Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gamers Almost Ruined Gone Girl For Me

If you've got a TV or been to the movies in the past few months, you've seen ads for David Fincher's new movie Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck. For me, that's a distinctly iffy combination. I loved Fight Club and The Game, really didn't care for Se7en, and was mostly ambivalent about most of the other Fincher movies I've seen. Then there's Affleck, who can act, but often chooses not to. Ultimately, three things convinced me to the see the movie: (1) After seeing the previews a few times, I was actually curious whether Affleck's character had murdered his wife; (2) When Affleck was on The Daily Show to promote the movie, he gave the impression that this was one of those films where he'd actually put in some effort; (3) It was filmed in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, which is about an hour away from me, so at least I'd recognize some of the locations. 

SPOILER ALERT: If you've seen the trailers, you can probably guess that this is the kind of movie that's better if you don't know how it ends. So, if you plan to see Gone Girl (or read the book it's based on), you should probably stop reading now. To protect you from possibly seeing spoilers, I'm going to separate this from the rest of the article with a picture of Ben Affleck (possibly pooping a little) from the Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie. 

Affleck was in the BTVS movie for about 30 seconds all together.
Don't feel bad if you don't remember him from it. 
Ok, are we down to only people who don't care about spoilers or have already seen the movie (or read the book)? Good. Who needs those other losers? 

So anyway, Gone Girl is a perfect example of the unreliable narrator stuff Fincher does well, so you spend the first half of the movie trying to figure out which of the things you're seeing are true and re-evaluating Nick Dunne's (Affleck) guilt. Of course, since you've already seen the movie you know that Dunne is only guilty of being kind of a douchebag, not murder. His wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), is actually alive and completely fucking evil. Rather than just divorcing Nick, she faked her own death and framed him for murder so the state would fry him. 

When the focus of the movie shifts to Amy, it's one of those deals where you're disgusted by what the character's doing, but at the same time can't wait to see what evil thing she's going to do next. You're a little sad when the answer turns out to be "brutally kill Neil Patrick Harris," but it's one of those cases where even though you're not really rooting for the villain, you're enjoying  the wrongness of it all. 

This would have been all well and good, if it weren't for the fact that I've been reading a lot of articles lately about GamerGate, a "movement" by video gamers to improve game journalism (even though they don't seem to know what the word "journalism" means) mainly by harassing and threatening women in the game industry. I found out about this nonsense mostly by accident, but have been keeping up with it for the same reason people rubberneck during traffic accidents. Also, as a tabletop gamer, there's probably a little smug superiority in knowing that most tabletop gamers are merely awful, not actively vile. 

Anyway, the whole GamerGate thing, if it wasn't obvious, is deeply intertwined with Men's Rights Activism and pick-up artistry and several other cancerous growths of men who think either feminists or all women are evil, manipulative bitches who spend their time playing mind games and luring men into false rape accusations. To these idiots, Amy Dunne, the evil, conniving superbitch villain of Gone Girl, is just a normal woman whose scheme was just a little more elaborate than the games most women cruelly play on men constantly. Remember when I mentioned how these people were vile? 

When I realized that Amy Dunne was basically the straw woman that misogynists rave against, I got a little distracted. Were GamerGaters going to applaud this movie for "showing what women are really like?" Was the portrayal of Amy misogynistic? Was it wrong to enjoy a movie where the female lead was a manipulative sociopath? I can't answer the first question, because thankfully I can't predict how GamerGaters think. The answer to the other two is "no," because Amy's sociopathic behavior isn't rooted in her gender, she's just evil. You could basically make the same movie with Nick faking his death and framing Amy with just a few changes to the details. Whew! 

Fortunately, the movie was attention-grabbing enough that after the initial realization I was able to push the thought that some men think Amy's actions are normal female behavior to the back of my mind and enjoy the rest of the film. It was quite enjoyable, and I recognized the bridge, the waterfront, and a couple of buildings. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Lester "Proudfoot" Jackson

Here's a page from my book Obscure Early Bluesmen (Who Never Existed), which you can buy for money.

Lester "Proudfoot" Jackson

Lester "Proudfoot" Jackson
LOC, Lomax Collection, LC-DIG-ppmsc-00542
According to all accounts, Lester Jackson’s life before 1939 was one of crime, sloth, and drunkenness. When he discovered an unattended copy of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit in the drunk tank of the Pikimpsitonka County jail, the book completely changed his life. Taking on the name “Proudfoot,” Jackson returned to his small farm and began construction of his own underground 
“Hobbit Hole.” He traded in his gambling and boozing for gardening and collecting. When he found an old dulcimer at a swap meet, Proudfoot taught himself  to play and began composing Middle-Earth-themed music. Proudfoot had several minor hits through Chump Records including “My Hobbit Hole Ain’t Whole (Since My Baby Left Me),” “Magic Hat Blues,” “I Been There and Back Again,” and “Ramble On.” Posthumous examination of his prolific journals and diaries reveals that Jackson was likely delusional. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Denise Dorman Did Not Say That Cosplayers Are Ruining Conventions

I've seen a few articles in my news feed today (like this one from Topless Robot) complaining that comic artist Dave Dorman's wife, Denise wrote an article that's mean to cosplayers. Most of the headlines say some thing to the effect of "Dorman Says Cosplayers Are Ruining Conventions." I read the blog post when it showed up in my Facebook feed a couple days ago. I did notice a kind of "you kids get off of my lawn" attitude toward cosplayers, but I remembered the point as being more about the financial realities of exhibiting at conventions.

As I read the TR article, I wondered if maybe I'd missed something in Dorman's blog post. After all, since I usually attend conventions to try to sell games (either directly as a vendor or indirectly by running panels and demo games), it's entirely possible that I sympathized with Dorman over the financial difficulties of exhibiting at cons that I misread or downplayed where she was laying the blame. So I went back and re-read her post.

The first five paragraphs are what I took away as the main point of the article: that conventions are expensive, that attending a convention as a creator isn't usually fun and can be downright miserable, and that cons are getting harder to financially justify. Dorman first mentions cosplay in paragraph six:

"I have slowly come realize that in this selfie-obsessed, Instagram Era, COSPLAY is the new focus of these conventions–seeing andbeing seen, like some giant masquerade party."

She doesn't say cosplay has ruined conventions, she says cosplay has become the new focus of conventions. True, she follows it up with what can easily be seen as overly-harsh accusations of the kind of shallow narcissism that anyone over 30 usually bitches about any time the word "selfie" comes up, paired with a lot of bitterness about creators not getting as much attentions at conventions, but she's still not suggesting the kind of cosplayer pogroms that some of the response articles make it sound like she's advocating. In fact, she even acknowledges that cosplayers aren't the whole problem:

"I just float the idea that maybe we’ve reached a tipping point. Have the expenses of dressing up, rising ticket prices, price gouged hotels, and parking costs to attend these costly conventions made it financially unfeasible for people to actually spend money on exhibitors anymore?"
At no point does Dorman ever suggest that cosplayers are "ruining" conventions, just that conventions are changing (in part because of the increased popularity of cosplay) and that those changes are making it harder for creators to justify attending. Her final question (presumably to other creators) re-iterates that the post isn't about resisting change, it's about how creators are going to deal with the changing focus and financial realities of conventions:
"So I ask you…at what point would YOU cut bait and stop attending these shows? How do we satisfy the fans in a way that makes sound financial $ense ? ? ?"

Harry Potter & Holy Grail

Chances are you've already heard about the Christian re-write of the Harry Potter books, but if you haven't actually read it, you really should. It's got it all. There's Christian persecution fantasies combined with a Michele-Bachman like understanding of history:
"My father says that dark times are coming," Hermione spoke worriedly. "There is a man named Voldemort who wants to destroy all that we stand for. He is pushing an agenda in congress which will stop us from practicing our faith freely."
"But that is what our founding fathers built this nation for!" Harry cried indignantly. "The freedom of religion!"
"Voldemort doesn't care," Hermione remarked sadly; and she shook her head. "And he is gaining power. The freedom of Christians to practice our faith is disappearing by the day. Soon, it will be like it was in Rome." Lovely, ladylike tears began to roll down her delicate, terrified face. "And I don't like lions!"
Weird Bible interpretations:
"Hufflepuff Hats believe in the Bible; but only some of it," Luna explained casually; and she was still feeding on that stuff. "We don't believe in the stuff against fornication and drinking and socialism; but we really like Matthew 7:1; and that's about it. We're really fun and we seem really nice and really tolerant as long as you agree with us!"

Even weirder interpretations of what a Sorting Hat is:
"But you see, here at Hogwarts, we divide ourselves up into Sorting Hats. After breakfast, all the new little ones will choose their Hats. Each of the different Hats have different beliefs; but we all love the Lord!"
Miracles Everywhere:
With the simple faith so often seen in little ones, Harry got down on his knees; and lifted his hands skyward; and shouted prayerfully, "Dear Lord, please open these doors; and allow me to enter my new home!"
(This isn't like a locked door to the Chamber of Secrets or something, just a fucking door. If I were God, I'd be pissed at these non-exactly-wizards praying for me to do everything for them).

And, most importantly, really detailed descriptions of pretty much every male character's chest hair:
On the porch was standing a huge, muscular man with a big, manly beard; and he was dressed in a plaid, red shirt, blue jeans, and sturdy, leather boots. His chest was covered in a thick, unruly carpet of coarse, brown hair.

I'm reasonably sure this is parody. All the talk of chest hair and virility is just a little too creepy to be unintentional, some of the wingnut-isms are almost too dead-on, and the writer's apparent level of familiarity with the books/movies just isn't consistent. For example, I  have trouble believing that someone who doesn't know enough about the books to sort out the distinction between The Sorting Hat and houses would know the Dursley's first names and street or be aware of Luna Lovegood's existence. Whether it's a Poe or the product of a deranged mind, it's pretty funny.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Star Lord: Secret Origins

The local art house theater (Maiden Alley Cinema--they're awesome, give them money) has a movie series sponsored by Schlafley Beer (it's very tastey, give them money too) where they play classic movies accompanied by beer. This year, they did a preview for the event that showed clips from the movies in the series. I've probably seen the trailer at least 3 times a month for the past 6 months. One of the movies this year was Boogie Nights, the trailer for which includes the following image: 

As most of you know, Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy also had a couple of Awesome Mix Tapes, so the first time I saw the trailer after seeing Guardians, I formed a theory that Dirk Diggler was Star Lord's dad. It made perfect sense; We know Star Lord's father was an alien, which would explain Dirk's "special gift." I promptly forgot about the theory and watched whatever movie I was seeing, but remembered it again every time I saw the trailer. 

Eventually, I remembered my Star Lord/Dirk Diggler theory while I wasn't in a movie theater and posted it to Facebook. A couple days later, Chris Sprouse (he draws funny books and also deserves some of your money) pointed out the fatal flaw in my theory. Namely, that the Awesome Mix Tape did not belong to Dirk Diggler, but to this guy: 

I think that Molina's character from Boogie Nights being Star Lord's father is an even stronger theory. After all:
  • This guy and his firework-throwing pal were really damn weird. When I saw the movie, I assumed it was due to drugs, but maybe it's because they don't fully understand human behavior.
  • Look at him.
  • His robe is made out of material that looks like a space suit. 
  • Every time I see Boogie Nights, I wonder why the hell the scene is in there. It's a completely different tone than most of the movie and doesn't really add anything to the plot or character development. On top of that, one of the major characters of the scene (Molina) doesn't appear anywhere else in the movie and another (the porn star who isn't Marky Mark or Dewey Cox) is basically an extra in the other scenes he's in. Setting up a relationship between Molina's character and the star of an extremely unlikely movie based on an obscure comic book series that wouldn't be made for another 20 years really does seem like the best explanation for why this scene was both filmed and left in the movie.  

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Six Random Thoughts

  • "For as long as Winston can recall, Oceania has been in a constant state of war – with whom it was at war is of neither importance nor consequence."--George Orwell
  • I'm pretty sure Miley Cyrus is trolling everyone, I'm just not sure if she's aware of it. 
  • I'm also pretty sure that James Franco is an elaborate performance art piece, and that he's completely aware of it. 
  • If you're concerned about journalistic integrity and not just a misogynistic cretin, "journalists trade influence for sexual favors" is probably a better narrative than "slutty slut slut uses magical lady parts to mind control journalists." Just FYI.
  • I used to work in a game warehouse. During that time, White Wolf released a lot of non-gaming books, including a collection of Harlan Ellison's LA Free Press columns, which I read when there was nothing better to do. He had a lot to say about flan. 
  • Richard Linklater's movies don't so much end as just sort of trail off, usually about half an hour after you think they should be just about over. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Couple Quick Movie Reviews: The Conspiracy/Branded

A couple of movies I've watched on Netflix recently:

The Conspiracy is a mockumentary-turned-found-footage-film-because-we-need-more-of-that. Except for a couple of framing shots of the director's narrating, the early part of the film could be a conspiracy doc, complete short interviews with conspiracy wackos and collages of screenshots from conspiracy websites set to sinister music. When the main subject of the doc goes missing, the guys making the movie start searching for him which ultimately leads the to break into the secret meeting of a Bilderberg-like group. So basically it's a few chapters of Jon Ronson's Them smashed together with substantially less likable POV characters. It's not a bad movie, there are just a lot of scenes that don't really contribute to the mood (the mood of most scenes is "guy being filmed with a handheld"), further the plot (yeah, conspiracy, we get it), or add characterization (they remain "two random guys filming a conspiracy documentary despite a few attempts to give them depth"). At least 40 minutes of the 84-minute movie feels like filler. The ending is clever, but it's clever in a sort of "trying so hard it's kind of dumb" way.

Branded is a better movie. The basic plot is about a Russian marketing genius who goes into business with the CIA right after the fall of communism and becomes very successful and is eventually approached by the chick from Joy Ride to help her with some dumb reality show about making a fat girl pretty. Meanwhile, the novelty of fast food has worn off to the point that even marketing can't preserve profit margins, so the shitty burger Illuminati hire Max Von Sydow, who hatches a plan to sell more food by making fat beautiful. The first step is to sabotage Main Character Guy's show and put the contestant in a coma. This gets Joy Ride girl thrown out of the country and causes Main Character Guy to become a cowboy in Siberia or something. When they'er re-united a few years later (along with a kid), he does some kind of cow-killing ritual that gives him the ability to see the extra-dimensional marketing creatures that attach to people and cause them to want stuff they don't need. Eventually he uses this ability to destroy major brands and convince Russia to ban advertising. The weird-marketing creatures come across a lot like a MacGuffin in a Willaim Gibson novel--there's a lot of potential there, but it all goes unrealized. It doesn't show up until the movie's at least halfway over, is never really explored beyond its capacity to allow for trippy special effects, and, worst, completely unnecessary. The marketing creatures don't really explain anything better than the "Main Character Guy is a marketing genius" explanation that works perfectly fine for the first half of the movie. I enjoyed Branded and it does play with some neat ideas, but it's somehow simultaneously too ambitious for its own good and not ambitious enough.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Currently Binge Watching: Raising Hope

A friend told me I'd like this show a few years ago, but I forgot all about it until I was looking around on Netflix earlier this week. Turns out, she was right. The show is about a guy named Jimmy (some dude I don't recognize from anything else), who's kind of a loser but wears a lot of R. Crumb T-shirts, so he's got that going for him, which is nice. Jimmy and his equally loser white trash parents (Martha Plimpton and that creepy whore-killer guy from Deadwood) live with his senile great-grandmother (Cloris Leachman). One night Jimmy sleeps with Bijou Phillips, which I think most of us would do given the chance. He manages to get her pregnant, but since it turns out she's a serial killer she gets executed right after the baby's born and Jimmy gets stuck with the kid, Princess Beyonce. In one of the few displays of good judgement shown by the show's characters, they decide to change the baby's name to Hope. That's pretty much the premise, though they do throw in a love interest (the daughter from The Riches).

Yeah, I know, sounds like once you get past the pilot it's a pretty standard sit-com, but it's got that same kind of so-weird-it-seems-authentic poor white trash vibe as My Name Is Earl. Given the fact that Jason Lee, Ethan Suplee (who Plimpton describes as looking like a skinny version of that fat guy from Mallrats), and Jaime Pressly have all had cameos and Crabman shows up whenever they need a random dude with a job who has lines (the joke is that he works everywhere because he has 12 kids), I'm guessing some of the key people behind the show were also involved with Earl. Like My Name Is Earl, Raising Hope is filled with characters who consistently make terrible decisions, oddball bit characters (instead of Patty The Daytime Hooker, they've got Dancin' Dan), and a kind of skewed version of reality that's simultaneously surreal and completely believable. Also, Oates from Garfunkel and Oates has a recurring role as the woman who runs the dog/baby/old people day care, and most episodes with her include a song.

So basically, if you like off-the-wall white trash sit-coms, you should watch this.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Social Justice Warrior Is An Insult? Really?

I'm not going to comment one way or the other on the whole Quinnspiracy thing going on in the video game world right now because I'm not a video gamer and I don't have the time or the interest to try to sort out which frame is most accurate (though I do have strong suspicions based on what I've seen from both sides). If I want to explore representation and treatment of women in geekdom, I'll stick to the comics and gaming subcultures that I know. If I'm going to worry about journalistic integrity, I'm going to worry about the fact that They Daily Show is winning Peabody Awards, not that someone may have written a soft review of the latest version of Grand Theft Auto. I'm not saying these issues aren't important, just that they're not important enough to me personally to try to sort out the Springer episode that they've turned into in order to make informed comments about them.

What I am going to talk about is the use of the term "Social Justice Warrior" as an insult, because I'm pretty sure I've seen it used in other contexts (mainly by right-wing types), it seems to be becoming more mainstream (it showed up a comment on the Hex Facebook page recently), and, most importantly, because it's the most pathetic attempt at an insult that I've ever seen. As I understand it, "Social Justice Warrior" is used to describe people who argue for inclusiveness but who, at least in the mind of the person using the phrase, have ulterior motives for advocating a particular position (improving their reputation, getting laid, whatever). I'm not interested in the definition. It attacks a person's intent, which is hard to prove or disprove without a confession or very damning evidence, so whether the intended insult is accurate is a moot point. I'm interested in the phrase itself.

The reason "Social Justice Warrior" doesn't work as an insult is because it sounds bad-ass. "Warrior" is a word that rarely has negative connotations, so pairing it with the actual thing that the person (accurately or not) claims to want is basically saying "HA! HA! You fight for what you believe in!" And since not supporting "Social Justice" implicitly means supporting social INjustice, you're not going to find a lot of people who reject the overall concept (though some may qualify their support by providing a strict definition of the term). So when you call someone a Social Justice Warrior, you're basically trying to insult them by implying that they're willing to fight for something that most people support. See how that's dumb?

I suspect that the main reason that more people on "social justice" side aren't fully embracing and co-opting the term is that it just sounds too cool. Social Justice Warrior should be reserved for people who take much greater risks, like those who risk their lives and freedom by travelling to dangerous parts of the world to heal, feed, and educate people in need; or people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning who made enormous sacrifices for what they believed in. Speaking up publicly, donating to causes, attending protests, and other common forms of activism just don't seem dangerous enough to warrant the designation "Warrior," even with the increased levels of government spying, police brutality, and targeting of activists we've experienced in recent years.

Some people might find fault with my assessment of the label "Social Justice Warrior" because it's so similar to "White Knight," which has similar meaning and is commonly seen as an insult, at least by people who spend a lot of time on the internet. The reason White Knight works is that it's evocative of both an outdated, paternalistic worldview and a kind of naivete found in the fairy tales and romances that feature the White Knight character. Social Justice Warrior fails to evoke any similar connotations.

Since "Social Justice Warrior" is such a sad attempt at a slur, I'd like to offer three better alternatives that the Anti-Carlin who came up with the phrase could have used instead that just require changing a single word.
  • Social Justice Crusader: Sure, still sort of bad-ass, and "Crusader" is similar to "Warrior," but there's a subtle difference. The association with the Crusades gives this one a religious connotation that suggests zealotry and uncritical loyalty to a cause or leader.
  • Social Justice Extremist: Describing someone as an "Extremist" is always a good way to imply that what they're saying has no value. "Social Justice Extremist" evokes visions of the kind of fascistic inclusiveness and equality that guys like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have nightmares about.  
  • Social Media Warrior: This one undercuts the word "Warrior" by implying that the insultee's actions are limited to complaining on the internet, thereby lumping them in with slacktivists and hashtag activism. Sure, that my not be true, but since the whole point is to discount rather than debate the person's argument, who cares? 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Recommended Crazy: Open Scroll Blog

I can appreciate a good lunatic. The work of people like Jack Chick, David Icke, and even more subtle, dignified crazies like Art Bell can be incredibly entertaining if you limit the dosage and approach them from the right mindset. A few years ago, I was introduced to The Open Scroll Blog, which might just be the Holy Grail of insanity. I don't read the blog regularly because I'm pretty sure the result would be similar to reading from the Necronomicon, but I keep it in my newsfeed and occasionally check in when I'm in the mood for some quality WTF. If you're familiar with the work of religious nut Texxe Marrs, who sees Satanic imagery in everything form Girl Scout merit badges to Yoda, you can think of Marrs as OSB lite. Where Marrs merely notes that Star Wars is occult indoctrination because Yoda's ears look like devil horns or whatever, the Open Scroll Blog people (the site lists two contributors) "decode" a vast, multi-layered universe of hidden meaning in even the simplest of things. For example, their decoding of Ke$ha's "Crazy Kids" video is a SEVEN-part series, and the blog entries aren't exactly short. It's a very dense crazy. What do they find when they decode these things? From what I can tell, mostly signs of the apocalypse, secret Illuminati symbols, and lots of magical buttsex. Check it out, but be sure to turn away if you hear Cthulhu stirring.

Important Note: If you feel the desire to comment on the blog, make sure you either have a penis or use a name that suggests you have a penis. From the sidebar of the site:
About Commenting 
With regard for 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and in the interest of honoring my Lord, comments posted by women or as gender anonymous will not be published. If you would like to communicate personally, email is preferred at gmail theopenscroll.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Top Five Charity List

If you want to take the Most Challenging Challenge That Will Ever Challenge You, but are having trouble coming up with a charity to support, here are the top five that I support when I get a chance:

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund 
The CBLDF provides legal assistance for comic creators, sellers, readers, and others those whose First Amendment rights are threatened. If you like swag in exchange for your donation, the CBLDF website has T-shirts featuring popular comic characters, signed comics, art, and lots more.

Rolling Jubilee
An outgrowth of the Occupy movement, Rolling Jubilee buys debt for pennies on the dollar, just like many banks and collection agencies do. Instead of trying to collect the debt, along with usurious fees, they forgive the debt.

Doctors Without Borders
Doctors Without Borders provides medical care to people in need all over the world. You often hear about them after major natural disasters (like the earthquake in Haiti a few years ago), but they operate year-round in areas affected by war, disease outbreaks, disasters, or just lack of health care.

American Red Cross
I'm going to assume you know about the Red Cross.

Your Local Food Bank
You'll have to look up the details yourself, but if you live in America, there's a food bank that serves people in your area, and they need donations of food or cash. If you're in my neck of the woods, it's Paducah Cooperative Ministries. If you also happen to be a comic fan or gamer, Crash Comics is a drop-off point. If you don't have time to pick up food donations, drop some cash (even if it's just the change you have left over after you buy your comics) in the fish tank by the register.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Most Challenging Challenge That Will Ever Challenge You

  1. Pick an organization you'd like to support. It's ok if you pick a cause that you really believe in, even if it doesn't have a viral marketing campaign. In fact, those organizations probably need help more than the ones who are getting donations from the viral campaign, even after accounting for the fact that only a tiny percentage of the people who participate in such campaigns actually donate. 
  2. Donate your time or money to the organization. Do it even if there's no hashtag, selfie, or special event to go along with it. After all, you're doing this to help others, not to stoke your ego, right? 
  3. Post to social media about why you think the organization is worth supporting. Provide a link for those who would also like to donate. The link provides people with a way to take ACTION, without which "awareness" is meaningless. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Talking Point That Was Missed About Robin Williams' Death

A few days after Robin Williams' suicide, I saw a mention that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. It was in a Facebook comment or tweet or something, so I took it as a possibly important fact and assumed I'd see it confirmed somewhere in my news feed sooner or later. Since I still hadn't seen any stories about the diagnosis, I did a Google search and found a story from CNN confirming it.

The fact that the story didn't show up in my news feed despite the hundreds of posts about Robin Williams I saw last week isn't really surprising. Especially online, our news sources tend to stick to their initial narratives (often along political lines) no matter what new information becomes available. Americans don't do nuance, even when it's potentially important nuance. The narrative is that Robin Williams was depressed, so depression is the topic of the day. Just to be clear, that's not a bad thing. If the number of suicides I've heard about just outside my circle of friends in the last few years is any indication, depression is killing a lot of people. If the flood of depression articles helped anyone, that's a good thing. I even think it would be cool if we could talk about suicide and depression when there's not a celebrity corpse to hang the story on, but there probably aren't any shares, likes, retweets, and (most importantly) links back to monetized pages for that.

Another thing that would be nice is if we could handle the brain overload of having more than one discussion come out of a particular news story. Based on statements from Williams' wife, depression was probably what ultimately caused him to take his own life, but what if the depression only pushed the schedule forward. What if he'd already decided to kill himself, and it was a rational decision? What if instead of Robin Williams, it was a celebrity without a history of depression and substance abuse (or even an abortion for those who think a fetal ghost haunted him to death)--and let's make it a celebrity who's not incredibly talented, just so it'll be a little less depressing. If Daniel Tosh* had killed himself and then we found out he had just been diagnosed with a debilitating disease, would that give us an opening to have a conversation about euthanasia?

Switching back to Williams in the interest of having a sympathetic lead, what if medically assisted suicide were an option that could have been openly discussed when he got the diagnosis? If planning suicide in response to a terminal illness were a valid and legal medical option instead of a crime and a sin that has to remain secret at all costs, maybe he would have discussed the option with his family and somehow that would have changed the outcome. Maybe they would have convinced him to take a Terry Pratchett approach and stick around until the disease became too much to handle. I know this sounds cynical, but with an "I'm dying and this will be my last movie" pitch, Robin Williams could get any movie he wanted to make funded. Maybe he could have made one last great film, or lent his celebrity to a new pair of young unknown filmmakers with a great movie up their sleeve, or put on the biggest Comic Relief ever, or just made us laugh.

Of course, maybe they couldn't have talked him out of it. Remember, he watched two friends--Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor--suffer for years with debilitating medical conditions, so it's certainly conceivable that he wouldn't want to put himself or his family and friends through a similar ordeal. If that were the case, being able to discuss the possibility medically assisted suicide without stigma may have increased the chances of the decision being made by the man and not the disease. If he wanted to die rather than deal with the Parkinson's, euthanasia would have allowed him to say goodbye and to die painlessly surrounded by his loved ones. Instead, he had to die alone and probably in physical pain, hoping that the letter he left behind would be enough to make his family and friends understand his decision.

*I have no idea if Daniel Tosh has a history of depression or substance abuse, but he's definitely not incredibly talented.

That was depressing. Maybe this will help.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dark Dungeons Review

Cross-posted from The Death Cookie:

I feel like I need to start with some disclosures here. I first played Dungeons & Dragons in something like fourth grade and have been a gamer ever since. I’ve also been fascinated by Jack Chick for at least 20 years. I have a binder full of Chick comics I’ve collected over the years; I would like the whole collection, but I can’t bring myself to just order them because giving Chick Publications money (much less my address) seems…icky. I’ve read all the biographical information I’ve been able to find about Mr. Chick (which mostly consists of Daniel Raeburn’s excellent IMP issue about him). I’ve written articles about Jack Chick. I wrote an adventure that used the afterlife as imagined by Jack Chick as a starting point (Waxman’s Warriors). And have you ever thought that “The Death Cookie” was a weird name for a gaming website? That’s because we got it form a Chick tract. Long story, but if you ever catch Leighton and I together and have a Chick tract handy, we might treat you to/punish you with one of our dramatic readings. We’ve even got special voices for recurring characters like Giant Faceless Jesus and the snotty “His name’s not in the book, Lord!” Angel and everything.

In other words, I am the precise target audience for a Dark Dungeons movie, and that’s important. This is not a movie for a general audience. If you’ve played role-playing games or read Jack Chick’s work, you probably won’t hate it and might even get a few laughs out of it. To really appreciate this movie, though, you need at least some familiarity with both (the more the better). If you’ve never played D&D and have no idea who Jack Chick is, you’ll probably find Dark Dungeons utterly baffling. 

The movie makes a few changes, like making Marcie and Debbie college students rather than high school kids and giving one of the other players (Nitro) a minor role, but mostly sticks to the plot of the tract. It’s important to understand that Dark Dungeons is not, technically, a parody. Jack Chick gave producer JR Ralls the rights to make the film and he upheld his end of the bargain by making a faithful adaptation. Except for a few Easter eggs, pretty much everything in the movie that seems like comedy--the stylized “50s educational film” dialog; the delusional conspiracy theories; the willful ignorance about “RPGers” and “RPGing”; even the barely-repressed lesbian subtext--are all there in the original tract. Of course, any attempt to faithfully adapt Chick’s work is going to seem like parody, and I think the filmmakers were fully aware of that fact. 
Other than expanding the events of the comic panels out into full scenes and adding some framing and padding, the main addition to the plot concerns the activities of the cult who only appear as shadowy figures in the tract. This provides a sort of secret history for the tract, where we find out that the cult is orchestrating everything (even Marcie’s suicide) in order to summon a certain tentacley fellow whose inclusion was, if I’m not mistaken, one of the stretch goals of the Kickstarter campaign. The other major addition is a nod to Mazes & Monsters in which Debbie goes down into the steam tunnels to fight the monsters that she’s inadvertently released by playing the game instead of accepting Christ. 

When I first opened my copy of the DVD, I was a little disappointed to see that the movie’s runtime is only 40 minutes, but after watching it (twice), it’s just so spot-on that I’m not sure trying to stretch it to feature length would have added anything. The script is perfect. The acting, directing and other aspects of production fall somewhere in between slickly-produced amateur movie and low-budget indie flick. With the possible exception of the creature effects (which have their own charm for an 80s horror fan like me), nothing about the movie’s production is bad, it’s just obviously done on a limited budget.

The DVD extras are less impressive. In addition to the commentaries (which I haven’t watched yet), there are two features. One, “How to Make a Movie for $1000 (But Not Really)” is just Ralls sharing his extensive expertise (from making one movie) at length over high-speed clips of the filming. The other “A Lifelong Dream: The Making of Dark Dungeons” consists of interviews with nearly everyone involved in the film, right down to the craft services person, behind the scenes stuff, and a few random bits that don’t seem to serve any real purpose. There’s some interesting stuff there, but it’s so badly organized and separated by completely pointless clips that I lost interest pretty quickly and just left it on in the background while I worked on other things. It’s almost like they just burned all the files in the “maybe use for behind the scenes extra” folder onto the DVD in whatever order they were in on the hard drive. 

As I said at the beginning, this movie was made for a very specific audience, and for that audience it’s very close to perfect. If you’ve ever uttered the words “I don’t want to be Elfstar any more. I want to be Debbie!,” preferably at a table covered with rulebooks and funny dice, this movie is required viewing. The farther removed you are from that demographic, the less likely it is that you’ll like, or even understand, Dark Dungeons. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Disappearing American Myths

Since I haven't posted nearly as much Forteana on this blog as I originally intended (and since I'm trying to get into the habit of posting every day, even if it's just a link to a good story), check out Ken Summers' "Ohio's Helltown: Legends, Lies, and Lost Truths" over at the Who Forted? page.  Although the title suggests a basic info article about Helltown, and it does provide that, it's also kind of a meditation on the disappearance of spooky places:
Although Helltown and its stories are still such popular parts of the mythos that is Ohio paranormal lore, the blossoming Cuyahoga Valley National Park has nearly erased all trace of the original 1970s atmosphere. Journeys similar my own high school experience are no longer a possibility; abandoned structures and quiet, desolate roads have been replaced by park-owned restored buildings and the constant traffic of hikers and cyclists. Yet while many of us lament the vanishing of the iconically-spooky (and abundantly fictional) Helltown, there are still many long-forgotten mysteries, weird tales, and unexplained happenings hiding behind freshly-painted doors and picturesque barns to allow for an evolution from urban legend to historically-creepy haunting ground.
While summers talks a lot about the disappearance and change of the physical aspects of the place, I suspect part of the reason that these kinds of haunted places of (not-so-)urban legend is a matter of culture. They've always been spread by teenagers with cars and nothing to do. Since teenagers today have access to lots of boredom-preventing technology (and aren't as enamored with cars as American teenagers of past generations), the need to relieve boredom by driving down some remote backroad to investigate a story about some spook or weirdness just isn't there. They don't know what they're missing.

Dividends For All? Sounds Like Something Bucky Fuller Would Suggest

Financial journalist Peter Barnes has a new book out called With Liberty and Dividends For All: How To Save Our Middle Class When Jobs Don’t Pay Enough. Based on Alternet's Interview With Barnes, the basic proposal boils down to making corporations pay for their use of the commons (although Barnes doesn't use that phrasing). As the article mentions, Alaska has been doing this for years with oil royalties on state land in the form of its Permanent Fund, which nets every Alaskan about a grand a year. In some cases, this kind of dividend system would mean making companies pay for commonly-held resources that they've previously gotten for free, but less controversially it could be done by charging market rates when companies exploit federal resources. For example, when they drill for oil on federal land (right now they pay at least 4% less than they would to drill on land owned by most states, half of what Texas would charge them), or when they use federal land for grazing, like Cliven Bundy (Nevada would have charged him $15 per cow per month, rather than the $1.35 he "patriotically" cheated taxpayers out of). And that's without bringing such obvious revenue enhancers as cutting out corporate subsidies that don't actually do any good, getting rid of discounts for capital gains, or closing tax loopholes.

Although Barnes doesn't say it, putting enough of this money into the federal fund could allow for every American to have a guaranteed basic income without even raising taxes. Those who believe in voodoo will of course point out that these extra costs incurred on companies will cause increased unemployment, because employment is tied to how much money the boss has lying around, not demand. But even if 30+ years of actual policy hadn't proven that theory wrong, such job losses are only a problem if you believe that full employment is a good thing. One of the key problems is that in order to have a society where everyone works, you have to have enough jobs for everyone who wants to work. One of the questions that futurists and economist of the past saw on the horizon was the time when technology made full employment an impossibility. Most naively or optimistically assumed that the immense financial gains brought about by such technology (much of it the result of innovations from publicly-funded research)would provide the funding for a guaranteed basic income, making toil* a choice rather than a necessity. Although things like outsourcing and trade policies like NAFTA may have gotten us there prematurely, we've reached the point where full employment is simply not possible in this country, even if everyone wanted to work at McDonald's. Unfortunately, we haven't prepared for it in a way that prevents those for whom there are simply no jobs from suffering in poverty. Maybe Barnes' suggestions are a step in the right direction. It's just a shame they'll never be implemented since our government is controlled by the tiny handful of Americans who would actually lose something if we asked people to compensate the people for their use of the commons.

 *I'm using the Utah Phillips definition here of Work=what you do for yourself; Toil=what you do for somebody else. The handful of experiments into guaranteed basic income suggest that people will continue to work even when they don't have to toil.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Vice On Slacktivism

Vice has a pretty good article ("Dumping A Bucket of Ice On Your Head Does Not Make You A Philanthropist"). It's framed by the Ice Bucket Challenge videos that have been circulating, and traces several similar pieces of hashtag activism that went viral, including the one I still think best showcases how ill-informed most of these "activists" are, KONY 2012:
The point of the film was to “Stop Kony.” Nobody knew exactly what that vague directive meant, so instead of actually doing anything, people bought “action kits” that cost $30 and came with Kony 2012 posters and bracelets. The revenue from these kits was well into the millions, but Invisible Children never disclosed where that money went. The Lord’s Resistance Army still exists today, despite concerted efforts from the African Union to hunt them down; Joseph Kony is still at large. The efforts to capture him were, by the way, underway long before Kony 2012 was made. The film didn’t stop Kony, but it definitely did make him famous.
The Vice article points out some things that were wrong with the Kony 2012 campaign, including the fact that Kony had already been pushed out of Uganda. For some reason, though, they leave out some of the juiciest parts of the story. While they mention the question of where the "action kit" money went, they don't mention that there were questions about their financials even before that, and that even according to their own financial statements at the time, a lot of the money raised by Invisible Children went to salaries (they paid themselves $80K each), travel, and film-making expenses, mainly for the three people at the head of the group. A cynic might almost think Invisible Children was a Kickstarter for three aspiring filmmakers disguised as a charity. Vice also doesn't mention the creepy "White Man's Burden" vibe of some of their statements, or the fact that they advocate military intervention, which would involve supporting an equally nasty Ugandan government. But most importantly, at least from a perspective of sheer shaedenfreude, Vice totally leaves out the fact that Jason Russell, self-appointed savior of the Ugandan people (whether they wanted it or not), went on a naked masturbation spree a few months later. It even got a South Park (video below). After going through several other episodes of internet concern that inevitable faded away among cute cat pictures, Vice returns to the Ice Bucket Challenge with a pretty good summary of the problem with this kind of "activism":
So here we are, back at ever-contagious Ice Bucket Challenge. The videos mimic the format of neknominations (those awful dare-you-to-chug-a-beer videos) but claims that they're for a cause. Except that cause is only loosely related, if at all. Most of the videos don’t even mention ALS, let alone do anything to support ALS research. Take Martha Stewart’s video, which described the Ice Bucket Challenge as a “viral internet sensation that calls for a person to dump a bucket of icy water on his/her head, then extend the challenge to someone else.” That is, in effect, what this has become: an opportunity to show off your bikini body while doing something hilarious. Wait, what’s ALS? In case you didn’t take the time to Google ALS while you were waiting for all that ice to freeze, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a neurodegenerative disease that affects motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Over time, these neurons degenerate and die, which severely limits muscle movement. Because there is no cure for ALS, this eventually leads to full muscle paralysis, respiratory failure, and death. Only about 20 percent of people with ALS survive five years or more. If you want to make some fraction of a difference, consider donating to the ALS Association or volunteering your time with an ALS organization. And I mean, you can dump a bucket of ice water on your head if you really want—but don’t try to tell me that you’re doing it for charity.
And for those of you who want to claim that you're "raising awareness," I'd like to point out that the only time that awareness is useful is when it's something we're not already aware of. We've all known about Lou Gehrig's disease for about as long as we've known about Lou Gehrig, and unless we know someone who's got it, most of us know just as much about the disease as we know about Lou himself. And even if we'd never heard of ALS, merely being aware of it doesn't do dick about it unless we do something about it--donating to the ALS Association, for instance. And saying "I'm going to dump water on myself instead of donating" is almost an insult, especially when you're trying to pretend that by not donating you're going to somehow convince a bunch internet friends to donate a substantial chunk of cash($100) just because your randomly tagged them on Facebook--especially when they can get out of it by dumping water on themselves. Ultimately, the fact that there's a lot of Ice Bucket Challenge videos just proves that there are a lot of people who don't want to donate to ALS, especially when not donating and making a video gives them the chance to show just how concerned they are about whatever it was their video was going to solve. This video does exactly as much to help end ALS:

Friday, August 15, 2014

Buy My Book!

After not making any new posts for months, I'm posting an ad. Because I am shameless.

You know all about Son House and Muddy Waters, but have you ever heard of Eraserhead Morgan? Lester "Proudfoot" Jackson? Hootin' Jack Wilson? Probably not, because technically they never existed. The fact that they're imaginary does not mean that their stories aren't worth sharing. Obscure Early Bluesmen (Who Never Existed) helps to fill in the gaps left by music historians who refuse to acknowledge the important role played by fictional performers. Inside this book, you'll find accounts of seventeen entertainers who, had they existed, may very well have had some impact on modern music.

You can also get the Kindle edition here .

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted: Bullet Review

  • We all knew it was going to be disappointing. The last time around, Jason Segel made the kind of Muppet movie that about 75% of people my age group would have made if given the chance, and he had the advantage of being a talented guy who's also a puppet geek. There's nobody who could have followed that act, but in my opinion there are a lot of people who could have come much closer than Ricky Gervais. As far as I can tell, most of his popularity is based on the fact that he's kind of a dick about being an atheist. 
  • That said,  it's not unwatchable, just a huge disappointment compared to the previous movie. 
  • Theoretically is should have been nice having both Conchords working on this movie, but it was hard to tell that Bret McKenzie was even involved this time around, with music ranging from bad to forgettable. I'm going to hold onto the belief that the creative environment  of shitting out a sequel was different than that of revitalizing the Muppets, and Bret took the path of least resistance. If McKenzie wasn't phoning it in, he needs to refer them to Dan Bern the next time they approach him for music. 
  • To McKenzie's credit, at least he told us right in the first song that this was going to be a disappointment. 
  • We all love Tina Fey, but I felt like they put her in a role that made it impossible for her to do any of the stuff we like about Tina Fey.
  • Most of the best parts of the movie involved Sam the Eagle and the guy from Modern Family, but even that kind of bothered me because of all the "European workers have rights" jokes. This wouldn't have been out of place if Sam the Eagle had been the butt of these jokes--the Muppets have always been subversive--but these seemed to fall more along the "'Merka Fucky Yeah" lines of "look at those pansy Europeans with their tiny cars and living wage" 
  • I'd watch the Swedish Chef's existential Muppet movie. 
Cameo supplement:
  • For the most part, the cameos seemed a little dated. I kept imagining an SNL sketch with some hopelessly out-of-touch studio executive saying, "Let's get some of those hot acts that the kids love these days, like that MC Hammer guy!" 
  • Old but not in the dated category: Frank Langella. The man's a goddamn institution. If he wants to be in a Muppets movie, he gets to be in a Muppets movie. 
  • Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones get a pass because most people don't know their names anyway. Guys like that are the duct tape that holds the movie industry together, so anything that gets them a little recognition is a good thing. 
  • I'm going  to assume that even though they had some Hunger Games actors doing cameos, it didn't occur to them to ask Jennifer Lawrence. Because a world where Jennifer Lawrence turns down a chance to be in a Muppet movie is not a world I want to live in. 
  • Despite having to grudgingly admit that Danny Trejo probably peaked a few years ago, his long years of being known only as "that big Mexican guy with the tattoos" makes his role deserved, especially since there's nothing about "singing, dancing Danny Trejo" that's not funny. They lose a few points, though, since Harold and Kumar did the "Danny Trejo being un-Danny Trejo-like" thing a few years earlier. 
  • Ray Liotta's choice to come across as creepy and deranged as possible was a little odd, but kind of brilliant.