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I had to write an obituary for Roger Ebert today. It was sad, and strange, putting the words into the little window and pressing “Post.” I’m working at a newspaper now, partially because Roger Ebert helped me realize that a film critic was a thing I could be. And after a couple of decades of fighting, and fumbling, and figuring myself out – sometimes in private but more often in public, via the words I constantly put in a little window above a button that says “Post” – I have a regular job at a newspaper. And today, that job led to me writing about Roger Ebert closing the balcony for good.
This death is hitting me a little harder than I thought it would. It’s no mystery as to why: I’ve spent a lot of my time talking about movies. I’ve spent a lot more time watching ‘em. Had a brief period where I thought I could make one or two, but that didn’t pan out. But this focus of mine on the art that is film, it can be sourced back to a few places, all of them obvious:
Star Wars. Indiana Jones. Disney. Looney Tunes. And yes, Siskel & Ebert At the Movies.
Those two were the first people to clue me in that there were more to movies than just the watching of them. There were puzzles in there, complexity of emotion, and deeper meaning. I learned from that show what subtext was before I even knew there was such a thing as subtext.
I remember before one of our film screenings, I put together a mixtape of Siskel & Ebert clips, closing with the infamous outtakes session. 600 people in that theater, and the instant the theme song to that show kicked in? Man, the cheer that came out of that crowd! It was fucking heartwarming. It really was. I thought there’d be a laugh of recognition, maybe a stray “woo”. But that saxophone started winding its way up the scale, and a strip of film became an ampersand, and people legitimately popped like the Star Wars logo had just appeared on the screen in a burst of fanfare.
Oh sure, the boos came raining down after Roger took a shot at a couple beloved ’80s classics, but even the boos were warm and friendly. Siskel & Ebert were like the patron saints of the Film Geek. You can argue there were better critics, but it’s hard to argue that they didn’t use their considerable influence for the purpose of honestly promoting art. They excoriated movies that wasted their potential, and championed the ones that said things about us, and not us as in “moviegoers,” but us as in “people.”
Not only that, they championed the idea of thinking about why you like the things you like. They didn’t dictate, or preach, even when they got preachy. They were sharing. They weren’t just giving their opinions, they were giving up little bits of themselves as well. Maybe my parents thought it weird when I’d tug on their shirtsleeves to stay up past my bedtime and watch Gene & Roger review some blockbuster I was itching to see on one summer or another. But as the world of film started to open up underneath my feet, they were reliable guides. Why wouldn’t I want to follow wherever they were going? Even when I didn’t agree with them all the time. Especially when I didn’t agree with them.
But Ebert, in many of his essays, put movies in a context that others didn’t. What he watched was often placed in the context of the life he lived. The man did a lot of living, and he never shied away from the opportunity to let that living inform his words. He was never just a stuffed shirt, a sweater and glasses. He was intellectual, but never at the expense of his heart. His brain was big, and he could dissect a frame of film down to the individual grains embedded within it; but his heart was huge, and the movies that worked on him worked on that big ol’ heart of his. How could you not admire that, even when you thought it was leading him wrong?
There were people, earlier today, who wondered if it was suicide. I could understand why. Writers are prone to it, I guess. Or at least that’s one of the romanticized views of the writer’s life. Some writers fit that role really well. Hunter went out spectacularly, his ashes shot out of a cannon atop a two-thumbed statue. And the assumption Ebert did similarly makes sense: Someone who lived the story Ebert lived, who felt the stories he felt throughout his career as a critic? That man knows the value of an ending. If he chose to write his own after all this living, could you blame him?
But that’s not what happened. His ending was a different one. He was a man who discovered what he was best at, what made him the best Roger he could be, and he did it as best he could, and he shared it with us as long as possible. And one day, after admitting he couldn’t do it the way he used to, he stopped. He looked at his wife, he smiled at her, and he left. And that’s kind of beautiful, really. He arrived at his ending naturally, with a smile on his face, looking at the wife with whom he shared all of his big, loud heart.
I guess this hurts like it does precisely because of that: He was one of the few who you could tell honestly cared about the things he wrote. Even if you disagreed, you could tell. You could feel it. He cared. Not a lot of people do anymore. And now there’s one less.
Originally posted at aintitcool.com, December 19th 2012
Pardon me the inarticulate nature of the following critique, but I believe it will prove to be as appropriate a summation of the film’s qualities as I can muster:
Django Unchained is a motherfucker.
It sounds like David Milch, stoned out of his gourd. It looks like a Bierstadt, except for when it looks like a Bosch. It is an ambling, mild-mannered nightmare; a bloody, mean-spirited, exhilarating wet mess of a movie.
Quentin Tarantino’s western plays much like Quentin Tarantino’s war film: It pulps America’s mythologizing of its own past. Django is set in a pre-Civil War South that is equal parts lurid and goofy. The star of this painterly cartoon of a western is Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave who is purchased and then set free by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an ex-dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, who needs Django’s help to collect on a bounty. Thus sets in motion the first third of the film: A buddy comedy about killing white folks and selling their corpses back to the government.
Once Django’s freedom is secured, he and Waltz hatch a plan to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from her owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who is a major player in the Mandingo Fight Game. Thus sets in motion the middle of the film: A con-movie about earning the good graces of a hopped-up rube so as to take from him things he doesn’t deserve.
Once Django and Schultz make it to Calvin’s plantation, “Candyland,” they run into Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) a toad of a man who throws a wrench into our heroes’ plans. Thus sets in motion the last third of the film: A revenge epic of head-spinning violence and depravity. It is this last third where the film thoroughly earns its status as a complete, total, unrelenting, unimaginable motherfucker of a movie.
You may ask “But is being a motherfucker a good thing or a bad thing?” The answer is “Yes.”
This is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. But not in the annoying, eye-roll inducing way Death Proof was. While many seem to know him for his violence, Tarantino has always, first and foremost, loved the words that fall out of his giant noggin, and the salty-sweet syllables he puts in Waltz’s mouth are delivered so melodiously, it’s easy to forgive Django Unchained for spending much of its runtime pleasantly shooting the shit instead of shooting up hillbillies.
Django isn’t much of a protagonist for most of his own movie. He spends a lot of it with a wide-eyed, inquisitive look on his face, alternately curious and bemused about the world he finds himself inhabiting. It’s a smart choice – when you’ve got a tour guide as good, as charming as Waltz is, you don’t mind just letting him lead, and I’d imagine many in the audience will spend a lot of time goggling at the movie with a similar look on their face for most of the first hour. The reasons are two:
1) Robert Richardson is one of the best cinematographers that ever lived, and this movie is goddamned gorgeous thanks to his work on the film.
2) Quentin really indulges his second-favorite fetish, the one that puts racial slurs in his actor’s mouths; One slur in particular.
I know its period appropriate, but the experience of hearing that word casually fall out of 98% of the white cast’s face is jarring at first. Except for Walton Goggins, who as Hollywood’s current reigning King of the Peckerwoods I sort of just expect to utter that word at least once or twice. But Tom Wopat is in this fucking movie and considering how old you are, hearing Luke Duke utter the word his backwoods moonshinin’ ass never got to say on television is a bit of a jolt.
Don’t take this as an expression of dissatisfaction with the film; Django Unchained is almost constantly entertaining, even as its all sorts of sprawled out and irresponsible. Hell, that’s part of the charm, really. But its pleasures are edged. There’s a blend of unease and delight in things like Don Johnson as a dandified Colonel Sanders, succumbing to frustration as his carefully planned lynching turns into a whiny kvetch-fest; the oily, greasy way Leonardo DiCaprio pushes Tarantino’s words out between his browned teeth; the willingness of Samuel L. Jackson to nakedly wallow in total debasement. The character he’s playing might be named Stephen, but he’s channeling Uncle Ruckus from Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks so completely, you’d swear the wetness slicking up his protruding lower lip was made of pure, liquefied self-hate.
When Tarantino does get on with it, the violence is gaudy as hell, blood leaving bullet-riddled bodies via squibs that seem to work by dropping a firecracker into a jar of Smuckers strawberry jam. The cruelty of the South is never softpedaled in Django Unchained: You will see frequent, disturbing acts perpetrated on slaves. You will see that violence repaid in kind, often with that same queasy delight buzzing under the visceral thrills.
DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is some repugnant shit, and his performance is kind of amazing. At one point he lacerates the hell out of his hand by smashing a glass for emphasis, and he doesn’t break character, or even acknowledge that he’s badly bleeding, not until he has a chance to use that blood as a means to prove how deranged Candie is, smearing that blood all over Kerry Washington’s shocked face.
Washington is one of the more problematic parts of the movie, in that she doesn’t do shit but cry, look pretty, or look scared. In fact, most of the black people in this movie aside from Django and Stephen, don’t do shit but cry or look scared, ineffectually goggling at the audacity of Django the way Django goggled at the world upon being set free in it. It could have been worse for Broomhilda; Tarantino decided to cut two scenes in which she is raped. A scene in which a man burns off another man’s nipples was also deleted. This is what restraint looks like in Tarantino-land, and the movie is better for it. Django Unchained already spends long stretches of its movie doing a delicate balancing act, smudging the pencil-thin line between outrageous and tasteless as it is.
But when Django fully comes into his own with about a half-hour to go, the fresh hell he justifiably unleashes is probably the most adrenaline-infused thing Tarantino’s ever done. Bullets flying, blood splashing, Tupac and James Brown screaming on the soundtrack at the enemies Django is cutting down with no remorse. Jamie Foxx’s performance is underplayed and understated. He is maybe the most traditionally western thing about the movie, his Django a jut-jawed, squinting blend of Franco Nero and Clint Eastwood, delivering most of his lines through gritted teeth in a low, growling whisper, a triumphant portrait of stoic bad-assery.
The film doesn’t really ask too many questions of its viewers. There will be moments when large chunks of the audience find themselves laughing with clownish buffoonery instead of laughing at it, missing out on the moments of commentary Tarantino too rarely allows himself. In a film that is probably too long by 30 minutes, I wish he’d chosen to indulge his thoughtful side just a little bit more.
But Tarantino is most effective when he gives into his passion to share with you the things he thinks are really, really cool. Even after decades of success and acclaim, down deep, Tarantino is still an excited video store clerk who wants you to take a risk on something awesome you might not check out otherwise, and reap the rewards contained within. Django Unchained is full of rich, dirty, bloody bounties that sometimes cost just a mite too much to enjoy unreservedly.
Gun control arguments are maddening, both for their perceived uselessness in the face of continued violence, and the disingenuousness often contained within. Statements like “Now is not the time” and “Let’s not politicize this” acting as speed-bumps, slowing down forward momentum on engagement with the issues at a time in which the issues are screaming to be discussed.
If I was a victim of gun violence, I don’t think I’d be selfish enough to believe your pertinent discussions on the matter need to be shelved until I “feel better,” whenever such a time might actually occur. In fact, I’d likely be too busy dealing with the trauma to pay attention to your discourse. So me and my feelings are off the table anyway. Your silence sure as shit isn’t actually helping me any, and since I’m likely not paying attention to your discussions, you might as well have them, because at least from those discussions, a measure of prevention might be put in place. I’d think it’d be much more of a disrespectful disservice to me if you clapped a hand over your mouth and held your feelings in (artificially) for my benefit, when it’s not even my benefit you’re concerned with: It’s the appearance of piety while others might be looking. You being quiet in a time of crisis doesn’t help me, and is not helpful overall, so stop acting like you’re doing something useful by shutting up.
Let’s stop using analogies that bring up the fact cars and baseball bats kill more people than guns do. Let’s stop reducing the gun to the level of “tool,” all while removing the context of what that tool does. It doesn’t join boards together. It doesn’t level bookshelves. It doesn’t ferry you from one destination to another, nor does it help turn double plays on the sandlot.
Guns are a tool for putting projectiles into another human being’s body at a high rate of speed.
When you purchase a gun, you are purchasing a potential murder. Maybe it’s a justifiable homicide. Maybe it’s a self-defense so by the book they will rewrite that book to include your example. But it’s still a murder. And you bought it. You knew that. You can’t divorce the tool from its intended use. Yeah, you can kill someone with a hammer. Yeah, you can run someone over with a car. Yeah, you can put someone’s head in an oven, or feed them Windex, or shave their carotid artery. But that’s not what those tools are meant for. Guns are meant for shooting people.
(Yes, some guns are meant for hunting animals, and the number of you still hunting your own meals is sufficiently small enough that to even bring up this example is to slather yourself in the disingenuousness that makes these discussions maddening. This isn’t about hunters, or hunting. This is about people purchasing weapons created for the sole intent of firing them at other humans)
I don’t doubt the belief some have that their gun is meant for self-protection. I’m sure that part of the power-fantasy that goes into choosing to purchase a future murder at the store involves at least one night spent drifting to sleep and imagining the miniature action movie that occurs when a home-invasion is stopped by your quick wits, your alertness, your agile reflexes, and the bark and flash of a tool properly used. You don’t want it to happen. It rightfully scares you, enough to have caused you to purchase a potential murder. But you bought that murder because you, at some point, imagined yourself carrying it out successfully.
Let’s not be disingenuous about the fact purchasing guns is largely keyed-in to the idea that you can purchase safety. That you can purchase power. And maybe you can convince yourself that at some point, you’ll take all the necessary classes, you’ll develop all the necessary skills, you’ll obtain the necessary mindset to make yourself a responsible gun owner that uses their tool properly, for the sake of protection, for the sake of keeping the people you care for safe. Maybe you’ll do just enough to get a paper from someone with an official stamp and a seal that says “Good job, you get it” but are those bars set high enough? Are the hoops they’re asking you to jump through tight enough? Much like people who purchase exercise equipment convince themselves they’ll use it for longer than a month, that they’ll use it correctly, that their purchase wasn’t in and of itself a shortcut to make themselves feel better, feel more empowered, more in control of their destiny.
They didn’t buy exercise equipment. They bought themselves momentary absolution from their guilt over becoming physically unattractive. And a lot of gun owners don’t buy protection. They buy themselves a false sense of security that can put 15 rounds of death into the air at a mile a minute in less than 3 seconds.
So if we’re going to honestly discuss gun control, we need to quit bullshitting each other about what these tools are meant for, what they do, and why we’re buying them. Because it’s not about actually protecting each other. If it was, there’d be a lot more volunteers for the police departments in your town/city/county. There’d be a lot more volunteers for the armed forces, for reasons beyond scholarships and government pensions.
Because if you cared enough about owning your gun to use it to it’s fullest potential, to protect the largest amount of people, if you’re going to undergo the amount of training necessary to ensure you really can save lives with that tool you just purchased at a Wal-Mart along with some video games, a couple sweatpants, and a box of corn-dogs; if your .45 caliber altruism is that pure, why wouldn’t you join an organization that allows you to keep your whole neighborhood safe? If you’re so concerned about keeping people alive that you’d purchase a future murder right over the counter, why wouldn’t you funnel that desire into something that could benefit more than just you and yours? If you’re gonna put yourself on some sort of half-ass patrol with your concealed carry permit, why not actually put yourself on patrol?
See, that’s action. That’s helping. Way more than telling people “too soon” or “Now is not the time” or “It’s just a tool” or “Gun control doesn’t work.” But how many gun owners do you know that care enough to go that far, or put that much time in? How many gun owners do you know that manage to use their concealed carry permit to prevent crimes, to prevent murders? You could argue that you don’t hear those stories because they’re not sexy enough, because they don’t grab the requisite number of headlines. But there we go with that disingenuous bullshit again. You don’t hear those stories as often because they don’t happen as often. Not compared to stories in which someone grabs up their legally purchased murder tool and uses it as intended. Because most people’s power fantasies of saving the day John McClane style are just that: Power fantasies. Daydreams.
You want to talk about tools? Politics is the tool we as a citizenry use to affect social reforms. Asking people to not politicize the issue of gun control is asking that we don’t use the tools available to us to attempt even a mild suppression of the alarming trends in gun violence over the last few decades. Why would you possibly advocate that people don’t use the tools they have at hand, to address the growing number of people using the tools put in the hands of our neighbors, our friends, our children, by messrs. Smith, Wesson, Walther, etc.?
The Second Amendment is fundamentally broken. It has been for a long time. Anyone actually arguing for the idea that we all need guns in case the president decides to hit us with drone strikes needs to consider that we, as taxpayers and voters, are the only ones to blame for continually electing people who, over the past century, have built up such an astounding amount of firepower they can napalm whatever tattered shreds of security blanket the Second Amendment could possibly still provide us. In fact, many of the people advocating we all keep tools of homicide in our homes are people who approve of the military-industrial complex’s insane growth over the past century. If you’re worried about our government turning on its people, then maybe you should pay more attention to the people you elect, and less attention to the stockpile of murder weapons you’re keeping in the closet.
So if we’re going to have these gun control discussions – and we’re going to have them – let’s all have the common courtesy to cut the shit and be honest about where we’re coming from:
In a large majority of examples, when you buy a gun, you are buying a murder to be committed at an unnamed date. Let’s cease using terminology to make that endeavor sound a lot less mean. You’re buying someone else’s death, at your hands. And the majority of you owning those potential murders have never undergone the level of training, physically and mentally, to prepare yourself for what that means. You’re not ready, and you’ve never been ready, and you will likely never be ready. You’ve got to be a very mentally healthy person to withstand the weight of those actions, and their consequences, and that’s not a place a lot of America is at, nor will they be with the current health-care infrastructure in place.
We figure out how to change that? We figure out how to start heading towards a future in which gun control becomes effective. It’s not as simple as melting guns, seizing them, halting production. That’s just as ridiculous a daydream as those who argue the way-too-frequent mass shootings could all be nullified if more people had their John McClane permits tucked next to the holster under their jacket. For as long as we are a civilization, we will have tools of murder available for use. We need to start honestly talking with each other about how we’re going to ensure those tools get used as little as possible.
And that’s the last bit of disingenuousness I want to address: The idea that this discussion is useless if it can’t be reduced to zero sum game. If gun control measures are implemented, murders will still be committed, so there’s no reason to pursue gun control. That’s the same sort of bullshit logic you used to flick at your mom when she asked you to clean your room. “But Mom, why should I clean my room? It’s just gonna get dirty again. Why should I make my bed? I’m just gonna sleep in it. Why should I attempt to make things even a little bit better when things are just going to get messy again?”
If it didn’t hold water when you were whining about picking up your goddamned socks, what makes you think it’s going to hold water when we’re talking about picking up guns?
If you want to argue for this status quo, you better have a damn good explanation as to why those people in that mall in Clackamas, or that theater in Colorado, had to pay that price so you can feel better about buying your own future murders.
Because I would argue that’s a fundamentally unfair exchange.
Originally posted at Edward Copeland on Film, 05/26/2010.
I was 4, and visiting The Dalles, Oregon, during the first Christmas I can consciously remember. My uncle, who had a satellite dish and a 21 inch TV, had bought this VCR for his family. One of those Ford Granada-sized top loading behemoths that were a sign that one had made it in this world. And along with the VCR, he had obtained a copy of a movie I hadn’t yet heard about. A movie called Star Wars.
I was 4. I didn’t understand half of what was flying off the 21 inch screen. I was 3 feet in front of it, close enough to be lost in the scan lines. I don’t remember much, but I remember that I was remembering everything. I was committing it all to memory. It was weird, realizing I was recording these memories as they happened; half toddler/half computer, clad in corduroy and orange, staring at walking carpets and drowning in the wonderful combination of strings and drums and wrenches on guy-wires and gargoyle scuba tanks, the beautiful cacophony spilling from 3 inch speakers on either side of that 21 inch TV.
I remember the hamburger ship. I remember the one-eyed garbage monster. I remember the X ships blowing up the O base and the football player teasing the hell out of the blond dude in the bathrobe. I remember the giant dog with the diagonal belt yelling in time with the drums and the trumpets as they all won Olympic medals for blowing up big gray basketballs. I remember that, and the view out the window.
I was 4, and just behind this strange, beautiful mish-mash of visuals was the window, and porch light nearby illuminated every single fat snowflake descending from the clouds. And to my 4 year old mind, watching this movie with a hamburger ship speeding through Mylar tunnels in something called “hyperspace,” the snow wasn’t falling; The house was flying. And as the Falcon blasted toward Yavin, I fully believed my uncle’s house was ascending towards the cosmos, the Christmas lights bouncing off the white walls, softened by the shaggy brown carpet I was laying on, blending with the light diffusing through the window and melting into the sounds and images vibrating off the TV.
It is my birthday. I am 7 years old. It is December and I’ve spent the last month and a half circling Star Wars toys in the Sears catalogue. Return of the Jedi has been out for about a year and a half, and I still haven’t seen it. I’ve checked out the read-along book from the Marion County bookmobile whenever it is available. I’ve deprived so many kids of their visits to that galaxy far, far way. I read along, I listen along, at least once every day. I color over the read-along book. I fall asleep with the cassette playing on my Fisher-Price tape-deck. The film has just moved to the Star Cinema in Stayton, Ore., December 1984. It is a surprise birthday present from my parents, after constant nagging to do things like tape making-of specials off Channel 6, and buy me action figures they couldn’t afford. December 16th rolls around. My dad shows me the movie listings in the newspaper. My eyes zero in on the Star Wars logo. I look up at him, unblinking, unbelieving. He smiles back.
I’m in the car. I’m in the theater. I’m cracking up my parents because months and months of falling asleep to the read-along has me humming themes as they spill out of the speakers. Tiny hands conducting the London Symphony Orchestra from thousands of miles away, years in the future. I’m saying the lines a second before the actors can recite them. I’m a 7 year old affecting a shit British accent and stepping on Ian McDiarmid’s dialogue. “So be it…Jedi.”
This is the first time I’ve ever been inside a movie theater, and it is everything all at once and I love it.
We’re going home. Amazingly, the AM station segues from some lite rock into, of all things, the Star Wars theme. Snow is blowing across the windshield. It looks like hyperspace. I fall asleep in the backseat, John Williams in my ears. And that’s why, whenever it snows outside, I put in the soundtrack. The one that comes in the plain black cover with the plain white letters that say Star Wars on it. I let Williams play full blast. And I imagine my car is chasing after my Uncle’s house. And if I catch that house, inside there is a 4 year old in corduroy and orange, resting his head on his hands, elbows dug into a shaggy carpet, awakening to the concept of imagination, and realizing the majesty in it.
The visuals of my childhood may look like Jim Henson. But the audio? It’s all John Williams.
An interview by Scott E. Weinberg. Originally posted at Cinematical.com. Reposted here partially to indulge my own ego, and partially because AOL/Huffington Post were giant dicks to Cinematical, and I’d rather people read the interview here than give them hits.
Normally I approach “fan-made” remixes (be they audio, textual, or visual) with a grain of salt, a little charity, and a general sense of disinterest. But it took me less than ten minutes of Fatboy Roberts‘ recent release — Geek: Remixed III — before I realized how impressive this stuff was. My first exposure to his music was via the excellent Portland cartoonist / film critic / bon vivant Mike Russell. My reaction? “I love this Mario Bros. track because it’s not ironic.”
Mr. Roberts was truly enjoying the goofy little Mario ditty, and he wanted to make it sound a little, well, funkier. But then he approached movie music masters like John Williams, Ennio Morricone, and Jerry Goldsmith with the same amount of respect; Fatboy’s additions actively complement the already-excellent music that we know and love. This is not an over-caffeinated kid who is blaring noises over the ‘Jaws’ theme, but a sincere movie-lover who also has a real gift for bad-ass beats.
So I told the guy we should chat. And we did.
Harsh critics call this stuff plagiarism. Loyal fans call it a new angle on some great music. What’s your take?
It’s a nostalgia bath, really. Auditory comfort food. At least, that’s how I always looked at it. Both from the perspective of the stuff I’m sampling and the way I’m interpreting it: I’m taking the music of my nerdy formative years, and combining it with the sort of hip-hop production they stopped doing right around 1997, right before sample laws got really harsh and people started making beats that sounded like they were learning on a Casio made out of Tupperware. I can see the plagiarism argument: I’m essentially taking some genius from John Williams / Jerry Goldsmith / Danny Elfman, taking a razor blade to it and then throwing a sack of breakbeats at it. It’s not entirely original. But “originality” and “pop music” don’t necessarily go hand in hand anyway. Ask Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters what they think about Led Zeppelin’s existence, you’d probably get a different answer than the one Robert Plant would give you.
Every track (from all three albums) contains a theme from a film, a TV show, or a video game. Why is popular culture more fun to sample from than the more traditional DJ resources?
I started doing it because I was a nerd, and I thought there were hidden nuggets of unrecognized funk in some of these movie scores, and especially in the TV themes, and as I was learning how to make beats in the mid-’90s, I realized that you can’t just keep going to the same James Brown/Zapp samples. (That said, I think there’s a Zapp/JB/Parliament sample on every Geek: Remixed album.) And honestly, it was fun to play back a tape for my friends, have them nod their heads, and then spring the sample on ‘em like “Oh yeah, you were just dancing to the theme from Barney Miller.” “WHAAAAA?” “Yeah, and then for my next trick, you’re going to start wilding out to Unicron’s Theme from Transformers: The Movie” “SHUT UP.”
When you hear a musical score you admire, do you start remixing it in your head right away, or does it take a while before you love something enough to “monkey” with it?
It typically takes a while. I think I make note of the moments when a cue feels like it can be flipped and re-arranged to fit a more typical song structure, but they don’t really make themselves apparent to me until I sit down and start deconstructing the cues into their component parts: 4-bar string rhythm here, big orchestral hit there, melody, bass line. From there, I can start stacking parts of cues like funky Lego blocks, adding and subtracting things until I get something nice and chunky sounding to play with.
For example, the ‘Doctor Who‘ remix I did on the third album; I knew it’d been remixed before, to wide acclaim, both by the KLF and by Orbital. But I didn’t know until I sat down for a couple hours separating out the bass and the melodies that my version was gonna end up sounding like someone stuck the TARDIS on 20″ rims and gave it hydraulics. Same thing happened with the Cobra Theme from ‘GI JOE: The Movie.’ But sometimes, like with “Why So Serious” from ‘The Dark Knight‘ – I know exactly how it’s gonna work on first listen.
Music or movies: you have to choose one. What do you do?
I think I go movies. But it’s kind of a cheat, since some of the most powerful and compelling moments in film are only achieved because of the score behind them. The first 15 minutes of “Up,” for example. But I think the opportunities for storytelling are richer in film, ultimately. Especially if you throw in television — some of the finest storytelling ever captured on camera has spilled out over the course of 10 episode story arcs on shows like ‘The Wire’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica.’
What are some of your favorite film scores and/or composers?
John Williams during his golden period: ’77 – ’85. I know others will say that should probably extend out to around ’92 or ’93. Recently, Bear McCreary’s work on ‘Battlestar’ is just awe-inspiring, and Michael Giacchino is some kind of phenom. Lalo Schifrin and John Barry are two of my bigger inspirations as well. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is probably the best piece of Bond music ever written, and even if the Propellerheads hadn’t perfectly reinterpreted that on their own, I think I’d STILL be too scared to attempt touching it. It took me three albums before I finally decided to try remixing “The Asteroid Field” from ‘The Empire Strikes Back.‘ I mean, I know that I’m not REALLY ruining these songs with these remixes. The originals are still there, and if anything, a crappy remix just makes the original look that much better by comparison. But there are some cues that I just won’t touch. There’s not gonna be some ‘Schindler’s List’ scratch tracks on any Geek: Remixed album.
The majority of your albums consists of music that belongs to other people, so (obviously) you cannot sell them. So all of this is just for the fun of it?
Yeah. I started doing them as a creative outlet for myself when my dreams of being a hip-hop producer were sputtering out and dying in my post-high school years in Salem, OR. So I’d make some beats for my aspiring rapper friends, and then they’d leave, and I’d watch ‘Aliens,’ and then I’d go back over to my set-up, and I’d go “I wonder if I can make an actual percussion section out of just the motion-tracker beep and an Alien hissing?” Just to see if I could do it. You can hear me learning how to structure and arrange on the first album, which was compiled out of about a decade’s worth of squirreling away these nerdy oddities. And it goes back to that whole “You’re never gonna believe what I just turned into a hip-hop instrumental” thing. It’s just fun to watch people reinterpreting / rediscovering the music they had relegated to the background of their memories. As in “You did NOT just make a beat out of Yub-Nub, did you?”
Who are your peers? Any other movie-score-remixers we should know about?
Peers is a strange word for me to use, because I consider what I do VERY basic in comparison to the people who’ve trod the same ground. The Eclectic Method is ridiculously good, on a much higher level than I’ll ever attain, both musically and visually: They don’t just remix songs, they remix the videos those artists produced. From what I understand, Daft Punk’s ‘TRON: Legacy’ score is essentially their film-score remix album that became a legitimate film score. Danger Mouse made The Beatles/Jay Z sound like a film soundtrack, and now he’s like, 21st Century Quincy Jones. Girl Talk doesn’t really do film scores, but it often sounds like the soundtrack to the greatest teen movie never made. DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing,” of course. The first real “Film Score Remix” album I remember being made aware of was “Star Wars Breakbeats” by Supergenius. I heard that after I’d done “Don’t Make Me Destroy You” in 1997 and got MAD, but it’s hard to stay mad when the mixes were so good.
There’s been a lot of examples in regular hip-hop, too: I took my basic idea for “Meatlocker,” my ‘Rocky’ remix from the first album, from a horn loop Brand Nubian used in “Punks Jump Up To Get Beatdown.” I remember wanting that song to go in a completely different direction than where it went when I first heard it, which is a ballsy thing to say considering what a classic it is. Same with “Lothos’ Prom,” which uses a sample of violin as played by Rutger Hauer in the ‘Buffy’ movie. Blockhead, a NY producer, used that sample once, extraordinarily well, and I wanted to take a run at it too. And OCRemix is a site that’s been the hub for all video-game remixing for a very long time now. In fact, part of “Pickin Veggies,” from the 3rd album, is built off a re-imagining of the Mario 2 theme done by a group called Estradasphere. There are some serious minds picking through video game scores for sonic gold over there.
There are lots of others, but we all sort of run into the same “anonymous dude” on the internet. I’ve had mixes of mine assigned to other DJs out there. There’s stuff that’s been put on mix tapes with no attribution, or wrong attribution, but I can’t get mad at that. 1) I’m essentially stealing the music in the first place to remix it, so any claims of ownership I might have are pretty negligible (and arrogant, really) and 2) Half the stuff online is incorrectly named anyway. There are probably lots of people who think if it’s a soundtrack, John Williams wrote it, period. The ‘Alien’ score is John Williams, right? He’s the guy who did the theme to ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Forrest Gump’! That kinda thing.
My remix of “Made You Look” by Nas, with the music from the ‘Kill Bill’ trailer? I’ve seen that credited to at least four different DJs. Same with “The Requiem Overture,” which was my attempt at turning that ‘Two Towers’ trailer music into a coherent orchestral piece. I uploaded that thing to a couple fileshare sites in October or November of 2002, and I think currently about 2/3rds of all Anime supertrailers are using that mix. Also: I apologize to everyone who’s had that cue ruined for them due to its overuse by eager YouTube addicts (and Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’). I’m really sorry about that. I didn’t know.
Can you think of any films that are virtually ruined by a bad score? (I call dibs on ‘Ladyhawke’!)
The most recent example I can think of would be Darabont’s ‘The Mist.’ I love that movie to death, but the moment where the jeep is pulling out of the parking lot, and Dead Can Dance just starts warbling up out of nowhere? I remember thinking “This is some ridiculous Zack Snyder ’300′ shit right here.” It just did not fit the tone the movie had worked so hard to build. And then the film shrugs off that misstep with THE scene (you know the scene) and then, in the aftermath – the music comes back, and its even WORSE than before. That’s the most vivid example in my mind right now.
What’s the finest compliment you could receive from a recent fan of your albums?
That they want to keep listening to it, that it’s not a one-and-done sort of experience. Of course, the fact they even gave it a shot in the first place is really satisfying to me. I appreciate that people even want to attempt putting this music in their heads. But the best compliment I’ve gotten is from people who tell me that they hear the original versions of the songs, and get thrown off for a moment because they’re waiting for the drums and the bass to kick in.
What would movies be without music?
A hell of a lot more boring and dry. Not to say there aren’t movies out there that aren’t successful keeping the music to a minimum. It took Kurosawa like 70 years before he would let a composer really breathe on his pictures. But so much of what makes movies such a pop-culture drug comes from the music in them. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, I think we, as people, want our life to be scored. Headphones and an iPod can turn a a basic train ride — a boring citywide commute — into a pretty little montage sequence. I know some of my best memories have music attached to them, whether there was music playing at the time or not.
The cliche goes “The Art is in the Artifice.” There’s nothing more artificial than having a pop song start playing in the middle of a key moment of your life — but there’s no way the end of “The Breakfast Club” works without Simple Minds singing in the background, right?
all 3 Geek: Remixed albums available, with sample info and artwork, available at http://geekremixed.com
Originally written 06/18/2008
You’re a white boy. You’re what other, more jealous white kids would call, in their snotty, mocking tone of voice, “down,” trying to use your slang to devalue what you have; The special gift, bestowed upon your lily-white shoulders by your melanin-rich friends who have deemed you cool enough to be worthy of such a treasure: The Ghetto Pass.
There are plenty of white kids who befriend black kids for the sole purpose of getting that Ghetto Pass. Like a badge of pride for a Suburban Social Butterfly, a hip-hop Boy Scout or Webelo, with a patch on his sleeve that says he managed to infiltrate another culture, like Elvis and Rob Van Winkle before him.
Those kids are chumps, and will never get their Ghetto Pass because inauthenticity stinks like overcooked ham. They’re Graymeat Whiteboys with a piggy, porky scent of desperation wafting off of them. You know em when you see em: They affect the blaccent a little too thickly, they turn up the stereo a little too loudly, they wear the clothes a little too baggy, hoping someone real, someone BLACK, will see them and give them the approval they’re looking for, because they don’t like how lame they are and instead of working on it, they’d rather steal some cool from the next man.
They want that ghetto pass for one reason and one reason only: The power the ghetto pass affords. That power? To say “Nigga” in front of a black person and not get your ass beat. Why do they want that power? Who knows, really? There’s a variety of theories. Maybe it’s just so they don’t have to look sideways when they’re singing along to NWA in the car. Maybe it’s the illicit joy in owning something you shouldn’t be able to have. The freedom to do Chris Rock’s “Niggas and Black People” routine word for word without shrugging and fading into the back of the room after the first few lines. The uncensored parroting back of all the cornerstones of a culture you might not truly understand, and only exists, in your mind, for your own personal entertainment, in a vaccuum, as a fertile soil for stand-up comedy routines and hip hop albums and nothing beyond that.
The Ghetto Pass is a tricky gift to handle. The people who understand there’s more to the Ghetto Pass than just being able to drop N words and not get rib-shots in return are the people who know the secret of the Ghetto Pass: Even if you get one, YOU DON’T EVER, EVER USE IT.
that’s Rule 1. The giving of the Ghetto Pass is symbolic. If you’re smart, you don’t ever use it. You don’t need someone to tell you this, you already know. Because you know there’s more to the culture you’re trying to misappropriate than just the blase tossing off of the word “nigga.” There is no ceremony, no circle of friends in hoods, carrying swords, in a candlelit hall with “Doggystyle” playing. There is no secret handshake or knowing nod during a bonding moment. It’s not Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours. It’s not Pryor and Wilder in Silver Streak. It’s not even Smith and Damon in Bagger Vance. Most times you won’t even know you HAVE the pass until you misuse it and it’s taken away from you. And again, the only proper use of the Ghetto Pass is NO USE at all.
Rule 2. Even if you were to use your Ghetto Pass, say in an extreme circumstance, like say “And then Billy looked at Troy and then flat out called him a…a nigger” you immediately apologize. Even then, you make sure the only person you use The Pass on is the person who gave it to you. Because the Ghetto Pass is non-transferable. Black people don’t have some sort of Borg-like hivemind, white people. If you are given a Ghetto Pass, that information isn’t wirelessly transmitted to all of Black America upon reciept of The Pass. Martian antennae don’t protrude from the fro/rows/puffs/braids/dreads. You won’t be recognized on sight as an owner of The Pass. The Pass doesn’t afford you diplomatic immunity. It just means your friend is cool enough with you to know that you don’t think of him as a “black person” but simply a person, and thus, free to goof on everything that makes him a person, including his skin color from time to time.
Rule 3. Don’t acknowledge that you’ve got the pass. To call attention to the pass means you’re more than likely trying to misuse it. To shine light on your pass is to admit your friendship is less a friendship and more akin to a fraternity pledge. That when you get down to it, you think The Pass is justification for “I can indulge in just a little bit of racism today.” in the same way you do an extra 10 minutes on the treadmill to say “I can have a donut or two at work.” That you can say “Some of my best friends are black” in a totally straight face and all the sadness that phrase inherently holds doesn’t apply to you. This assumption would be WRONG, and as Sam Jackson once eloquently put it, when you make an assumption, you make an ass out of U and Umption. Put light on the pass and you’re simply letting people know how best to snatch it away from you because you’re undeserving.
Rule 4 Don’t act like you want The Pass. It puts undue importance on that aspect of the friendship. Like, what, you can’t be friends with a black guy unless it’s okay for you to say “nigga” in front of him every now and again? Huh? Is that all this is about? Yunno what? I was about to give you this Ghetto Pass, so you don’t have to be all lookin at me sideways when we’re in the car and N.O.R.E. is playin and you’re all sweating and smelling like hot dogs in the passenger seat with your pale ass, nervous as shit, and I thought you was cool in your mousy little whiteboy way, but I think you wanna say “nigga” out loud a little too much. So no, I think I’m gonna hold onto this Ghetto Pass right here. I’m gonna keep it real tight and cozy. You go ahead and you chew on that “nigga” you got waitin to come burstin out your mouth, okay? You grind that up between your teeth and you swallow that motherfucker down. I hope it tastes like chalk. Gritty, nasty, dirty white chalk all dusting up your throat. But dont’ think I dont’ still have somethin for you. You can get this dick. How bout that? That a nice consolation prize? Huh? Go ahead.
Rule 5. There’s no difference between “a” and “er.” The Pass does not recognize such a silly distinction. Even the word “Wigger” is suspect because you need to use the word “nigger” inside of it, and at that point you’ve broken Rule 1 which is, again, you don’t EVER USE THE GHETTO PASS. Mounting a defense of your Ghetto Pass should one try to remove it from your hands will simply result in your losing it faster and possibly more painfully. And the longer the justification/explanation of your improper use of the Pass (which is any use of The Pass) the more embarrassing and prolonged your Whiteboy Probation will extend.
So there you go, white kids. Never before have these secrets of The Pass been so explicitly spelled out. Put them to good use, kids. Honor the rules, and maybe then, a harmony can be achieved. I do this for you out of the goodness of my own heart, the pain of my own experiences, and the hope of a future where I don’t have to look at or listen to stupid fuckin white kids performing some sort of paleface minstrel show at the goddamn bus stop in the hopes some Angel of Being Down will descend upon them and bless them with ill-gotten authenticity. Fronting is, and forever shall be, frowned upon.
Got it, kids? Good.
Stay Black, motherfuckers.
Originally posted 07/18/11 on NerdPuddle.com
Hey Hollywood. It’s me again, yelling into the void. I hope this gets to you okay. I was thinking about this earlier, and I’ve been watching a bunch of your superhero movies, and I dunno, I could be wrong, but I think your conventional wisdom is broken. So I thought I’d try to help out a little, because some of your media empires won’t get great mileage when you’ve got cracked conventional wisdom leaking bad ideas all over the place. Anyway, here you go.
STOP DOING ORIGIN STORIES
When Superhero comics introduced the practice of telling origin stories, they typically came later in a comics run, after it had been proven that the character was worthy of an origin, after growing and maintaining an audience through a series of compelling, popular adventures – then you’d get an origin story that helps shine a new light on why the character acts the way they do, and it would deepen their motivations. The problems with starting your superhero film series with an origin story are several:
1) Everyone knows what’s going to happen. The origin story is so rote at this point you might as well watch a pile of cliches fuck a checklist for 2 hours.
2) Your superhero spends most of the movie bumbling around like an asshole and complaining about how hard it is to live with all these kick-ass powers that most viewers would gleefully murder their fellow man to obtain.
3) The origin story ends just before the superhero you paid money to watch actually becomes the superhero you paid money to watch. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an unfinished handjob – frustrated masturbation with no release.
That’s another good reason to skip the origin story: The 2nd film in your series is typically the one everyone wants to see in the first place. Spider-Man 2. Hellboy 2. X-Men 2. Blade II. The Dark Knight. And while Batman Begins (and Iron Man) are good examples of an origin story done well, The Dark Knight renders everything that happened in Begins utterly irrelevant. All that “world building” that people say Nolan needed to do? It’s done in Dark Knight’s opening bank heist, the gangster meeting the Joker crashes, and the rooftop meeting between Batman, Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon. Everything you need to know about how Nolan’s version of Gotham works is told to you in those three scenes. Hell, Batman Begins probably works better if your first viewing comes after you watch The Dark Knight – much in the way classic origin stories worked.
Here’s the best reason to skip the origin: The finest superhero movie ever made doesn’t even have one. Now, I’ve heard people argue that The Incredibles is an origin story – that it’s the origin of their formation as a superhero team. And yeah, that happens at the end of the film, but that’s not the point of the movie in the slightest. The formation of a superhero team is a result of the story, not the story’s engine. There are no origins for Bob and Helen Parr, and the film is not concerned with why Bob does what he does, or what event made him decide to be super. There are no flashbacks to what gave Frozone his talents, no moment where Dash is learning how to do what he does. The film doesn’t need to, nor (thankfully) wants to waste time explaining why all this fantastical shit is happening. It gives its audience credit enough to be able to roll with it. It’s been about 70 years since the first superhero hit the scene. There’s no reason to spend 2 hours explaining to an audience how superheroes work. I think we’re pretty comfy with the general concept. You can stop bolting training wheels onto your movies now.
STOP MAKING LIVE-ACTION ADAPTATIONS
Another reason The Incredibles works as well as it does? It’s animated. It’s inherently counterproductive to adapt a fantastical story by desaturating it, draining it of its magic, making it greyish brown and altering its iconography because it would otherwise “look silly.” That silly look is a huge part of why it works, and you’re putting a tremendous strain on your suspension of disbelief by adapting the artform to a medium that automatically has huge problems translating those strengths. It’s why Bryan Singer had Wolverine comment on the fact the X-Men were wearing what looked like sleeping bags made out of leather tires. Sure, Singer managed to come up with a look that worked for his movie, but at the cost of a million unnecessary headaches.
Also, it costs way more to facilitate this watered-down translation to live-action than it does to faithfully animate it. Take Superman Returns’ 200 million dollar budget, cut it in half, and let George Miller direct an adaptation of Kingdom Come, with character design and art direction that closely matches Alex Ross’ aesthetics. Most of the time you saw Superman do anything in Superman Returns, he was animated anyway. If one of the biggest appeals of superhero stories lie in its visuals, why limit what you can do with those visuals by tying it to our reality, when you can more easily bend that reality by painting it entirely in the world of animation?
Animated films (and I don’t mean the cheapjack straight-to-video movies where a decent script is hamstrung by arbitrary 70-minute runtimes, oversimplified art direction and 12 fps animation during dialog scenes) are huge business. Go on and take a look at the receipts for anything Pixar or Dreamworks Animation has put out in the last 15 years. The “they’re just cartoons” argument obviously doesn’t hold the weight it (unfairly) used to hold.
And yet the automatic argument is that people basically think animated films “don’t count,” that they’re somehow lessened because usually, they’re family films. That this would somehow be a negative if applied to a superhero movie. Now, setting aside the visceral, kinetic thrills and emotional impact found in movies like Toy Story 3, or How To Train Your Dragon – shouldn’t most superhero movies be family films? Why aren’t they considered as such, either by the people who watch them or the people who make them? It’s the same mindset that allows for Transformers movies – based on a series of toys that are still aggressively marketed towards children 6-10 years old – to feature main characters not just murdering their enemies, but dismembering, disemboweling, decapitating and even urinating on them.
Another reason other reason animated films “don’t count” is that there’s no movie star faces right up front, no Robert Downey Jr smiling from inside a tin suit, no Heath Ledger creeping everybody out from behind a faceful of scars and greasepaint. But this is yet another case of “conventional wisdom” that doesn’t actually hold up to scrutiny. In fact, going animated makes it easier to tap Hollywood’s dying reliance on movie stars to sell tickets.
Casting a big name as a superhero is often counterproductive because it’s hard to see the superhero, instead of a movie-star in a silly suit. For example: Let’s say we adapt Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier (and I mean really adapt it, not neuter both the story and Cooke’s art for a DVD release) If we do it live action, it’s gonna cost upwards of 150 million, and while we might want Jon Hamm or George Clooney to be Superman, it’s going to be too distracting to see either of those guys in the tights. But if we animate it, we can do it for 60-70 million, it looks fucking GORGEOUS, and now we can hire Clooney or Hamm. We get their talent, their acting ability, their legitimacy – just not their potentially distracting, immersion-breaking faces, and we still get to stick their name on the poster. Also, going animated means you don’t have to hire some pouty, babyfaced kid because by the time they finish out the 5 film contract you locked them into, they’ll be pushing 40 and be too old to continue playing ageless demigods.
WORK ON THE SCRIPT FOR LONGER THAN 3 WEEKS
This sort of goes for all moviemaking, not just superhero movies, but superhero movies seem to suffer the most from having really slapdash, lazy scripts that lay bare the swayback skeleton sagging under the weight of a thousand cliches. I never understood why the films that cost the most are the movies that frequently have unfinished scripts being rewritten on the fly during shooting. You’d think that before moving forward on a production equaling the gross national product of about 15 countries combined, you’d want your story tight.
But I think the reason superhero scripts are often lacking is because the people paying for the production are sort of ashamed of these silly movies with these silly concepts and these silly superheroes wearing all this spandex and underwear. And the shame comes because, again – the idea of playing it straight while aiming it at a family audience doesn’t ever really enter in. So you’re staking your career, your industry reputation, on your ability to make something as inherently corny and goofy as Green Lantern be “cool,” whatever that nebulous word means for this year, for people who take great pleasure in smashing their now dirty, cracked childhood playthings together until they break. And the whole endeavour doesn’t alleviate feelings of infantility, it highlights them even further, making the suspension of disbelief into a sisyphean task.
What might make this easier would be to use the stories that captured audience imaginations in the first place. Don’t just reheat a loose amalgam of story details and slap that up onscreen – pick a classic story, and adapt it. Weird pseudo-sequels to 30 year old movies that incorporate “real-world” elements like bastard kids and absentee fathers didn’t help Superman out any. But Mark Waid’s Birthright is sitting on bookshelves, shining like a diamond, a Superman story that could potentially outshine even Donner’s 1978 classic. Why isn’t it getting picked up? Maybe it’s that original story built around generic aspects of more succesful stories means you don’t have to pay the original writer or put them in the credits and send them residuals checks. But now that you’re saving hundreds of millions by no longer awkwardly translating your superhero story to live-action, you can afford to spend a couple extra shekels on an aspect of the production where your money goes the farthest – the story.
Part of the reason Thor and Iron Man work as well as they do is because those movies let their superhero have fun being a superhero. And it is fun. It should be. Maybe the purest example of this is, again, in The Incredibles – Dash is running from a bunch of henchmen who are trying to decapitate him with hovering UFO-style aircraft featuring a giant spinning blade. And his escape route is blocked by a large body of water. He has no choice – he has to go into it. And so he shuts his eyes and braces for impact – only it never comes. He looks down at his feet, a Road-Runner-ish blur moving across the surface of the water. And he starts giggling at how awesome this whole thing is.
Most Superhero movies feature a pouty, sad, angsty people to whom powers are not a blessing, but an annoyance, and those powers are employed very grimly, our heroes’ facial expressions less “Yeah, this kicks ass” and more “This lemon tastes like farts.” I’m not advocating that superheroes be grinning idiots constantly elbowing their useless sidekick friends like “Hey, aren’t I awesome? How awesome am I?” but superpowers shouldn’t always be the horrible, soul-crushing burden they’re often portrayed as in live-action adaptations. Have some fun, dammit.
So, yeah, there you go. I guess maybe you can print this out and stick it to the fridge or something, with one of those cutesy fridge magnets like a ladybug or a bottlecap, so next time you guys are like “Hey, lets make a movie about a dude who wears his underwear on the outside,” and someone goes “Yeah, those are cool. I’m gonna go to the fridge and get a beer, you guys want a beer before we start spending a shitload of money?” You’ll see this on the fridge and be like “Oh shit, that’s right, we gotta do something about our conventional wisdom because you can’t make every superhero movie like Nolan made Batman,” and maybe people won’t get burnt out on crappy carbon-copy superhero movies like the ones you keep making.
originally posted August 29th, 2011, at nerdpuddle.com, in response to this gizmodo article by Alyssa Bereznak
Let’s get this out of the way, right up front.
I don’t like Magic: The Gathering either. I don’t share any of my friends’ affinity for it, I find it mostly boring, and when it is played in my presence, I take my presence elsewhere, for both their benefit and my own.
There is nothing wrong with that. Not everyone has to have the same nerdy pursuits, and I perfectly understand when my friends choose to leave the room, as I am spitting facefuls of hate and invective at the both the joystick and my idiot fingers during marathon sessions of Street Fighter III.
Now, lets say, for the purposes of the following hypothetical, that I am single, and I am using a dating website in order to procure myself dates.
Let’s further say that, after combing the muck and detritus of the options provided by the internet, I find myself connecting with someone who seems to be a decent person, and I end up going out on a date with them.
Let’s further say that, after pleasantries and a plate of calamari at a nice restaurant, I discover that this potential suitor is not only a professional Magic: The Gathering player, they’re like the fucking Ken Wayne Walter Michael Jordan Payton Gretzky Jennings of the Magic world.
Now, would I find the possibility that most of my significant others’ time will be spent in a tournament, thinking about a tournament, in transit to a tournament or preparing for a tournament to be somewhat of a turn-off, especially if I find the game that person excels in to be largely boring?
Yeah. I probably would.
Would I weigh that against this potential suitor’s other, more positive traits, before making a decision as to whether or not I pursued anything further? It’s only fair, after all. It would be the same if it this suitor was a high level competitor in Football, Basketball, Poker, Starcraft, Scrabble, Spelling Bees, Dog Grooming, Competitive Beard Knitting, whatever. Of course, there are mitigating concerns there; The pay-rates for being a professional in those above activities varies kinda wildly, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that wasn’t a factor. But it wouldn’t be the factor, nor should it.
Would I expect the person across the table from me to do the same when they find out I do something they would view as equally puzzling/befuddling, like, say, podcasting? Or blogging for something called Gizmodo, or NerdPuddle? Or touring the country trying to record every last Weird Al concert as it happens, or personally funding/filming a documentary on the rise and fall of Tower Records?
Yeah. I would. In fact, the majority of my apprehension and fear in this hypothetical date would come almost entirely from that line of thinking.
You know what I wouldn’t do?
I wouldn’t, after deciding to reject this date, turn around and publish some poorly thought-out bullshit about it on the internet. Especially if I considered myself any sort of writer who expected large quantities of people to read it and consider it representative of my body of work.
I wouldn’t have posted multiple links to their nerdy successes as if they were punchlines, or as if I was outing them somehow.
I wouldn’t have tried to justify my hypocritical shittiness in a tired shrug of a final paragraph that reads like superficial college-age navel gazing – if you were cross-eyed, you possessed an outie, and you were looking at your own asshole in a mirror.
Because I would have realized that, for most people clicking on an article about OKCupid, they likely would already know all the “harsh lessons” I was trying to warn them of, since the site’s been around for about a fuckin decade, now. I wouldn’t have opened with the admission that I was drunk when I joined, either.
I would have realized that, noting the startling lack of any useful information that wasn’t already blatantly fucking obvious, the remainder of my article would have essentially boiled down to “Oh my God I went out on a date with a World Champion Magic Player what a nerrrrrrrd right?” and that might not have played all that well on a site with Gizmodo’s readership.
Let’s play another hypothetical, though:
Let’s say I’m reading an article like the one above, and I’m properly annoyed at the tone of what I consider a turdly little blog post. That I put myself in the shoes of the person being mocked, and I get pretty upset at the idea that someone could dismiss and disparage me for nothing more than enjoying my nerdish pursuits.
Would I think that it’s more than a bit unfair to be discarded for that? Yeah, I probably would. Would I think that there’s more to a person than their choice of pastime? Yeah, I probably would. Would I hope the angry nerds who are busy vilifying this person for their shallowness are noting their own shallowness in the majority of their responses?
Yeah, I probably would. But they won’t. They haven’t, and I don’t know as if people are going to start in anytime soon.
I think one of the points that got buried under a bunch of bad writerly decisions is this: It’s okay to not like some aspects of nerdery. Someone who got paid to cover the Nintendo 3DS is allowed to not like Magic: The Gathering. They’re allowed to wonder, in a mild, mocking awe, at the idea that people can be so good at playing a card game that a tournament subculture sprang out of it. I would hope they would have the decency to squash those sentiments before they come burbling up from the gall-bladder region, but its a perfectly normal, healthy thing to possess discernment – so long as you take the time to nominally know what the fuck you’re talking about.
But too often, nerds react to the idea that someone doesn’t like what they like with a sense of wounded incredulity. The most common response I get when I tell someone I haven’t watched something they love, or haven’t read something they swear by, or worse, simply don’t like what they’ve sunk a lot of time into is “Oh my god what’s wrong with you?”
Now, what they likely meant to say was “Oh wow I wish you would give this a shot because it’s brought a lot of joy and pleasure into my life and I only wish to share that same feeling with you and further once you know what I’m talking about we can add to that experience by sharing discussions on it!”
But it too often comes out as some accusatory bullshit that serves only to create some sort of instant nerd hierarchy in which you are now deemed lesser. There is something wrong with you for not having consumed the media they’ve consumed in the rates they’ve consumed it. It’s the sort of defensive, snotty reaction that leads to sentences like the following becoming less punchline, more axiom:
You know who the nerd is in the room because they’re the one telling you you’re not cool enough to be a nerd.
Which gets to the other point: You are not what you like. You are more than that. Rob Gordon was an asshole, not a role model. And if you subscribe to the idea that you are defined solely by the media you consume, maybe you should be dismissed/discarded by potential suitors. Because if all you have to offer as a human being is your ability to regurgitate pop-culture? You’re in trouble. There’s gotta be more than that. The biggest crime of that article is that it seemed the writer never took the time to discover whether there was anything more to @JonnyMagic00 aside from his Magic playing. He played his card, she sniffed in disdain, went home and turned it into something with which to generate site hits. Sure, he devotes a lot of time to playing a card game, so much so that he’s managed to get monetary recompense for it. But I wondered if there was more to the guy than simply “I play Magic: The Gathering,” She never took the time to find out, or if she did, she cut it from her post.
It’s part of what made me bristle in response to Patton Oswalt’s Wired article about the death of nerd culture – his definition of nerd seemed to be “merely putting effort into choosing which consumer product you’re going to build a personality around.” There’s way more to being a person than simply accruing a bunch of fictional experiences via comics, video games, movies and music and using them to shape the direction of your personality. And if you’re going to self-define, a necessary but tricky proposition even for the most well-adjusted of us (a number I most definitely do not count myself among) you have to allow for the definitions to be so much broader than that.
Maybe you shouldn’t say “Oh my God what the fuck is wrong with you?” when you find out someone hasn’t watched Star Wars.
Maybe you shouldn’t say “Holy shit you weren’t joking about playing Magic: The Gathering?” when you find out someone plays it.
And maybe you shouldn’t take the nerdery that you’ve finally gotten comfortable admitting is a big part of your person and using it to shame other nerds into believing they’re somehow not cool enough to sit at your table. Because if Alyssa Bereznak’s article and comments get across any one idea clearly, its that nerds are getting increasingly more comfortable on sneering from the other side of social ostracization. I read more than a few responses that led with “You’re not even that hot.” And if people are getting sick of the (over) usage of the term “nerd” or “geek” now, it’s really gonna suck when the term loses all meaning entirely because there won’t be any difference between how we act now and how the “cool kids” acted back then.
Originally posted at Cracked.com 03/2010
The Academy Awards are like the Super Bowl for geeks. The betting pools, the bean dip, the coma-inducing length, it’s pretty much the same silly spectacle, but with a couple significant differences 1) The spectators are wearing stained couture purchased from TFAW.com instead of Eastbay.com 2) The Super Bowl actually has worth as an indicator of quality.
In an effort to shade the pageantry with a modicum of perspective, I present some of the greatest Oscar fuckups in the past 25 years. This is a gentle reminder to you, the discerning reader, that if you treat the Oscars as some sort of authority on what makes a film great, you’re doing it wrong. Why look to the Academy for any sort of validation of your tastes when it’s constantly doing shit like the following:
The Circle of Ineptitude: Best Actor (1974, 1992, 2001)
In 1974, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson were in their prime, and turned in two of the most iconic performances in the history of American cinema—Nicholson as J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. It’s the acting equivalent of Magic vs Bird in the 84 NBA Finals.
But your prime is not necessarily a good place to be in the eyes of the Academy. The Academy might only hand out one “lifetime achievement award” each year, but where you are in your career, and how “due” they think you are (more on this bullshit later) seem to matter just as much as your work in the movie tattooed on the base of the goofy gold dildo you win for “Best At Being in Movies.”
That’s why the 1974 Academy Award for Best Actor went to Art Carney for playing an old fart on a cross country trip with his cat in Harry and Tonto, a movie you’ve almost definitely never seen. This is the acting equivalent of giving the MVP in 1984 to Kurt Rambis even though Bird and Magic are standing right fucking there.
Carney was a good guy, who’d had a solid career on stage and screen. But he probably would have been just as happy being featured in the “Dead Famous People We Love More Than Dead Key Grips” slide-show they do every year. We wouldn’t begrudge him his moment of recognition if The Academy didn’t operate in something I call “The Circle of Ineptitude.”
See, skipping Pacino in 1974 meant that come 1992, he was “due.” So 18 years after the initial transgression, the Academy gave Pacino the Oscar for doing a Yosemite Sam impression in Scent of a Woman. This, in turn screwed over Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, who they ended up rewarding in 2001 for the Wayne Brady impersonation he did in Training Day.
The problem is that actors, and the people who direct and write for them, tend to take Oscars seriously. These days, Pacino shouts every line of dialog in an inexplicable Cajun accent, because that’s what they finally gave him the statue for. When the barometer for artistic success in your industry doesn’t even really care if you’re all that good at what you do, then why should you? It’s no wonder the two best actors of a generation would end up lazily goggling at each other in shit like Righteous Kill.
Genre Snobbery: Best Picture 1981, Best Actress 1986
Everyone remembers the slick bit of larceny that opens Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy leaves a bag of sand on a podium and yoinks a golden. That year at the Academy Awards, Chariots of Fire pulled the same trick, snaking the statue out from under Spielberg, leaving him looking all sad panda with a sack of sand in his hand. This theft is a good example of the genre snobbery that makes phrases like “Oscar Bait” even possible. All anyone really remembers from Chariots of Fire is the scene where a bunch of dudes in John Stockton shorts sprint along the edge of a beach. If that’s all it takes to win an Oscar, where’s the Best Picture for “Rocky III?” If it can’t even legitimately win the Oscar in the category “Best Homoerotic Coastal Track Meet,” how the hell does it end up winning Best Picture over what is arguably the finest example of pure cinema Spielberg ever created?
A little bit more of that genre snobbery, mixed with some patronizing grandstanding to look “understanding: Marlee Matlin turned in a good performance as a feisty deaf janitor who gets boned by William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God, but what Sigourney Weaver did with James Cameron’s ALIENS is nothing short of a miracle. Think about what Ripley was on the page after Cameron was done with her: A strange riff on Rambo (which he’d just rewritten) as a repentant mother looking to redeem herself as a parent. He stuck this characterization into the middle of a movie about drooling, fanged penis monsters that shit eggs with face-raping catchers mitts inside of them. And Weaver made it one of the single most influential performances in the last 25 years, obliterating the restrictions on what a woman can do in a movie, and paving the way for characters like Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers and Beatrix Kiddo, among others.
Anti-Balls Bias: Best Picture (1990, 1994, 1998) Best Actress (2000)
There seems to be an unwritten rule in the Academy that says roughly this: “The statue we’re giving out doesn’t have any balls – neither should the movie we give it to. Therefore, if your movie is oogy, icky, yucky and potentially grody, you can forget winning best picture.” Even though some of the most powerful and beautiful films in American cinema are ruthlessly violent, physically and emotionally (Raging Bull, which lost to Mary Tyler Moore is Mean: The Movie) The Academy would rather your film have all the edge of a fucking doily.
In 1990 the Academy rewarded a boring love letter to the Noble Savage fallacy, Dances With Wolves, snubbing Goodfellas, and making Martin Scorsese wait another 16 years in the Circle of Ineptitude to finally collect his little gold man for The Departed. Whereas Goodfellas is a major influence on directors like Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, and Matthew Vaughn, and arguably the finest mob movie ever filmed, Wolves has all of two lasting contributions to cinema: Mary McDonnell’s fine ass, and a basic plotline James Cameron stole for his 3D Fetish-Porn movie. Afterwards, Costner completely lost his fucking mind, bringing us both Waterworld and The Postman, leaving the rest of his filmography looking like the latter’s post-apocalyptic wasteland. His broken, pockmarked career is small consolation in the face of this injustice.
I don’t give too much credence to the IMDB top 100 list. Those rankings are created by the same people who get in fights in YouTube comments sections over whether Team Jacob could beat up Teen Wolf. (The answer, by the way, is “Headbutt a speeding train you fucking morons”) But for the longest time, the #1 movie on that list was The Shawshank Redemption, and even snobby, douchey elitist assholes like myself had to admit, you can make an argument for it. But it’s hard to say it’s the best film of all time when it might not even be the best film of 94. Pulp Fiction didn’t just deconstruct genre filmmaking, it obliterated it in a coke-fueled fury, stabbing convention in the chest with a giant needle, rebuilding the noir as a candy coated cyanide pill cut with cayenne pepper, attached to a ball-gag and fitted to your unsuspecting head.
Of course, neither movie won Best Picture – that went to Bob Zemeckis’ Boomer-friendly fantasy film with all the bite of a bowling ball, starring Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, the living personification of Hollywood’s favorite Oscar-Bait cliché: The Magic Retard. It’s hard to imagine such a saccharine turd could have been shat onscreen by the same guy that brought us Used Cars, but not only did it happen, he won Best Picture for it. He never made a decent movie again. Okay, maybe Cast-Away. But that’s as close as he gets.
Let’s say you’re the Academy: If the Weinsteins want to buy your awards, and they’ve got the money, why would you say no? You know that outside of the “Oscar Nominated!” blurb on the dvd, they’re totally worthless awards. Even the blurbage is devalued from a marketing standpoint, when you can use the phrase “The Academy-Award Nominated Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” with a straight face. Plus, the Weinsteins are some fat, scary motherfuckers. So why not let them prostitute the Oscars to a level that would embarrass even Karl Rove and Rahm Emanuel? They’ve got the money, and they’ve got no shame. How else was the empty, cutesy trifle of Shakespeare in Love going to get a shot at the gold in the same year Saving Private Ryan came out?
Sure, the WWII flick had those unnecessary bookend scenes with Aged Private Ryan, and it was impossible to pay attention to what the old fart was muttering when his sweatered granddaughter is standing behind him gently jiggling in the Normandy breeze. But the movie sandwiched in between those bulbous bookends is right up there with Schindler’s List in terms of powerfully emotional filmmaking. If only Spielberg had dolled Ryan up and put him on the stroll for a month, maybe he’d have 2 Best Pictures on his mantle instead of just the one.
By the year 2000, Julia Roberts made a lot of people a lot of money in Hollywood, but she’d somehow missed out on winning a Best Actress award, most likely because she’s not that fucking good. But the film she was in, Erin Brockovich was like cutting the crusts off Silkwood and cooking it in an Easy-Bake Oven with the heat set to “feel-good.” Her main competition, Ellen Burstyn, already won her statue back in the 70’s for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, so it was safe to snub her portrayal of Sara Golfarb in Requiem for a Dream. Didn’t matter that Burstyn turned in the performance of her fucking life: Not only was Roberts “due,” but Requiem was about ugly people, doing gross things, not pretty people smiling like someone shoved a carrot up Mr. Ed’s asshole. The same thing is about to happen this year: Sandra Bullock is to acting as blowup dolls are to fucking, but she’s been reliably cute onscreen for 20 years, and that girl from Precious is real fat, so Bullock probably gets the trophy for The Blind Side. She’s due, and that’s that.
The Unbearable Whiteness of Being on the Academy: Best Picture (1989, 2005)
Accusing the Academy of making decisions for political reasons isn’t necessarily a critique. Movies are cultural events, and if the zeitgeist makes an “issue movie” more potent, there’s no reason that factor should be removed from the equation. The problem is how bad the Academy tends to fuck up the math.
Do The Right Thing is generally considered one of the most potent American films about race. It’s one of only five movies ever to have been selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry during its first year of eligibility.
The film’s climactic race riot came three years before the entire city of Los Angeles followed suit. At the time of it’s release, Spike Lee’s film was a wakeup call to a pop culture landscape that spent the 80s convincing itself that racial tensions were a thing of the past. Sure, racism still existed in 80s movies, but only as a setup for snappy one liners from the darker half of a buddy cop duo.
The Academy’s choice for Best Picture in 1989 was Driving Miss Daiey, an ode to the quiet dignity of a black servant (Morgan Freeman) who spends the majority of his life eating the shit shoveled 24/7 by a wrinkled sack of racism in a sundress. Daisy was 48 Hours for the art house set—which means the film has less pulse than a bowl of oatmeal. Daisy got the award for being a palatable examination of race, an issue that was on people’s minds that year. It just happened to be on people’s minds because a much better movie had sounded the alarm.
Regardless of the issues, Do The Right Thing is a better looking, better edited, and better acted film. Even if Lee’s movie had never existed, Daisy was still worse than Born on the Fourth of July and My Left Foot, two nominated movies that hurt themselves by splitting the sentimental cripple vote. However, Daisy had no such problem since Do The Right Thing wasn’t even fucking nominated.
The Circle of Ineptitude extends to issues as well as actors. In 2005, the Academy finally proved they were willing to reward a movie that acknowledged the issue of racial tensions. Of course, Best Picture winner Crash was a ridiculous fairy tale about race relations in Los Angeles that most people had already forgotten by the time the Oscars rolled around. Two far better and more politically relevant movies, Brokeback Mountain and Capote, were both overlooked, presumably for splitting the pro-homo vote.
The Clusterfuck of Dunces: Best Picture (2001, 2003)
All the previously listed fuckups combined like some sort of Voltron made out of dipshits to make the 2001 and 2003 Academy Awards completely irrelevant. Witness the 5 car pile-up of idiocies that occurred when the ballots were cast: Ron Howard was “due” after Oscar favorite Apollo 13 lost to underdog Braveheart, which the Academy decided had just the right combination of historical inaccuracy and treacly romance to overcome the Anti-Balls Bias. This snub put Howard in the spin-cycle of the Circle of Ineptitude, which finally spat him out in 2001, when his movie A Beautiful Mind was up against another 3-hour epic, The Fellowship of the Ring, a stirring film about gay midgets with funny accents stabbing each other in sweeping green pastures. Fellowship was, in hindsight, the best of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and would have been considered the favorite for Best Picture were it not for the rule of Genre Snobbery
It didn’t matter that Howard’s version of The Magic Retard was a badly bowdlerized adaptation of a profoundly complicated man’s life, nor that said adaptation was written by the unrepentant hack who shit out Batman and Robin. Opie got his statues, leading to the 3rd Hobbit movie – the one with the 30 minute pillowfight – sweeping everything it was nominated for in 2003 as a make-up move. And that’s a perfect microcosm of why you shouldn’t give a shit about what movie wins an Oscar. The passage of time reveals a movie’s true quality, not the number of gold statues it won. Citizen Kane didn’t need the Best Picture, neither did Raging Bull, or Dr. Strangelove, or Rear Window, or Star Wars. Keep that in mind while you’re watching the circus, and you’ll have a better time all around.