Month: February 2014

Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Movie that You Love?

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

What’s the Worst Movie that You Love?

Rules are simple: “worst” means the one the critics hated the most. We’re using Rotten Tomatoes for critics, and we want to know your great shame. What’s that one movie that you love and defend constantly? What is your guilty pleasure that really ain’t so guilty in your eyes?

Austin Duck

Unfortunately, I’m not really a movie guy. I used to be, but my wife’s not that into them, so I don’t see new movies very often. My favorite bad movie is easily Pacific Rim. Now, I know it was a steaming pile of crap, but it was one of the most exceptional dumps I’ve ever seen. Watching a movie like that, you can so clearly see directorial intention, it’s exciting. You see a man who, known for quality and intelligence in film, tries to make the perfect dinosaurs vs. robots movie. And he does. There’s not one saccharine-y second wasted in that movie; from the building of the universe, the establishment of the problem, the execution, it’s perfectly articulated. And while a lot of people trash it for failing to transcend its genre, I disagree. Well, I don’t disagree that it didn’t transcend its genre, but I don’t think it was about that. It perfected the genre and, as such, created a work from which the Syfy network might never recover.

Rotten Tomatoes: 71% (!)

Mike Hannemann

It was a December night. I was at a Target. Not one close to home – it was one by my office in Naperville, IL. It should be noted that this was a good hour’s drive on the highway away from my apartment on the south side of Chicago. I saw a DVD for a movie I had never seen before. I purchased it immediately and I will never be able to explain my reasoning. It sat on my DVD shelf for about two weeks. I never gave it a second thought, let alone expressed any desire to watch it. Christmas came and went, and I found myself alone in my apartment Christmas night with a bottle of Scotch. This was the only time I ever watched Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But it was glorious.

Rotten Tomatoes: 33%

Alex Marino

If you’re not down with Hook you can go to hell. Dustin Hoffman puts on one of the greatest villain performances of all time. There’s no green screen or camera tricks, just elaborate sets and memorable moments. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been drunk at a bar and have awkwardly quoted this movie only to have no one recognize it. It’s basically the perfect movie when you’re 14. So all the 14-year-olds out there reading this should really see it.

Rotten Tomatoes: 31%

Alex Russell

There’s only one answer to this: Pootie Tang. This movie is misunderstood. If you really read about people’s response to this movie they are furious about it. It’s a weird homage of a movie made out of love for a long-gone genre at the time. It’s all about the character Pootie Tang who is supposed to represent a kind of cool that’s unobtainable. I have no problem with someone not getting what they were trying to do with a movie where the greatest line is “Sine your pitty on the runny kine” but you know, not everything is for everyone. Y’all just need to get slapped with a belt.

Rotten Tomatoes: 29%

Andrew Findlay

There isn’t so much a single terrible movie that has won my heart, more a genre. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra stands as one of the greatest ambassadors of that genre: the stupid action movie. I respect and understand Tycho’s response to this kind of movie, but if there are enough explosions I honestly do not care. The plot is weak and the dialogue is shitty? They use bionic suits to jump through an occupied trolley, your argument is invalid. This reasoning extends to most kung-fu movies as well. Oh, this plot has been done a quintillion times before? Who cares, that dude just got kicked in the face, and it was awesome.

Rotten Tomatoes: 35%

Brent Hopkins

I actually have two terrible movies that I love but I chose the one with the worse score on Rotten Tomatoes. The two movies are 1997’s Volcano and 2002’s Juwanna Mann. Guess which is lower rated based on the titles with a chart-searing 10% compared to 44%?

Juwanna Mann is a film I saw in theaters in 2002 with a bunch of my friends and a visitor named Alex whom you may have heard of [Editor’s note: Alex Russell, on here, sadly. I want to deny this, but cannot.]. This film came out after Eddie Murphy popularized the multiple characters played by a single actor in The Nutty Professor. The story is extremely simple: It follows a basketball superstar who is kicked out of the league in his prime and loses everything. This would be a normally sad tale except he is the stereotypical jock archetype who is rude and misogynistic. With no place else to go he decides to conjure up the character Juwanna Mann to play basketball in the women’s professional league and all sorts of hilarity ensues. I know in my heart that jokes didn’t actually ensue but I loved watching this movie because it is a black film (Kevin Pollak being the only white actor of note in it) and I watched it with a few white friends and an Asian friend of mine. I found myself laughing extremely hard because of the sheer amount of awkwardness caused by jokes. My friends looked genuinely uncomfortable because I could see a laugh start to form on their lips but the immediate reaction after that was… is it racist if I laugh? I am sure this makes me a terrible person but I still have fond memories anytime it happens to be on TBS and I let it play in the background.

Rotten Tomatoes: 10%

Scott Phillips

The Brothers Solomon is my favorite bad movie to watch. It’s so stupid, it’s somehow funny to me. This film bombed so badly that it has a 15% score on Rotten Tomatoes, recouped only $900,000 of its $10 million budget in theaters, and is the first movie that Richard Roeper ever walked out on.

I can see why people would hate this movie, though. Most of the comedy bits could potentially work in an extended Funny or Die bit, but they’ve spliced about 10 of those ideas together to form this movie.

Ever wonder how funny a scene would be if two brothers were racing to the hospital to see their dying father only to stop at a video store — because it’s on the way to the hospital — to dispute a late fee for the movie Ulee’s Gold [Editor’s note: 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. Certified fresh.]? This movie has that in there.

Ever wonder how funny a scene would be if two brothers wrote a prolonged apology via SkyText from a plane? This movie has that in there.

And so you get my point. There’s some amusing stuff in here — that is just downright weird — and for whatever reason I’ve never been able to shake it. Most of it makes me laugh, for some reason?

The opening credits are fantastic, so that doesn’t hurt.

But fuck Richard Roeper. That dude doesn’t hold a candle to Siskel or Ebert so his opinion means pretty much nothing anyways.

Rotten Tomatoes: 15%

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Kristen Stewart’s Public, Private Poem: Celebrity Poetry and the Sadness of the Watcher

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Austin Duck

When I sat down this morning, I didn’t intend to write about celebrity poetry (because who cares), but, after a brief glance at my long-neglected Twitter account, one thing was clear: Kristen Stewart wrote a poem and everyone thinks it’’ bad.

And, well, it is, it’s really bad (you can read it here), riddled with the self-obsessions and obfuscations that litter beginner poetry—private poetry, really (but more on that in a bit)—and thrust onto center stage (via Marie Claire and Entertainment Weekly and the dozens of other blogs that have picked it up to garner a little viral attention for something other than talking shit about Sochi [the irony that I’m writing about it right now is not lost on me]). But why is it here? That’s what I’ve been wondering all morning. Why does anyone care whether an actress writes a bad poem?

If you think this will be a large-scale condemnation of audience by some high-minded, poetry-for-all douchebag, you’re sadly mistaken. Remember that Twitter account I mentioned? I almost exclusively use it to tell James Franco to kill himself. Instead, what I’m interested in knowing is why, why is this a spectacle? Why does the production of a poem in general—usually so unnoticed that I dare you (MFA-holders excluded) to name three poets writing today or even to tell me who the last poet laureate was—create so much buzz when it’s bad? I mean, I know why James Franco’s does; it’s because it’s absolutely mind-numbing how he buys his way into the poetry community, gets thousands of people to buy SHORT STORY collections or pick up avant-garde poetry journals like Lana Turner to read his work, and then it reads like someone who wasn’t listening in school, who’s never read a poem before, who’s never thought to themselves holy shit! There’s so much I don’t know. Rather than just getting my work out there, I should take a minute to learn how to make it worth being out there because poetry isn’t just personal expression, it’s a fucking public performance made in language that other people need access to!!! (Alright, truth time: I feel some feelings about James Franco.)

I feel though that, K-Stew’s (can I call you K-Stew?) case is different. I don’t think that anyone actually believes she thinks she’s going to become a poet, hold NYU, Stanford, and Warren Wilson hostage while she shoots movies, etc. Instead, this seems sensational precisely because it is, because it is a first-class American spectacle, and one that has pretty serious implications.

The “theory” of spectacle that I’m using, though, doesn’t come from newscasters tweeting about shitty water in Sochi (take that SEO [Editor’s note: totally tagging this with Sochi now]) or from some super high-minded critical theorist; instead, it comes from what I intuit in David Foster Wallace’s story “Mr. Squishy” (from the collection Oblivion) to be an actualization of spectacle, one that I have a hard time articulating except by giving you one of the story’s plots. In this particular plot, there is a man, possibly carrying a gun, climbing a very tall building, while, in the plaza below, people watch. No one can really make out what he’s carrying, why he’s climbing, or even what he’s wearing, but they keep watching, making up stories, and hoping for a clue. But that isn’t all. There are also those inside a department store in building he’s climbing who can’t see him, but who can see those on the plaza reacting; they watch with equal amazement at the inscrutable intention of the reactions of those watching the climber because they can tell they’re watching someone watch something important, but they don’t know what.

It’s a pretty heady metaphor, I think, for how we might begin to talk about K-Stew’s poem (and public reaction) and why it’s here as “news.” Let’s start from the top (bad pun intended): K-Stew (already such a celebrity that I feel no remorse about associating with thick soup) publicly releases a private poem. Why she does it, we have no idea, but that she does it, we are certain, and, when we read it, it becomes clear—to those of us who are such assholes we say we read poems regularly—that this is what we might talk about as a “journal” poem, or a “private” one. This type of poem is one that isn’t meant for the public, not because it contains too much personal information, but rather because it is inaccessible. It doesn’t create a pattern for the audience to interpret. Instead, it jumps around using private references, phrases that are meaningful to the author but are totally unclear/uninterpretable to the audience. What I mean is that there’s no frame of reference through which all the metaphors (the devils, the sucking of bones, the pumping of organs, and the digital moonlight) become meaningful (that’s what public poetry does). Instead, we have someone really high up doing something that we fundamentally can’t understand.

But we are not the ones watching from the ground. Remember that. K-Stew didn’t come to your house and say “check out this poem I wrote.” Instead, she wrote something she was excited about, something she thought was “really dope” and shared it—seemingly offhandedly—in an interview. The interviewer, along with all requisite editors, publishers, and the like, then, make up those on the ground, those looking up and determining the spectacular, the that-which-must-be-named-and-in-naming-must-be-acknowledged-as-exigent. But what is it about a college-age girl writing a poem is exigent? Nothing. So, instead of telling us what they saw—which they didn’t because it was either a) uninteresting [as an event] or b) unintelligible [as a poem]—what we are given are reactions, judgments, “fan-annotations” as something to snark about (because, let’s be real, we’re a snarky bunch). But the worst part, and I do mean the worst, is not that we are laughing at a girl who attempted to make something and failed, but that we are accustomed to, expect, even rely on arbiters of “spectacle authority” to tell us that publicly sharing a poem is “embarrassing,” that the poem is “bad,” to point upward and react so that we know we should.

Obviously, I know that I’m not saying anything new about celebrity journalism, the divide between the celebrity and the non, or about what it means to “produce” or to “be produced by” news (and, to some extent, language itself measuring the world [sorry, I know I’m being a jackass here]); that’s not my aim. Instead, I want to talk about the profound sadness that comes with being in the department store, with not having access to the spectacle, with not really knowing whether the spectacle exists. I don’t mean this to demean, nor do I mean it to be ironic. What I’m talking about is the kind of sadness that comes from hearing an ex-lover singing in the shower just after you’ve emotionally (though not physically) separated, the song so far off that you can’t make it out, but you know she’s singing because, every once in a while, a note comes through, and you dream of the time when you could lay at her feet, stand next to her, and hear the singing, and though it didn’t matter, maybe even the song was bad, there was something spectacular about the moment. Even though you didn’t get to choose the song—maybe you didn’t even like it—you chose the spectacular; you weren’t locked out of the world quite yet, and sincerity wasn’t completely lost on you. You wanted to tell her she was beautiful, that her song and the water and the chill of the air was enough; you were reacting. And all you want now is the right to react, to be included in the song of a life you don’t have access to twice over—first because you never really know who someone else is and second, because now there’s something, spoken or otherwise, mediating your experience.

So our snark, then, becomes the boot that kicks the lever that sends the cage falling down onto the mouse in the mediated mousetrap of our experience of celebrity, specifically K-Stew and this rotten poem, but more generally with whatever else. And it’s easy to kick the lever without the context that comes with the actual creation of spectacle (as in subjectively spectacular rather than, as I’ve come to think of it, watching the gleam off another’s glasses and using that flash of light, that bit of the song, that obfuscated poem to determine how we react, what we say, what we participate in); we’re fighting for human engagement, to be part of a community, to be like girl, that’s not a great poem but what’s going on in your life and are, instead, moved farther and farther from where we started. That’s the sadness of watching in culture, what we are moving through, even K-Stew… even James Fucking Franco.

Image source: Us Weekly

This Looks Terrible – A Haunted House 2

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Alex Marino

In “This Looks Terrible” we look at previews for upcoming movies. We… probably look too closely.

There are only two things you need to know about this trailer: It has a Wayans brother in it and there’s a 20 second fight scene with a chicken.

This movie should just be called “Stupid Race Jokes 2” because that’s all the trailer seems to showcase. Things this trailer thinks are funny:

  1. A white kid speaking Ebonics!
  2. Mistaking your Hispanic neighbor mowing his own lawn for being the neighborhood lawn guy and asking him to add your house to his route!
  3. After the family dog gets crushed by an inexplicably-placed safe, Marlon Wayans screaming “CALL 911! TELL THEM THE DOG IS WHITE! TELL THEM THE DOG IS WHITE!”
  4. The super-friendly neighbor deciding everyone needs a mojito break in the middle of an exorcism and him proclaiming “Oh the black guy has a gun” before turning right around to go back upstairs.

I’m setting the over/under on a white person saying “shiznit” (haha, remember 2003?) at five. 

The worst part about all of this is that this movie will likely be insanely profitable. The first A Haunted House had a production budget of $2.5 million and grossed just over $40 million. That means A Haunted House made 16x its production budget in ticket revenue. For perspective, Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time, made 11.7x its production budget in ticket revenue. So, while I may criticize this movie for being dumb as shit, movies with margins like these are beloved by studios and they’ll continue to be made as long as they’re successful.

Image source: IMDB

“Dumb Starbucks” is Part of Something Bigger and You Really Shouldn’t Be Missing It

Alex Russell

On Friday, the new twitter account @dumbstarbucks announced the dawning of a new business. Dumb Starbucks is open and is very real.

Maybe you saw a post about it and maybe you didn’t. Even if you’ve read up on it, though, there’s just not that much to know about Dumb Starbucks. It’s a supposed art exhibit (that’s their argument, they are an artistic parody of Starbucks, so they can use the name) that sells coffee as art. They stuck the word “dumb” in front of everything about the most famous coffee chain in the world, from their business name to their specific drink sizes (get a Dumb Venti, etc) and opened to the world.

The video above was released today, from the “owner.” That’s comedian Nathan Fielder, who is most likely best known for his series of Twitter pranks. He asked people to text their parents and significant others incendiary comments like “I haven’t been fully honest with you” just to see the response. He’s fascinated by what we all are: how bad can it get? Everyone who has ever thought about pushing someone down the stairs but held off because you’re not supposed to act like that can appreciate Nathan Fielder. There’s a lot to love about doing what you’re not supposed to do.

It’s funny to read about someone telling their significant other something terrible because it is funny to think of how our own friends would react. How would your mom handle getting a text from you that asked about buying drugs? How would your girlfriend respond to a text that appears to precede bad news about your relationship? You can imagine — but you won’t test it because you are presumably not a monster.

Some people are monsters.

Nathan Fielder is the star of Comedy Central’s very strange and very beautiful Nathan For You. There’s a ton of it on Comedy Central’s site, I highly suggest you check some out. The show ran for one eight-episode season last year during a very strong season of new shows for a network that is relatively infamous now for throwing pilot after pilot out and then forsaking them all. They picked up another season of Nathan For You that is set to air this year at some point.

The show is about Nathan agreeing to help small businesses with aggressive new strategies. He demands that a pizza place offer a free pizza if they don’t meet their delivery goal, but then the pizza is the size of a quarter. He inspires an ice cream place to create a disgusting flavor to get people in the door. In one truly inspired episode, he creates a rebate for gasoline that is so impossible to redeem that it ends up being a hike and sleepover in the mountains with lunatics.

The joy of Nathan For You is in the moment that you realize everything has escalated beyond what you thought could be possible. How intense can the process for redeeming a gas rebate be? It involves impossible riddles and your own spirit journey. How could it? Really, how could it?

This is clearly — on some level, though surely not entirely — the best possible ad for Nathan For You. There will be more reveals and Starbucks will sue them to death and this will end up being all about getting you to watch season two of a weird show that you might not know about. It’s a pretty great joke by itself, but if it gets you to at least click on Comedy Central’s site and watch a few Nathan For You bits, then it’s even better.

Nathan For You will return to Comedy Central Summer 2014.

The Lego Movie is Entirely About Fun. Should You See it?

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Mike Hannemann

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: we talk recipes. Should you see The Lego Movie?

Back when I was in high school, making Lego movies was a big fad. There was an early YouTube clip of the “Camelot” song from Monty Python and the Holy Grail re-done entirely in Lego that I watched daily. I had friends that tried to re-create Star Wars scenes with them well before the video game franchise came around. I get it. Even before the hugely successful video game franchise, people were making Lego movies. I say that to say how much I thought The Lego Movie was going to be embarrassing.

The elevator pitch for The Lego Movie is, essentially, just “oh, it’s a movie about Lego.” I’m terrified to think of the board meeting where this was greenlit. On paper, there’s no way this could actually be a good movie. It seems like the lowest hanging fruit to base a film on (Battleship from a few years ago takes second place). It almost feels like something a TV show would use as an idea when making fun of Hollywood for trying to shovel-feed easily consumed movies to mass audiences. “Ball: The Movie” is probably the only thing easier to use as a joke.

But then, somehow, it works.

At this point, you’ve probably already heard about the universal acclaim The Lego Movie is bringing in. As of this writing, it’s boasting a 95% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “How could this go so wrong?” is a question that’s frequently asked when it comes to Hollywood but in this case, we’ve got ourselves scratching our heads asking “how could this go so RIGHT?”

After seeing it, the answer is pretty simple. The writers (of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs fame) choose to air on the side of caution and just… well, want to have fun. It’s a simple comparison to the actual point of using the blocks themselves, but I couldn’t help coming back to that fact when watching it. The movie never tries to be more than it is, it doesn’t try to reach Toy Story-esque heights or re-imagine the way we look at a toy that’s been a staple of childhood since the mid-1950s. It just simply tries to tell a fun story. And because of it, it works.

Chris Pratt plays the main character – Emmet – a construction worker who becomes the film’s “Chosen One.” I won’t waste time talking about the plot. It’s simple enough to engage but children and adults but that means discussing any real story points would be to spoil it. So, instead, let’s just talk about this one character. He’s simultaneously the story’s hero but it also feels like the movie itself is designed off of him.

The character is a simple-minded, good-hearted, silly guy. And this is all the movie sets out to be, too. Jokes don’t always land (although thankfully the laughter overshadows the clunkers) but that takes a backseat to the good-natured charm. While the plot gets over-the-top with how ambitious it becomes, it still feels like a simple narrative hitting all the familiar beats one would expect in a “save the world” story aimed at nostalgia.

It’s because of this that the voice acting works so well, too. Throughout the entire film, it just feels like these actors are having the time of their lives. Nick Offerman voices the pirate Metal Beard with such enthusiasm that I actually didn’t realize it was him until the end credits. Charlie Day brings his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia manic charm to a role that would otherwise have just been a filler character. And throughout the entire film, Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks are the two main characters that have as much charming back-and-forth as any non-animated on-screen duo. Pratt, especially, deserves praise for managing to portray a character that is simultaneously bland yet still “the most interesting person on the world” (the film’s words, not mine).

The final element that lets the movie play around with its story is the visuals. This, at face value, is probably the only thing that was assured to be solid from that initial pitch meeting. Done in full CGI (with a few real Lego sets sprinkled in), the movie looks like it was done in stop-motion. It actually looks like these figures are all just interacting on a physical Lego set, adhering to the real-world limitations of the bricks themselves. For as broad and expansive the world the film takes place in is, the figures still have that waist that only allows them to bend in certain directions. It’s this crazy dedication to letting the animators run wild but while still confining them to a set of rules that makes this whole thing work. It feels real, in the weirdest sense.

At the end of the day, it works for one reason and one reason alone: it isn’t cynical. It genuinely feels like everyone involved, from the animators to the actors to the directors, are just having fun. They aren’t creating what could easily be the biggest product placement film in history (that damned Coca-Cola polar bears movie takes the crown on that one). This isn’t a corporate tie-in for them. This is a chance to create something legitimate based off of a culture’s shared experience of playing with these multicolored bricks and using one’s imagination.

Should You See It? Yes. That’s the film’s biggest achievement: for an hour and a half, there’s no cynicism. You’re earnestly encouraged to just smile and enjoy yourself. “Everything is awesome” is the refrain for the movie’s main theme the characters sing while completing mundane tasks. For a film that could have been a colossal failure and turned out to be weirdly charming, there couldn’t be a more appropriate sentiment.

Image source: ABC

What is a Japanese Arcade Like?

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Brent Hopkins

Back again with a shorter entry. This one will be gaming related, but not a review. This one is a cultural story. Last weekend I went to Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto in Japan for vacation. They are about two hours away from Seoul by flight and it was my first foray into the land of video game history. I was with a friend who is not a gamer in the least, so I knew this wasn’t going to be a nerdcation. Still, we started out in Kobe and while we were walking around looking for some sweet Kobe beef we happened upon an arcade. Now, one thing about me that my gaming friends know is that I am an avid Sega fan — the Sega Saturn is my favorite system — and I’ve debated with myself over getting a Sega-flavor tattoo on my person.

This was a Sega arcade and when I walked in it was like all the synapses in my brain fired at once. I went from travel-weary to gleeful. The arcades in Japan are different than the ones I’ve been to in America and Korea in that the peripherals are extremely ornate. There are cards to save your profiles, there are fishing controllers, there are built in mouse and keyboards for PC-like gaming, there is just everything. Korea is close to this but as a PC-gaming nation the arcades are small and they focus more on dancing and light-gun games. America doesn’t really have arcades and the peripherals are almost always broken and mangled so it tends to be just light-gun, racing, and a few fighting games.

The thing I noticed most about this Sega arcade is the atmosphere of it. The men there (my travel buddy was the only woman) looked really serious and did not appear to be playing for fun. Some were grinding characters in games others were practicing combos in fighting games but the general air was serious gaming. I only had a short time to play so I say down and played some solo BlazBlue (a fighting game) and I had a blast. The games all appeared to cost about 100 yen (which is about a dollar, which is expensive) but there was no worrying about not having the right change after exchanging bills.

Later on in the trip we headed to Osaka where we spent most of our time and I got to go to a few more arcades. Sega has really cornered the market on the arcade scene in Osaka and Kobe at least with about 80% of the arcades being Sega branded. There was a large Namco (think Pac-Man and Tekken) arcade in Kobe but that was the only one I saw the entire time I was in Japan. The first Sega arcade I went to with the grumpy men was also the smallest I saw. The few Sega arcades I went to in Osaka were MASSIVE with the largest being a six-to-eight floor themeland with claw machines, pachinko, and photo booths. It felt closer to an amusement park than an actual arcade.

I love arcades and miss being able to go to them freely in America due to the console scene but they appear to be doing fine in Japan. There are plenty of really amazing games I wish would be released outside of Japan. The entire country is not as game-crazy as is oft perceived of Japan (especially not in the Kansai region) but you see Pokemon here and there and lots of anime characters (One Piece being the hands down most prevalent). I tried hard to pick up some nerd swag (goods, not swagger) while I was there and did find a few things, but it was hard (the best being Nintendo-brand playing cards, which is what the company originally made before video games). If you want your gaming fix I would recommend going to Tokyo, not elsewhere.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: M.T. Anderson’s Feed

Andrew Findlay

I read a buttload. I track it, and last year alone I completed 37 books. So far this year, I am halfway through Blue Mars, Blood Meridian, and Les Jours Etranges de Nostradamus and have finished Green Mars, The Reivers, and Feed. That last book is the one I want to talk about today. It is a young adult science fiction book, which is a double-whammy of literary marginalization. The same style of thought that leads serious readers away from science fiction also has them skip YA fiction. It’s a shame, not only because YA is vital to the vibrancy and growth of our literary culture, but because it is worthwhile in its own right.

I mention how much I now read by way of comparison. When I was young, I did not enjoy reading. Why sit around and look at pages when there’s so much other shit to do? My discovery of Goosebumps changed everything. Young Adult fiction builds generations of readers. 10-year-olds probably can’t be interested in Cormac McCarthy, much like you probably can’t step outside and run a marathon right now. It takes practice. Progress happens in increments and the process has a beginning and an end. The path that leads to successful completion and enjoyment of Infinite Jest starts with The Berenstain Bears. I discovered Goosebumps when I was 10, and I now have a heroin-level addiction to reading.

Who needs reasons when you’ve got books?

If you never read any Goosebumps, I question whether you are a normal human with a childhood or if you sprang full-formed from a cultivation vat. By fifth grade, I’d moved on to my first semi-adult book, Tyrant’s Test, book three of the Blackfleet Crisis series in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. At the time, I didn’t really understand the problem of starting with the third one. Anyway, I read it, and there were a lot of words I had simply never seen before. One of my clearest reading-related memories is running across a new word and asking my dad what “ad-juh-kent” meant. He responded that “adjacent” meant “next to.” That was the first of many exchanges that made me an etymological nut, to the extent that I can tell you that “buttload” is not in the same class as “fuckload” or “metric shit-ton,” but actually represents 126 imperial gallons of liquid, as that was the size of a “butt,” something used to store wine. YA fiction entices and cultivates new generations of readers, without which American literary culture would be in worse decline than it already is, but that’s not all it does. The best YA fiction does some heavy philosophical lifting in the formation of young minds. One of the best examples of this is The Giver, which teaches middle-school age kids that nothing can be perfect without a price. That is a huge concept. If you are not familiar with The Giver, again, you are probably a clone.

    It’s a boy!

Feed, like The Giver, attacks big issues in bites digestible by young minds. The title of the book comes from its main concept – about three-fourths of citizens have “feeds,” which are like Google Glass but implanted directly into the brain and entwined with the limbic system. Corporations can advertise directly to people with banner ads that scroll  across feed users’ field of vision. Think of how annoying pop-up ads are, and then imagine them being inside of your brain. Data mining is prevalent, with corporations using purchase history and even biological information to target their advertisements. In one particularly surreal scene, a character is in a life-threatening situation, and because she is sweating, Feednet shows her an advertisement for deodorant. There are a lot of dystopic elements to this book, one being that most people live in environment bubbles because the actual outdoors is mostly too toxic to survive in. However, the main focus of the book is the effect of the feed on society. It is the creation and the sustainer of an overwhelmingly lazy culture of consumption. People with feeds are capable of buying anything they want at any time and having it flown to them. People with feeds can look up any piece of information they want at any time, leading to a general decline in critical thinking, memory formation, and language. The decline of language and thought instigated by the Feed is clear throughout the book. One example of character speech: “It was meg big big loud. There was everything there.” This type of dialogue really turned me off of the book for the first few chapters, but you get used to it, and besides it’s just another symptom of the social decline set off by misuse of technology, so it actually serves to strengthen the themes of the book.

The vanguard of civilization’s downfall. Also, it makes you look like an asshole.

The unifying plot is very simple. Boy and girl meet, boy and girl kind of like each other, things go wrong, things end badly. The complexity of the story comes from the setting and from character interactions with the feed. The simplicity of the plot merges with the complexity of the social milieu of the story to create an artifact science fiction is very good at manufacturing: the intellectual beach read. Sentence wizards are great, but it takes a special kind of person to read nothing but DFW, Joyce, and Faulkner. In science fiction, there is an emphasis on clear and direct speech, plot, and characterization. Sure, there are still books like Dhalgren (the Ulysses of science fiction. I only got 200 pages into it because I took it to an actual beach, which was not the best decision ever), but Hemingway-clarity is a feature of most science fiction. The text itself represents very little challenge, yet the ideas discussed therein are intriguing and nourishing. This alchemical melding of simplicity and complexity trigger a lung-gom-pa style of reading in which, unimpeded by overwrought sentences and spurred on by intellectual interest, a reader can consume vast amounts of text in a short amount of time. In this state, reading is exhilaration. This feature makes Feed is a great entry into the constellation of young adult literature. If we want to build a strong reading culture, we need authors who put out literature that can stimulate and exhilarate young minds. Feed is the gateway drug that creates the addicts that would do anything for just one more hit of The Brothers Karamazov.

Image credits: Wiki and IMDB.

Worst Best Picture: Is All About Eve Better or Worse Than Crash?

eve

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 1950 winner All About Eve. Is it better than Crash?

There is just about nothing that needs to be said about All About Eve in 2014. It’s one of the movies that even someone with no reverence for old film will recognize as a “classic” from the list of Oscar winners. It’s a black-and-white Shakespearean-style story of betrayal and trust. Nothing needs to be said about a classic, but even though the stone has been unturned a million times I feel confident that no one has compared it to Crash.

All About Eve is the story of being replaced. Aging (for 1950, 40 is apparently “aging”) actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is at the top of her game. She’s got her name in light bulbs, she’s got a sassy maid, and she’s got love in her life. She accepts one of her biggest fans, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), as a personal assistant. Eve is the perfect assistant — maybe too perfect — and when Margo finds her dancing in front of a mirror with one of her costumes, the whole “girl next door” vibe breaks down.

If you want to read about everything that happens in All About Eve you can look elsewhere for it. Essentially, Eve tries to become the new Margo and does so. There are attempted seductions, drunken parties, and successful instances of blackmail. The story is unassailable: it’s been done over and over since then, and you stand a good chance in this era to have seen a parody of it before the original. It earned a The Simpsons episode. That’s how we measure how lasting something is, right?

The high note of All About Eve is in the disastrous party where Margo first believes that Eve has come for her throne. She’s right, of course, but she plays her hand too drunk and too early. No one else in their shared life believes her, and Margo is labelled a paranoid diva. As with every relationship, the fear of something manifests it faster than anything else could. Margo is worried about Eve taking her role and so Eve takes her damn role.

The comparisons to Crash aren’t easy with this one. The best way to do it is probably with the climaxes of the two films. The drunken party where Margo unleashes the classic “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” line is too early to be a climax, but it’s definitely the defining, lasting element of All About Eve. Margo turns on the rage before the night even starts in accusing her boyfriend of trying to spend extra time with Eve. She accuses the other partygoers of trying to surround themselves with younger women. She pounds drinks and rages, unsuccessfully, in front of a crowd that includes a very young Marilyn Monroe.

The scene is lasting because it achieves the goals and goes steps further. All the scene has to do is establish that Margo fears Eve and that no one believes her. It manages to play out this paranoia and still be funny, even out of the context of a 1950 audience. One bit of wordplay, “stop acting like I’m the Queen Mother” met with “outside of a beehive, Margo, your behavior would hardly be considered either queenly or motherly!” works both as the film’s typical theater-style banter and as an actual joke. This movie about the theater manages to straddle the fine line between being “quick” and being “funny” even more than half a century later.

Crash isn’t 10 years old yet. The big scene in Crash is a car accident where some people almost die. Compared to the rest of Crash, it is filled with meaning and pathos. Compared to another movie that has the same award, it feels completely lifeless. The characters feel totally unrealized. There is no big takeaway. There is no “lesson,” for as much as the people behind Crash demanded that there be absolutely nothing but lessons.

But Crash never asked to be All About Eve, you say? It’s not fair to compare two movies from different time periods? One of the reasons very few comedies have ever been considered for the Best Picture award is that comedy is the product of a time period. All About Eve is funny, to be sure, but a lot of the “quick wit” is more “ha-ha funny” than actually funny. All of it holds up, though, because it has to. By giving a movie the title of BEST PICTURE, the statement is made that this movie will always hold up. Crash is not an accurate depiction of 2005. It already feels dated, even when compared with a movie that won the same award at a ceremony hosted by Fred Astaire.

The Best Part: The party, oh, the party. Or George Sanders, who is an absolutely amazing monster in this movie. I nearly wrote 4,000 words about if he is a hero or villain, but to hear that you’ll have to buy me five drinks and sacrifice a Tuesday night.

The Worst Part: During one scene in New Haven, two characters walk down the street away from a theater. It is the only scene in the entire movie that couldn’t have been shot today. You could shoot this scene better with a green towel and six dollars now.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashYou know how sometimes people ask you a hypothetical question, but you’re not paying attention and you think they’ve lost their mind entirely? All About Eve has one of the AFI top-10 movie quotes of all time. Crash has a scene where someone looks scornfully at someone for an attempted child murder.

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

 Image credit: IMDB

Meet the RNC’s New Digital and Data Lab! (And Listen to Them Say Data 102 Times)

The Republican National Committee recently announced their digital and data innovation lab called Para Bellum Labs. While most of the Internet was getting lost in the idea that Republicans named their new lab after either a gun or a war-before-peace saying, what was lost in the noise is that the GOP still doesn’t get how to structure their organization to optimally use data.

What is data as it pertains to politics? Most people don’t know that their voter registration is public record. Every state has different privacy laws about what information the public is allowed to see. Some states give birth dates while others only give a voter’s birth year. Some states make a voter’s race available while others do not. Some states tell you what political party a person is registered with while others do not. For your voting history someone can see what elections you voted in from presidential to municipal (but not who you voted for). Oftentimes you can also see what party’s primary someone voted in. Just off that information alone a data scientist can learn a lot about who you are.  If you’ve voted in the past four presidential elections I can assume you’re likely to vote in the next one. If you’ve voted in only Democratic primaries for the last 20 years then it’s extremely likely you’re a Democrat. These two data sets are the most important pieces of information for a political campaign and are the basis for almost everything else a campaign does.

How does digital fit in with all of this? On the surface you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that a campaign’s digital department is in charge of their online presence. Tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures, and SnapChat dick pics all come from there. There’s also a huge email section of the digital team that is in charge of fundraising and event recruitment communications. These are essential campaign responsibilities that can not only be optimized with the help of the data team but the results of these communications can also be fed back to the data team to get a better idea of what type of person someone is. When tweeting about a Women for Romney event, does a picture of Mitt or a picture of Ann yield more signups? Does a person whose first campaign event was a rally end up making more calls or knocking more doors than a volunteer whose first event was a phone bank? These are all questions that are answered with the help of the digital and data departments.

But there’s one area of politics that isn’t mentioned in this video and is the biggest deficiency in the GOP: analytics. The analytics team is in charge of taking as much data as is available to them and developing statistical models that drive every campaign decision. While the data department may be in charge of tracking how a campaign is doing with their phone banking goals, the analytics department is telling the volunteers who they should be calling to have the best chance at recruiting another phone banker. While the digital department may be in charge of tweeting out localized campaign messages, the analytics department is telling them which messages resonate the best with voters.

Republicans need to realize that you shouldn’t group data and digital together. These are two separate entities and should be treated as such. The person that runs the campaign’s Twitter account and the person that tracks a campaign’s phone banking data have completely separate responsibilities. While data and digital can work together to make online communications more effective, their link is no stronger than that between digital and communications shops or data and field departments. The point is that every department on a political campaign is essential and can each benefit from the other. You need the right organizational structure to make sure that a rising tide can lift all boats. When you have one boat that’s way bigger than the others, and that huge boat also has competing interests within itself, you’re going to sink faster than John McCain.

Response: Infinite Jest is Probably Not Science Fiction

Austin Duck

(Editor’s note: This may or may not be a response to a previous post here by someone else. It’s certainly at least related, so you may want to open the other one in a new tab.)

Before I begin, I think it necessary to make one thing absolutely clear: I wholeheartedly believe that science fiction can be literature. Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, these women write literature.

Reader, I think you’ve been misled. You were told that I’d be here to “throw down” with Andrew Findlay, that Infinite Jest (henceforth IJ) is a work of science fiction, that I have a heart of gold (if you read AF’s final footnote), and, unfortunately, none of this is true.

I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, right now, “how are you not going to argue with AF while fundamentally disagreeing (and claiming that you’ll address that disagreement),” and, honestly, that’s the predicament I’m finding myself in. You see, I don’t find any particular pleasure in launching what will inevitably be a pointless argument about a book that no one reads (though everyone owns a copy). However, I can’t help but talk because I find problems not with the claim that IJ engages sci-fi elements but with the way it has been presented to you as being sci-fi.

The truth of the matter is that, so far as I can tell, IJ is not a sci-fi novel given the criteria I use when I approach it. This criteria seems to differ from Findlay’s in a single, meaningful way. But, before I get to that, let’s revisit the criteria he laid out on Monday:

  • Takes place in the future
  • Strange changes in government, cartography, or the overall structure of the world
  • Extrapolated technologies
  • Thematic development of the plot centers around a certain piece of technology

All of this, very superficially, seems to create a sci-fi novel. I say superficially because, aside from the last criterion (which I’ll address below), none of these elements are inherently anything but set-dressing, asides, bits of information that require more willful suspension of disbelief but do not fundamentally alter anything in a text. If, for some reason that I don’t quite understand, we were to assume that realism were the only capital-L “Literature,” then yes, absolutely, this criteria would hold, but as we’ve seen in our postmodern literary landscape, that’s not quite the case. Do we inherently classify something as sci-fi because it engages these set-pieces? Is White Noise sci-fi? Or Gravity’s Rainbow? Does Haruki Murakami write fantasy novels? I just don’t think so.

To be completely honest, I don’t really have a full grasp on what’s changed since modernism that would allow Murakami to be regarded in the same vein as Faulkner or Atwood as with Stein or Cather, but one thing’s for certain: it happened. Sci-fi fans can disclaim the statements of “literary heavyweights” like Jonathan Franzen, but, ultimately, people like Franzen don’t influence literary tastes nearly so much as critics, intellectuals, and popular culture and, fuck, just look around. Sci-fi is everywhere, and everywhere in high regard. So fuck Jonathan Franzen. Seriously.

I think that what’s happened is the result of post-structural linguistics, post-colonial literatures, and politico-ideological theories of gender, race, and sexuality. I’m not going to get into why (because you’ll fall asleep) but, to give a profoundly abridged version, the prevalent critical consensus of the last 30 years at least (though you could easily trace it back 50) is that “Art” exists beyond a white, Latinate, logocentric (sorry) realism. It just does. There are too many experiences and too many minds for prescription of what creates art, experience, or meaning.

I know it seems like I’ve gone pretty far from IJ, but trust me, I haven’t. IJ, begun somewhere in the late 80s and published in 1996, is a direct inheritor of all of this literary/cultural upheaval. It occurs, it is composed, in a time where experimentation—of different forms, idioms, genres, voices, styles, etc.—makes it perfectly acceptable to cannibalize, to pull from the highest culture (the title refers, in addition to the film that Findlay discussed, to a line in Hamlet) and the lowest (the dime store fantasy or science fiction novel) to make something new, a device consistently utilized by Pynchon, whom Wallace developed a lot of chops imitating.

So does it mean that, to borrow elements of a genre makes a work itself of that genre? In some ways, yes, it does, in the sense that IJ could not exist, as it does, without the existence of the sci-fi genre. Just as I am of my father, so too is IJ of sci-fi. But is it actually a sci- fi novel?

Of Findlay’s above-mentioned criteria, I think no, IJ is not a sci-fi novel. Yes, it is sort of set in the future (or really, for us, the now), and yes, there is a differently arranged America, giant bugs, and advanced technologies, but none of this, and I mean none. of. it. has any actual bearing on the novel itself. Of the approximately 1,000,000,000 plots engaged in IJ, the two most prevalent are of tennis prodigy and aspiring drug addict Hal Incandenza and former junky and street criminal Don Gately. Engagement with these characters (or something closely related to them (the tennis school that Hal attends or the halfway house that Gately oversees)) occupies approximately 75% of the book (that’s over 750 pages to you and me) and the sci-fi elements of the plot occupy exactly none of these pages. Neither Hal nor Don ever hear anything concerning the more fantastic elements of the film Infinite Jest, nor do they ever encounter giant insects or interact meaningfully with the reconfigured United States (neither character leaves Boston during the entire novel).

Instead, both characters (each in their own ways) are obsessed with drugs, with doing them or not doing them, and with the material conditions of living in a world that encourages escape—through drugs, through Netflix (which Wallace calls the Interlace viewer with streaming and cartridge capabilities), through work and family and games—while hiding the consequences of quitting—the psychosis, the inability to relate to other people, the inability to function in a way that makes the world less lonely. And, as a result, that’s what the book hovers over, brings forward as the theme, as to what is truly important. The world then, with its years having been named by companies (for example, instead of 2002, the year is officially called The Year of the Whopper) and its giant insects created by a former-actor-and-ultimately-incompetent-president as the result of turning the upper Northeast into a giant trash bin, does not drive the plot(s). Instead, these set pieces exist as hyperbole, they exist to make larger statements about a culture at large. Ultimately, they exist to be metaphorically, hyperbolically similar to those real plots of Incandenza and Gately, to explode them, rendering them generalizable (i.e. evident in other aspects of the culture) without making them generalities.

And I think this is an important distinction: IJ is not a book about characters. Yes, there are characters, loads of them, some of whom you’ll get very attached to, who will show you yourself and your world in very uncomfortable ways. But really, truly, IJ is an analysis of the culture, a hard look at a culture of escapism, of shirking responsibility, of letting go toward achieving pure, individuated pleasure, and is invested in showing the material outcomes. Sure there are big bugs, but they’re the effects. They don’t matter, they don’t really do anything except exist, and, in their existence, they remind us of the realities beneath the stories being told to us, the stories we’ve invested and of which we are not likely to escape.

Which brings us finally to Findlay’s fourth claim—that thematic development of the plot centers around a certain piece of technology—and its relationship to the film Infinite Jest (which, for those of you just tuning in, is a film created by Hal’s optical-physicist-gone-auteur-filmmaker-father that is so entertaining anyone who views it never stops watching and dies.) I do agree that there is something to this film’s presence in the text that goes pretty far beyond what I’ve discussed above in terms of adding a serious sci-fi element to the text. The story of the film’s effects does come across as being the third most important plot in IJ (right behind Don and Hal, though occupying much less actual page-space) and its existence is pervasive, showing up directly in nearly every minor-character arc in the book.

Despite this, I’m still not convinced that this element makes the book sci-fi; yes, IJ definitely makes a strongly sci-fi move, but not, it seems to a sci-fi effect. Let me try that again. Here are three reasons why I don’t think that the film Infinite Jest makes the book Infinite Jest sci-fi :

1) while this film is a technology that doesn’t exist, it doesn’t seem to be the effects of radically advanced science that make the difference as it does the effects of experimental art (much more in line with the structure of the book, the meta-textual, self-conscious foot-noting, etc.),

2) that, rather than a specific material/technological aspect that makes the film “addictive,” it seems that IJ (the movie) stands in for a Platonic idea of entertainment (i.e. something completely, purely entertaining) as a means for hyperbolizing the novel’s themes (as mentioned above), and

3) (most importantly) that, to me that what makes a piece of literature quintessentially sci-fi is not the engagement of specific science-materials in a text, but an in-depth study of what, logically, could come of the use of those materials and their effects on humanity. IJ ultimately isn’t speculative because it’s not concerned with what the effects of Netflix or the film’s particular technology will be; it’s concerned with what’s already here and uses these sci-fi pieces to hyperbolize and generalize, to exemplify cultural patterns in these objects that affect multiple lives.

It’s undeniable that Infinite Jest contains sci-fi elements. However, rather than calling it sci-fi (which is not derogatory; it’s just not accurate), let’s just call it what it is: an enormous, important, genre-bending book that cuts to the core of the contemporary American experience of pleasure and addiction. It’s simple to read, nearly impossible to think about, and you are truly at a loss if you don’t read it just because it weighs like 20 pounds or because you’d rather watch Girls.