That New York Magazine continues to attack shoes is a fact both troubling and puzzling. After all, shoes may be evil, but, considering the urban shrapnel covering our sidewalks, they’re a necessary one. Can’t we just let bygones be bygones, and recognize that shoes carry with them their own discontents?

Yet the most disconcerting part of their continued attack are their tactics. Gone are the reasoned essays discussing the evolution of feet; in their place: cute children. As a sidebar to their piece on child achievement tests is this answer, in mock child handwriting, to the question: “Why do we wear shoes?”

Yes, it’s true that shoes are a part of the style system, but so is New York Magazine, and there is a reciprocal relationship between the two. Would they really want to live in a world without shoes, ergo a world without shoe advertising? It’s clear that no progress will be made until we adopt a positivist assessment of shoes, reforming the system rather than tearing it down completely.

By a reasonably objective metric (academy award nominations), William Hurt ranks as one of the greatest film actors of all-time (he has four) and yet he makes no appearance on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars. On its own, this would be a triviality; many great actors fail to achieve mass consciousness. Perhaps I’m betraying my age, but has anyone ever gone to a movie just to experience the raw animal magnetism of Albert Finney? But, as we’ve mentioned many times, William Hurt owned the 1980s, starring in several of the decade’s biggest commercial and creative successes.

I thought about this the other day while watching Damages season 2 on DVD. There’s a scene where William Hurt’s character takes a polygraph. Hurt’s character is exactly the type of role for which he’s remembered: handsome without being charming, and cold without appearing calculating; uncertainty surrounds him. And Hurt is an expert at maximizing uncertainty. Watching him take the polygraph, you’re sure that he’s managed to pass the test while lying. When it comes back inconclusive, you’re almost surprised. Is he not as devious as I thought, or could he be telling the truth? There may only be a 5% chance that he’s telling the truth, but Hurt makes you consider it. In this way, he’s a great foil to Glenn Close whose skill is smiling as she stabs a knife in your back. She’s good at convincing other characters that she’s being honest, but not so good at staying a step ahead of viewers. Only the show’s jumbling of chronology allows those possibilities to slip in.

But again, the mystery that is William Hurt and his ownership (or: pwnage) of the 1980s. Read the rest of this entry »

The second season of 30 Rock (a perennial favorite of the Yesterday’s Salad staff) ends with Tracy Morgan’s character creating the ultimate distraction: a seamless meld of video games and pornography.  The creation of the game is depicted in a pitch-perfect homage to the film Amadeus, with Tracy working frenetically into the night, as his co-worker, Frank, looks on in despair a la the jealous Salieri.  When Frank attempts to dissuade Tracy, he explains that it is impossible to create a porn video game because of a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is a metaphor for how people’s affinity toward computer-generated characters follows a parabolic curve (much like a valley).  A computer-generated character that looks nothing like a person, such as an animated car, will not make a viewer feel much of anything.  Much as we might be fond of our cars, an animated car is just an object.  However, if the computer generated car had great big eyes and a smile, we would have much less trouble relating to it.  The more the character looks like a real person, the more alive it seems.  Yet, there is a point at which the limitations of the animation start to appear, representing the bottom of the uncanny valley.  After this point, as the animators try to make the character look more human, the character becomes progressively more unreal, and we feel much less sympathy (and perhaps, more than a little creeped out).

What this means for a hypothetical sex video game is that any attempt to make the game’s characters realistic enough to be arousing will instead make them incongruous enough to be repulsive.  Unless your audience has a fetish for cartoon characters (a small audience in the U.S.), or has a fetish for being repulsed (which may violate the principle of entailment in this situation), this is not great a recipe for commercial viability. Within the context of 30 Rock, this explanation is meant humorously, but it is essentially the prevailing theory for why there aren’t more video games about (or even featuring) sex, while there are plenty of games featuring violence, whether cartoonish or quasi-realistic.

A good example of this theory in practice is found in the game Dragon Age: Origins.  Dragon Age is an epic fantasy in the vein of the Lord of the Rings, and tasks the player with defending their kingdom against a horde of demon-like creatures.  As anyone familiar with the general setting might expect, there is a fair amount of fighting (against both demon and human alike), and it is decently violent.  With fast pacing and fairly realistic graphics, the combat is both dramatic and fun.  To the game’s credit, there is a very rich backstory and well-developed characters, and the larger part of the game is spent talking and politicking amongst them.  Thanks to quite a bit of cleverly-written dialogue (leavened with some innuendo), this part of the game is even more fun than the combat, and is often moving.

Read the rest of this entry »

Community is the best new show on TV. Normally that would be an uncontroversial statement, as we’ve been in something of a sitcom dark age, but people really love Modern Family. Reuters actually selected it as one of the ten best shows of the decade. I like Modern Family. Actually, every time I watch it I’m surprised at how much I enjoy it; I forget how funny it is between episodes. But one of the best of the decade? Frankly, that The Wire wasn’t on this list shows that the critic in charge has no standing. Maybe season 6 will change his mind.

Community College Book ReportNo, Community is the funniest situational comedy of the year. And I mean that in the truest sense. As Freud writes:

The comic turns out first of all to be something unintended we find in human social relations. It is found in persons, in their movements, forms, actions and traits of character—originally perhaps only in physical characteristics, and later in mental ones as well–and in their respective ways of expressing them…However, the comic is capable of being detached from persons if the circumstance that makes a person appear comical is recognized. This is how ‘the comic of situation’ arises, and this knowledge brings the possibility of making a person comic at will, by placing him in situations where these conditions for the comic attach to its actions.

The comedy of the situation depends on merging social roles with circumstance, with creating character traits that are exploited by putting the character in a dissimilar or disadvantageous circumstance (or, as we say in the biz: “hilarity ensues’). For Freud, situational comedy is different from a joke, a self-contained unit that depends on verbal economy for its humor; the sitcom depends on character traits.

This is why Community is the funniest new show on TV. The writers consistently invert classic sitcom plots, adapting them to the strengths of their characters. They may sometimes seem one-dimensional, but there are enough one dimensions to go around.

In one episode, it’s Abed whose situation makes him the funniest; in others, he might disappear. The show has more jokes-per-episode than just about any other show on TV, but, ultimately, it’s the way the jokes are tied to the comedy of situation that make them so successful.

Combine that with rotating situations and you have something that few other shows have: a truly funny ensemble series.

Something has always bothered me about the end of The Mighty Ducks. (There’s a great article about what the movie meant to my generation here.) It’s not the fact that the Ducks play terrible, unsound hockey; as coached by Gordon Bombay, the Ducks can only score via trick plays (statue of liberty, flying V) defensive breakdowns (the fact that everyone just gets out of the way whenever Fulton shoots the pucks), or the individual heroism of their star player, Adam Banks (I concur with this post; it’s no contest in any film but the third). D3 acknowledged this element, allowing me to move past it. That the Hawks twice blow a 3 goal lead in the final doesn’t even upset me; the Ducks ability to comeback (their bouncebackability) wouldn’t rate very highly on the cinematic revenge scale (see Kill Bill, wherein the Bride overcomes a bullet to the head). We can all agree: Gordon Bombay is a good motivator, but not a strong tactician.

And it’s not the film’s bizarre class commentary. The social divisions of income inequality are at the heart of the film. Gordon Bombay’s elitist lawyer needs to get in touch with his inner proletariat in order to be a successful coach, correlated on film by dressing down in athletic clothing instead of suits.;Mr. Duckworth can buy the Ducks gear, but he can’t buy membership in the Ducks; Adam Banks’ father has access to the lines of power and can get the league to change its rules in order to accommodate his son; Jesse Hall refuses to acknowledge Banks as a member of the Ducks–despite prolific goal scoring–until he is viciously checked and run into the goal by a member of the Hawks. This symbolically marks him as the enemy-of-my-enemy in the eyes of Hall, transforming him into friend. “Cake-eater,” Hall’s emphatic pejorative of those in upper-income brackets, (how this did not become a widespread insult, I’ll never know!) even becomes a term of endearment. At the end of the day, the class-conflict is left in place. All of this suits a world stung from the Bush 1 recession.

No, rewatching the movie on Encore this morning, I realized why the end of the Might Ducks leaves me frustrated: it’s that Adam Banks’ father has difficulties accepting his son for who he is. We don’t know much about Mr. Banks. We know that he’ll fight to keep Adam on the Hawks. Understandable given that “his older brother was a Hawk; all his little friends are Hawks.” He seems as if he’s on his son’s side.

And yet…during the last game, Mr. Banks is wearing a Hawks jacket. This is the last game of the season, after the Ducks have miraculously made it to the championship game, overcoming ridiculous odds. Banks has clearly emerged as the team’s star player, and the Ducks have gained a sizable fan base, 90% of whom are wearing Ducks’ merchandise. So why is Mr. Banks wearing a Hawks jacket? The only explanation is that Mr. Banks loves his older son more than his younger son. Indeed, he prefers this unseen character so much that he will wear a Hawks jacket to a game where he visibly cheers on his younger son. You don’t have to be a structuralist to recognize that Mr. Banks is projecting mixed signals. Yes, he shows real concern when his son is rammed into the post, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was unwilling to affiliate with him during the game. Do the bonds of Hawkship last so long that Mr. Banks cannot support his son? Is he the film’s anti-Gordon?

Either way, this is a dark cloud hanging over what should have been a magisterial climax.

A.O. and Me

January 2, 2009

Anyone who knows me personally is aware of my fawning appreciation of A.O. Scott’s film criticism. His reviews, to my mind, have it all. They are informative, informed, and his recommendations are dead on. As a Manhattanite shelling out $10.50 I need something akin to a guarantee when I go out for an evening at the movies and Scott’s aesthetic and sense of humor and mine have, almost without exception, matched up beautifully. Anyone who knows me has heard the story of when I met him personally and how interesting, bizarre, and ultimately awkward/disappointing the encounter was.

I can separate the man from the work (an interesting issue in criticism and intellectual biography more generally) so I need not swear myself off of his reviews because our real life meeting. Nevertheless, once you learn something about a person it is downright impossible to forget or disregard it. I met Scott because his wife was in a class of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary – a woman who was flirting with the idea of attending the Rabbinical School there – and our entire class ate dinner at the professor’s home. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but Scott is or at least is married to a Jew (I’m still unclear on this).

Taken on its own this is not the least bit surprising or interesting. Another Jew(ish mind) in the business of interpreting and transmitting culture? Duh, welcome to modernity. But of late Scott has weighed in, albeit subtly, on one of the most crucial and contentious issues of the 20th (and now it seems 21st) century – Holocaust memory as it relates to issues of Jewish power, particularly the state of Israel. I am well aware that in insisting on its importance I am open to any number of criticisms. As a student of the modern Jewish experience, one could say, I am simply falling victim to the necessary blinders of potential and realized human experience – we all see what we want to see and understand the world to actually be what it is we understand it to be (huh?). Nevertheless, and with all due humility, I think it’s hard to argue that this issue, however defined, has not been at the heart of so much of our politics, culture, and identity formation in this country for the last 40 or so years.

There are numerous reasons why this is so, including the shift of power from Europe to the United States and the role Jews played/play in those civilizations, but the concomitant glut of Holocaust related film premiering in the United States during the “Holiday season” and the ongoing armed conflict between Israel and Palestine-Gaza is a convergence too ripe to be ignored.

So where does Scott stand on all of this? I would direct you to his recent review of Defiance and a longer, more sustained meditation on the topic found here. But at the end of the day, it’s just another chapter in a somewhat subterranean story. It is the story of the ambivalences and dueling tensions and allegiances at play in the heart and mind of the American Jewish intellectual who is to her mind, these tensions notwithstanding, living a non-exilic existence in the diaspora. It is the story of the pull of the particular as against the desire for universality that animates all of our lives, regardless of background, but is a tension that Jews have felt quite acutely, and I think A.O. Scott’s cultural work is explained by it. Read the rest of this entry »

Well, you will, but you won’t get the main page, and the results aren’t quite as satisfying as a nice google search. To be honest, I didn’t even know that Alta Vista still existed. So does Dogpile. I assumed everyone just used google, excepting the few people who use yahoo because they have a yahoo mail account and the few who use Microsoft under the whole “it’s so uncool it’s cool” paradigm. These are like the people who went to Starbucks five or six months ago. Now it seems that Starbucks is turning the corner and became genuinely cool again once it announced its financial troubles. Watch, it’ll happen with Newspapers too.

I got to thinking about this the other day when The Streets “Let’s Push Things Forward” came on in my itunes. I’ve always liked the song, but now I’ve decided it’s because of the “You Won’t Find Us on Alta Vista/Cult Classic not Best Seller” couplet. This is 100% revisionist. I used to like it for the “Around here we say birds, not bitches” line because I’m interested in vocabulary and cultural relativism. But now I like it for the way it defines the feel of the early 2000s. The key to the Alta Vista line is that it was already a year to two years uncool by the time the song came out, but it had once been supremely cool. Those were the wet and wild, rough and tumble pre-wikipedia years where searching for factual information online was like combing the desert in Spaceballs. Things were changing technology wise, but at a normal speed, one that you could live.

It’s weird to think of it, but these websites are like ghost towns, spaces we inhabited and now venture into no longer. There’s no practical–nor impractical–antiquarian value to using Alta Vista. It just reminds you how imprecise the internet once was. It wasn’t a more elegant time, like the age of letters, just a different sort of time. I can’t wait for a period piece that takes place in 2001-2002 (a nice comedy of manners), or even a movie like “The Wackness.” I’m sure there was a look to the early aughts, but I don’t know what it is until someone shows it to me, much like what happened with the nineties. I remember thinking at the time that I lived in a style free era, unlike the 1980s, with the exception of the grunge bubble. I was irrationally exuberant, yes.

So, farewell Alta Vista, you barely friendster you! Alta Vista? I hardly know her!