to be taken lightly. After all, once I’d paid money for this thing, it would become my primary reading method. So this purchase felt like a point of no return. A potentially life-changing moment.

But you know what? My Kindle is wonderful. It’s an unexpected joy to read. It’s much easier on the eyes than reading computer screens, and my current crush on this beautiful new thing is making me read more. Its quick button-press page turning even lets me read faster once I get in the groove. Or maybe it just feels that way. Maybe it’s the reading more that helps me finish books sooner. The point is, I’m a fan.

However, despite my infatuation — I might even call it full-fledged love at this point — there are elements of physical books I already miss, some of which I never would have anticipated. So as I move forward into an e-book future, here are five short love-notes to my bound-paper friends.

But since I have no regrets, only fond memories, I’ve paired each with things the Kindle does well in its own right, to be fair. Some bright points to ease the fearful transition.

[Keep reading »]

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podcasts

Under Culture Podcast #12: Nobody Gets Pregnant in a Gun Fight

We’ve been scarce around here lately, we know. Busy with day jobs, the onset of the holidays — and attending and planning weddings, as a matter of fact. But to make it up, we have an extra-long, perhaps overly thorough discussion for you this week. Before we wrap up for 2010, we cover off on some recent  albums, a few of our favorite AMC TV shows, and a pair of excellent novels we’ve read since last time.

As usual, join in the discussion with comments or questions, or anything you’d want to hear us to discuss next time, and we’ll respond on the next episode. Either in the comments section below or via email, we love getting feedback. If you like listening (or even if you don’t), don’t be afraid to leave a review in the iTunes store either.

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Download The Under Culture Podcast #12 – Nobody Gets Pregnant in a Gun Fight

Subscribe in iTunes for automatic updates.

(Show notes below…)

[Keep reading »]

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playing

How to Win at Erotic Photo Hunt: A Checklist

Anyone who frequents dive bars has at one point or another played the cheesy but wonderful game of Erotic Photo Hunt. In it, players are given two matching photos of decidedly non-erotic ‘Babes’ or ‘Hunks’ from the 70’s and 80’s — though in my experience, ‘Babes’ are the customary choice, even among women players — and challenged to find five small differences between the two photos before the timer runs out.

As a fan of the game, and noticing some fellow players struggle to beat the clock, I offer these tips for Erotic Photo Success:

Check the Straps
Bras, thongs, etcetera — asymmetry is the enemy.

Check the Hair
Often, her puffy mess is too long on one side or too high on top.

Check the Jewelry
That pearl necklace is missing a strand!

Check the Housewares
Cups, candles, and such have a way of multiplying.

Check the Upholstery
Imperfect workmanship causes irregular patterns.

Check the Furniture
Defying the laws of nature, sometimes an arm or a leg are missing.

Check her Extremities
(see previous)

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