We at the Salad are kind of shocked and awed that John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate–if only because we were sure that Bobby “The Exorcist” Jindal would be nominated for VP to play up the whole Joe Biden Indian 7-11 Incident. But we’re even more shocked at the rationales people use to defend the pick. Here’s a truly perplexing reader email that Andrew Sullivan just posted at the Daily Dish:

…In addition, I predict a bonus unintended consequence for McCain among middle class/educated/post-college/pre-adult white males. A demographic label that follows many into their late 30s and currently trends for Obama. Basically the gamers/Gen-Xers/Seth Rogen/Will Farrell crowd. The GOP has already rolled out video of Palin in snugly tailored fatigues, combat boots and tight t-shirt brandishing a weapon at a meet-n-greet with the Alaska National Guard in Kuwait. I’m sure they’re scrambling to find more. “Sarah Palin as Laura Croft” will leave these guys drooling like zombies.

First off, it needs to be pointed out just how many demographic groups have been unfairly rolled into one. Just look at all the slashes! What does it even mean to be post-college/pre-adult? Is our reader referring to the Dougie Howsers of the world? If so, they represent a minute constituency and are, more importantly, ineligible to vote as they have not yet reached the age of majority. I also find it hard to believe that there is an electorally significant constituency of emotionally stunted “pre-adult” post-collegiates who nonetheless feel the social responsibility to vote.

This is not to mention my immediate skepticism towards a grouping of  “Gen-Xers” and “gamers.” These terms are meaningless: one tells us nothing about demographics, while the other tells us nothing about the stance on the defining question of Generation X: Ginger or Maryanne?

As your film correspondent, I’m more capable of responding to the “Will Farrell/Seth Rogen” statement. Both are funny, and I’ve obviously seen movies with both of them, but I don’t believe one can place them under the same rubric. They represent different comic traditions (SNL/funny or die vs. Apatow), and approaches to acting. (Will Ferrell” is a surprisingly good dramatic actor–see, Stranger than Fiction and don’t see, Melinda and Melinda.) Yes, they both regularly play infantilized, repressed Americans, but they approach this question with different levels of earnestness, and moral rectitude. Besides, Ferrell, more often than not, plays with mental immaturity, whereas Rogen plays that “pre-Adult,” albeit one who understands the eventual need to mature.

This is to say nothing of the medium. Despite Lara’s success as a video game character, she was less successful as a film character, and, most likely, would garner almost no votes for higher office. The success in one medium does not mean success in another; adaptation is an art. Of course, Lara Croft is making something of a comeback, (I refer you to Notwithabang…’s review of the Tomb Raider anniversary edition) but it’s still a bit soon for even Karl Rove to mastermind her to victory. Oh, and did I mention the character’s British?

Lastly, the problem with the letter has nothing to do with the bizarre demographic categories, and everything to do with the trivialization of a significant group of American men by the letter-writer. We–and, for arguments sake, I’ll reckon myself a part of this unclear category–have been maligned as incapable of voting on merits, and positions, and instead vote on looks and image. In large numbers, no less. Our support of Obama has everything to do with his positions and beliefs, and much less to do with his image. The war and climate change are the defining issues for young people this cycle, and Palin’s positions on these matters are problematic. Does she have anything resembling a strategy for Iraq? We know she doesn’t believe climate change is man made. Younger Americans are perfectly capable of seeing beyond a candidate’s looks or image and voting on the issues. In fact, I think you’ll often find that younger Americans care more about the issues than older Americans who often care about personal lives (remember, we came of age during the Clinton presidency) and other external factors.

And, for what it’s worth, I knew Lara Croft, and Sarah Palin is no Lara Croft.

Caught Red-Headed

August 28, 2008

Summertime is the dry season for professional games developers, as the easy cash and consumerism of the holiday season is more fertile for sales.  While this makes good business sense, for me, it never really made practical sense.  After all, summer is the time when people actually have time to relax and enjoy the games.  Thankfully, indie developers have made the best of that free time, and we’re at the tail end of a great season for indie game releases, appropriately closing with the release Grundislav’s seventh, penultimate chapter of the Ben Jordan series.

The Cardinal Sins, which finds Ben Jordan solving the murder of a priest in Rome, is a clear progression for the series, as it improves upon aspects both technical and artistic.  The game comes with full voice acting for all characters, which is quite entertaining throughout, if somewhat varied in quality.  The artwork has also improved considerably; while some backgrounds could use a little more attention (with nary a straight line throughout), the scope of the effort is truly impressive, as the backgrounds are both expansive and imaginative. These sweeping, yet detailed backgrounds make the Rome of the game world feel believable.

On a more practical level, the gameplay and story are solid.  While the puzzles are not particularly difficult, and can usually be solved in a few steps (which may or may not be a plus), they are always appropriate to the plot, and are paced to keep the story progressing at a good clip.  The story features good characterizations throughout, and the patter between Ben and his friends is generally fun and quick enough. Yet, as well-layered as the humor and mysteries are throughout, the ending is extremely frustrating.

The ending will really be a love-it or hate-it matter for those who play the game.  While it is necessarily a downer and a cliffhanger (with only one more episode, how could it not be?), this is not why it is so difficult.  Rather, without giving away too much, the ending disappoints because it really isn’t keeping in tone with the rest of the game, or for that matter, the adventures which preceded it. The series so far has involved Ben and the gang getting into somewhat dangerous (and spooky) situations, and the general plot of this episode is somewhat darker than the others (revolving around the murder of a priest), but the dangers have generally been passed off as comic.

In fact, Ben’s ability to remained fairly upbeat and plucky, despite the fact that he’s mixed up in some awful, no good mysteries is what has given the series its persistent charm.  This earnestness is evident in this title as well: when his friends confront Ben about how dangerous his sleuthing can be (particularly the breaking and entering), all he can muster is a kind of “aww-shucks” and a smile. Thus, the ending’s sudden seriousness and violence is about as jarring as it would be if the Scooby-Doo gang foiled Old Man Murphy’s plot to terrorize the amusement park monorail, only to have him subsequently eviscerate Velma and Fred in reprisal.

This should not be read as a condemnation of the game, however. It is only because the game is such fun, and demonstrates tremendous accomplishment from the series’ more humble origins, that the ending is so trying. So, I heartily encourage you to play through The Cardinal Sins; whatever challenge the ending may present, we can only hope that with his next installment, Grundislav will bring it to an even more stunning denoument.

On Liking

August 26, 2008

I noticed something rather strange while I was poking around metacritic the other day. This is from their methodology:

Q: I read Manohla Dargis’ review of [MOVIE NAME] and I swear it sounded like a 9… why did you guys say she gave it an 8?

Our staff must assign a numeric score, from 0-100, to each review that is not already scored by the critic. Naturally, there is some discretion involved here, and there will be times when you disagree with the score we assigned. However, our staffers have read a lot of reviews–and we mean a lot–and thus through experience are able to maintain consistency both from film to film and from reviewer to reviewer. When you read over 200 reviews from Manohla Dargis, you begin to develop a decent idea about when she’s indicating a 90 and when she’s indicating an 80.

Fine. But then:

Q: Hey, I AM Manohla Dargis, and you said I gave the movie an 80, when really I gave it a 90. What gives?

A: …This does happen from time to time, and many of the critics included on this site (such as Ms. Dargis) do indeed check their reviews (as well as those of their colleagues) on metacritic.com

I’m not going to spend this post talking about the intricacies of Ms. Dargis’ reviews. Dargis has been called something of a contrarian and lambasted for her bizarre reviews. Ok, an example. Gawker considered her review of “How to Eat Fried Worms” part of a “post-modern contest” writing that “if you can wend your way through the convoluted structure she erects in today’s review…consider yourself granted an honorary M.F.A. in comparative literature.”

I’ll focus instead on the content of the review. First there is the use of the phrase “plangent realism.” Plangent is a nice word, meaning “having an expressive and especially plaintive quality,” but totally out of place in a review of a children’s/young adult movie. After all, the intended audience of the film might want to know if the movie’s any good. Even more surreal is her claim as to the movie’s message.

Directed by Bob Dolman, who also wrote the fine adaptation, “How to Eat Fried Worms” is an easygoing entertainment in which a sensible message about growing up also rationalizes the abuse of power. However lightly played, this is, after all, a film in which children learn to stand up for themselves, and for one another, by killing animals.

Gawker’s right to question the sentence structure; just think about how many ideas are placed in the first sentence before we get to the “abuse of power” claim. The claim itself is so bizarre that it needs no comment.

With reviews like this, it’s easy to understand how scoring can be difficult. I like to emphasize meaning and the “aboutness” in my reviews, which sometimes means focusing on particular well done moments and interesting aspects of the movie rather than evaluating all its virtues and defects. It’s not hard to write like you love something, or write like you hate something, for that matter, when you actually liked it or found it ok. Extremes lend themselves to easier prose.

One last note: I think it’s great that metacritic has people who research particular reviewers in order to decode their intended meanings, almost as if film criticism were samizdat. I’m glad someone’s out there coming up with jobs for humanities phds.

Since I’m in the library with Rabbi Dr. Professor Jurgen Haverstam, DHL, I should probably take this opportunity to live blog my experiences of his studying for generals. It goes as such.

9:19 Meet Haverstam on the Long Island Rail Road from Mineola’s Recovery Room to New York’s Penn Station where I force him to go with me to the Tick Tock diner on 34th and 8th. As we wait and wait for our food, Haverstam points out that the phrase “tick-tock” is used to show how long you have to wait, and has nothing to do with punctuality or “being on the clock.” I concur. We also discover that the Diner is in the ground floor of the New Yorker hotel and decide that, in general, it’s a really bad idea to stay in a hotel that names itself for its locale. Somehow, the Paris Hotel doesn’t sound very Parisian.

11:00 Set out for the YIVO archives where we spend at least an hour and a half going through metal detectors. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the Center for Jewish History has better security than 90% of the airports in this country.

Second 11:00 Realize that I have not entered a time-warp and that my computer is still on Austin time.

12:15 Haverstam finally gets his books and reads for a solid 20-40 minutes, pointing out how much he likes his book with its references to now defunct movie theaters.

1:30 Haverstam disappears.

1:52 Decide that Haverstam has entered a time-warp. Or, has managed to find the Center for Jewish History’s secret bar, one that exclusively serves Harvey Wallbangers.

I will intermittently be sharing with the Salad community a (somewhat) live journal of my day as I read for Comprehensive Exams coming up in September. In case I have never formally made your acquaintance I am Rabbi Dr. Professor Jurgen Haverstam. I study modern Jewish intellectual history, religion (I think), and was never taught how to use a comma properly.

9:30-10: Wake up and get out of bed

No, you’re haven’t misread, this is an half-hour long procedure. Though I get plenty of sleep I hardly spring out of bed. I spend twenty of these minutes wondering if I should buy an air purifier but think better of it.

10-12: The day is greeted…meekly

These hours are not bound by any real routine, but rather are a way for me to ingratiate myself into the world of sensory perception. I check my email to improve hand-eye coordination; I drink water, a substance to which I have a full-blown addiction; I follow some of the more crucial threads and requests on Facebook (that promiscuous girl I was too ashamed to ever get with wants me to join her wagon on Oregon Trail? What does it all mean?). Though I no longer fall victim to the bottomless hole of AIM, G-chat has made the private absurdly public and my inability to ignore digital communication means more time wasted – this gets rationalized by my saying: “This is how to maintain vital human connections in less than ideal circumstances.” Irony: making use of my education in order to justify my neglecting it.

12PM: The hour of guilt-laden stress in upon us

My desire to be tidy and official translates into a noon start time. Certainly midday is an auspicious hour to begin my scholarly pursuits. Sometimes I’ll begin on a half hour – there isn’t any real method here. It’s all about how what helps you get to bed at night.

Today I pick up one of the secondary sources on my reading list, Protestant Thought in the 19th Century by Claude Welch. Unconsciously I’m trying to keep morale up after yesterday’s less than successful foray into what was supposed to be a helpful secondary source on Hegel’s thought – Yirmiyahu Yovel’s introduction to Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Yes, that’s the introduction to a book whose subject is Hegel’s preface to his most important book. I’ll just let that linger for a moment. Please read on only when you’re ready.

Yovel’s work is said to be a useful introduction to Hegel’s thought in general. His approach, as he tells us in the introduction, is to understand Hegel in his own terms. The problem with this approach is that Hegel’s thought, especially his “terms”, is impenetrable and downright nutty. I say nutty because as you’re reading him you believe that this man was a) off his rocker and b) totally correct about a lot of things. The journey of the mind can get pretty emotional.

1:50 …

I text a friend whose job does not start until mid-September and is, until that time, a lady of leisure. It’s getting to be time for a coffee break.

2:20 On my way downstairs I check the mailbox, an event that will never lose its ability to arouse anticipation and excitement. This particular checking is especially rewarding – I’ve received my first handwritten dispatch from our friend Dash. I leave the mail in the mailbox so that the excitement continues when I return home.

2:30-5 I reluctantly meet my friend at Starbucks. Ordinarily I would be happy to go to Dunkin’ Donuts because it is that upon which America runs; I’ve been reading about William James today so it’s especially fitting. However, since my friend has received a $2 coupon for any iced beverage which she earned by going to Starbucks earlier that same day (!) my impecunious ways overtake my ultra-Americanism (a fire stoked by the Olympics) in my decision-making process.

After a leisurely coffee break we stop at the Garden of Eden, a haughty market whose sole appeal is its unbelievably fresh and cheap produce. Placards under each item read “Temptation in every aisle” and I find myself agreeing. I buy items for a stir-fry I had no intentions of making. Marc Taylor once taught a class I was in and said that every story has three parts: Beginning, middle and end – Paradise, Fall, Redemption. It is certainly no coincidence that I live just east (and the tiniest bit north) of such a place.

5:15PM  On my way back upstairs I retrieve my mail, handwritten postcard from Dash included. I can only hope that in writing this post, reading and responding to his letter, and moving forward with my reading plans that this day can yet be redeemed. Then again, it’s almost time to get supper started – anyone want to come over for stir-fry?

Ceci n’est pas une post

August 19, 2008

Turning a year older, I find myself further confused by society’s direction.  Since Yesterday’s Salad began, the site has gone through many changes, as the various writers have nudged the boundries of its format in search of a more comfortable voice.  So too, the length and frequency of posts has been extremely variable, and while the afforementioned changes in tone are part of the site’s growth, I must apologize for contributing to the lag in posts.  Yet, as the site has seen both a hodge-podge of writers (most of whom remain elusive), and even a recent flame war, I’m perplexed by the site’s trajectory, as it sails through society’s current (let’s be honest – the internet might as well be society at this point).

So, rather than writing up some somber meditation about myself, the nature of society, or some convoluted term like society/net/life, I offer this: a year older, I am pleased that this site still exists, and pledge to continue with it, regardless of the direction that it takes.