Thursday, May 30, 2013

Belated Praise

I'm going to say something that could very well earn me death threats - I never liked Half-Life. It never gripped me, never really stood out, and kinda looked like ass. Granted, I didn't play it until 2004 and at the time I liked Halo more. I still like Halo - for all its faults, it's a solid game that's both fun to play and not loaded down with insultingly reactionary politics. That puts it head and shoulders above the current generation of shooters.

So I never gave Half-Life or creator Valve any real thought until a few months ago when I heard about Steam Box. Being a fan of DIY digital technology - I've been running Ubuntu for the past five years - and a bigger fan of indie games, I was intrigued to say the least.

But as much as I like me some indie platforming fun, my first love has always been the first-person murder-fest. So, expecting they'd load this new little gadget with Valve's back catalogue, I picked up a copy of The Orange Box and played Half-Life 2.

And it blew my fucking mind!

Cool guys don't look at... uh, bloom?

I know I'm late to this party, but Half-Life 2 has got to be the greatest video game of all time. And not just because there's a whole stage where you launch saw blades and flaming cars at zombies, though that doesn't hurt. Okay, it's about half the reason I'm giving it praise but indulging in slapstick violence only gets you so far. What makes Half-Life 2 transcend the Grand Theft Autos and Calls of Battlefield is that it can still tell an engaging story without interrupting gameplay.

So you all probably know the plot - aliens take over, better kill them. There may be no new stories out there but execution is everything and Valve tells this rather standard story in such a way that nearly ten years and a whole console generation later it still feels fresh. The characters are developed but never overshadow the actual playing of the game, the environments are expansive and somehow more interactive than you find in the latest "Triple A" releases, and the whole game is peppered with little blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments hinting at a truly epic story of interdimensional conspiracies and spooky beurocrats.

It always feels like he's watching you...

Or you can ignore all that and focus on getting some laughs out of the ragdoll physics. Valve took the bold move with their carefully crafted narrative of permitting U the player to ignore it entirely. Everything takes place in a first-person perspective and set pieces will play out whether you're in the right position to admire the destruction or off in the corner trying to do a simultaneous teabag and rocket jump off a fallen foe. It's a watershed moment in video games as a legitimate art form and to this day it stands alone.

For better or worse, video games are a defining aspect of the Millenial generation as much as rock and roll was for the Boomers. And right now, video games are going through their hair metal phase. Call of Duty and its many clones dominate the market but aside from some hectic, passing fun offered by the multiplayer they're all "sight-seeing tours" where the player goes from checkpoint to checkpoint watching drones vaporize buildings and bad guys alike. The sense of agency for the player - you know, the whole flippin' point of a game - has been gradually ironed out so that no expensive pixels have to be wasted on such vulgar whims as, say, turning a fallen foe into a makeshift projectile.


Look for an alternative and there's pretty much sandbox games with paper thin plots or RPGs - MMO and solo - with paper thin Tolkein cribbing. I've been pretty dismissive of the storytelling in video games but that's because traditional storytelling in the sense of movies or books - the format being used today - are utterly incompatable. It's an interactive medium, which presents both limitations but also greater narrative freedoms.

Half-Life 2 exemplifies those freedoms. Valve could've made something bog-standard and still scored big just off name recognition back in 2004. Instead, they crafted something that is not only a joy to play but an excellent story. That they're still alone in this ten years later doesn't bode well for the medium...

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Last Manchild

In my quest to keep this blag relevant, I grabbed a Vince Flynn novel off the "New Releases" shelf at my local library. And boy does it suck!

I actually read Flynn's debut novel, Term Limits, way back in the day. A gleeful little revenge fantasy full of SEALs and D-Boys knocking off corrupt politicians. It was pretty obvious that the churlish, womanizing president was supposed to be a stand-in for Clinton, but I read this in 2003 and - to Flynn's credit - could easily picture the Bush regime in the crosshairs.

Though that Flynn is long gone now. Or maybe he was never there to begin with and twenty-year-old me just wasn't that discerning yet. In either case his latest, The Last Man, isn't just badly written but kinda pathetic...

It starts with the two-dimensionally macho Mitch Rapp investigating who kidnapped some master spook in Afghanistan. That could be interesting - Flynn could've taken a trip into all the moral ambiguities and delicate alliances that have turned that place into Hell on Earth. But that sort of mature storytelling would get in the way of all the dick-waving. See, Rapp is a manly ol' badass who don't have no time for all that girly "talking" or "investigation," so every confrontation devolves into him waving his glock around and going "Phwoar!"

And because Flynn doesn't have the patience to create interesting bad guys, it works. First we meet a corrupt Afghan police chief - whom Flynn repeatedly describes as a fat conniver who dyes his beard. he really harps on how the guy is fat and dyes his beard. And when he's not fat and dying his beard, he's conniving some scheme. That right there, what I just did, is the same format as the entire second chapter. So I had to drink pretty heavily to get through the rest of the book and suspect the duel between Rapp and Zombie bin Laden atop fire-breathing dragons didn't actually happen...

Flynn tries to mix it up with twists, the crutch of all lousy writers. There's a fed looking for the Spookmaster General too, and he buts heads with Rapp, but because they're both Red-Blooded Americans who scarf apple pie and crap the Star Spangled Banner it's more like the slap-slap-kiss exchanges of a romantic comedy. Said Spookmaster also turns out to be kidnapped by swarthy locals under contract to crooked Americans who are too sissy to just bomb the shit out of everything and think Afghans should have some degree of self-determination in their own country. And then Russians show up, because conservatives are stupid enough to miss the Cold War.

The one break from the terrible characters and plot is dull technical blather. Long descriptions of bullet wounds and what make and model everyone's packing. Firearm pedantry - the worst kind, as it fetishizes the minutiae while ignoring empirical facts. Like how cover matters more than caliber or marksmanship in an actual firefight. It's a power fantasy for white male losers.

And that's why this crap sells. "#1 Internationally Bestselling Author!" declares the book cover - failing to mention it's likely only selling to balding twerps working in American embassies. Because that's the target audience of this bilge - that distinctly American failure who embraces reactionary rhetoric and might-makes-right fascism to compensate for their own sense of impotence. Waffentwerps, as Mark Ames calls them. The real silent majority still poisoning this culture, as indicated by the fact that Vince Flynn is still selling his awful books.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Beaten Generation

I had a friend in Charlottesville who served in Iraq. He wasn't much older than me and was already in the Army by the time Jooner took over, so he was part of the invasion. He had some funny, fucked up stories - like guys playing tag at night by throwing these heavy Army glowsticks called chemlights at each other. Or the time they camped out in a building with the plumbing shut off and kept filling up the toilets until it was time to move and their lieutenant had them go back and collect everything. Or the time his squad leader beat the shit out of an old guy for carrying a bucket of water.

This friend wasn't a draftee. He volunteered and afterwards came home to be a carpenter and occasional indie film actor. Which for the Millennial generation is more the norm than not. For every one of us that works two jobs and an internship on top of grad school, there's a dozen guys like my friend who only have a high school diploma or an associate's degree, trying to make it in an economy that makes it abundantly clear we are not welcome.

Let's back up for a moment and examine something larger - how does one become wealthy? The obvious answer is be born into it, like Donald Trump and Jamie Dimon. A less obvious, though more practical answer would be investing. That's how white-collar 401(k)s and IRAs work. In the shorter term there's CDs and Money Market Funds, but all of these pay shit interest compared to just a couple years ago. For any real wealth generation, you have to dive into the broader finance culture which has so embraced the gambler's fallacy of "Big risks! Big rewards!" that you might as well go to a casino.

Now for Millennials like myself, my vet friend, and probably most of you, this stacks the deck against us. Except for the particularly lucky, those of us with the college education to be employable in the middle-class office world are lugging around a record breaking one trillion dollars of student debt. That makes for a constant drain on our income, especially since not even bankruptcy can lift this debt. For even those who forgo a four year degree, like my vet friend and another friend of mine in the National Guard right now, they don't have much in the way of initial capital. A conservative investment - as in a fixed rate or stable stock - requires something in the neighborhood of 10,000 up front to see any returns worth mentioning. Where is a carpenter or a Guardsman or a temp supposed to get that?

We sure ain't getting it from work - if we can even find work. Official unemployment among Millennials is pushing 12% - four points over the national average - and with the way those numbers are usually cooked to look better, you can bet it's closer to 30%.

Even when we get jobs, they're shit. Miserable, dead-end wage slavery of either the temp or "service" variety. Assistants, sales associates, and the ever popular internship - popular with companies that is, like indentured servitude back in the day, only without any real guarantee it will pay off.

And what is the advice we get from those in power? "Grow up!" "Tighten your belts!" "Stop spending so much on iPhones!" "You can't have Social Security or Medicare because socialism is evil!"

In other words, a whole lot of bullshit. Austerity is the favored policy of both parties, but only for the young. It's all anyone talks about in legitimate publications since they're dominated by the same dolts who've been lecturing us on the evils of welfare since Reagen - but still expect Millennials to pay for their retirement. And the few Millennial voices that manage to break out into the wider culture are either children of the same privileged class demanding the rest of us tighten our belts or they're bitter nerds who've latched on to the most nihilistic threads of libertarianism to make up for never getting their dicks wet.

There is no happy ending to all this. It's just going to get uglier until Millennials either organize to seriously challenge those in power... or until we snap en masse. And remember how many of us are combat vets...

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sound and Fury

This Mother's Day - in what's becoming a tradition - I took my mom to see Iron Man 3. She's into these movies way more than I am but I couldn't help enjoying the spectacle. Robert Downey Jr. knows enough to keep things funny and the whole thing was leagues better than the self-serious and desperate to be clever Avengers.

"And now to grab my monkey!"

But a spectacle is all it is, and as the climax rolled on and Gwenyth Paltrow got red-hot superpowers, I just couldn't feel all that invested anymore...

Kinda like what's passed for news recently. The media's still getting good traction out of Ariel Castro and his personal dungeon, but look for anything else and it's Tea Party dweebs complaining about the IRS or Dick Cheney saying Benghazi was worse than 9/11. In a sensible country, it would be a given that a tax agency would keep a close eye on a group that explicitly declares its raison d'etre to be opposition to taxes and Dick Cheney would be hanging from a lamp post. And on fire.

But America is not a reasonable country. It's a histrionic culture, constantly acting out or throwing a fit to validate itself. A brainwave that leads to such huge and ultimately meaningless spectacles as Iron Man 3 and that has been bleeding into everything else, even how we follow current events.

Here's some stuff that wasn't loud and empty enough to garner much coverage - the deficit is still falling, stocks are still overvalued, and Syria is still a snakepit with no good guys. That's all real and important, but it's just not sexy enough to command the same attention. We'd rather have a whole bunch of noise about nothing.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Great American Novels

The Great Gatsby is shit. It's a ponderous tome full of Midwestern moralizing against the far more interesting and fun urban Northeast. And it's the worst sort of Protestant moralizing, where not the sin but the pleasure derived from it is seen as the real evil.

So the hell with Gatsby and all the idiots who think they're deep because they can name drop it once it's made into a movie. Again. Today we're gonna talk about those American novels that don't suck. In fact, these are the books that define American Literature as something not only separate from the rest of the Anglophone canon, but better in every way.

Portnoy's Complaint
When I wanted to think of a counterpoint that Gatsby is some grand work, this sprang immediately to mind. There's more gut-twisting truth to a single page of this than there is in the whole of Fitzgerald's turgid doorstopper - from the chronic anxiety over his parents to his desperate search for sexual release, Alex Portnoy is so very American. He wants it all and strives ceaselessly, turning himself into a gibbering neurotic mess. And all delivered in a breathless monologue to his psychiatrist.
Dog of the South
Yes, I've brought this up before. It's still worth your time because no other writer - except one we'll be getting to - really has a grasp on the American South. And Portis is rarer still in that he doesn't romanticize the former Confederacy. He sees them for what they are, in all their smallness, but still treats them as whole people. Driving to Belize to get your car back may not be Journey to the West but it's the closest many poor bastards born in Arkansas can hope for.

The best book on World War II that isn't a real history and better than Catch-22 by virtue of actually being funny. Vonnegut's experimental, sci-fi framing device doesn't even detract from the tragedy of Dresden he witnessed and even when the humor is at it's blackest he holds a very clear sympathy for all parties involved, from the put upon Billy Pilgrim to the trash-talking vato who will one day vaporize Billy's head.

Naturalism as a literary genre began in America and nobody ever did it better than Frank Norris. Everyone from the title character to the reflexively lying chambermaid are such stark, brutal, and unsympathetic characters... Yet Norris never judges them. They do terrible things for rational reasons - or not - and Norris merely reports. And in so doing, he paints a picture as wide open, awe-inspiring, and existentially terrifying as the unforgiving desert where his tale comes to an end.

The Crying of Lot 49
The best thing Pynchon ever wrote and not just because it's the shortest. This book is both an excellent slice of postmodernism while utterly taking the piss out of the whole genre. In less than two hundred pages, every cultural movement of the Sixties collides into a grand mystery that means nothing. The whole point is that there is no point, an obnoxiously condescending theme if handled by anyone else as Pynchon brings us to the revelation with some of the most laugh-out-loud funny writing this side of Wodehouse.

A Scanner Darkly
What list of great American novels would be complete without an entry on our very own Balzac? Philip K. Dick began his career mucking around in science fiction but consistently wrote beyond the conventions of that genre. And no place more than this book - an exploration of all the drug experimentation and security state paranoia that has so defined the culture for the past forty years, all centered on very human characters. Even that conniving jerk-off, Barris. If you can only point to one thing Dick excelled at, it was constructing characters so vivid and so intimate that we love them not in spite but because of their all too familiar flaws.

Everything by Mark Twain
You wanna talk evils of the rich? Twain was doing that before Fitzgerald was even born, with his scathing novel The Gilded Age. And this came after everyone already loved him for Tom and Huck. Every other writer here owes something to Twain because he set the standard for great American writing - keep it low and funny. Don't try to get all fancy like Joyce, stick to the ugly and ridiculous reality of the human condition. Which leads us to...

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
What can I say that hasn't been said before and better? The magnum opus by the finest and bravest American writer of the 20th century still holds up today because in a way we haven't moved on. Thompson chronicled the collapse of the American dream in a book so short he probably never gave it that much thought, but which so accurately reflects the broken hedonism of the counter-culture and the seething hatred of all things fun by the Bad Old World, as exemplified when Thompson and his lawyer go tripping balls right into a cop convention.

Low and funny. That's what all the great American writing is made from and not just because it trades so heavily in sex and drugs. But that visceral, almost populist approach to prose allows American writers to get dug in, to show the effects of all the Big Themes and Big Ideas on real blood and bones humans. And it leads to them building up a brilliant comic wit by necessity - "If you're going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh. Otherwise they'll kill you."

Friday, May 3, 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mission Accomplished

Ten years ago, the Iraq War ended.

No really, it did! We'd smashed through to Baghdad after all. Even President "Let's Forget What A Failure I Am" declared major combat operations to have ceased. If you've since lost a loved one to an IED, be assured that at least they didn't die in an actual war.

So to commemorate the end of that long ago war, I thought I'd check in on how popular entertainment has been trying to cope with it. I did that once before with The Hurt Locker, a dull work of navel-gazing more interested in the sort of pontificating on War In General that you'd hear from stoned undergrads.

In sharp contrast to that is Green Zone, a Damon and Greengrass effort that puts the lie of Iraqi WMDs at the center of the story. Damon
plays the leader of an Army chemical weapons team - the disposal sort - on the hunt for all the scary weapons we were supposed to find in Iraq. And every site he visits comes up empty. Naturally he asks questions and naturally it turns into this great big crime thriller as he scrambles to find the one Iraqi general who can tell him the big secret even children at the time knew - "What WMDs?"

"How dumb are you?"

The main Damon plot is really that bog-standard but it has some lovely set dressing. There's a career CIA officer played by Brendan Gleeson who gets it, a smarmy Bremer stand-in played by Greg Kinnear who doesn't, and an all too credulous reporter based on an all too sympathetic idea of Judith Miller. The reporter is just a plot point, like any woman in a manly war film, but the interplay between Gleeson and Kinnear is both fun and a sharp critique of the whole imperial misadventure -

Gleeson: "You cannot just hand this country over to an exile no one's ever heard of, and a bunch of interns from Washington." [In reference to the Chalabi stand-in Kinnear and Co. have decided will be the new Iraqi president.]

Kinnear: "Democracy is messy!"

You'll recall Rumsfeld said much the same when his skeleton of an invasion force couldn't stop all the looting...

Green Zone is even more concerned with giving agency to the Iraqis. Their self-determination is really the dominant theme, despite the film trying to be a conspiracy thriller. Freddy, a one-legged veteran of the Iran-Iraq war who goes out of his way to help Mighty Whitey Damon solve the mystery, delivers the best line of the whole film explaining the dilemma of an occupied country -

"I see what's happening. You don't think I see what's happening? And all the people now, they have no water, they have no electricity - you think I do this for reward? You don't think I do this for me? For my future? For my country? For all these things? Whatever you want here, I want more than you want! I want to help my country!"

But strangely the biggest misstep is this earnestness. There's really no way to be honest about the Iraq War without making it the blackest of black comedy. Generation Kill gets closer to the horror that was and still is Iraq. It follows the Marines of the 1st Recon Battalion as they charge into Iraq in 2003, which was less grand conquest and more slapstick road trip. They engage the enemy only rarely and then only with their own small arms and mounted weapons, air power and artillery being too focused on civilians. And the Marines themselves are a motley bunch of reprobates and "whiskey tango" racists, lead by officers who are - with few exceptions - utterly clueless and more concerned with looking gung ho to their own superiors, no matter how much that stupidly threatens their own men.

And then there's Fruity Rudy, played by himself.

But that's okay! You don't expect Marines to be renaissance men and you don't really want them to be. Their job is to kill for the American Empire and they're damn good at that. The right-wing political correctness of this country doesn't allow for such honesty so it's both an artistic triumph and more respectful of the guys who do all the fighting and bleeding. Too respectful in fact - if Green Zone's heart bleeds for Iraqis, Generation Kill doesn't want to admit they exist unless they're part of a set piece. Though this avoidance accurately reflects how different American and Iraqi culture is in a way Green Zone - and millions of Americans - don't want to admit.

There's a brilliant scene to illustrate this near the end - 1st Recon has been tasked with patrolling "liberated" Baghdad during the day, hearing requests and complaints from all the civilians, along with canned declarations of love and fealty to George W. Bush. As their new and better translator explains - their first was a Saudi pothead instructed by command to translate everything as "They are grateful to be liberated!" - Iraqis have no concept of a president who isn't a despot and just assume that all the grovelling they did to Saddam to keep their heads attached should now be directed at their conquerors. This passage from the brilliant Full Spectrum Disorder by Stan Goff comes to mind -

"The troops carrying out these occupations are carrying out seemingly contradictory directives...[They feel] confusion, [which] develops into frustration, then an indescribable psychic fatigue, and finally into hatred of the place and its people. Those who have no desire to collaborate with the occupiers will keep their distance.or more.attack them... Those who did approach the American troops had agendas. Lots of agendas... after every revolution, there is a scam period. It was a time to settle scores. A time to brown nose the new rulers. To maneuver for jobs and positions. And every time there is a conflict of interest between occupation grifters, they compete for the attention and credulity of the occupying troops. This begins to leave the impression among the troops that the whole society is a pack of scheming, pathological liars. They are, after all, being approached by the most unethical sectors of that society."

In contrast, Green Zone's argument for Iraqi self-determination can't shake it's own cultural blinders. As silly as it is for Kinnear's Bremer stand-in to dismiss the chaos he's created by declaring democracy to be messy, it's the truest thing in the film. Iraqi democracy will never and can never be like American democracy - there are plenty who wouldn't mind a Sharia state, morphing into a de facto province of Iran, and for everyone who'd love to cast a vote for their preferred tribal strongman there are a dozen others in the next tribe who don't see why they should let the other guy's vote be the deciding factor when they have more guns.

They ain't like us. It's such a simple fact but one that Americans, even ten years on, just cannot grasp.