Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tom's America: LAX, Part Two

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Peter Medak's execrable 1999 horror movie, Species 2[1], concerns a spaceman who comes back to Earth and brings with him an unseen contagion that soon goes to work on changing the world around him. The alien in question mainly changes the world by making alive people not-alive, but I'm sure there's scope for more variety in such a premise; my secret expectation (or fear, depending on the specifics) is that I'll get back to New Zealand and somehow America will have followed me home. Light switches will flick down to turn on; pennies will exist; people will put the month before the day when writing down the date; those terrifying accordion-buses will roam New Zealand's streets like Hungry Hungry Caterpillars, and people will speak derisively of anyone who rides them, because riding the bus, why don't you just go lick a hobo's asshole?!

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Sometimes the contagion I imagine myself carrying would be more irksome than anything else. I remain certain that when I get back to New Zealand, everyone will be tipping. I am not an American, and until I sit a test and marry an employer and become an American, I am going to bask in my right to say that tipping is a patronising affront to the very people beholden to it. And that while certainly I never(!)[2] make the choice to opt for Not Patronising those people by also Not Paying The Portion of Their Wage Their Employer Should be Covering (because that would be doubly patronising and also niggardly), the fact remains that on its best day, tipping is basically saying to someone, "Your employer and I have been talking, and he doesn't feel like paying you adequately, so here's a little sumpin sumpin seeings as I'm rolling in the benjis and all. Thirty percent? Oh, I'm touched that that should be so special to you; honestly, where I live we line our birdcages with thirty percent!" People all over America have weighed in on tipping for me, and there's something sweet and socially contractual and honor systemic about it, but really, I'd rather just eat somewhere where they know what minimum wage is (that is to say: an insult).

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I have a very real fear that the deep vein of commercial smugness that I choose to dissociate with any notion I might have of Essential Americanism will be back in New Zealand waiting for me. That everyone in the country will "have me covered." That all slogans for all products will be Concise. Succinct. Smarmy. That the entire food industry of New Zealand will have discovered what American media have apparently known for some time now, which is that all food can be sold with warm lighting, a Dutch tilt, and a shot of the raw ingredients bouncing off a chopping board, splashing water as they go. Who knew it was so easy? America!

And I suppose if that smugness were to follow me home, the bizarre and unexpected decrepitude propping it with rickety scaffolding might as well come too. The run-down faded glamor of even the nicest areas, where everything's either Just Opened and absurdly new and flashy or Going Out Of Business Everything Must Go and closing up shop even before you walk in the door. The moneylenders in every temple, souvenir stands and chilly-bins of $1 water and desperate ticket-barkers anywhere people might conceivably like to be. The huge, massive, totally unavoidable homelessness every single where you go, brushing past the quietly heartbreaking hordes to dine in places where they have valets to move your cars five feet and everything in the restroom is motion-activated (seriously, America, how clean do you think you are, and how dirty do you think everyone around you is?). When homelessness is so widespread that the homed are pastiching the mannerisms of the homeless in order to rustle up beer money, maybe it's time to start taking stock of your priorities.

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The N-word phenomenon, I would hope, would also come with me. When I first got to America I was amazed by how bone-deep the power of racial language really is; the notion of the power of words and perceptions to divide and conjure tensions was so palpable, I imagine it was as close as one can come to experiencing life in a universe where magic words actually exist. New Zealanders basically think this is silly[3], but people outside America could learn a thing or two from the way Americans cultivate their racial attitudes.

Not the attitudes themselves, necessarily: there are racists as all fuck in America (doy). I met an Arkansian fellow in Portland who shocked the room by dropping a few N-bombs, clarifying his position in a Pryor-caliber rant that rocketed incomprehensibly from "It's okay to say 'nigger' because 'nigger' means 'ignorant person'" to "please don't say 'cunt,' I have a mother and I find that offensive." (This differs from the Man of Portland's usual racial policy, of course: the MoP is very proud of his enlightened racial outlook, and one day he imagines he may meet a brown person, and that brown person will be very impressed also and probably invite him to a concert/reading, because this being the Man of Portland's fantasy, the brown person is Mos Def).

The most hateful racist, the most misguided racial doofus, and the most racially sensible American share one quality: they rightly believe their racial position to be an active part of their inner life; they enshrine this position, cultivate it actively, and recognize that it affects the way they interact with the world. This unspoken acknowledgment of the importance of one's racial dimension sets Americans apart from any other people I have met. Note that assigning weight to one's racial position is different from assigning weight to one's racial identity: while the latter is a great way to set one apart from other people and quickly develop a violent and misguided hatred thereof, the former is more of a shared acknowledgment that race is something worth talking about, which is a position that would improve both race relations and the general tone of conversation Down Under.

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A Lengthy Diversion About Racism

Traveling California and Texas, I found myself surprised by how many Hispanic folks I found myself in the company of, and how utterly Latin-American - culturally, linguistically, visually - these folks all were. This obvious (is there a word that's like "obvious" only more so?) observation will not constitute news to any resident of those areas; but for someone who thinks, on some level, that they have a pretty good notion of what America is about, based on mass media depictions thereof[4], it is a surprise.

Now, if one sees America as a thing to be experienced in whatever form it takes and a thing of which one will never truly be an integral part, this surprise is neither here nor there; but if one were emotionally invested in the notion of America, and one had allowed oneself to osmose one's notions of America from the mass-media discourse (that is, if one were a human being living in the West after 1950), it is very easy to imagine oneself feeling gypped. That is to say, if one loved the America of American mythology so much that one could not get one's head around the America of American life, then it would be very easy to imagine one becoming angry at the people that one saw as populating the gulf between the two.

American racism (applicable equally to most any racial minority, with the exception of those who look exactly like Will Smith), seen in this light, becomes emotionally totally understandable (because resentment toward the gap between expectation and actuality is one of the most irreducible constants of human existence), and intellectually utterly foolhardy (because it is like saying, "I am surprised and violently angry that my Whopper does not look so appetizing when the Dutch tilt, warm lighting, and splashy chopping board are removed." Come on, what are you, a fucking moron?).

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A Return To Our Theme

Obviously there are many things I would wish to infect New Zealanders with from America, besides a more grown-up attitude toward racial discourse. It would be lovely to come home and find that New Zealanders had conversations about which route to take, because that always makes life feel more like an episode of Seinfeld. It would be great to be able to find good Mexican food as easily as it is in America, and charming to find that the tradition of the American diner had been imported to New Zealand in a slightly less ersatz form than the two or three examples of same currently on show. It would be simply marvelous if New Zealanders, on my return, were as warm and welcoming and eager to show the best of their culture as Americans are. (It is entirely possible that this is the case; watch this space).

Maybe I'll even get home to find that the mortifyingly affected no-nonsense, strained working-class authenticity and obsession with "unpretentiousness" on which New Zealanders fall back as a cliche of self-definition has finally been cast aside, the country's queer shoulder finally put to the wheel. Maybe I'll get home to the teenage bedroom that is much of Kiwi culture and find that the country's pulled the curtains open, turned down the Linkin Park and decided to start having interesting conversations. Who knows? Maybe I'll never hear lazy half-assedness referred to lovingly as "#8 wire ingenuity" again. I'll get back to New Zealand and the majority of people will be as friendly and wry as the people in Seattle, who befriended me and wouldn't let me leave and kept subjecting me to day after day of conversations and hospitality and experiences and fascinating everyday life. People like the cool, savvy urbanites who live San Francisco like a tattoo on their soul, who I lived around and with for months and who offered a different glimpse of the city every other day, will be a dime a dozen. Everyone will be as positive and lively as the types who work so hard that they're able to live in New York and never forget how lucky that makes them. Maybe folks everywhere will be as engaged with the culture and excited about their place in it as the people that America just kept dropping into my life.

It's basically nice to be going home. But there are things I wish I didn't have to leave.

[1] I'm sure there's a non-awful alternative example, but all I'm coming up with are the turgid The Astronaut's Wife, the craptacular Flatliners, and the shitbiscuitulent Hideaway.
[2] Once. When I was snapped at by an old Chinese woman who yammered at me for twenty seconds, walked off, and came back with something that cost twice what I had ordered and contained none of the food components of the thing I ordered, I did not eat said food or tip said crone; I spent the evening mostly-frivolously hoping to avoid contraction of some sort of worst-karma-ever curse.
[3] By dismissing as ridiculous any ideas of regulating racially-charged speech, one not only refuses to accept most of the cultural fabric of the world one is living in, but also closes oneself off from rich veins of comedy in the realm of oversensitivity. A friend was once scolded in the supermarket for saying "collared greens," possibly because it sounds like "colored greens" or perhaps because it is associated with a stereotype; if one's anchor is cast too deeply in the waters of "all racial sensitivity is silly," one is unable to enjoy the nuance of this sort of thing.
[4] If Tom's America has a theme, it is that this is always, always, without exception, always a foolish assumption to make, except that there are exceptions.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Things that Look Like Stuff: Oliver Stone

Mr. Stone appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher last week, making the program look more like a one-panel funny-paper (and, by extension, less cloying and two-dimensional) than usual.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What Monsters Would Say: The Pachimon of London Bridge

"Heeeeeeelp! I can't swiiiiiiiiim!!!"

(Friend of the show Bewarethefish pointed me to a wonderful repository of monsters spotted throughout the world. Delight in them!)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Agora, or On Being Oh So Fucking Clever


As anyone who knows me at all knows, I loves me some vigilante cinema. I can't get enough of that violently unpleasant - creepily uncomfortable - righteously destructive one-two-three punch! Vigilante movies (and their cousins, slasher movies, Rambo movies, and everything about Mel Gibson) work by presenting a hero whose flaw is their disengagement with the world; this flaw unleashes a chaotic Nemesis that must first be tentatively confronted via random confrontation, before descending into an orgy of purifying fire through which our protagonist must pull his assailants, safe in the knowledge that only he will emerge unscathed. This is a perfect example of the vital potential of dumb, trashy cinema, with the side-benefit of confronting any reasonable viewer with an ideology so opposed to their own that a visceral dramatization of that ideology becomes doubly exciting for its dissonance with our own values. So: ordeal, catharsis, visceral challenges to audience ideology: good.

I mention this because Agora feels like it should be working in a similar way, but it gets stuck on Phase 1: Mistreatment. It's all penance, no catharsis. I've read favorable comparisons with The Passion of the Christ, which is inevitable, because (a) the movie tells the exact same story for the benefit of people without an investment in the original picture's protagonist; and (b) the movie is all about Christianity, and as such, it's pretty easy to compare it to notable items in the canon of Christian cinema, but there are no chariot races, so this is where we are.

Obviously Agora wants very much to be Saying Something about the modern spiritual climate (without ever saying anything its target audience might disagree with in the slightest, which is exactly as exciting as it sounds like): in the first half, toothless asshole Christians smash up the Library of Alexandria for reasons never really clarified. The movie takes pains to separate the reason/faith debate from Pagan/Monotheist tensions, except when it's convenient to load your argument by conflating the two dichotomies. So we're not really sure why the Christians are smashing the library, other than everyone in this movie is an asshole except for Rachel Weisz, on which more anon. But the first half feels as long as a regular movie, partly because structure is for idiots and Agora is for smarts, but largely because it's a lot of ordeal and a lot of belaboring of the fairly self-evident point that "it is not good to destroy human knowledge."

After the initial assault on the Library, the picture takes a breather for a CG long-shot of Alexandria, dwelling on the city's remaining majesty, the fires of the city's famed lighthouse symbolizing the fire of knowledge that still yes I know this is so obvious as to be trite, but again, these are the tools the movie has given us to work with, so here we are. It's at this point that the movie's true aim becomes clear. It's not interested in being a parable about knowledge or politics and religion or any of the interesting things the story is ostensibly concerned with: it's a self-flagellating celebration of destruction in the guise of a wake, a hairshirt for intellectualism. Agora is so puffed-up and proud of its natural-philosophy chops, it can't even be bothered working out how to have a good narrative. You don't enjoy Agora because there's no catharsis to enjoy: instead you congratulate yourself on agreeing with its endlessly victimized, utterly flawless protagonist, as if those all around you were cheering on the swarthy, foreign-accented Christians and Jews (because it's also pretty racist, so bully for that) and only you were smart enough to feel a kinship with the way the heroine is the most perfect human being in the history of all people.

The second half expands on the movie's theme of "toothless asshole Christians are toothless assholes" with an hour or so of irrelevant back-and-forth between toothless asshole Christians, oily asshole Pagans, and undercharacterized asshole Jews, and then it needs an ending, so they decide to stone Weisz to death, though her only crime is that she spends the movie being utterly perfect and wise and knowledgeable and graceful and selfless, which in a movie is actually a pretty good reason to kill someone, because that is a boring character to have to spend an entire movie with! Also spoiler, one of the guys who has been in love with her all along (pretty much everyone except Rachel Weisz plays someone who has been in love with Rachel Weisz all along) strangles her before she can be stoned, and this plotline takes up far, far too much time.

Agora thinks it's presenting a timely parable about how little time society has for philosophical inquiry or reasoned debate. But in refusing to scrutinize in the slightest its protagonist or her ideals, it forces an interpretation that ends up sending a fairly bleak message about the perils of intellectual retreat from the world of action. If the movie wants to be examined as an allegory - and it wants this very, very much - what can we say about the condescending disregard with which its heroine treats everyone and everything around her, and where she ends up because of it? How about "if intellectualism is not informed by engagement with the human and political realities of the world around it, it might as well be compassionately strangled before it can be stoned to death for being such a condescending, functionally useless waste of time"? Sure, but anyone with any sense knows that already, whether or not they had to watch Agora to be reminded of it.

[EDIT: The politics of adaptation are for another day - perhaps the same day we all sit down and talk about whether video games are art! - but in short, fuck this movie.]

Monday, June 07, 2010

In Which I Am Adulterated.

My feature on irritating sound effects in games is up on Gamesradar. How Sausage Is Made: this piece is more heavily edited than usual, possibly because my original version featured several jokes that were obscure even by my standards. Yum, sausage!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Tom's New York: On the Down Low


"That trap-door," says my hostess for the day, "Some people say that's where the Mole People come and go." She's pointing at a small grate in an artificial rocky mound on the south end of Central Park, somewhere between the big silver Atlas at the foot of the park (Jack Donaghy got the gold one, a few blocks south) and the FAO Schwartz where you can see the staff recreate the famous "big piano" scene from Big[1], then try your own hand (foot) at same and realize just how rubbish you are at absolutely every skill necessary to play a big piano.

She tells me about how the Mole People live below the city of New York and have their own societies and mayors and electricity and running water (maybe this is where all the electricity and running water and organizational capacity from my hostel went!) and are the lords of the subterranean world, one that swallows regular humans who try to venture into it but where cave-dwelling people can survive and prosper. There are twelve levels to the subway; regular people, rather precisely, are said never to get below Level 4. (Maybe that's where the first mini-boss is).


Of course, the Mole People fiction is not unique to the world of non-fiction. Every subway trip I take, I'm reminded of Midnight Meat Train, an ill-advised feature-length adaptation of a one-joke Clive Barker short in which an ill-advised Bradley Cooper plays a photographer who becomes ill-advisedly obsessed with trailing Vinnie Jones into subways, believing the Marceau of the Soccer Hooligans to be a subway serial killer. Spoiler! He's right: Jones has been tricked into riding the subways for an eternity, bludgeoning people with a huge hammer and feeding them to a race of cave-dwelling demons on whose home New York is built and who demand appeasement in the form of ill-advised subway travelers. That's why (in a fascinating and unexplored implication) New York, within the movie's mythology, gets its power from a Faustian bargain written into the city's very topography, and also why (in a marginally interesting and underdeveloped subplot) the vegetarian Cooper develops an obsession with eating bloody steak as he gets closer to his quarry.

But you don't have to be spinning crazy extrapolations onto New York's subways for them to be one of the most evocative places in America. This is the chrome-and-graffiti cave that folks go into as a meek observer and emerge from as a fierce avenger: so says The Brave One, but it's just lifting a scene from Death Wish and/or the legend of Bernhard Goetz. "You don't look that bad," sneered Goetz in December 1984 as he stared down a would-be mugger he'd just shot on the subway, "Here's another." Then he shot the guy again at point blank. Bernhard Goetz looks nothing like Charles Bronson, but it's impossible to imagine that line being spoken by anyone else.


Once you leave daylight on the subway, everything blends. The oily musk of sweating steel is so thick you might as well be walking through gaseous metal. The reality of moving from A to B becomes a Jungian trek through the nether world. Subway-demons are on a continuum with Mole People bleeding into the real subjects of Dark Days seguing into the unfortunate on the next platform. The intricate grid of New York streets is reduced to an unfeasibly elegant single straight line. The only thing that parses the soot-black funk and off-white Victorian tiles and homeless and yuppies and iron maiden-like full-body turnstiles is the trains themselves, slicing through the dark with a mighty rush and reminding you what's what. And then you step out and you're in an entirely different place, as if there were any doubt that the whole thing were magic.

[1] In a movie about a little boy becoming a big man, why is the most famous scene the one which highlights the man character's smallness in a way that borders on surrealistic?