Month: February 2014

A Visual Travelogue of Chinese Food

Brent Hopkins

Good day folks, it is time for yet another non-gaming article from yours truly.

Today I want to chat about Chinese food. I am coming back from two years living in South Korea and one of the main things you miss when you live overseas is the food. South Korea has decent international cuisine and plenty of American chains like Subway, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell. That being said, there are still a ton of things you just can’t have in South Korea without spending an arm and a leg — like cold cuts and fine cheeses. I traveled a lot in my two years, so I was able to get sated on many things in countries like Japan and Taiwan which have dirt cheap imports on those kinds of goods.

The thing that I want to really focus on here is Chinese food. Chinese food is unique in that every country you visit tends to have drastically different cuisine that is considered “Chinese.” In Korea there are two or three main dishes that are considered Chinese. The stigma behind the food is much the same as it is in America, though: tasty, cheap, and not entirely healthy. That being said, the food is delicious just like in America but it is drastically different. My favorite dish happens to be jjambbong:

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Seafood and spice, so very nice!

This is a spicy seafood soup with rice noodles and lots of veggies and seafood, mainly squid octopus, and mussels. This is absolutely divine and is probably the only Korean-Chinese dish I really wish I could find in America. This will almost never happen because the seafood in America tends to be less fresh and more expensive and generally speaking spicy soup isn’t something you see, as we go for creamy and savory soups. This gets five stars, and in any country this should be on the Chinese menu.

Next we have bokumbap, which is just good old fried rice, though they do tend to throw a fried egg on top in Korea. Three stars, because honestly the plain rice in Korea is so good that this just doesn’t really hit the spot

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Great picture, but you won’t be craving this wherever you’re from.

Lastly, we have jajangmyeon or black noodles. These things look vile but actually taste pretty decent. The problem is this is the cheapest main dish you can buy and it is known for being made with old oil in less than street-legal kitchens. I personally got violent food poisoning from this dish but would recommend it nonetheless as it is very Korean-Chinese. Three stars. I dunno if I can love myself giving a higher rating to something that led to an IV drip.

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This looks a bit like alien insides. Their insides become your insides! ^_^

Hong Kong is now a part of China proper but even there the dishes are slightly different due to the heavy British influence. This is closer to the mainland of China in cuisine and you can have some amazing meals on the street in little alleyways.

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This is actually open air in an alleyway even though it looks like a shop wall.

This turned into super cheap fried noodles. The perk here is that you can choose the type of noodles and the type of meat and the lady fries it up and gives it to you to go in a matter of seconds. These noodles are delicious and were better than a lot of sit-down restaurant meals I have had.

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Look at this handsome man with his farm worth of animals in the background.

Next, I got to have some pork, goose, and duck meat in what appears to be a butchery/restaurant. This is an odd combination as you tend to want to keep the dirty work away from patrons but I say if you can’t handle seeing where it came from then you shouldn’t be eating it anyways. This meat was smoked goodness and I can’t recommend it enough. Also the price was reasonable compared to going to a place with a prep room and a closed off kitchen. Four stars. The taste and the value can’t really be beaten here.

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Had to eat the weak to get to the fish.

Last for Hong Kong I had some steamed fish, which is really hard to find in other areas of Asia. This is hands down my #1 Chinese dish and I try to have it any time the option presents itself. This thing is butter love in the esophagus. If you like fish, you will devour this whole thing’s body and crave more when you’re done. Face, fins, and inner bits are all fair game because it is just so friggin’ flavorful. I tend to understand disliking certain types of food but this is one I wouldn’t even invite a non-fish lover out for as I would feel its death was under-appreciated by the naysayer. All the stars. Seriously, there are only a few non-fish dishes I have had that can go head-to head with this.

Now, as most of the people reading this will probably be North American I am not going to go image search Chinese food since you know what is out there, but almost everyone has their favorite dish and their favorite place to go. There is nothing quite like Chinese cuisine around the world (please comment if you know any others) where the immigrants and the home nation always seem to create a fusion of dishes that would be the most appetizing within the country. I love Chinese food in every country I have had it but none of them taste or look anything alike except for having fried rice and dumplings. The one thing that is constant is just how similar it is to that country’s culture without just suddenly becoming American food or Korean food. It takes skill to be every nation’s entry into exotic dining, so props to the Chinese for making bellies happy.

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I lied these thing are so friggin good and I had to make mine in Korea to have them. Best appetizer from a Chinese place.

Image sources: General Google Image searches (first three) and the author (rest)

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Tough Questions: What Do you Keep Recommending that No One Will Believe is Good?

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Every Monday we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What Do You Keep Recommending that No One Will Believe is Good?

Rules are simple: what do you find yourself telling every person you come across to check out that no one will listen to you about? What would totally be someone’s favorite show/book/movie/Chinese food menu item that’s being overlooked?

Mike Hannemann

The thing I love that I find myself never able to convince anyone is good is the tacos at Burger King. I normally hate the guy that goes to a Mexican restaurant and orders a burger but these are LEGIT. They cost $1.19 for two and yet no one takes the chance despite my urging. They’re fried, filled with a meat-like substance, a half piece of Kraft american cheese, and a slice of lettuce, all topped with a weird taco sauce. I can’t explain why they’re amazing. I can’t explain how an airplane flies, either. I just know two things: a plane can fly and these tacos are good.

Alex Marino

I swear if you’re still using that shitty shower head that was there when you moved in you need to get rid of that shit right now. Get on Amazon and order yourself one of these. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s completely worth it. You’ve probably spent $100 on some shitty sweater you wear once every few weeks. Why not spend that on something you do every day? Instead of a shower just being that thing you do before you go to work, you actually enjoy it. You’re fucking WELCOME.

Alex Russell

The funniest thing you don’t listen to is My Brother, My Brother and Me. It’s a podcast on the Maximum Fun podcast network that’s hosted by three brothers. They answer questions from Yahoo! Answers and from people who email them their pressing questions. Want to know what to do if you think you’re in love with a goose? Need to learn to box but refuse to learn how to block? Unsure if shoplifting is really illegal? You need to listen to the brothers. I’ve suggested this to every single person I’ve met that likes comedy in the last two years. “You need to listen to this podcast” is tantamount to asking someone for both of their kidneys, but seriously check out the sampler

Austin Duck

Poetry.

Andrew Findlay

I have been asking my coworkers to watch Breaking Bad for a year and a half. To my knowledge, only one has taken me up on the offer. This is frustrating. The worst part is that a guy I work closely with kept recommending The Wire to me, and I kept recommending Breaking Bad to him. We would have arguments over which was better without us having seen an episode of the show we were putting in second place. I have since watched all 60 episodes of The Wire, and he has not watched the pilot of Breaking Bad. I’m sure everyone believes it’s good, but a disheartening number of people don’t believe it’s good enough to actually sit down and watch.

Brent Hopkins

The thing that I always recommend to other people that no one seems to think is good is a series called The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. This is a fantasy series that keeps you engaged from start to finish and has enough twists and turns to keep you in the dark until the final few pages. There is plenty of action, romance, and mystery in these books and it was one of the best things I read over the last year. I am not necessarily huge into fantasy but I found myself reading until I passed out with my Nook on my chest. I have quite a few friends I think would love it when they started it but they always come up with other things they need to do. READ THIS SERIES, SERIOUSLY!

Jonathan May

Two words: Big Love. That Bill Paxton love-bonanza had its crazy ups and downs. Even Chloë Sevigny described the fourth season (of five) as a telenovela. But fuck if I didn’t cry consistently during the last episode. This show, as Stefon from Saturday Night Live would say, has everything: polygamy, Jeanne Tripplehorn, home goods superstores, Memphian Ginnifer Goodwin, Indian casinos, conversations with God, running for State office, and polygamy (you have to say it at least twice). But no one, besides me and my friend Kyle, seems to have given this gem the time of day. It’s only five seasons, people. I get that polygamy and Mormonism are “sensitive” topics, but the character arcs you experience are incredible. I was blown away by how the women ended up. Utterly blown away. So watch it.

Why We Watch Community

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Jonathan May

Community is one of those shows you inhabit in your dreams. I’ve gone to bed a night or two, only to end up being a part of the wacky, lovable study group’s japes. What I think brings me, and others, to this place most often is the show’s use of linguistic repetitions. The reinforcement of each character’s linguistic neuroses and their collective verbal neuroses add to the believability of the show (one of the grandest attempts of television). Think of the many utterances of “Doi!” or the Dean’s multitudinous and eponymous puns. Think of the many insults belted back at Leonard, the group’s old-ass, background naysayer. Troy and Abed’s many shared phrases. Abed, for whom everything is meta, even subtly acknowledges the level and power of repetition in the show every time he says, “Cool. Cool cool cool.”

To state and restate is the show’s power, like a sonnet unfolding over 25 minutes. The core of the show resembles that of a sonnet as well; the lines build on each other, according to the “rhyme scheme” (thematic topic) of the episode. Everything ends in a final couplet: lines of moral epiphany normally delivered by Jeff, our not-always-so-humble protagonist. Sonnets, among other strict metrical forms, work out of repetition of sounds; so too does a show like Community. Using individual phrases as units of expression (read: “feet”), the show leads to a moral ending, accreting from the different lines of our seven main characters a Gestalt. For a show built around an inherent timetable (community college degree completion) and structure (“#sixseasonsandamovie”), there’s a whole lot of circling, repetition, and discursiveness. What does this say about us, about students, about the modern college experience? That we too, in our headlong course for straightforwardness and completion, fail miserably? That we cannot escape the velocity of our own repetitions?

Maybe that’s not a bad thing. We, like the show, refine ourselves through repeating stories from our lives that define us; with each utterance, we either fall further into parody or resolve ourselves further in unity of character. The show does a great job of taking this chance each episode, using familiar phrases and tropes in an attempt to always be further resolved, rather than further caricatured. As the show moves into its fifth season, with Dan Harmon again at the helm, we’ll see, with the loss of Pierce and Troy, if the show can sustain itself with its remaining familiars. We’ll see if it can circle back around to a further incarnation.

Image source: CNN

Space Dandy Needs Women: Anime’s Feminism Problem

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Alex Russell

When I first talked about Space Dandy a month and a half ago, I praised the animation and commented on how odd it was to see the New York Times commenting on it. I mentioned that it really needed to learn how to balance the absurd humor of parody and the interesting nature of a universe worth exploring. It’s now seven episodes in, and so now I feel more comfortable evaluating what Space Dandy is rather than what it could be.

The show is broadcast in the United States and Japan on the same day, which allows for the US broadcast to proclaim that you’re watching the “world premiere” of every episode. It’s definitely a unique show in that regard, and the narrative elements of the show prove why they took that risk on this show.

A traditional anime series is 26 episodes long per season, with a lot of shows only getting that one season. Since not every story merits a 13-hour uninterrupted telling, one of the big tropes of anime is the “filler” episode. You meet everyone for 11 episodes and then everyone goes to the beach, or rides a train, or visits a friend in a far-away land. It’s either that or a recap show (imagine if every single sitcom had a clip show, whether they had the history to pull clips or not) and the “filler” episode is just an accepted part of the genre.

There’s no “filler” on Space Dandy, because every episode is equally unimportant. On a normal show those episodes can help explain characters by taking them away from a grinding story and forcing them to develop without advancing the plot. Space Dandy is absolutely not interested in growth, so no need to worry about getting too deep in the story to examine everyone. Everything is one plot and nothing carries over from episode to episode enough to bother with characters.

Or does it? The most compelling part of the show is the loose continuity. In one episode they surf away through space on lava coming from an exploding world. The next episode opens on a throwaway line about surfing, and then they’re done discussing it. It leads instantly into a Wacky Racers parody. It is forgotten, because it doesn’t matter.

It is easy to use this decreased emphasis on character to explain the problem with what Space Dandy is not: a reasoned discussion of the role of sex and gender in anime. Space Dandy is built to make fun of every single thing traditional anime does — right down to the hapless bad guy that doesn’t even seem to be trying very hard to catch the good guy — but it handles women so poorly that it’s tough to tell if it’s failing at the joke or legitimately doing a bad job with the topic.

There is an aggressive dedication to parody in this show. The lava-surf-riding episode ends with a nonsensical song about what happens after the end of forever. It’s impossible not to see this as a send-up of some of the more fantastical elements of animation. They nail this so hard that anyone who recognizes the joke will love it. Why can’t they also spoof anime’s gender problems that well without adding to them?

Space Dandy the show is about Space Dandy the character hunting aliens down to register them in order to make money. His crew is a genderless robot (voiced by a female, but the gender never matters in the show) and a cat whose gender is established but never really matters. Lest I be labelled as looking for a problem here, let’s look at the only thing that happens in every single episode of Space Dandy: he tries to find the closest Hooters-clone restaurant.

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Honey, essentially the only female on the show, is in every restaurant. After 3.5 hours of the show she still does not have any real character elements; she’s mostly played as a pleasant-but-simple person who likes that Space Dandy keeps coming to the restaurant. Her outfit is absurd. She’s a waitress at outer space Hooters. Use your imagination, not your Google.

The argument here is if it is “joking” with the ultra-masculine pompadoured-Dandy and his approach to women. At a certain point, does it matter? Sure, naming the restaurant “Boobies” shows that you’re trying to be a little sly with the attitude towards it, but if you keep going back to it what does it matter what the intent is?

Other than Honey, who has absolutely no character to speak of, the only time the show has dealt with gender at all is in the episode “A Merry Companion is a Wagon in Space, Baby.” Dandy meets an alien that he can make a buck off, but the little girl has the power to turn someone into a stuffed doll once a day. The plot of the episode works as a “journey” while the two have to learn to get along on the way, but the slow development of the little girl as a character that matters feels glacial. She finally earns Dandy’s respect as a peer, but it is entirely dashed when it comes out that she just wants to grow up and “hang out” with Dandy. After working so hard to develop a character — a rare attempt for the show — they finally decide she is only valuable as she relates to the male protagonist.

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Space Dandy the show is rarely about anything other than the absurdity of Space Dandy the guy and how much he wants to find some women, but that lens is no excuse for the way this show excludes half of the world. The creators of Grand Theft Auto 5 went on the record saying that their game features three playable male characters and no female characters because “the concept of being masculine was so central to this story.” People didn’t buy that and people shouldn’t buy this. Anime has plenty of powerful women, but it’s largely a space occupied only by women defined as sexual objects. If Space Dandy wants to mock the genre, it would honestly have to get even more absurd to handle the topic this way. As is, it comes off a lot like GTA 5: part of the thing that it’s supposedly making fun of.

There’s a lot to like about the animation and narrative risk to Space Dandy, but the world is hollow because it’s half empty. It’s a phenomenal show because of what it lampoons and the success with which it does so, but it’s hard to imagine this show couldn’t take down the sacred cow of anime: the limited role of women. Hopefully, it will. It might want to start with itself.

Image source: Space Dandy wiki

What is Poetry and Why Do We Care?

Austin Duck

“What is poetry” is a question I’m asked a lot and one that I can’t answer. In fact, everywhere I go, every job interview I have, every time someone asks “what’s your degree in,” they follow up with some permutation of that question. You see, I’ve got a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry (along with a few other useless degrees) and, expectedly, I’m constantly bouncing between jobs, looking for the next big thing which requires near-constant explanation of how I got here and why I made the choices I did. And my god, you should see the looks on their faces (unless someone in their family too has made this… choice) when I start stammering and trying to explain myself: pity, embarrassment, amusement that an adult would proudly (sort of) admit that he spent years (YEARS) reading poems, writing about poems, and, most questionably (because academia and the idea of a PhD still hold some cultural capital) learning to write them himself… It’s a dark time to be a poet (though I suspect that, outside of Eastern Europe [where poets are celebrated] it probably always has been).

Not everyone, though, is totally unreceptive to the choice of poetry. For some, poetry still holds its place as a kind of epicenter for literary bad-boy-ness (after all, poets work in shorter bursts of clarity and don’t require the same kind of discipline as someone writing something long-form that is either narratively or argumentatively coherent): hard drinkers, sexers (is that a thing?), druggers and live-r’s that occupy that very thin line between intellectual and indigent, the Jim Morrisons of the not-quite-so-fucking-stupid, the arty guy or gal who, even though they manage social media and blogging at a major corporation (guilty), still has a deeply mysterious and deeply sexual wilderness in their heart.

For others, poetry itself has a kind of heroic capital. It allows one to project the image of hyper intelligence (just look at the number of poets who win MacArthur genius grants and you’ll see that poetry and physics seem to fish from the same pond) and a kind of bohemian “casting off” of economics, of choosing to pursue “art” when really you should have gone into investment banking but this makes you more pure. It sounds fucking stupid, doesn’t it? It is.

The trouble, for me, of people believing these myths—of the poetic bad boy and/or the self-sacrificing genius—is that it creates a cultural expectation of the “poet” as a thing to which young, narcissistic, self-righteous fucking losers (guilty) flock to prove themselves the next Rilke, the next wild Jack Gilbert, the next (ugh) Charles Bukowski, and, in doing so, they build a scene. They themselves (with all of their ideas) create an idea of poetry, promulgate a notion of poetry as sexy or smart, and, in doing so, recreate the culture of poetry.

However, that’s not to say that I’m here to bemoan it; to believe that the state of anything isn’t in flux is naive and prescriptive and hey, I forgot to put on underwear this morning so I’m probably not the best person to make a totalizing statement what is right or wrong for poetry as a whole. I say it’s a trouble for me because it so deeply complicates what poetry is, really. If I had to give a totally uninformative (but accurate) definition, I might say that it’s the silently agreed-upon, written production of a continuously changing group of half-educated, half-myth-drunk twenty-somethings with progressively more impressive resumes continuously reinventing something so fundamental to humans that it existed before God. But that wouldn’t be entirely right.

Sure, that’s the bottom of the scene right now (if you want to think about it hierarchically), but it tells nothing about the multitudes of unpaid apprenticeships with those “living masters”—old people writing poetry who their peer-group agrees is writing the best poetry—of the unpaid publications used to build reputations used to leverage shitty-paying jobs so that one day you and your group can sit among the “living masters” all while under the cold scrutiny of critics who constantly remind you that there are dead masters too, that you’ll never approach them, because history, because craft, because they didn’t get paid to watch Twitter for 8 hours a day while wishing for a different life.

And even that isn’t exactly right when you consider the fact that poetry, for all of its shared resources, doesn’t have a single, unified community; there are groups upon groups, each with slightly different aesthetic- and philosophical-projects, and then there are those who aren’t, exactly, part of groups, who have participated—to some degree—in various groups and projects, have gone through various apprenticeships (or not), who read books that are recommended by friends, or old colleagues, or whose covers and back-blurbs and first poems look appealing at a bookstore (though this is becoming less and less an option) and each one of these people, each one of these groups, is making a case -through-example of what poetry is, can be, does, or (sometimes) what it really shouldn’t do.

So what is poetry (or, really, more accurately, what is American poetry [because each culture has its own organic process for bringing up poets, its own poetics, etc.])? I don’t know. I used to ask my students this question on their final exams just to see their faces fill with terror like mine does each time I’m asked. When asked this question, I usually answer with something along the lines of:

an empathy machine, a text that appears to be written in lines but which actually is a dramatic rendering of a scene, no matter how brief, when the speaker of the poem (usually the “I”) interacts with a specific problem, usually in the realms of nature, language, memory, or culture, outside the self and, in that interaction, is changed, though it’s not enough to tell the reader that the speaker has changed, the mechanics have to be there, the change has to be structural, linguistic, imagistic (made with images), sonic (made with sound), so that, by the end of the poem the audience has had the same experience, their very brain has processed the same images presented in the same way, heard the same sounds, stumbled over the same sentence constructions, and thought the same sentences in the same order so that the speaker and the audience are, for a second, the same person, the other, so that the reader is not confirmed in their own experience but is instead forced into a new one, understanding, yes, both intellectually and emotionally, thinking and feeling as another person. Oh and did I mention that poems “should” almost never go where you think they’re going, that they contain surprise for the reader, the writer, there must be a ghost you didn’t know come to inhabit the body you’re only starting to get a sense that you’re looking at?

I do tend to get sort of breathless (even in writing, apparently) when writing about “what poetry is” because imagine that last paragraph taking place in a single instant; imagine that you were able to achieve what I’ve just described (either as a writer or a reader) and now think about the community differences I’ve described above. To say specifically “what poetry is” is impossible and even to say what it should do is pretty dubious.

In the end, my take on it (above) will yield a pretty classical American/English poem (or, at least, I think that it will), but won’t account for more than 5% of what’s been produced, what you will search through—line by line for some organizing pattern (because poetry is fundamentally [and equally unhelpfully] patterned language).

So why do it at all (reading or writing)? Aside from the fact that some people will think you’re a sexy genius and others will bathe you with counter-cultural social capital, why?

Fundamentally, the interaction of poetry will get you closer to another person’s mind, more fully engaged in empathy, understanding, learning, compassion, joy, sadness, recognition, than literally anything else on the planet. Music for your ears, visual arts for your eyes, writing, particularly poetry which is so often concerned with the instantaneous, the momentous, for wherever your mind and your humanity mix.

For more equally incomprehensible definitions of poetry, go here.

Image source: The Guardian

On Hate-Watching Girls

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Jonathan May

I must admit that I love to hate-watch shows. I don’t apologize for it. Many people love to hate things all of the time: other people, their Facebook pages, movies everyone loves, Republicans. So I claim Girls as my love-to-hate show. Besides the obviousness of it, that these are girls you are supposed to not-like, the show offers little in terms of episode-to-episode flow, the most appalling examples of which fall in the most recent and unfolding season (Adam’s sister, anyone?). For the first two seasons, I also held the show to be a comedy, which it fails at disastrously. The only funny moments involve Shoshanna, a character rendered tangential by her lack of “worldliness”—a quality which Lena Dunham and her ilk hold highest.

The problem with this is that these girls, apart from Jessa (sometimes), live out their petty dramas in the TV-bubble of New York City. Unlike Sex and the City, however, this works against the girls, casting them as Jenny-come-lately poseurs in a city that Carrie and crew embraced full and well years ago. This is more than just a problem of looking at two groups of women in completely different points in their lives/careers; as a result of hipster influx into Brooklyn (among myriad other U.S. locales), these girls don’t even recognize their status as interlopers, which is the root cause of their unhappiness. Marnie spends a lot of time alone; she has no friends because she has chosen to move to a city where sacrifice could mean something greater, but often doesn’t. Hannah never escapes her insular world made up of Adam and the occasional friend and the writing she is literally never doing. Each of the Girls revolves in a world populated by just a few.

Now, back to the hate-watching. I hate-watch Girls not only because I can and am free to, but also because I hate-read a few hundred romance novels when I worked at a used bookstore over the course of nine years. Girls’ formula is unfortunately so formulaic as to be laughable; it follows the exact arc of most good romances, which is lucky because the show fails as a drama and a comedy. So, why is everyone, myself included, obsessed with this new brand of romance? What does it offer? Well, I hate-but-don’t-hate to burst your bubble, but the show offers nothing besides pure romantic entertainment. There are no higher messages or coded morals; there are no expressions of the Zeitgeist or proclamations of culture. We have ripped tank tops and party dresses; we have unanswered texts. What we have is romance, and all proper romances end in marriage. So I guess we’ll see if Girls fails in that regard as well.

Image source: Grantland

Worst Best Picture: Is No Country for Old Men Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 2007 winner No Country for Old Men. Is it better than Crash?

No Country for Old Men is about having agency taken away from you and what you do without it. Javier Bardem earned the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in it for playing a madman who was more force of nature than person. Bardem’s character is chilling and is definitely the best part of the movie, but he’s also a representation of the movie’s “point.” Death is coming for all of us, and we’re probably not going to get much of a say in the matter when it comes right down to it.

No Country wants you to feel hopeless. It’s all about drug money and hired killers, but it’s really about just moving. Tommy Lee Jones wants to clean up the desert but knows that it’s not so much a goal as it is just some loose hope. He knows he can’t actually stop a killer, but he also knows that as America’s favorite grizzled sheriff, he has to try.

It’s difficult to explain No Country, but the best place to start is with the year that it won. 2007 is the year that Lars and the Real Girl, Ratatouille, and Juno all came out. It’s an odd year full of some interesting experiences, but 2007 boils down to one question: No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood?

They are tied together because they’re both dark and loud and intense. Even though they aren’t necessarily similar in a lot of ways, people connect them to the degree that a lot of people are never sure which of the two won this Oscar. That’s sacrilege to No Country fans — it’s arguable that there’s no Best Picture winner that’s as revered in the last 20 years — but you need to deal with one when you deal with the other.

There Will Be Blood is the story of an oil tycoon trying to increase his wealth and influence. Everyone always calls it “intense” and that is the absolute only word for it. I rewatched it for the first time in a few years recently and I felt nervous the entire time. It is a masterstroke of a movie but it will cost you days off your life.

No Country is less about trying to hit you with a sledgehammer over and over and more about making you wonder if anyone in the movie ever had any other choice. It’s tough to spoil and I’ll try my best not to, but No Country sees a lot of bad things happen to some good people.

Tension plays a role, though. Watch this five minute clip:

Javier Bardem’s madman offers the gas station guy a coin flip for his life. You don’t need the surrounding elements of the movie. You don’t need the thread that goes through everything, because all you need to do is watch Javier Bardem just be cold as all hell. That’s essentially the entire movie. Javier Bardem shows up and ruins someone’s day. You don’t want to run into that bowl cut.

Whenever I talk about No Country I am concerned that I am shortchanging it. I don’t like it as much as There Will Be Blood but I don’t think it ever had a chance. Daniel Day-Lewis gives what may be the best performance of my lifetime. It’s hard to compare anything to it. He makes you afraid, not in the way you’re afraid of a person with a gun (and a coin, in this case) but in the way that you are afraid that there’s too much Daniel Day-Lewis in you. You’re worried that you are the monster, and if that’s true then it’s not about evolution. It’s about inevitability.

No Country deals with that inevitability. If you find a bag of money then you probably are already dead. It doesn’t matter if you take it or not, so you may as well take it. The movie wants us to consider if our choices matter or if we’re just living out a story that’s already told for us. That can be a bit of a drag to consider, and No Country is a much sadder movie in that light than even all the murderin’ makes it seem.

Then, after forcing the audience to consider everything, it blinks out. The end is abrupt, maybe more abrupt than any ending I can come up with. All of the loose ends are tied and everything that needs to happen has happened, but it still ends almost mid-sentence. I don’t like it, myself, but I get what they’re doing. I like the idea of thinking about life as a play that we’re acting in rather than a series of events that we drive and control, but I don’t need the ending here. Maybe that’s because the ending isn’t a literal death but a death of idea, and no one likes to watch an idea die. Or maybe it’s because it’s just not my kind of ending.

People will talk about “what it means” or anything ambiguous forever. I will say that No Country always makes me think about its ending, even if I kinda hate it. The opposite of love is not hate but indifference, and I am definitely not indifferent to this movie.

The Best Part: Javier Bardem, who blows the doors off every scene he’s in. His delivery of “friendo” alone is chilling, and he does a hellva lot more than talk in this movie.

The Worst Part: Ending. It’s an important way to end, but there’s a really fantastic scene with Tommy Lee Jones about 10 minutes before the ending. I like that one fine. It’s not a complaint about quality so much as my disagreement with it, I suppose.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Crash is like No Country for Old Men because it is also the story of how coincidence drives interesting run-ins. No Country wraps coincidence in a larger question about if actions and intentions matter. Crash wraps them in a scene where a guy gets into an armed standoff with the cops because he feels like he’s been disrespected at home. The difference (other than the obvious one) is that No Country believes something, even though that something is nothing at all. Crash doesn’t even believe in nothing.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment |

 Image credit: IMDB

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

Andrew Findlay

The Dispossessed is a perfect novel. It is great not just because of plot, characterization, or prose, but because Ursula K. Le Guin structured it in a way that makes it almost an architectural marvel. The general plot is fairly basic – in the Tau Ceti system, there is a binary planet – a system in which two planets orbit each other. The original world, Urras, lush, green, and rich, is at the mercy of a massive revolution led by a woman named Odo. To defuse the situation, the government makes a deal with these Odonians to send them to Anarres, the other world. The revolutionaries take the deal, even though Anarres is basically a planetary desert. The story opens a couple of centuries later, when a famous Anarresti physicist, Shevek, is invited to Urras to help work on a mathematical equation which would enable faster-than-light travel. He heads to Urras on a journey that will finally unite his people and make life better for everyone, the end. Except Le Guin puts it together in a way that makes it so much more complicated and rewarding.

Science fiction is a spectacular vehicle for social critique, as it can either propose worlds and social constructs that have never existed and show how much better they are than what we have, or mirror and exaggerate the systems we currently live by in order to scrutinize the problems inherent in them. The Dispossessed accomplishes the latter. The binary planetary system does more than separate an Earth-standard planet from a worldwide desert, it separates a world of capitalists from a world of anarcho-syndicalists. Shevek, the protagonist, comes from Anarres, the anarchist moon. He is raised in a society where there is no such thing as wages, where if someone needs something they just go and pick it up at the village dispensary, where room and board is free and people can do or not do mostly what they want, except for work necessary to support society (farming, sewage treatment, construction) that all members do in short rotations. This society stands in sharp contrast with that of Urras, which is propertarian, patriarchal, and filled with nationalist conflict. It is a stand-in for 1970s Earth, complete with a world-dominant continent-wide capitalist country (A-Io) and a nation with a massively centralized and authoritarian government resulting from a workers’ revolution (Thu). A lesser author would have used the moon dichotomy to demonstrate how evil and backwards the Earth stand-in is. Le Guin is not a lesser author. Her exploration of the contrast between the two worlds is complex and subtle for two reasons. One is that the anarchist from Anarres who visits Urras, Shevek, is not the righteous voice of morality, come to indict a degenerate culture. While some parts of Urrasti society do disturb him, he mostly just does not understand it. When he is shown into his private quarters on Urras, they are so big he assumes he is to share it with three or four other people. His mind is blown by the amount of water wasted when he flushes the toilet. When he asks his scientist companions on Urras why there are no women scientists, they answer with a lot of claptrap about differences between the genders, the purity of women, and the intellectual superiority of men. In one of my favorite tongue-in-cheek exchanges in all of literature, Shevek explains how things are on Anarres:

“You Odonians let women study science?” Oiie inquired.

“Well, there are many in the sciences, yes.” [Shevek responds]

“Not many, I hope.”

“Well, about half.”

This simple exchange highlights the absolute gulf of understanding between the two societies – Shevek cannot see why you would waste half of the human race, while his companions are horrified at anything that challenges male primacy.

Go fuck yourself, Urras. Love, Mme Curie.

The second reason the story is subtle and complex is that, although people try to be equal above all on Anarres, and people try to extend their own power and make money above all on Urras, Le Guin does not set up an all good/all bad dynamic. When Shevek first sees the open, green fields of Urras, he is taken aback by how beautiful everything is. When he sees their workers, he is surprised at the ingenuity, drive and desire that they exhibit – to him, any work done simply for money is inherently debasing and demoralizing, so he cannot reconcile the quality and effectiveness of Urrasti work with what he has been taught his entire life. On the other side of things, the completely egalitarian society of Anarres is not without flaw. It becomes clear as the story progresses that there is something not quite right. Power has a tendency to cohere, thicken, and spread. While nearly everything on Anarres is decentralized, no society can work without some type of organizing force. This force on Anarres, the PDC, is responsible for inventory, personnel, and communication worldwide. It started out as just a coordinating body, but its members have won themselves a type of personal power. For example, if a scientist wants to publish a paper that the PDC does not agree with, it will not get published. Someone of whom they disapprove might have trouble finding a job that matches his or her skill set. A math teacher could end up being assigned to dig ditches every single work rotation instead of receiving a teaching post. Anarres is still held up as a “better” society, as some true atrocities are committed on Urras, but the flaws in the “good” example and the beauty in the “bad” example serve to show that nothing is ever perfect, and nothing is ever all one thing or the other. The answer is just never that simple.

Unless the question is “Is Hoobastank a good band?”

Most well-known science fiction is a normal story that simply happens to take place in a universe where technology is extremely advanced. Star Wars: A New Hope could easily have taken place in a much less advanced society with just a few plot changes. Some Star Trek episodes deal specifically with problems that come from advanced technology, but many are simple shoot-em-ups where the cowboys have absurdly complex toys. What is glorious about The Dispossessed as a science fiction novel is that science is at its core. The entire motivation for the Urrasti to receive Shevek on their planet is because he is the most brilliant physicist of the century. He is on the cusp of working out the General Temporal Theory, which would enable instantaneous travel over interstellar distances. Propertarians that they are, the Urrasti invite Shevek to their world so that they can own the completed equation. What exactly does the equation accomplish?

The General Temporal Theory, if completed, would unite two seemingly contradictory theories of time. In the novel, sequency physicists believe time occurs linearly, in discrete bits, one right after the other. Simultaneity physicists believe everything is happening all at the same time. There is stiff disagreement between the two camps, but Shevek, the brilliant scientist, believes the theories can be unified. If everything is happening all at the same time, and the sequence of step-by-step time that we perceive can be linked to simultaneity, then there is no obstacle to having a ship wink out of existence in one time and place and wink back into existence wherever its captain wants to take her, as everything is happening at the same time anyway. This represents a huge source of power and profit to the Urrasti scientists.

We are gonna monetize the shit out of this.

This equation does more than just drive the main action of the book. The entire structure and thematic development of the novel mirror it. Thematically, the book addresses problems created by false division and limns the benefits of unity. Capitalism and anarchism, Urras and Anarres, the self and the group: all of these things suffer from being pulled apart and considered absolute opposites. Structurally, the book jumps backwards and forwards in time, with the odd chapters starting with Shevek’s arrival on Urras, and the even chapters starting with his childhood on Anarres. The even chapters trace his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood on Anarres, and the odd chapters cover his adventures on Urras. The chapters saw back and forth until the last even chapter is Shevek and his wife discussing a possible trip to Urras, and the last odd chapter is Shevek returning home from Urras. The chapter design itself leads to unity between the sequency and simultaneity of time.

Le Guin pulls so much off with this book. She crafts a novel that shows all the true subtlety and real problems of moral governance. She organizes it so that science is not just its setting, but its main driving force, absolutely essential to the plot and theme of the book itself. The science fiction here is not laser guns and biological horrors, but clear, cold math alongside a profound exploration of the impact of that math on the societal underpinnings of two civilizations. Le Guin refuses easy divisions and classifications, she refuses simple morals, and she refuses easy answers. It is something for which all science fiction writers, and all writers in general, should strive.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Apartment Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1960 winner The Apartment. Is it better than Crash?

Comedies don’t win Best Picture. Seriously, look at the list. Scroll through the last 30 or so. The Hurt Locker. Schindler’s List. No Country for Old Men. I mean, Gladiator definitely is funny at times, but I wouldn’t say the people behind it were making a comedy.

That’s what makes The Apartment so strange. It’s a Jack Lemmon movie and it is very clearly just a “vehicle” for his comedy. He plays sick and stuffs Kleenex in every pocket he has. He frantically flips a Rolodex and uses the 1960s version of a phone tree. He does everything but full-on pratfall to sell how funny he is in the first half hour and it works, it works, it works.

You first recognize that there’s something special about this movie through Jack Lemmon himself. He’s playing C.C. Baxter, the put-upon drone at Company X. Baxter wants to get promoted on his merits, but he’s figured out that middle management would rather screw secretaries in his isolated apartment than look at his figures. Thus, the game is on.

Baxter doesn’t condone anyone’s illicit activities — the movie has a couple of obvious, untouched asides where he openly condemns adultery — but he wants this job and it’s hard to say no. He’s only rewarded once their boss catches wind and decides to use the company retreat for himself. The trouble (well, rest of the trouble)? The head honcho’s girl is the one Baxter is in love with. The boss won’t leave his wife for her and she won’t love Baxter because she’s torn up over the boss. What’s a guy to do?

There have only been two black-and-white movies to win Best Picture since The Apartment. There are only two in those more than five decades: Schindler’s List and The Artist. As the last true black-and-white Best Picture from the days where it wasn’t an aesthetic choice, you’d expect the movie to be dated. The comedy suffers more than the universal theme.

The tricky part about comedy is always that it becomes dated. That’s just the reality of the genre. At one point a character says, angrily, “Live now, pay later! Diners Club!” It’s pretty clearly a slogan of the time, but it solidifies The Apartment in 1960. One of the main characters is an elevator operator, but what locks the movie in another era is that weird Diners Club line and a handful of others like it.

Does that matter? No, not as much as it could. It’s easy to see how that line works in context. It’s easy to guess at what a shrieking woman ordering a Rum Collins in a terrible bar is supposed to represent. It’s simple enough to forgive these little steps away from what we know to enjoy the line “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.”

It’s a comedy, but it’s weirdly dour. Baxter takes it hard when he realizes that the cost of getting the promotion means he can’t be taken seriously at work, but no one takes anything harder than the poor elevator operator. After just about an hour of mostly comedy and setup, she downs some sleeping pills and tries to kill herself in Baxter’s apartment. It has to happen to drive the plot and the movie eventually does a good job of supporting this as a choice her love-muddled mind makes, but it’s such a sharp tonal shift.

Later in the movie Baxter tells the story of when he tried to kill himself with a gun because he was torn up about love, but he says he shot himself in the knee. He’s nursing someone who recently attempted suicide back to some semblance of health and he doesn’t know what to say. It’s the kind of real, sad gesture that we all hope we would make to try to help in some way. It’s not perfect, but it’s human.

The movie slowly works backwards from the suicide attempt to explain what makes the character tick, but it never really gets there. It’s easy to blame the 1960 release date on why Shirley MacLaine’s character doesn’t get any agency or reason to live outside of the powerful married man she loves, but a movie willing to deal with the reality of suicide this directly should be able to sustain a more rational and powerful female lead. The role earned MacLaine a Best Actress nomination and she absolutely plays it well, but it is hard to watch the movie in 2014 and not want to pull her into the future, where women in movies are allowed to matter. This movie needs the Bechdel test badly.

There are modern complaints to lob at the 1960 winner for Best Picture, but it’s a phenomenal movie. Jack Lemmon gives what I’d normally call a once-in-a-lifetime performance, but most people don’t get to have Jack Lemmon’s lifetime.

I really tried to find a way to compare this to Crash, but I just don’t see anything they have in common. The 1960 Best Picture The Apartment is about as respectful of women as the 2005 Best Picture Crash, I suppose. It’s just that one of them is a sad reminder of a “simpler” time and the other is from the 1960s.

The Best Part: Sick Jack Lemmon, clearly. Through the first 20 minutes of the film Jack Lemmon’s character is sick, designed to show the physical toll that not having his own apartment is having on him. His sick antics are the same as watching an experienced actor play a convincing drunk — but sick is harder. You feel pity for him and it sets up the entire movie. Bonus: It clearly draws the line of good and evil. Only good guys get colds.

The Worst Part: Tone, tone, tone! Of course Shirley MacLaine has to take the sleeping pills because otherwise this is the story of how bad things all work out for bad people. That’s no story, so she’s gotta try to go into that good night. The suicide attempt isn’t the problem, it’s how wacky the movie treats it.  Honorable mention to MacLaine’s brother-in-law’s character, who seems like he was a “Greedo-shot-first” level of afterthought. He may as well be screaming “Why I oughta!” instead of delivering lines.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The Apartment is about if it is more important to care about work or about love, at the most basic level. The two are often difficult to balance (see: Mad Men, all culture forever, etc) but rarely are they so at odds. This is a movie about an age-old theme that manages to put an interesting spin on it. It’s relatable and unique. It feels real, even in the most slapsticky parts. Crash offers no one of any substance and is more needlessly morbid than a movie with a 45-minute suicide comedy arc. It would be tough, even if that were the assignment, to do that.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve |

 Image credit: IMDB

Reasons to Get Involved with the Winter Olympics

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Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips is our sports guy. He took issue with my (Alex Russell)’s opinion that the Olympics aren’t as interesting as we’re being told they are. You might say he took many issues. The following is his reasoned response.

As we roll along in week one of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, I’m continually puzzled by the lack of interest from friends and colleagues as one of the greatest sporting events in the world goes on. We’re past all the bullshit about the underdeveloped Olympic Village — and town of Sochi — and the games have finally begun. Bob Costas even took a day off to rest his eye and keep it away from Russian water. (Sidenote: If the Russians somehow hurt Bob Costas, this is grounds to potentially re-ignite the Cold War. Costas is a fucking American treasure.) But the games themselves? I feel like I have nobody to talk to them about. And I’m confused why… I hear a few gripes about the Olympics — mainly Winter — about them being boring, or lacking name recognition, etc. I hate these arguments. If you like sports, you should like the Olympics. Here’s why:

The “name-recognition” argument: This is an argument that I hear a lot in regards to the Olympics. It usually breaks down in some capacity to, “I can’t name more than five people in the Olympics,” or snarky, asshole detractors will challenge someone with that same line of reasoning: “Name five people in the Olympics. Go ahead. Do it.” [Editor’s note: he means me, and honestly, I still don’t think people can. I also asked for six, but I don’t think five is possible either.] You don’t need to name people to have a rooting interest because you can use the names of countries. You did watch Carmen Sandiego as a kid and can name more than a handful of participating nations, right? There you go, rooting interest done. If you love America, root for the American. Learn about someone from a state you never think about and root for the fuck out of them while enjoying a beer at the bar. Root against those “terrorist countries” you believe we’re facing until you’re blue in the face. It isn’t difficult to figure out. And if you can’t get into rooting for countries? Gamble on that shit. Drinking games; money; push-ups; dinners. Gambling is for everyone now. It’s American. Kids gamble. Your grandparents play bingo. Do it. The “I don’t know the sports” argument: Bobsled, luge, skeleton and skiing are all ridiculously exciting to watch and involve a person that could get catastrophically injured in one wrong turn. No, this isn’t the NASCAR argument to watch for the sake of the crash. But when a human being is moving 60-80 miles per hour on snow and ice it’s pretty incredible. If you live in Chicago like I do — well, shit, seemingly everywhere this winter got snow — you’ve experienced snowfall and realize how it slows everything down. Well, now, imagine crazy people flying down steep and dangerous courses of snow and ice. How is that NOT exciting? It’s not like they show this every week, either. It’s once every four years and it’s pretty damn entertaining to watch after a few beers. That doesn’t even include all of your friends that recently got into hockey because the Blackhawks got good again being really into the hockey portion of the games. And speed skating? C’mon, you’ve been to an ice or a roller rink and tried to race your friends while knocking over the uncoordinated kids. This is the same shit, but on a global scale for millions of endorsement dollars. Apolo Ohno eats Subway every fucking day now. For free. Show some respect. \

The “there isn’t any black people” argument”: Yeah, I really have nothing for this one… Chance to watch white people celebrate and dance regularly, which is funny for all races? That’s all I got.

The “I’m at work argument”: I get it, you like to watch live and many of the events are on during the work day. But you aren’t a writer and can’t sit around doing nothing, watching the Olympics all day like I can. You have a 9-5. Then figure it out! American ingenuity! You have sick days, vacation days and work-from-home leeway. You have the Internet at work and on your phone. If you’re a teacher, show that shit to your students. Make it educational. The “globalization of something-or-other.” Done; lesson planned for two weeks. Kids will love it. Well, there you have it, folks. Tons of reasons to get involved with the Winter Olympics. They’re gone before you know it and you shouldn’t miss them.

Image source: AP