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ebogjonson's January 2006 archive

January 31, 2006


Coretta Scott King passed away yesterday. Looking at the above picture of her (taken on the eve of her wedding to Martin?) I keep thinking how no one ever really knows where they'll end up or what will to them happen along the way. You can't imagine it, not even when (particularly when?) you've positioned yourself to live a life of import or achievement. The completed edifice of event and recollection that eventually comes to stand-in for the dead is always full of gaps, retains a persistent aura of mystery even when the record is laid out on CNN.com, the NYT, wikipedia.

I want to animate that pic of Coretta, ask it the question I always want to ask yearbook pictures: So what exactly are you looking at, Coretta? This particular style of portrait - the subject's vaguely existential, unsmiling gaze directing the viewer off the page - always strikes me as having been designed for posthumous, elegiac contemplation. Is she looking at Martin, canonized, dead, his FBI-documented infidelities always just an FOIA request away? Of course she is. The newly dead always look like they can see what's coming in their pictures, as if they pretty much know everything I know. You can diagram the whole thing, draw dotted lines that connect your eyes and hers and history. In this diagram, all the stuff that will go into the coming tallies of her life and death sits equidistant between you. You're looking right at her and it, and Coretta, with that other-directed gaze, is looking at something else entirely, the story of her own life just a flicker in her peripheral vision. That story is clearly unimportant to her now (then?), and the longer she's gone the more you will wonder: so what are you looking at?

History is written by the victors in so much as they are the ones around to do the talking and, even worse, our generation of victorious living honor the stories of those who are gone in direct proportion to their value. I mean value as literally and as crassly as possible here: Are they instructive, these stories? Can we sell them? Will they help us pass a class? Are we entertained? Will that story help me take another step (and ideally, one after that), this at a time that my strength seems otherwise exhausted and the sane/smart thing to do would be to lay down and rest? The stories of those who are gone are like a layer of thatched sticks bridging a ravine we find ourselves forced to cross. Depending on how confident we are in the story we either crawl or stride to the other side, and then the thing further surprises us by holding up or failing for reasons that strike us (if not "in the end," than just on the other side) as completely unexpected. The story gets us across the absence where the missing one used to be, and sometimes it's by falling into the hole that it most honors its purported subject. If we are lucky enough not to fall in the ravine with the story we stand on the ravine's edge and take our medicine: You should have waited, the wreckage says, should have collected more stick. You should have been truer to me.


Naim June Paik also passed this weekend. Hat tip, Jayce/dj/Rupture.

Posted by ebogjonson in memory at 5:27 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 25, 2006

about Final Fantasy VII

The new year is getting off to a slow start at ebogjonson.com, so in order to keep the page from timing out I'll be reposting some old writing. This is an article from January 06, 1998 about video games and movies that I wrote for the Village Voice. Looking back at the piece today I cringe a little bit at the amply evident traces of both writerly and editorly haste, but I still like some the general ideas.

My line of work means I get to spend most of my daylight hours on things most people of a certain age and temperament consider entertainment or leisure. There are the usual distractions like television, movies, and books--media that I'm lucky enough to make a meager, vaguely itinerant living off of consuming--and then there are video games, a lifelong obsessive-compulsive habit. The extrovert side of that habit saw me spend most of my teens parked in front of coin-op machines. The internal cocooning side involved a series of home game consoles (a Pong box, a Magnavox Odyssey*2 machine, an Atari 2600, 8- and 16-bit Nintendos, and now a Sony PlayStation). If I were forced by a desert-island scenario to choose one part of the mediascape with which to spend the rest of a marooned life (something akin to a day job), nine times out of ten I would pick the movies. But a funny thing happened this year. In November, Sony and vid-game maker Squaresoft released a three-CD role-playing game called Final Fantasy VII, and besides being one of the biggest and most extravagant home-console video games ever made, it's also the first game I've ever played that was in its own way at least as good as a movie.

It's not the kind of thing that will play at the New York Film Festival anytime soon, but some games are starting to feel a lot like what get called ''the movies'' by the vast majority of consumers, evoking a nascent, electronic Hollywood where the pleasures of the multiplex are reproduced in a set-top box. Final Fantasy is a sprawling sword and sorcery game, familiar to anyone who ever tried to fight their way out of adolescence with a handful of Dungeons & Dragons dice, but with its broad-but-tiny characters engaged in outsized struggles, its righteously straightforward narrative, and its glossy virtual eye candy, it not only matches your average midlevel genre pic but also beats it in one very important respect: you're the star.

If you want to give a name to FFVII's novelty, you'd have to use a previously oxymoronic phrase: interactive movie. Like any Hollywood movie, FFVII is less the product of individual vision than corporate investment and manpower, costing in the $10 million to $20 million range and using the talents of over 100 technicians, most of them animators and character designers who put together the game's many full-motion video sequences. Cool video sequences are basic ingredients in most games--even the non-narrative fighters and shooters offer them as goads and rewards for mayhem--but in role-playing games like FFVII, the movie within the game unfolds in animated sequences that interrupt the flow of play, providing exposition, alternate endings, and rewards for an obscure find or a difficult kill. A game like Final Fantasy surpasses the rest of the pack, though, the way any good, big-budget Hollywood movie would--with scale. Strung end to end and without the hours of traveling and monster killing, a tape of the full-motion sections in FFVII would be about four hours long [EBOG note: This actual runtime is closer to three hours.] and look like a well-executed digital anime: a very, very long movie (are you listening, Kevin Costner?) with characters, a recognizable plotline, and dazzling views of surreal, digitally animated vistas (a city built in the shape of a cannon, or a misfired rocket ship tilting on its pad like a moon-bound Tower of Pisa, minutely rendered curlicues of smoke drifting from its belly).

Unlike the cinema's one-way string of directed pleasures, the movielike gems inside the game have to be fought for and discovered, the player's skill and decisions opening up certain options while foreclosing others as the game and the player work together to produce a coherent story whose visual and narrative limitations are often smoothed over by the pleasures of game play. That's why although FFVII's visions of small-screen apocalypse (your job here, as in most genre entertainments, is, of course, to save the world) might not compare to ID4, and its characters' deaths (replete with sad, trilling soundtracks and the slow-motion roll of pixilated tears) might not carry the same punch as Darth Vader's death in Return of the Jedi, they do provoke an emotional response. They've been earned by wit and luck over the 70 or so hours it takes to finish the game, an investment that sutures the user into the story in a way that previously only books or episodic television have achieved.

Hollywood itself has always had a vague interest in interactive moviemaking, various corners of the film industry seeing a bit of the future but finding themselves unable to do much about getting there. Attempts have been made to jazz movies up on the receiving end, but they've almost always been reduced to the status of gimmick by a basic truth of the medium: movies often play in theaters. Would-be interactive paradigm shifters have tried to work with the primal scene of the darkened communal screening space and have ended up with niche jokes, weird echoes of the script-by-committee production process (audiences choosing the next scene by pushing a button), or winking attempts to widen a film's sensory bandwidth (3-D, putting fart smells on scratch-and-sniff cards).

Even that barrier will fall, though, and someday soon. Online interactive play spaces, like the Web site based on the old-school Ultima role-playing games, allow thousands of users to inhabit the same universe, fighting, living, and building up their hit-points in a reactive universe that mimics the communality of the moviegoing experience. Ultima Online doesn't look as good as Final Fantasy or even Spawn, but eventually it will, at which point Hollywood will have a smaller range of pleasures to call wholly its own, namely art lensed through a director's distinctive vision or, on the other hand, simultaneous experience in an atomized, electronic age--the celluloid industry eventually having to sell itself on the body heat in theaters.

The thing that strikes me most while playing today's games and watching today's movies, though, is that old boundaries and borders between different parts of culture and media only grow thinner while pleasure (like William Gibson's information) gets freer, moving between venues that are simultaneously more personalized and more far-flung. Arguments about creativity wax and wane, but you can't deny that the broad pleasures that used to be confined to the movies have become spread pretty wide, popping up in theaters to be sure but also contained in soundtracks, action figures, and, of course, video games. Nine times out of ten, the movie version beats the game, but there are other times (whole weeks even) when the game isn't just better--it's the movie, too.

Posted by ebogjonson in garchival at 3:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King, Adult Swim, 2006

So, the day before MLK Day, 24 assassinates the first black president. Over on Adult Swim, the Boondocks envisions a great "What If?" fantasy of mine by bringing MLK back to life, only to proceed to (pretty much) flub the thing entirely.

Why flubbed? For starters, what's the news-flash in suggesting MLK would be disappointed in the state of the world and black America? I'm disappointed in the state of the world and black America and I'm just some guy. Of course MLK would come back against the war in Iraq and at extreme logger-heads with the cable TV war-entertainment complex. There's no new information or analysis in either, but by teasing those propositions out and turning them into sub-plots the show chooses cheap, easy cynicism over speculative, lucid dreaming. I mean, this is a cartoon on cable at 11pm doing a "What If?" riff. What more license does anyone involved need to go for imaginative broke than that?

Instead of lucid dreaming, last night's Boondocks settled for riffing on time-traveler agnosia. (All that rap and the giga-Ipods and the booty shaking! Oy!) The problem is that time travelers are always already shocked by future media, this even when their time machines are cardboard boxes. Remember Videodrome and the homeless shelter where hobos watch TV all day? The Boondocks moment where MLK and Huey stare aghast at BET is just a shaded, flipside echo of that imagining of TV as "the retina of the mind's eye." The untold story isn't in how the retina was detached. (That's the opening premise.) The real story is in the process of reattaching said retina, the big questions being how, through what means, to what end, does it hurt, and so on.

Or, put another way, last night's episode is a form of hero abuse. I'm all for deconstructing prevailing myths, but what's the upside in bringing MLK back only to write him as getting bullied by Bill O'Reilly? This is like imagining that Nelson Mandela got out of prison after 20 years only to wander around Johannesburg and stare melancholy through plate-glass windows of malls and McDonalds, all the while shaking his head at the deprivations of globalization. In so much as MLK comes back from the dead and interacts with O'Reilly at all, he comes back to (non-violently) destroy him, to make him obsolete, to out-point him in the ratings and so on. He comes back to end the ratings system altogether, to start his own cable company, bring back live mass rallies, whatever. These aren't science fictional, these are the questions and projects daily set before anyone engaged with media making or politics or just plain living in our particular kind of now. And sure, Cornell West's rap record was, like, lame. And Al Gore's cable station is a mite too earnest. But those dudes aren't responding the questions raised by the mass mediascape by submitting to bullying by idiots. Engaging the problem of the mass - the how, through what means, to what end, does it hurt, and so on - doesn't guarantee a positive result. (Like a good record, for example.) It does mean, though, that you were in the fight, and The Boondock's MLK was nowhere near it.

The moment in the episode in when MLK says fuck it and goes off to Canada feels right (in a self-immolated Buddhist monk kind of way), but mostly because his refusal to engage the bullshit is most immediately directed at his imprisonment in an episode of Boondocks in the first place. MLK's media implosion via n-word sets him free from the episode but only at the cost of his own existence and in the furtherance of the show's tendentious comedy-politricknal hijinks. That his exit speech somehow sparks a thoroughly pointless "revolution" is only insult to injury, as gassing all those thousands of pixellated nuccas on the White House lawn to install Oprah as POTUS is an Orwellian "victory is defeat" nightmare if there ever was one. I mean, Oprah?

So what could the episode coulda, woulda, shoulda looked like? How about an "Animal Man"-era Grant Morrison storyline? Or a Steve Erickson novel? The problem of a character's agency against the grain of his/her own imposed characterhood (up to and including war against their creator) is a staple of all those weirdo, meta "comics about comics." (Animal Man or Alan Moore's 1963, for example, or the various DC Marvel multiverse colonic series.) Imagining the return of MLK (i.e., imagining the return of "the movement") is always-already comic booky and science fictional, so why not fully deploy those genre's techniques to answer "What would MLK do?"

What does a dead hero do when he's brought back from the grave only to find himself used as a prop in another generations side argument? (In this case, the Boondock's ongoing rearguard defense of "nigga" as a kind of higher love.) What does a great speaker do when you take his words away and fill his mouth with silly and obvious things? (In this case the Coz's "Pound Cake Speech?") How does he respond when you reanimate him via the yuk-yuk straight-jacket of Murphian (as in Eddie) impersonation, as opposed to, say, an open-ended, loa-style, social-field-effect interpolation? (Imagine MLK hopping person-to-person like the devil does in Fallen. Who chases him? Who surrenders? Who catches MLK the way people catch cold?) When does this great leader resolve the question of being "this great leader?" When does he start peeling off from the narrative arc later/lesser minds have mapped out for him? When do his responses finally continue his own arc, which is to say, become completely unexpected?

Posted by ebogjonson in memoryscreened at 9:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

January 15, 2006

r.i.p. david palmer

FOX giveth and FOX taketh away.

Posted by ebogjonson in screened at 8:46 PM | Permalink

January 14, 2006

what the TIVO is into these days

Things TIVO is season-passing (season independent):

Battlestar Galactica (nu)
The Boondocks
Samurai Champloo
South Park
Fashion File
The Wire
Project Runway
Curb Your Enthusiasm
America's Next Top Model
Daily Show / Colbert report

Things the TIVO keeps recording of its own volition that I usually delete, but do occasionally watch:

X-Files reruns
Dr. 90210
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
PopJapan TV
random 2 hour blocks of videos from MTV Jams, MTV2, BET, VH1 soul

Things the TIVO has banked for me that I don't get around to watching but haven't deleted:

all of Firefly
a bunch of John Ford movies
season 2 of Angel

Active search terms and searches:

African American
anime, animation
science fiction
NY Knicks
NY Yankees
NY Jets

Old things I plan to season-pass or bank but can't until I map out a free weekend for catching up:

every single Buffy
The Shield

Posted by ebogjonson in screened at 5:57 PM | Permalink

January 4, 2006

brokeback boondock

I've been wanting to write about The Boondocks, but, you know, alas and alack and all that. The following posting in the Afrofuturism yahoogroup (about a range of things, including the Boondocks and Richard Pryor and the loa that might be writing each or none) offered a low-sress way in.

[the Boondocks] damned-well *should* have happened back in the mid-90s when the iron was hot and he first developed his lines of reasoning and critique -- back when a public enemy record *and* a boondocks animated series would have been culturally *unstoppable.*

the boondocks (static and full-motion) is a labor of love for a specific black sociopolitical demographic, not a force for change. as such, it is "white media" so to speak. c'mon, the whole show is farmed out to low-wage korean animators like any other contemporary cartoon that isn't *proud* of low-fi visuals (12 oz. Mouse, ATHF, etc.)

I was curious as to where folks thought a show like the Boondocks might have aired 10 years ago. The great answer from the list?

I think that liquid television-era MTV would have been the best candidate for the boondocks... and it would have worked well in the blipvert format of that show -- look how peter chung finally cashed in on aeon flux almost a decade later.

The list's notion of the Boondocks as a demographic coming-out-party struck a chord, as it historicized the show the right way and also encapsulated what I like/don't like about it. What's the demo? Well, their fantasy exemplars (in my experience at least) are crotchety, middle-aged, straight dudes with vaguely Long Island associations. (The list's Public Enemy name-check was pretty apt.) These guys are post-Civil Rights, old enough to have arc'd pre and post hip hop. Party affiliations are largely "Democratic" but they're also disaffected and prone to third party ambitions. Ironic Sharpton protest voters. College educated and either southern-born and non-HBCU educated, or northern-born and HBCU educated, which is to say, their backstory includes an orthogonal passage through a membrane structuring distinct black "success" strata. Socially liberal in the way anyone who lived in the shadow of bad old 70s-80s New York City is socially liberal, socially conservative in other ways (crime & punishment, for example) for the same reason. (Homophobic just because.) Complicated, formative relationships to (not being) one of the cool kids in high school. Deep investment in the notion that black self-criticism and self-reliance have magical, anti-genocidal powers. These are products of integration who nonetheless have heavy romantic entanglements with an idealized, pre-integration "community." In afrofuturistic terms they subscribe to a Darwinian/Zizekian racial reading of the The Matrix (first movie, at least) where black superpowers not only only work in the zone of our oppression, but also require said oppression in the first place. For the Zizekian Matrixian hero (both neo and morpheus), that means all progress requires some literal skin in the game, some act of christ-like self sacrifice. That or change just weakens you, robs you of your powers, advances the common good but reduces the singular you to nostalgia. (Older, parallel comic book framesets - Krypton must be destroyed for there to be a superman; our mutations don't make us freaks but heroes, no bad heart, no motivation to build the supersuit, and so on.)

As media producers, these dudes are so skilled at a jokey, ecumenical form of racial jujitsu precisely because their best friends once upon a time really were cosmopolitan white men or white institutions, either literally in the fifth grade or professionally later. (I have seen the enemy and he is that dumb kid I used to play with.) That the Boondocks is on Adult Swim is just part of what one list poster called the Boondocks' "lethal weaponizaton" - black show on a white network. It also seems to me to extend the lifespan of a triumphal, integrationist, Kirk/Spock-slash meme that was in the air last year about Dave Chappelle and Neal Brennan. The meme goes like this: for every disaffected black genius there is one true white male bestest-pal/collaborator/network out there (ie. a Neal) in whose safe, strong arms and unwavering gaze the aforementioned black genius will find their national voice. As opposed to the classic, pre-post Civil Rights relation of cynical seduction and patronage, the Chappelle/Brennan diad exists not to provide material support but to minimize the troubling distractions that can crop up for a black genius while in the loving embrace of a black bestest-pal/network/collaborator, which is to say, in the arms of a brOther. (Is there a more fraught relationship than that between two unrelated, middle aged, high-achieving black men not interested in fucking each other? White supremacy has so evolved that "race" is increasingly expressed only while we're facing each other, while our relationships with the right white people become oases of rest and calm.)

In terms of lethal networks, one can conceive of BET loving you like a brother, but only in a School Daze sense, which is to say, after a course of physical abuse and in the service of arcane, crypto-greco-egyptian ritual. (Bob Johnson will also anally rape you, but that's another movie.) FOX only loves you the way your pre-gentrification landlord loves you - as long as the rent is on time, and if you don't ask for anything, and only to such time as you can be replaced with a richer/whiter tenant. But the fantasy of being loved and accepted (finally!) by the white boys at Adult Swim or Vertigo or Neal, well, those are what crossover dreams are made of.

The list is right that the determinant open window for when the Boondocks happened wasn't "when would this be culturally unstoppable?" Instead it was: "when would it best cro$$over?" From jump something like the Boondocks has a foundational requirement for distribution on mass, regularly scheduled networks, this even as the show presents as nominally antagonistic to the values of mainstream media in the first place. (Wheels within wheels, doublings and mass media DL, all of which can functionally extend the Dave/Neal K/S riff if one is so inclined.) That mass media love-hate circle gets squared only if the show can find a white distributor who is "open" (the way alleged ex-weedhead Neal was open?) - i.e., if its distributor has roots in debased genres like comics or cartoons, for example, or is a time traveling VC from 1995s, or is an upstart TV network in search of a competitive advantage. If you want to go back in the crate, Van Peeples had to get down with pornographers just to distribute a black movie to black people. Looking at that cast of characters, Adult Swim seems about right in its own weird way

Me, I'm curious to see what happens if the show doesn't pan out ratings wise. This isn't M*A*S*H, so its lifespan isn't going to stretch into decades. What will the white boys from Atlanta do when it stops pull enough eyeballs? Or what if the night starts demo'ing as too ethnic? Adult Swim has put itself on the line as being motivated by more than profit with all the in-you-face, attitudinous inter titles. We'll see if that voice shifts in response to shifting numbers. Maybe that trademark white-text-on-black will blame white audience members for killing the show. Or perhaps it will start hectoring us for not supporting quality, cable television, just the way nobody colored supports jazz except the Japanese.

Posted by ebogjonson in screenedwhat is B.O.G.? at 10:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 2, 2006

A Picture Share! LAX bites

5 hour flight, then 2 hours waiting in the United baggage claim at LAX. Welcome home!

Posted by ebogjonson in places at 10:10 PM | Permalink