Archive for February, 2005

Petra sings The Who

Saturday, February 26th, 2005

I have a strange and fierce love for Petra Haden‘s new album, an a cappella rendition of The Who Sell Out.

“The Who Sell Out” was originally one of The Who’s early albums (1967); it contains such songs as “Armenia City in the Sky,” “I Can’t Reach You,” “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hands,” and (most famously) “I Can See For Miles.” It’s also a concept album; it has the format of a radio broadcast, complete with callouts for the radio station and mock commercials.

It’s been years since I’ve listened to “The Who Sell Out,” years since I had even thought about The Who. But Haden brings them back to a sort of uncanny afterlife. Her multi-tracked singing replicates the album in extreme, exquisite detail, as she sings not only Daltrey’s vocals, but Townshend’s guitar lines, Entwhistle’s bass, and even sometimes the swish and bang of Moon’s drums. (I don’t think she reproduces every instrumental line from the album, but she does enough to create a rich texture reminiscent of the original).

Nonetheless (or, rather, precisely because of this extreme fidelity), Petra Haden’s album does not sound much like the actual Who. The reason is textural — it has to do both with the high pitch of her voice (especially effective for an album that is so anguished over questions about manhood), and with the overall oddness of hearing those killer guitar lines turned into a kind of maniacally determined, but nonetheless gentle, scat singing (Haden is a genius at miming diverse instrumental timbres with her voice; but by ‘miming’ I mean that she somehow suggests these timbres in ways that are instantly recognizable, but without literally reproducing them). As a result, the furious amphetamine rush of The Who comes out sounding hauntingly lyrical. Or more precisely, the lyricism that was always at least in the background of Townshend’s songwriting is foregrounded in Haden’s rendition. The rage and pain and depression aren’t washed away, exactly, but rather sublimated — in both the psychoanalytic sense and in the sense of being ‘made sublime’ — and distanced through a sort of bright and blurry haze. I am thinking of the way in which — at least in my experience — antidepressant medication doesn’t take the pain and despondency away, but situates those feelings at a distance from which they don’t seem quite so overwhelming or impossible to deal with. You don’t become mindlessly happy, or happy at all in fact, but you are better able to live with your unhappiness. You don’t lose your (rare) moments of exhilaration, either; but those moments, as well, are put into a kind of perspective. As a middle aged person, hopefully without too much of that odious boomer nostalgia, I can’t at all identify with the adolescent angst (probably foreign to today’s adolescents) that the music of The Who (especially early) was straining to express; but Haden’s reiteration gives me something that I probably would be unable to get at this point from the original: a deep aesthetic appreciation of the music’s precisely hewn beauty. I like to listen to this album — as would never be the case with The Who themselves — just before going to bed; not that it is in the least soporific (it isn’t), but because it translates the music’s conflict (without pretending to resolve it) to a kind of other plane, or other scene.

I think this is what Deleuze calls “counter-effectuation”: “to be the mime of what effectively occurs, to double the actualisation with a counter actualisation, the identification with a distance, like the true actor or dancer, is to give to the truth of the event the only chance of not being confused with its inevitable actualisation.” The turmoil is not resolved, not pacified, not swept under the rug, but repeated in a new register, and in such a way that it becomes the double of itself; and that space between the event and its “counter-effectuated” double — not really even a space, but more like a membrane, or like the two sides of an infinitely thin piece of paper — is where creativity happens, where life finds the resources to continue even in the face of catastrophe.

Does this seem too heavy a burden to put on a 40-minute album that might more likely be described (as the album publicity notes describe it) as “a technical tour de force that highlights The Who’s own achievement”? But it isn’t heavy: that’s precisely the point. Petra Haden’s “The Who Sell Out” is a kind of magic that brings the dead back to life, neither as vampires and zombies, nor as venerated saints, but in a sort of mirroring that allows the discarnate ghosts to, finally, and from the immense distance that separates death from life, resemble themselves.

Hunter Thompson RIP

Monday, February 21st, 2005

I just learned (via Warren Ellis) that Hunter Thompson has killed himself.

Very sad news. Thompson hadn’t written much of interest lately — though he did turn out the occasional column accurately registering the utter vileness of the Bush regime and of America’s lurch toward xenophobia, repression, and willful ignornace — and it might even be said that in his later years he became, as a writer, a living parody of himself, his paranoid content and the lurid rhetoric having become all too predictable reflexes. But at his best, and very much so in his earlier years, he definitely was a great writer. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remains a masterpiece, an absolutely brilliant, savage, and hilarious decoding of the American Dream, the only work of “New Journalism” that (unlike the tomes of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer) has outlived the times in which it was written. Much of his other journalism from the 1960s and 1970s is nearly as good. Thompson was well-nigh definitive on Richard Nixon. All in all, he was the conscience of his times: times that were more accurately represented by his “gonzo” excesses than they could have been by any more conventional, naturalistic, and restrained mode of reportage.

Of course, you can’t talk about Hunter Thompson as a writer without confronting, as well, Hunter Thompson the legend, with the beer and the pot and the drugs and the guns and the continual acting out. By all accounts, he really was outrageous and crazy and bigger than life, and his written self-dramatizations are not as wildly exaggerated as they might seem. But as narcissistic self-mythologizing monsters go, Hunter Thompson was, by all accounts, an unusually honest and decent one.

There’s no information (at least so far) about why Thompson killed himself. The news story only quotes his son as requesting that the family’s privacy be respected. I have no way of speculating, and I can only say that, whatever the reasons for his act, Hunter Thompson will be missed.

Where’s the Mash-up?

Tuesday, February 15th, 2005

Jennifer Lopez’s current single “Get Right” uses the same backing track that was originally written for Usher, and used by him in a song called “Ride,” that was left off his Confessions album, but has been circulating in mixtapes. (Story here). The trouble is that the backing track, by Rich Harrison is really hot, with a vicious backbeat and a screaming saxophone loop; but in both Usher’s and J-Lo’s versions, the singing is totally lame, and not up to the quality of the instrumental. It’s too bad the US doesn’t have a system like that in Jamaica, where producers release “riddims” that multiple artists rap or sing over, competing with each other. I’d really like to hear a vocal (perhaps a rap rather than singing?) that does justice to this track…

Bad Education

Monday, February 14th, 2005

I adored Bad Education, even though I don’t think it’s Almodovar‘s best film. (I didn’t like it quite as much as his previous film, Talk To Her). It’s pretty much pure melodrama, with less humor/absurdity than many of his earlier films. Of course, you could argue that drag queens in Almodovar are always campy and absurd, at the same time that they are people of passion and pathos; but here the balance is more towards the passion and pathos, and less toward the absurdity, than in many of his previous films. This may be, in part, because Bad Education is one of Almodovar’s most overtly gay films — all the relationships in the film are between men, for the first time, I think, since Law of Desire in 1987. But then, one of the great things about Almodovar is that he has never made any distinction between gay and straight passions/relationships: all of them are equally queer, all equally delirious and obsessive. This is what’s utopian about his movies. It’s remarkable how he can create this sort of equality, even as all the passions he depicts are intransitive, i.e. not reciprocal, not fully reciprocated. Almodovar is fully aware of the power relations that flow from different privileges of gender and sexuality; it’s not by ignoring these, but precisely through them, that he creates sympathy for the madly-in-love obsessives who populate his films. The pedophile priest in Bad Education, however, is not quite as exalted as the protagonist of Talk To Her, who impregnates the woman of his dreams while she is in a years-long coma; Bad Education is a somewhat colder film. The melodrama turns more on mystery and disguise than on thwarted passion, and so the film is less about extravagance than it is about mirrorings of situations, doublings of identity, and life imitating art imitating life. All the characters are troubled, but Gael Garcia Bernal’s hustler/actor/drag queen remains opaque to the end — he’s a performer, everything he does is masked, and when the masks drop it’s only to reveal other masks. Resolving the melodrama — or at least revealing the mystery — in this self-consciously aestheticized way is Almodovar’s alternative, I guess, to the tragedy of passion (equally aestheticized, but far less archly self-conscious) depicted in Talk To Her. All in all, it’s quite a distance to this film from the campy excess of the early films (What Have I Done To Deserve This?, Matator, and Law of Desire) that first led me to fall in love with Almodovar nearly two decades ago. But I won’t endorse either of the cliches that usually come up on occasions like this: I think neither that Almodovar has matured and deepened his art, nor that he has abandoned his early radicalism and excess for mainstream tastefulness and dullness. The world has changed and Almodovar has changed with the world, which is why he has moved from low-budget camp to slick art-house fare, or from emulating early John Waters to emulating mid-period Vincente Minnelli. In a real sense, it is precisely through these shifts that Almodovar has kept alive the lovely utopianism that I mentioned earlier: a utopianism not of Blochian hope, nor of Adornoesque disalienation, nor even really of surrealist freedom of the imagination, but rather just of the singularity, stubbornness, and sheer stupidity of passion itself, its refusal to resign itself to the facts, or to pay heed to the counsels of good sense, the demands of self-preservation, and the glittering allurements of commodity fetishism. This is perhaps why Almodovar sets his relatively disillusioned narrative in the early 1980s, that extraordinary moment of flowering for Spanish culture after the death of Franco, when Almodovar himself got his start as a filmmaker, and when both democracy and gay liberation seemed to promise so much more than the bourgeois normalization that is legacy for Spain (and for some other countries, mostly in western Europe, that are happily less benighted than the United States) today.

Theory of Fun for Game Design

Tuesday, February 8th, 2005

Raph Koster‘s Theory of Fun for Game Design is, as its title implies, less a “how-to”guide for game designers than it is a critical reflection on what games are (especially contemporary computer games), how they work, and why they appeal to people — with only very general pragmatic advice on how to design games, based on these reflections. Koster himself is a celebrated game designer, who has been involved in the creation of such massive multiplayer games (online worlds) as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies.

I had some particular reasons for reading this book. Although I am fascinated by online virtual worlds (and spent a lot of time at one of the old text-based ones, LamdbaMOO, back in the mid-1990s), I’ve never been any sort of a gamer. I don’t like either competitive games, or puzzle-solving ones. The problem is, precisely, that I never find them fun. With competitive games, I feel every bit as much humiliation and pain from losing that anybody does; but unfortunately, I get no pleasure or gratification whatsoever from winning. For me, it’s a bit like the old Groucho Marx line (“I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member”): anything competitive that I can do successfully seems to me trivial and stupid and not worth doing. The same goes for the solo games where you play against the machine. As for puzzles, they similarly strike me as trivial and inane if I can solve them, and unbearably tedious if I can’t. So I’m literally in a no-win situation when it comes to games. I don’t have the patience to play them, and I don’t ever get the emotional rewards most people get by mastering them. The result is, that I don’t know anything about games. This bothers me, because games are indubitably where the most interesting and innovative things are happening, when it comes to new media, or even to aesthetics in the world today.

But I want to write about Koster’s book, not my own neurotic dilemmas. Koster is a smart and personable guy, who has thought long and hard about the meanings and implications of what he does as a game designer. The book is appealing, too, because it’s both intelligent and highly accessible, making its arguments with clear prose on the left-hand pages, and amusing cartoons on the right-hand ones. The cartoons are not just illustrative, but actually contribute to the ongoing argument. Since Koster is not an academic (though he is very interested in what academics have to say about gaming), he is able to make his book a multimedia experience, even though we never leave the printed page.

Koster basically sees games as “exercises for our brains” (38), artificial, abstract spaces in which we learn and practice, and (hopefully) end up mastering, various skills. (By mentioning “brains,” he is not opposing ‘mental’ skills to ‘physical’ ones; games can cover everything from abstract logical reasoning to motor skills; they involve not just ‘thinking’, but responding to sensory cues). Games are “limited formal systems,” which is part of what makes them different from real life; but they are not escapist, because they provide training which can be useful, or even vital, in real life. Games are fun, Koster says, because they provide the pleasure — the endorphin high, perhaps — that comes from “that moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task… In other words, with games, learning is the drug” (40).

Koster draws a rich and complicated series of consequences from these (seemingly simple) premises. I won’t attempt to summarize these consequences here. But Koster discusses such varied and deep matters as: what makes games boring, and how to avoid that; the relation between the underlying formal structures of games, which is where their puzzlement, challenge, and satisfaction lie, and the narratives in which games are almost always, and necessarily, embedded; the advantages and disadvantages of games in comparison with other media (like verbal fiction); and the potentialities and limits of games as works of art. Along the way, he also touches on such subjects as the moral responsibilities of game designers, and the need for games to become richer, and more emotionally complex, than they have been heretofore.

I feel I learned a lot from Theory of Fun in Game Design; Koster provoked me to think a lot more than most academic books tend to do. (I hope that doesn’t seem like too backhanded a compliment). It’s only against this background of general enthusiastic approval that I will note what seems to me to be the book’s major limitation. That is its overall assumptions based on cognitive psychology: which increasingly seems to be the “common wisdom” of our society today, much as Freudianism was fifty years ago. In line with this common wisdom, Koster overemphasizes cognitive skills, and gives short shrift to emotions (or, as I prefer to say, affect). In fairness, he does say that games, as abstract formal systems, are limited in comparison to novels and movies precisely because they are all about puzzle-solving skills, but are not so good at rendering the nuances of emotion. But when Koster comes to talk about the emotions, he describes them, in the standard cognitive terms, as markers of our efforts — as social primates — to attain higher social status and prestige.

As I’ve argued many times before, this sort of approach — not Koster’s in particular, but that of cognitive psychology itself, and of today’s “common wisdom” in general — is that 1)it is too narrowly functionalist; and 2)it makes the fundamental error of assuming that how something evolved or came into being is the key to understanding its meaning and usage now. But as Nietzsche said, “the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart.” Whatever their evolutionary origins, our emotions today are florid, ambivalent, multivalent, and often perverse, dysfunctional, or simply divorced from (positive or negative) function. Even if we really knew how they evolved (which we don’t; all we have are hypotheses that are grounded more in coherence with other dogmas than with any sort of empirical evidence), that would tell us very little about how they work, how they drive us, now. In their excess and gratuitousness, our affects are highly ludic — even when, and perhaps especially when, experiencing them isn’t much fun. And so, as cogent as I find Koster’s cognitive description of games (which includes his acknowledgement of how they often reward violence, aggression, and paranoia, at the expense of empathy and interdependence), I still think that something absolutely crucial is missing: the affect of games and gaming. Of course, if I understood that I might have a greater degree of insight into my own aversion to games, and my preference for other, equally (or more) sterile ways of subverting utility and wasting time.

Trackback update

Friday, February 4th, 2005

I’ve turned trackbacks back on, after applying various patches & plugins that allowed me to excise the over-300 references to online poker I received in the last week, and that will supposedly make it more difficult for similar spam to appear in the future. I guess I will see in the days to come how well they really work.

Trackback Spam

Friday, February 4th, 2005

I’ve been receiving lots of trackback spam the last several days (apparently this has happened to many Movable Type blogs), so I am turning off trackbacks for the time being. This means, unfortunately, that I will no longer be notified when people link to my blog, and there will no longer be records of such links on the blog. Even worse, sites like All Consuming and Technorati won’t be automatically notified about my new posts. But I really don’t want every entry on The Pinocchio Theory to link back to some online poker site. Hopefully a better method of stopping this spam will be worked out soon.