The 90s Disease and The Global Star Wars on Terror

This is the first of two editorials tangential to political things including 9/11, the Global War on Terror, and how much of a cunt George Lucas is.  I have written this particular piece while in a rather spirited mood.  There is offensive content here and its payload has been calibrated to maximize its potential.

I was in a World History class, freshman year of High School when it happened.

This is one class I will not forget, though I don’t know it at the time.  It will teach me far more than I expect.  We are to be taking a short test on some material we recently covered.  I wasn’t worried, my memory always did serve me well in areas like history.  Twenty-five questions, and then a new lesson.  Twenty-five questions on the origins of Islam.  The strange mechanisms of the world already winking at my future self through a multiple-choice pop quiz.

When the television went on I saw the towers burning.  They still stood over New York, then.  At first the world thought “Tragic Accident”.  Then the second plane hits.  At first the news thought the towers couldn’t fall.  Then they did.  We all watched them fall.  We all watched them die.  Many of my classmates had family working in the Pentagon.  DC is very much a company town.  I’d never been to New York.  I knew people there, the internet had permeated my life in a Very Big Way already, and through IRC I knew people who lived and worked there.  My mind was too dumbstruck to register that they might be in danger.

The reactions of the students were telling.  Mine was that of pain and rage.  None of us had known the horrors of the Cold War, the grim sword of damocles that was Mutually Assured Destruction was foreign to us.  War was something other people made.  We were observers, all, and none of us knew that our world had just been swapped for some new monstrosity, a warped mirror that reflected all the wrong parts of ourselves.  I knew there would be a war.  I knew whoever had done this would feel the unchained rage of an empire.  I knew we would feel the same rage.  And I knew that rage would always be more dangerous to us than it ever would to our enemies.

There is no image I can think of that is so primal, so repulsive to the very core of one’s humanity, and so mortally terrifying than that of a mushroom cloud.  Nuclear annihilation.  As I said we were the first generation removed from the Cold War.  We didn’t know the same fears.  A mushroom cloud, the modern face of death itself, was now all that I could see.  I saw the towers fall, I saw the fires and deaths, the jumpers, the secondary collapses.  I saw them and I thought “Yes.”  I saw mushroom clouds rising over some foreign land.  I thought that death by nuclear fire would be too kind a fate for those responsible.  For the first and only time in my life I was posessed of a terrible notion: We Must Kill Them All.  No exceptions, no hesitation, no remorse.  The world would never before or again see a more fearsome reprisal.  This would never happen again.  Not while We stood upon the bridge.

Some of the students, however, watched, riveted to their seats.  I realized something awful.  They were actually being entertained by this.  Whether the sheer magnitude of this was too much for their feeble minds to grasp I do not know, I do know that there was more than one person that I previously thought was smart who actually commented on how “cool” this was.  And everyone knew why this was getting people off.  I’d seen such destruction before, we all had.  We all paid for it at the movie theatres in the summers.  We lined up to eat popcorn and watch aliens or asteroids or some Other destroy us, only to be vanquished by the might, ingenuity, and wisdom of Humanity.  The 1990s was the Great American Victory Lap and it showed in all our media.  We’re All So Fucking Great, because we survived the Cold War.  If we could avoid annihilating ourselves, we could truly overcome any obstacle the universe would send our way.  The 1990s are why George W. Bush would later challenge the terrorists to “Bring it on”.  The threat to us in the 1990s seemed to never be human.  We had conquered our demons, we were masters of our domain.  Without nuclear war to worry about we could build fantastic new wonders like the Internet, cure diseases, bring the world together, throw down tyranny and lift humanity into a brighter future.  We were building a space station, we were mapping the cosmos, the whole world seemed to peek its head out into the blinding light from a dark cave, just for a moment.  We thought everything was going to be okay, soon.  What could this new millenium bring other than the triumphant dawn of mankind?  And, admittedly it was understandable, justified even.

Star Wars should have taught us differently.  Episode One, specifically.  At the ass end of the ’90s the most sacred of our pop culture icons was going to return with all the majesty of modern CGI and budgets greater than the GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa.  A great big fucking fireworks show to cap our cultural bender.  It didn’t even occur to us that it would be remotely possible for Star Wars to be Bad.  Try and remember that time.   The time when Star Wars was always going to be good.  The time when its only blemishes were written off as a minor misstep by the visionary Lucas.  Its important to remember the time when Star Wars couldn’t possibly be fucked up, even if  spasticated rhesus monkeys suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, smoking crystal meth wrote the screenplay in the AIDS-infested mongoloid spunk of the aborted baby Jesus.  Star Wars was perfect.  Then, Episode One came out.  It was a fuckfest of legendary proportions, childhoods were retroactively ruined, and the insult would only seem to get worse with time.

Why was Star Wars bad?  Why, when the first film was made at the end of the Vietnam War, and the series improved to its crescendo in the last great arms race under Reagan, why was this new Star Wars, forged over years in the victorious, pre-utopian 90s, so bad?  Well, the problem was that Star Wars was perfect.  Only someone who no one thinks can do wrong would or could fuck up Star Wars that badly.  People around this man should have slapped the shit out of Lucas, the studios should have detonated his script.  And it was the ultimate 90s script, no tremendous conflict, just a small backwater trade dispute, some political maneuvering, you know, easy shit.  Shit that normal humans deal with all the time, nevermind Jedi.  Shit that Yoda should have sorted out in five minutes.  The whole of Industrial Light and Magic blackout drunk with money, and the entire production in a dissociative trance of denial, with no one challenging the fever-dream bullshit spewing from George Lucas.

A New Hope was made in the fucking desert with props that constantly broke, never-before-tried effects techniques, a veritable shoestring budget, and more problems than anyone knew could happen on a movie.  Everyone thought the movie was going to be horrible!  It was the exact opposite of The Phantom Menace in almost every way.  The script was chopped, cut, tightened, until it was lean and unrelenting.  Comedy and drama in balance, the Hero’s Journey updated for the modern era, and most importantly: Good Triumphs Over Evil.  Not an ultimate triumph.  Significant, but ultimately just another battle.  It was exactly what it needed to be in that time, in that place in 1977.  Star Wars made everyone remember “Hey, we’re the good guys.  We can do this!”  The Phantom Menace made us ask “Hey, you’re supposed to be the good guys, are you sure you can do this?”.

In its own way TPM is also exactly what it needed to be in its time, which is to say an overproduced monstrosity.  A monument to excess.  We let it happen.  We were so busy telling George Lucas how great Star Wars was that he forgot the adversity that gave it a soul.  In the 1990s, we were all in the business of buying our own bullshit and confirming ever so politely to each other that our shit did not in fact stink.  The Millenial Generation had arrived and the Baby Boomers were going to kick back and get nice and fucked up with the hottest new drug for them: Unlimited Power.  How could America possibly get punched in the dick by the Actual Sand People from Tatooine?  Even if that happened, how could America so fuck up their response as to get bogged down in not one but fully two Vietnam-grade quagmires?  We learned that lesson!  We won, remember?  We’re the good guys!  We can do this! What are a bunch of irritable brown people going to do to us, nothing, because we’re America and we’re so fucking Perfect.

In the 1990s the US Economy boomed thanks to the Internet, we had the largest budget surplus in history, and our biggest problems according to the news were blowjobs and sharks.  We gathered all that money, and all that confidence, and when we were attacked we hit back with our own great big Phantom Menace.  An obnoxious, showy, over-budgeted, over-produced foreign-policy Hindenburg called the “Global War on Terror”.  We named our enemy.  The “Axis of Evil” ooh, scary, very Sith Lords, love it.  For Iraq we even got our own Attack of the Clones complete with equally farcical justifications for a war!

The best thing about those movies, the prequel trilogy is that for all its flaws it does one thing incredibly right:  From start to finish, episode one title crawl to episode three credits, the good guys manage to give the bad guys exactly what they want.  The Jedi, through arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence fuck absolutely everything up.  The bad guys play them like a fiddle and achieve almost every aim.  The only thing that stops them from winning completely is that at the eleventh hour, a couple of people get their shit together just long enough to set the stage for the next generation to fix everything they broke, if they can, maybe.

And America did the same.  We gave the bad guys exactly what they wanted, first we got good and scared.  Then, we got good and angry.  We started a war with too much confidence and rage and no decent plan.  We alienated potential allies with our rhetoric.  After 9/11 even Iran was chomping at the bit to help us.  And why not?  They’re fairly modern, certainly when compared to their neighbors.  They’ve got just as much an interest in making sure the Taliban and Al Qaeda quiet down as we do.  We were on the way towards real dialogue when President Lucas threw it all away by naming them to the axis of evil.  And we got distracted, went off podracing in Iraq.  We give radical groups decades worth of justification for their agenda in places where they were as welcome as syphillis.  Now the western economy has tanked, and what did we get for all of this?  We managed to get our shit together just long enough to shoot the guy responsible in the eye.

This is a tough one.  And now, like it or not, its up to my generation to fix everything the grey-hairs broke.

If we can.

Maybe.

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The Epic Legends – Atlanta – Epilogue

The story’s been told, the first legend put to print.

Here’s what happened after.

Me and the girl in the next seat never really happened as a couple.  Our relationship began and ended on that bus.  Still, its brevity and its purity changed my whole perspective on life and love.  I learned that hardship usually has a reward, even if the only reward is coming out of it stronger.  I learned how to talk to women.  I learned I’m a good storyteller.  I learned I wasn’t the hideous unlovable monster I’d tend to see in the mirror.  Not a month later, another legend would begin.  That story’s coming up one day, too.

Tony, who I’d known since I was a child fulfilled his childhood dream and became a firefighter.  It was the only job he ever wanted and he got it, and he’s damn good at it.  Tony’s a good guy.

Colin, the vile womanizer, happened to have a girlfriend waiting back in Northern Virginia who was none too pleased about what went on in Atlanta and on that bus.  Karma’s a bitch, and so’s his girlfriend when cheated on.  I have, to this day, not seen a more thorough ass-whooping of any man by any woman, or man for that matter.

Sergio graduated high school that year.  Turns out he had a twin brother.  I was mortified.  He was also 21 years old.

As for me, I went on to perform my first spoken word routine a few days after my return, emboldened by my newly-discovered talent.  For one class period, with the permission of the involved teachers I stood before the gathered students, many of them far better friends (and my future first-girlfriend among them) who laughed raucously, applauded, and set me on my course in life, to become a writer.  I completed my first screenplay two years later.

The events of that trip didn’t make me who I am, but their contribution was great.  Like anyone, I’m a sum of my experiences.  The next Epic Legend, “Busch Gardens I” takes place in the year 2000, and is not only my first encounter with a dread roller coaster, but the first major step on my journey to the great fleeting now.

Stay tuned.

Dream Casts (no pun intended)

All this recent hoopla in my head over the convergence of film and gaming, my two most beloved things, has led me to draw up a few ideal casting choices for some upcoming games-to-movies, namely BioShock and Metal Gear Solid, which has the added benefit of being 90% movie anyway.

Bioshock:

Protagonist Jack: You want someone who’s fairly young, and capable of a dark, tragic heroism of a sort.  With that language most people would jump to the Dark Knight himself, Christian Bale, but I’m going for Nathan Fillion, far less of a name and a face, except to Whedonite zealots.  The hammer is his penis.

Andrew Ryan: Daniel Day Lewis.  No second choices, at all.  The alpha-objectivist whose empire has crumbled around the very structures he built it on, the gravitas of the Milkshake will be needed for his climactic moment.

Atlas: James MacAvoy, this rising star has all the right characteristics.  Right accent, right attitude.

Frank Fontaine: Jack Nicholson.  No one can do arrogant sleaze better.  He could just read everything in his normal voice and it would be pitch-perfect.  Alternatively Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Dr. Tenenbaum: Sarah Polley.  She’s best known for her work as the female protagonist of 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake, but is a fierce actress and talent in her own right.

Dr. Suchong: None other than Sulu himself, George Takei.  Right age, right look, just enough villainous potential.

Sander Cohen: Robin Williams, no second choice.  The man can act serious when you give him a chance, but can anyone think of a better option for a manic psychotic artist?

Dr. Steinman: John Noble.  Look at his performance as Denethor in Return of the King.  That sort of psychotic behavior could be very easily and very artfully translated to this plastic-surgeon gone batshit.

Now how about a Metal Gear Solid movie?  Laden with its didactic style of Japanese storytelling, you’ll need a good editor and screenwriter before anything else, really.  But what about those characters?  I’ve got some ideas here, too.

Solid Snake/Solidus/Big Boss: Viggo Mortensen.  In various stages of makeup he can play all of them, and play the hell out of all of them.  He is quite possibly one of the five greatest living actors, in my opinion.

Liquid Snake: I’m going to go back to James MacAvoy for this one, too.  A younger, more vital, slightly deranged character, I think he’d excel as Liquid.

Otacon: I’d cast outside of appearance on this one, cast to character and not to looks, that said, I’d go with Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Another one of my favorites, he could very easily play a nerdy, closeted homosexual atomic scientist.

Raiden: Jake Gyllenhaal.  Young, unsure of himself, naive, I think he’s played all these characteristics already.

Revolver Ocelot: David Carradine, yes, Bill.  He’s got just the right quality for Ocelot.

Naomi Hunter: Nicole Kidman.  She can do ice queen, she can do everything the character needs to do.

Meryl Silverburgh: Say it with me now: Evangeline Lilly.  KATE.  She can kick ass, she can play vulnerable, she can play sneaky, slippery, sultry.  Don’t even change her hair color, the red anime-hair is ridiculous, give her a cut and put her to work.  Give her a bigger part than she has in the games, and ratchet up the tension with Snake.

Sure there are other characters in both games (especially the bloated Metal Gear saga) but for film translations, I’d take it down a bit.  There would of course be other supporting characters, but those are your core.  Bioshock I think lends itself to a more direct translation, oddly enough, as Metal Gear Solid’s story needs some heavy pruning.  I’d probably combine elements of 1, 2, and 4.

Peter Travers – The Anti-Ebert

As a lifelong fan of film and game alike, I’ve been increasingly frustrated in the seeming critical divide between these two art forms.  Roger Ebert, famously has stated that games can never be art, my open letter to him drew a lot of attention, and has yet to yield a response from anyone at the Chicago Sun-Times.

This month, however, Peter Travers, the famed film critic of Rolling Stone magazine, still one of the premier print magazines for music, politics, film, and increasingly gaming, started his movie reviews column with a rare 3 1/2 star review of… Grand Theft Auto IV.

The bright red headline screams from the page, below a shot of GTA IV’s protagonist Niko Bellic

“Screw Hollywood, Go Game”

Travers, as much a giant in film criticism as Ebert himself not only headlines his monthly reviews section with Grand Theft Auto, he revels in it.  As if speaking from Dan Houser’s subconscious, he slyly slams the anti-game crusaders.  He’s played the game, he’s beaten the game, he understands the game, from the tragic storyline to the biting satire.  Of the game’s supposed threat to society he muses “Note to the moral hand-wringers: Yes, GTA IV is brutal, bloody, debased, debauched, and likely to corrupt the innocent after, say, 400 hours of play.  But let’s keep the innocent out of this.”

Of the game’s script he writes “It’s a rare video game that enters territory marked by Scorsese and Tarantino.  But writers Dan Hauser and Rupert Humphries have created the vid version of film noir with dialogue that crackles even in the film’s darkest shadows.”

Even for all his praise of GTA IV, he recognizes the distance games have to go, and the challenges ahead of it.  It would seem to me that Travers, as entrenched as he is in the art of Film, is pulling for a revolution in interactive storytelling.

“I’ll resist to the last, trading human drama for virtual reality.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t wonder for a minute what it would be like to grab a controller and follow the characters in No Country for Old Men and There WIll Be Blood into corners their creators never imagined.”  Travers wonders who the visionary might be to “raise interactive video to the level of cinematic art”.

He suggests James Cameron, he derides Michael Bay.  I would add Steven Spielberg to the short list, as I would Ken Levine, he of the brilliant BioShock, and Dan Houser of Rockstar himself.  I’ve long been of the opinion that video games have a far broader definition of artistic merit than film.  Just as there are arthouse films, there are arthouse games.  One need look no further than Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Rez to find the sorts of wonderment video games are capable of, things beyond the reach of even the most skilled cinematic auteur.

Peter Travers represents to me the Anti-Ebert as far as video games go.  As he ends his review, he claims that artistically, “GTA IV qualifies as a wow of a start.  It’s not this game that spits you out feeling brain-numbed and dead-ended.  It’s Hollywood.  You leave GTA IV – if you ever do – thinking, “So many possibilities.”

So many possibilities, indeed.

Is Grand Theft Auto IV Actually the Best Popcorn Movie of the Summer? – The Travers Take (Text identical to review appearing in RS issue 1055)

REVIEW – Iron Man

BRAAANNNNUNNNNG…. I… AM… IRON… MAN… BRAAAANNNUNNNNG…

When Marvel took over their own filmmaking business from the various studios they’d been contracting with, I had my doubts.  When it comes to story, they’ve hardly been at the top of their game in recent years, with ham-fisted political euphemism and dumbass decisions (Spider-Man’s still alive?  Let’s kill him again and give him dildo arms!) clouding their work.

My doubts were unfounded.  Either this is the best move Marvel has ever made, or Robert Downey Jr. is a motherfucking sorcerer, his arcane magics making everything he touches awesome.

As Tony Stark, the titular Iron Man, Downey and director Jon Favreau focus on the human, as opposed to the superhuman.  The film is at heart, a character drama that happens to involve superheroes, heated battles, and evil masterminds.  Stark is a hard-living man’s man.  At once a peerless businessman, intellectual, and cocksman, he’s the ultimate playboy and pusher.  Speaking of Playboy, watch out for Stan Lee in his greatest cameo appearance ever.  Following the explosive opening scene, however, Tony Stark begins a transformation from philandering arms magnate to the ass-kicking, name-taking, shit-stomping one-man-army that the media can only coin Iron Man.

The film’s focus never shifts away from Tony Stark, and those around him, including Gwyneth Paltrow in her most endearing role in years as Stark’s faithful assistant Pepper Potts.  The spectacle comes not as an excuse for, but rather a consequence of the powerful wills and personalities at work. And what would a superhero film be without a hefty dose of spectacle.  From Stark’s initial capture at the hands of a nefarious non-denominational-taliban-surrogate group in Afghanistan, following a test of an impressively destructive missile called the Jericho, the fireworks don’t disappoint.  Jeff Bridges lends an utterly sinister feel to every word, motion, and action of Obadiah Stane, Tony’s partner at the reins of Stark Enterprises.  Sporting a shaved head and strongman’s beard, Bridges comes across as the corporate world’s very own Lucifer, a deceiving double-dealer who shakes your hand while stabbing you in the back.  The climactic showdown between the two titans in their metal monstrosities feels less like an effects showpiece than it does an inevitable confrontation between two men, larger than life, and there’s only room enough for one.

In the end, Iron Man lights a fire underneath its competitors in the increasingly-stale summer-superhero genre.  Robert Downey Jr. is no tortured Bruce Wayne, no awkward Peter Parker, he’s goddamn Iron Man, in the suit and out.

Heath Ledger 1979-2008

I woke up this morning to talk with a friend about a big project I’m going to be contributing to, when my dad tells me the news.

Heath Ledger died.

For someone normally full of grandiose terms I’m at a loss.  I’ve always thought that Heath Ledger was to be one of the great talents of our time, an actor whose work would be revered long after his death, which I’m sure will still be true.  To die at such a young age, with such a career, such a talent, and such possibilities in front of you, is beyond tragic.

It would seem, perhaps, that his final role will be that of The Joker, in The Dark Knight.  I knew from the start he’d be perfect for the role, but the role is not perfect for his last.  Great actors are supposed to have their grand final shows, defining points in cinema that close the cover on massive tomes of accomplishment.  Like so many artists lost before their time, River Phoenix, Jeff Buckley, and so on, all I can feel is an emptiness in the future.  A void where this man wins oscars, moves audiences to tears, transforms into every shape and flavor of man before our eyes.  Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but the world has lost a talent today.

No, a talent was stolen from the world today.

Stolen.   And there’s no way we can steal it back.

The sane may never live, but the crazy never die.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent, and rather unfortunate trend. More and more, the disturbed and alienated youth of my generation are deciding that its better to die spectacularly than live insignificantly. From extravagant overdoses to the shitheads who go nuts with a gun, more and more of my generation is being lost to this pox. And they’re being rewarded for it.

In life, the Virginia Tech shooter (he’s already gotten too much attention, I won’t bring his name up) was largely ignored. Even his parents favored his sister over him. In his gruesome act he became immortal, as the media gave him all he ever wanted, presumably in exchange for the ratings-bait of the v-tech coverage.

Many may remember the tale of Ripper, who achieved notoriety after overdosing on his “grip of drugs” live, on the internet, his death broadcast via webcam to his moron compatriots in an IRC channel.

“i told u i was hardcore,” he said just before death.

Even I myself feel the cold, vile logic behind it. I’m a talented enough individual to achieve fame or infamy without violence, but for some reason that makes it even harder to resist the school of thought that says it is better to burn twice as bright for half as long.

I look at talented people with similarly underwhelming roots. Kevin Smith, writer and director of several movies financed his breakout film entirely on credit cards, for under $30,000. Richard Kelly, writer and director of Donnie Darko, and fellow Virginia native achieved success out of nowhere with the most ahead-of-its-time film since Blade Runner. Most recently, Diablo Cody rides a righteous pole to fame and fortune, her biting wit having been observed first on her blog.

I’m older than many of the new successes in film and comedy already. I’ve been mostly unemployed since graduating high school, and I’m headed for life-on-disability. Were I a weaker man I probably wouldn’t be around to write this right now.

That fact alone, is terrifying.