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Life Itself Celebrates Roger Ebert and His Capacity for Joy

To call Roger Ebert one of the great populist film critics is to damn him with faint praise. Though he took pride in working for the scrappier of the two Chicago dailies, the Sun-Times, and though we do have him to thank — or curse — for popularizing the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to criticism, his approach to moviegoing was actually refined. When he died last year, he left behind both a body of writing and a way of looking at movies that opened them wide to the world. So many critics write to show off how much they know — it’s a way of keeping you, whoever “you” are, at arm’s length. Ebert wrote to let you in. To read him is to feel you’re pulling up a chair.

Director Steve James captures that quality and more in Life Itself, his documentary about Ebert’s life and, notably, these last few years of it, after recurring health problems and multiple surgeries left the critic unable to speak. That didn’t mean Ebert lost his voice: He was one of the first old-school print critics to approach the Internet as something other than an unfriendly alien, and in some ways we all got to know him much better in his later years, through his blog and his Twitter feed. James — the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters — gives us a sense of Ebert as a man who kept reinventing life as he went along — out of necessity, sure, though he also took some pleasure in adapting. It couldn’t always have been easy, but that, too, is part of the story.

James picks up all the salient and interesting details without getting too bogged down in hagiography, beginning with his subject’s childhood in Urbana, Illinois, in a household that subscribed to three newspapers just for him. After graduating from the University of Illinois (he’d hoped for Harvard, but his working-class parents couldn’t afford it), where he was editor of the school paper, Ebert intended to enter graduate school. Needing to rustle up some money, he thought he’d make a pit stop at the Sun-Times for a few years. He ended up staying the rest of his life, first working as a reporter but early on inheriting the job of film critic. He won a Pulitzer in 1975, a time when journalism’s most coveted prize was rarely awarded to film critics.

Life Itself (based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name) is also a portrait of two marriages: Ebert met his wife, Chaz, when he was 50; their union was tested by the most devastating of circumstances, but James captures the casual, bantering devotion between them, even during what must have been the roughest times. Ebert’s other “marriage” wasn’t so harmonious but perhaps just as significant, at least to his audience: Most non-Chicagoans got to know Ebert through the television show he co-hosted with rival Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, which ran in various incarnations from the mid-1970s until Siskel’s death, in 1999. James captures the friction between the two — it’s especially apparent in an on-air disagreement over, of all things, Benji the Hunted — but he also shows how all that mutual abrasion, year after year, made the two men almost closer than family. (And maybe you didn’t know that Siskel was at one point a pal of Hugh Hefner’s, frequently riding around in the Big Bunny jet. I didn’t.)

James calls on all sorts of luminaries from the worlds of critics and filmmakers alike: New York Times critic A.O. Scott delicately explains Ebert’s attraction to the films of Russ Meyer, making the case that movies offer all sorts of pleasures, including the “earthier” ones. (Ebert wrote the screenplay for Meyer’s trashily magnificent Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and a few clips are included here.) Life Itself also flirts with the idea that Ebert’s friendships with filmmakers may have sometimes caused him to pull his punches, although one of those friends, Martin Scorsese (also a producer of Life Itself), doesn’t seem to feel that way: He gives testimony to how stung he felt by Ebert’s negative review of The Color of Money.

Scorsese is also quick to note, though, that as a critic Ebert was never unnecessarily cutting or unkind. In real life, too, even those who knew him only casually, as I did, would probably agree. Life Itself seems about as comprehensive as it could be, though perhaps it doesn’t adequately stress Ebert’s generosity toward younger critics, even those not so much younger than himself. I knew Roger mostly through the occasional email exchange, but one thing that always struck me — beyond the self-evident fact that he was such a marvelous, straightforward, openhearted writer — was his capacity for delight, a quality I often find lacking in the world of film critics, a bunch who tend to take themselves way too seriously. When Roger learned, a few years back, that my husband had bought me as a Christmas gift an original poster for Camelot — one of the most beautiful works of movie-poster art, by one of its greatest artists, Bob Peak — he seemed as excited about it as I was. When he found out that my gift wasn’t the standard American one-sheet but a huge French grande, measuring an incroyable 47 by 62 inches, his review was glowing and succinct: “That’s way cooler.”

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Ten Reasons to Spend Your Summer in a Movie Theater

Rooftop Films

Ongoing through August 16

The oppressive winter will be instantly forgotten as you breathe in this always-terrific alfresco series, which pairs new indies and festival hits with live music and interactive marvels. (The boombox-ready, ’80s-cool comedy Ping Pong Summer includes table-tennis tourneys; for Sara Dosa’s mushroom-hunting doc The Last Season, you can seek out fungi on the world’s largest rooftop farm.) Also recommended are the subversive Jenny Slate rom-com Obvious Child, Japanese s/m burlesque R100, and Iranian vampire western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Rooftop Films, various locations, rooftopfilms.com

Cold in July

May 23

Between his undead-apocalypse road saga Stake Land, his American Gothic cannibal-clan psychodrama We Are What We Are, and this nervily entertaining adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s crime novel, filmmaker Jim Mickle proves himself a craftsman in the mold of John Carpenter and Walter Hill. In East Texas in 1989, mulleted everyman Michael C. Hall (Dexter) shoots and kills a home invader, but then the trespasser’s vengeful dad (Sam Shepard) makes parole. Cue the period synthesizers, Don Johnson, and a capricious second act. IFC Films, in limited release, ifcfilms.com

Borgman

June 6

Dutch auteur Alex van Warmerdam›s diabolically freaky suburban fantasy (the elevator pitch might be something like “Dogtooth meets Funny Games“) follows the cryptically mad misdeeds of a Rasputin-bearded antihero (Jan Bijvoet) who is either a deranged hobo, a trickster wizard, or a metaphysical demon. Charming his way into an upper-crust family’s ultramodern home, Borgman’s manipulations start as petty class-war pranks and eventually turn more macabre and absurd. It’s either the season’s most sinful comedy or the drollest horror. Drafthouse Films, in limited release, drafthousefilms.com

BAMcinemaFest

June 18–29

Opening with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—a parent-child drama ambitiously shot over 12 years—and closing with a 25th anniversary screening of Spike Lee’s one-block-in-Brooklyn classic Do the Right Thing, BAM’s vital American indie showcase returns for a sixth edition. Early standouts include Madeleine Olnek’s lesbian prostitution-ring comedy The Foxy Merkins, Josephine Decker’s sensual thriller Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, and the Zellner Brothers’ Fargo-inspired oddball quest Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org

“The Italian Connection”

June 19–29

Largely unknown here, Italy’s “poliziotteschi” genre of the late ’60s and ’70s—cynical, uncompromising crime thrillers influenced by political cinema, detective novels, and rough-edged noir—was packed with pulp innovation. Anthology’s curated sampling includes vigilantism spurred by institutional failings (1971’s Confessions of a Police Captain), drug-ring action dramas (1973’s High Crime), heists with hints of homoeroticism (1976’s Born Winner), and a Rio-set caper costarring Janet Leigh and Edward G. Robinson (1967’s Grand Slam). Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, anthologyfilmarchives.org

New York Asian Film Festival

June 27–July 14

Even if your summer-movie tastes skew mainstream, boycott the boring multiplex garbage and enhance your fun with Subway Cinema’s 13th annual showcase of pan-Asian pop thrills and manic weirdness. Maybe you’ll meet Taiwanese action icon Jimmy Wang Yu (One-Armed Swordsman) as he’s presented with a lifetime achievement award; stick around for Korean surveillance thrillers (Cold Eyes), Hong Kong porn-biz parodies (3D Naked Ambition), and Chinese masseuse dramas (Blind Massage).

Life Itself
July 4

Pulitzer Prize–winning film critic Roger Ebert lost his ability to speak and half his jaw to cancer in 2006, but was still writing passionately and tirelessly right up until his death last year. Directed by Steve James (who owes his career to Ebert for championing his 1994 doc Hoop Dreams), this deeply stirring, good-humored tribute to the Chicago Sun-Times legend doesn’t shy away from the alcoholism of his early years, his fierce rivalry with TV cohost Gene Siskel, and film discussion itself in the post-thumbs era. Magnolia Pictures, in limited release, magpictures.com

Land Ho!
July 11

Anyone could get their groove back in the colorful company of loud, lewd, pot-smoking Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and his soft-spoken foil Colin (This is Martin Bonner’s Paul Eenhoorn), two former brothers-in-law who venture to Iceland to shake off their post-retirement stagnancy. Gorgeously photographed and delightfully sincere, this bawdy buddy comedy from co-directors Martha Stephens (Pilgrim Song) and Aaron Katz (Cold Weather) avoids phony bucket-list affirmations on a gentle adventure through ice bars, geothermal pools, and black-sand beaches. Sony Pictures Classics, in limited release, sonyclassics.com

Buñuel
July 11–August 14

Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, an avant-garde master who shocked, awed, and razzed with dreamlike masterpieces like Belle du Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie until his death in 1983, is given his first comprehensive NYC retrospective in nearly 15 years. There are no wrong choices to be made, whether you prefer Buñuel’s early surrealism (L’Age d’Or, Un Chien Andalou), his mid-career Mexican period (Los Olvidados, Susana), or his return to France (The Milky Way, The Phantom of Liberty). Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org

“Femme Noirs”
July 18–August 7

Film Forum’s three-week ode to “Hollywood’s Dangerous Dames” features new restorations of Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai (1948) and Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1949), two-for-one admissions (Murder, My Sweet + The Maltese Falcon = a perfect Friday), and live piano accompaniment for 1929’s Louise Brooks-led Pandora’s Box. Beginning August 1, Billy Wilder’s essential noir Double Indemnity — don’t trust that cold-blooded Barbara Stanwyck! — is fêted with a 70th anniversary restoration and week-long run. Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, filmforum.org

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Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction Suits Its Subject to a ‘T’

Roger Ebert once famously wrote that no film featuring Harry Dean Stanton could be bad. While 1996’s Down Periscope might prove that statement technically incorrect, Sophie Huber’s Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction makes a stirring case for the greatness of the now-87-year-old actor, whose particular blend of weary sorrow, no-nonsense feistiness, and philosophical cool has enhanced classics like Cool Hand Luke, Two-Lane Blacktop, Repo Man, and Paris, Texas, the last of which gave the legendary character actor his first leading role. Huber’s documentary takes an expressionistic approach to portraiture, interweaving commentary from admiring friends and collaborators (Sam Shepard, Wim Wenders, Kris Kristofferson, David Lynch) with both smeary shots of nocturnal L.A. from Stanton’s car window and black-and-white close-ups of the chain-smoking, music-loving actor singing his favorite songs. The result is a film that’s in perfect sync with its subject. Between clips of Stanton acting, as Lynch says, “in between the lines,” and interviews in which Stanton exudes a simultaneously sad and accepting resignation about the powerlessness he feels over his life, the actor comes across as a lifelong loner whose performances were infused with rich, raggedy soul because, as he admits, he was ultimately just playing variations of himself.

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OLD SOULS

When asked if he could name a movie that was “entirely devoid of clichés,” Roger Ebert said it would have to be the “wonderfully odd” My Dinner With André. A carefully crafted conversation between real-life friends and collaborators André Gregory and Wallace Shawn, the 1981 film was directed by Louis Malle and contains countless terrific bits of wisdom. (Says Shawn, “Suppose you’re going through some kind of hell in your own life. Well, you would love to know if friends have experienced similar things. But we just don’t dare to ask each other.” To which Gregory replies, “No, it would be like asking your friend to drop his role.”) See it today as part of the Public Theater’s The Wallace Shawn–André Gregory Project, which includes the stage revival of The Designated Mourner as well as a screening on Saturday, August 3, of Gregory’s films André Gregory: Before and After Dinner and Vanya on 42nd Street.

Sun., Aug. 4, 4 p.m., 2013

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Roger Ebert: Why There Can Never Be Another

A common sentiment recurs through the abundance of eulogies and obituaries penned by film critics in the wake of his death late last week: Roger Ebert was an inspiration.

It’s easy enough to be encouraged by another’s success—to regard an esteemed elder colleague with a combination of admiration and envy—but genuine inspiration, feeling galvanized and invigorated by a person, is considerably rarer. And considerably more valuable: to compel others to pursue a dream or live and think differently simply by virtue of setting an example is to effect actual change in the world, an accomplishment by any measure. Ebert’s real legacy, perhaps more than the voluminous body of work he leaves behind, is the very field of contemporary film criticism, which his example shaped to a remarkable degree.

Now he’s gone, and the void left by his absence cannot be overstated.

For more than 45 years, his writing—clear, unpretentious, inflected with his singular personality—established a template for film writing as warmly embraced as it was widely emulated. Though the 1960s found America’s critical community divided evenly along the Andrew Sarris/Pauline Kael faultline, Ebert offered an alternative by way of compromise: Adopting neither the French-indebted intellectualism of the former nor the reactionary hectoring of the latter, Ebert’s sensibility seemed to stand apart, at once conversational and rigorous, breezy and greatly informed.

Like Sarris, Ebert appreciated burgeoning academic concepts like auteur theory, applying their methods to the relaxed tenor of his reviews. And like Kael, Ebert was quick to champion more radical films whose themes or aesthetics went largely misunderstood. He was, in many ways, the ultimate well-rounded critic: respected, down to earth, his field’s most accessible expert.

You’ll find many young critics happy to reminisce about a shared early memory: Stumbling upon a strange television show in which two men argued seriously and intelligently about movies, we learned that there was more to see than what was at the multiplex, that it was OK to demand more of our entertainment, and, most urgently, that the cinema was worth thinking about and fighting for. Though his tenure at The Chicago Sun-Times had long since proven him a formidable writer (and had won him the Pulitzer Prize some years earlier), his weekly appearances with Siskel made him a bona fide star, not only introducing his name and face to millions of Americans but also, more incredibly, introducing those Americans to a new conception of criticism and of the cinema itself. Once he hit television, it wasn’t long before Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel became the world’s most recognizable film critics, perhaps the only ones to be considered a household name.

I remain convinced that, had I not seen At the Movies as a child, I would not be writing film criticism today. I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other critics amateur and professional alike who feel the same way. That kind of influence is indelible. It also simply isn’t possible anymore: Because the Internet continues to favor increased specialization and personally tailored content, it’s relatively easy for a writer to reach many interested voices but next to impossible for that writer to reach beyond that.

It’s likely that, because there are now infinitely more opportunities for regular film-lovers to voice their opinions and be heard, we have access to more great writing than ever before; but a consequence of this changed landscape is that one voice cannot be a unifying force, making it hard to bring a niche subject to the masses. After his health declined sharply in 2006—including surgical complications that permanently obstructed his ability to speak—Ebert used the Internet to become better and more prolific, expanding his purview to include a thoughtful and politically engaged personal blog and increasing his ordinary review output week after week. He engaged with his fans through social media, authored a memoir, and brought budding writers into the fold with sidebar guest columns built into the architecture of his site. But with At the Movies he’d already laid the groundwork upon which a life’s work can be built, and that’s still the foundation of his worldwide fame and cultural significance.

What Ebert’s efforts each week did for film criticism—effectively validating the career in the eyes of an audience impressed by his authority—cannot easily be undone, and he will forever be the public face of a field defined by bylines. But neither can he easily be replaced: To put it bluntly, there can never be another Roger Ebert.

Though his affinity was always for Martin Scorsese, a better directorial analog might be Steven Spielberg, the one director known by name by everybody, everywhere. Like Spielberg, Ebert was an intellectual by trade but a populist at heart, an artist of wit and imagination and consummate professionalism. (There’s meaningful symmetry in the fact that Jaws, Spielberg’s industry-changing blockbuster, hit theaters the same year Sneak Previews made its TV debut.) And like Spielberg, Ebert endures in the popular imagination as more than merely famous—he’s iconic.

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From Baby Ebert to Survivalist Sheep: Studies in Crap’s First Terrible Coloring Book Round Up

Each Thursday, your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets. I do this for one reason: Knowledge is power.

Helping With Bike Safety

Author/Illustrator: Betsey Douglas MacDonald
Date: None given, presumably the ’90s
Publisher: American Academy of Pediatrics
The Cover Promises: Bicycle fun with Baby Ebert! Or is it Lil’ Cynthia Ozick?

There are some topics pediatricians can be relied upon to know, like the best way to prick a kid with a needle or how to find a good deal on fluffy-cloud wallpaper. But one thing they must never again be trusted with is the production of coloring books about bike safety.

Take a look at that cover: young Michael Moore toodling along on his Huffy, decked out in some suspenders, loafers and khaki skort combo, looking for all the world like he’s headed to an Oktoberfest party for employees of Blockbuster Video! And his helmet — is that a rolled-up tube-sock?

That’s not even mentioning the mystery of where his seat went.

Clearly, that kid has failed to learn bike safety. I’m guessing the American Academy of Pediatrics bears the blame. After all, their idea of teaching the basics of helmets and hand-signals is to force kids to stare into the laser-eyes of this asexual terror-cyborg from the future.

That eye-demon is named Sam Sprocket. He/she recommends you wear a helmet so that you don’t jeopardize your ability to sort.

If ever a paint-by-number page were needed, this is it. How many Helping With Bike Safety readers have hollered out, “Mommy? What color are brains?”

Here’s a familiar hazard: crashing into the universal symbol for prohibited activities.

When I was a kid, I jacked myself up trying to bunny-hop my Schwinn over a yin-yang.

Anyway, here’s another coloring book.

Blue & You: Wild and Wooly Health Tips For Kids

Author: BlueAnn Ewe
Date: None given; presumably within the last ten years
Publisher: Arkansas Blue Cross/Blue Shield
The Cover Promises: Stay in shape, because you’re not covered!

Insurance companies want us to believe that they have taught sheep to create coloring books about safety.

They probably say this to make us think their overhead is high. I mean, I’ve been to at least four petting zoos, and I have come to the conclusion that teaching sheep to do this would cost a lot of time and money. They would probably start with coloring books about something closer to a sheep’s experience, like handfuls of tasty pellets, and then work up to safety from there.

The fact that this particular sheep is also into crosstraining just complicates things further.

Anyway, BlueAnn Ewe’s ghostwriter warns kids to stay away from strangers.

Here’s a closer look at at an Arkansas insurance company sheep’s idea of a pervert. Note the feedbag and that he is one step in to doing the moonwalk.

Another danger: your parents’ medication!

Wait! Could this here Arkansas Breakfast be the stash that bike safety kid was booking toward when he wiped out? Also, note that BlueAnn has fortune cookies for paws. Crack one open, and the message reads “Safety!”

Here, BlueAnn explains that you must wait for your parents’ permission before you can join the fight against big-government fascism.

Shocking Detail:
Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield maintains a lively web-site devoted to BlueAnn’s safety-related attempts at fun. One page is titled “Comm-ewe-nication.”

In a video, she raps about exercise with someone’s vague idea of a black person. In another, she and Bill Clinton dressed as Elvis encourage pot-smoking kids to develop a backbone and stand up to peer pressure, which is weird because telling someone to get a backbone is itself peer pressure.

Highlight:
Because kids aren’t stupid, none of the pages in any of these books have been colored. Still, somewhere along the line little hands did get to the inside of the back cover of Blue & You:

It’s Hamburger Helper, but instead of a creepy mouth it’s got five penises and that eye from the back of the dollar.

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(Kenneth) Anger Management, at Anthology

Aside from cursing Roger Ebert’s prostate six years ago, what has Kenneth Anger been up to lately? The recent DVD editions of his classics have cemented his status as a godhead of postwar cinema—not that it was ever in doubt. His enchantment has also breached the white cube. Like the art world’s belated celebration of Jonas Mekas, Anger’s dark star has been rising in places like the Whitney, where pride of place in the 2006 Biennial went to an installation of his work, and P.S.1, where a retrospective of his canonical films is now on view—on video.

Local cinephiles largely balked at the P.S.1 show, imported from Germany’s Künstlerhaus Bremen, where the womb-like plastic curtains, video screens, and floor-level elements rejiggered the celluloid magician for the gallery space. Film snobbery is, as ever, at play in the beef, and not without reason: Witnessing Anger’s voluptuously stylized films well projected on a good print remains one of the cinema’s transformative encounters.

Setting aside the fact that he supports the P.S.1 contextualization (co-curator Klaus Biesenbach confirms that Anger was “very appreciative” of the installation), Anger is now—deal with it—essentially a video artist. For some years, “A Film by Anger” has been a misnomer, as evinced by the two-hour program of recent work, all on video, screening this weekend at Anthology Film Archives.

As if in response to his recent retrospectives, most of the new titles function as a memorial of one kind or another—a look back in Anger. Half the program qualifies as sentimental marginalia. The Man We Want to Hang (2002) and Brush of Baphomet (2009) offer slideshows of the paintings and drawings of Aleister Crowley. Elliott’s Suicide (2007) is a poignant, uncomplicated eulogy for the departed songwriter Elliott Smith. My Surfing Lucifer (2008) dashes hopes of a sequel to the magisterial Lucifer Rising (1970–1980), presenting a straightforward homage to a surfer buddy catching waves to “Good Vibrations.”

Sportier yet is program highlight Foreplay (2008), a portrait of soccer lads at practice. Delivering on the eroticization of its title, this flurry of taught limbs, choreographed routines, and ball play, charged with intermittent bursts of club techno, suggests a California riff on the hieratic fantasias of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail—or the setup for a gay-porn orgy.

The longest, most ambitious of the new videos is Ich Will! (2008). The culmination of 10 years’ archival research, this ecstatic montage of Nazi youth daringly bids to recoup the élan vital of fresh-faced proto-fascists. Scored to Bruckner bombast, the carefully calibrated montage organizes horseplay, bonhomie, calisthenics, and rituals of discipline into a queer fantasy of halcyon homosocialism. The mood darkens through increasing regimentation and abstraction, climaxing in the mechanized spectacles of mass Nazi rallies. Ich Will! documents the manufacture of raw material into product, innocence subsumed by ideology.

The magic, it must be said, is decidedly subdued in late Anger, though Mouse Heaven (2005) revives something of the master’s impish touch. “I’m Your Puppet,” croons 1960’s r&b duo James & Bobby Purify over an animated array of Mickey Mouse memorabilia. Advancing Anger’s enduring fascination with Hollywood as “matrix and adversary,” in the words of film scholar P. Adams Sitney, Mouse Heaven surveys the Mouse as robot, automaton, simulacrum, and secret agent of control.

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It’s Campaign Season, So Here’s Our 2-Point Plan To Save Gaming News

Two Thursdays ago, I described the links between one of gaming’s biggest PR companies, TriplePoint PR, and a small gaming news and review site founded by TriplePoint’s General Manager and Founder Richard Kain (“A Slave of Two Masters,” JoystickDivision.com, September 25). Though the site – GameCyte.com – was set up via a domain privacy service and none of the companies disclosed the apparent conflict of interest, we were able to determine not only Kain’s connection to the two companies, but more – like the fact GameCyte was staffed by current and former employees of TriplePoint, and that its most highly-recommended games – by Kain’s own admission – were made by a company he’s invested in. Within a day of the story running, every site related to Kain had its “About” page updated to disclose this information to its readers.

That’s good. It’s also not enough. Laying a conflict of interest bare doesn’t dig the mines out of your field, it merely plants flags on them. TriplePoint and GameCyte’s relationship is still ill-conceived at best and built to fail at worst. . . but sometimes, all we can really hope for is more information so we can make better judgments.

Such are the dismally meager expectations we have these days. If it came out Roger Ebert worked for Paramount, it would be a scandal; if it was revealed Game Informer held a monthly eBay auction where game publishers bid on the cover story, gamers would log a jaded “harrumph” on the ‘Net, sigh, and go back to asking the clerk at Gamestop for game recommendations. Jeff Gerstmann’s firing, Sony’s deceitful “All I want for Christmas is a PSP” campaign, Ubisoft’s embargos on less-than-glowing reviews, $800 sacks ‘o swag awarded to Halo 3 reviewers and a dozen other examples have soured many gamers to the point they’re skeptical of anything found on screen or page – even other gamers. Case in point: the poster who brought up the TriplePoint/GameCyte story at a popular gaming discussion board was quickly accused of being either me or one of TriplePoint’s rivals.

How do we fix this? Here are two places to start. . . address these, and almost everything else falls into place:

Transparency across the board. Transparency is the smallest – yet most vital – gesture any gaming news source can offer its readers. Whether it’s describing how you get the games you review, listing the publisher-hosted parties you attended at E3 or simply explaining who’s in charge, it’s always better to err on the side of disclosure – and think of what you do on a daily basis as a conversation you’ll eventually have with your readers. The oft-repeated rule of thumb at my previous employer was: “Don’t say, do, or write anything you wouldn’t want to hear read back to you in court.” Not a bad place to start.

No more publisher money. This needs to become gaming’s equivalent of the anti-lobbyist movement or getting off foreign oil: No more ad dollars from game publishers – period, end of discussion. You don’t need them. Gamers aren’t little veals locked in boxes who only buy games: they are consumers who buy things like deodorant, cars, clothes, sunglasses, over-the-counter painkillers, condoms and tooth whiteners like anyone else. In scraping together the money that keeps the lights on, there are alternatives to accepting it from people who create the games you’re supposed to be objectively evaluating.

At some point, principle must come before commerce. Some will dismiss that notion as naïve, saying “silly boy, games journalism is a business,” to which I’d reply: That will make a great first line on your “About” page.

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Persona Grata

The next-gen consoles are sexy as hell, but it’s not all bad being the reigning “last-gen” champ either. With over 100 million PlayStation 2 consoles sold, software companies can afford to be a little adventurous—after all, even if their game appeals to only 1 percent of that audience, it’s destined to be a smash. That’s why some of the most unique games appear near the end of a console’s life cycle, when developers can take a few chances and try something different.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is a great example of this, destined to be remembered in “Best Role-Playing Games for the PS2” lists for years to come. This relentlessly unique RPG has the vibe of great anime, a snappy, addictive battle system, weeks’ worth of content, and—most important—one of the most bizarre, thoughtful, and enjoyable plots around.

Here’s the premise: As a student in a Japanese high school, your days are spent like those of any other teenager — going to class, making friends, hanging out at the mall, or maybe playing sports after school. By night, though, you’re a member of a special club of gifted students who hunt demons known as “Shadows.” Each night the group ventures out to push the Shadows back a little further, as best you can before it gets too late. It is a school night, after all.

Each member of the team can conjure up spiritual allies, known as “Personas,” which are released by pointing a mystical firearm (an “Evoker”) at one’s temple and pulling the trigger. The Personas themselves are plucked from everything from Egyptian myth to European folklore to the Bible. This makes the game’s combat a spectacular and somewhat disturbing sight, with teenage characters blowing their psychic brains out over and over to release unicorns, Hindu deities, and maybe even St. Michael into the fray. And it all takes place in a blur: Most battles are over in less than a minute, thanks to the game’s finely tuned, brisk combat system.

To top off the strangeness, Persona 3’s picture of high school life is, simply put, extremely Japanese. Whether it’s the odd holidays (no school during Golden Week!) or the notion that paying attention in class and answering all the teacher’s questions correctly will make you more popular, there’s a lot for Westerners to find alien.

If you look past all that—the suicidal imagery, the smorgasbord of religious icons, the school on Saturdays—you’ll see something remarkably genuine about this fantastical war between high school kids and the powers of darkness: Teenagers grappling with issues the game’s adults seem oblivious to, fighting their demons on a battleground that’s an eerie, nightmarish version of the school they attend by day. And your only hope, it turns out, is the group of friends you’ve surrounded yourself with; strengthening those relationships—whether by helping someone study or talking to them when they’re down—enhances your ability to fight off the darkness.

Quoth Keanu: Whoa. Not a bad break from slaying dragons and shooting aliens.

Film critic Roger Ebert recently drew the ire of the gaming community by asserting that video games aren’t art. In truth, most of them probably aren’t. But some games—the kind that tell a story through metaphor rather than kinetics, the kind that tell us something about ourselves, the kind that make us feel—are hard to define as anything but art.

And yes, Roger, Persona 3 is one of those games.

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NY Mirror

Unlike a great celebrity or an internationally renowned event, my annual Felix Awards do need an introduction, but rather than waste time trying to come up with a truly appropriate one, let’s just get on with the honors—the wacky wrap-up of the year in tears, fears, queers, and male brassieres. These tawdry trophies make the Golden Globes look relevant. And the Felixes go to . . .

KOOKY BEHAVIOR: Scott Peterson‘s amour, Amber Frey, held a press conference to announce that she didn’t want any more publicity.

KOOKIER BEHAVIOR: Madonna said, as her fame threatened to wane, that she’d just gotten her values straight. and fame is not that important anyway.

KOOKIEST BEHAVIOR: Michael Jackson said in a televised interview that he regularly conducts sleepovers with kids, sharing cookies and stories with them. “It’s charming,” he cooed, insisting on the sweetness of the whole scenario. “Who’s Jack the Ripper in the room?” Gee, I don’t know . . . you?

SHEER INSANITY: We were fighting for the liberation of Iraq, but on our own shores, celebs who spoke out against the war—the Dixie Chicks, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Janeane Garofalo—were crucified, making one wonder when we were going to liberate the freakin’ U.S., you know?

AND IN 100 YEARS, WILL ANYONE BELIEVE . . . : That, furious at the French for not joining our attacks on Iraq, righteous Americans consumed shitloads of french-fried potatoes with the stipulation that they be called “freedom fries”? Can someone say “les morons”?

EVEN BEYOND THAT: Disgraced “reporter” Jayson Blair tried to turn his shameful career of lying and evasion into a near triumph, whereby he gloriously brought down the archaic house of The Washington Post. (Yes, I know it was The New York Times. I purposely threw in that mistake to see if it would make me famous and get me a book deal.)

WAIT, EVEN BEYOND THAT, PEOPLE: Critic Roger Ebert hated Vincent Gallo‘s The Brown Bunny, so Gallo publicly wished Ebert would get cancer. Not long afterward, Ebert announced he had cancer. Note to Gallo: I loved The Brown Bunny!

COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOR: You’re getting into an elevator to go up to your apartment. You’re only 30 seconds from the home front, but you still pull out your cell phone and call your machine to see if you have messages. Friends of mine have done this!

EXTRAORDINARILY FUCKED-UP BEHAVIOR: All those Nick at Nite types on those E! True Hollywood Story shows who act as if their cheesy sitcoms were the television equivalent of Death of a Salesman. You know, “The writers were very careful never to violate the integrity of the relationship between Chrissy and Mr. Roper,” blah blah blah. What integrity? Shuh-up.

TACKIEST PERSONAGE OF THE YEAR: Ned Beatty trashed his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof co-stars Ashley Judd and Jason Patric in a New York Times interview, saying they don’t really have the chops for theater. Even if they’re awful (and Patric practically is), Beatty’s condescension was appalling, especially since he was disrupting an ongoing production. What’s more, Beatty’s best known for going “soo-eee, soo-ee” in Deliverance! Shuh-up double time!

BIGGEST BORE: Angelina Jolie, who used to wear vials of blood and publicly make out with her brother and surrogate daddy, suddenly started exuding a maternal glow, radiating an inspiring sense of purpose while clearly knowing all the answers (if not the questions). Boring! Hey, girl, you were way more fun as a fucked-up refugee from The Addams Family. At least Courtney Love has the friggin’ decency to still act messy once in a . . . a lot!

HE’S GOT A GREAT FACE FOR RADIO. IN FACT, TWO OF THEM: Right-wing blabber Rush Limbaugh, who for years had demonized drug abusers as practically inhuman, was suddenly revealed to be a painkiller addict who’d allegedly procured his piles of pills through a black-market drug ring. “I’m no role model,” admitted Rush, finally saying something I fucking agree with!

SOUR KRAUT: Days before the election for California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger was accused of having praised Hitler and, worse, wanting to lick a woman’s asshole!

THAT BITCH OF A BLACKOUT: A real reality show, honey. No lights, water, elevator, TV, computer, nada—please, I am so not cut out for that sort of thing. If I had read the second day’s headlines about what a party the whole mess had supposedly turned out to be, I really would have gone out of my gay gourd. Fortunately, I couldn’t climb down the stairs in the dark to stumble my way to a newsstand and buy a paper, which wouldn’t have been there anyway.

AND WHAT ABOUT THOSE FREAKIN’ REALITY SHOWS?: When the game show scandal erupted in the ’50s, at least the viewing public managed to act outraged that they’d been so shamelessly manipulated and lied to. Now we gleefully subject ourselves to a barrage of obviously contrived and scripted docudramas without giving a shit that they’re so blatantly full of hooey. How ill. How Jayson Blair. Really.

BUT I LOVE ME SOME GAME SHOWS, ESPECIALLY WHEN JEOPARDY IS FEATURING WILD-ASSED CATEGORIES LIKE: “Chicks With Bics.” Yes, it was a completely innocuous reference to women who write, but it was also clearly a takeoff on the familiar phrase “chicks with dicks.” This was so not Jeopardy-like, and the twisted sister in me absolutely adored its subtle subversion. On the other hand, I don’t care for the show’s introduction of product-placement categories like “Necco SweetHearts.” You can buy a Jeopardy category now? What is: That’s sick!

AWARDS-SHOW KISSES IN DESCENDING ORDER OF FABULOUSNESS: Creepy comics Garry Shandling and Brad Garrett on the Emmys; longtime collaborators Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman on the Tonys; trophy-holding overenthusiasts Adrien Brody and Halle Berry on the Oscars; strangers in the night Scott Wittman and Sarah Jessica Parker on the Tonys; and finally, floozy chantoozies Madonna and Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera at the VMAs. The same-sex aspect of it was fine—but ewww, the age difference!

BEST MOVIES I SAW: Irreversible, Raising Victor Vargas, Capturing the Friedmans, Finding Nemo, 28 Days Later, School of Rock, The Triplets of Belleville, and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. (All right, I’m hopelessly lowbrow, but at least I like a good old time and maybe even a greasy grope in the dark. Oh yeah, and I loved The Brown Bunny! A lot!)

WORST MOVIES: It Runs in the Family, Anger Management, Gigli, The Hulk (the first half—I couldn’t make the second), Wonderland (ditto), Pirates of the Caribbean (sorry, I found it a big bore, and I usually like moronic romps), Anything Else, Mystic River, 21 Grams, Love Actually (which was shit, actually—and shouldn’t it have a comma?).

MOVIE TRENDS: Teen violence, little people, conjoined twins, Japan, fish, the 19th century, crappy movies.

SADDEST “FUN FACT” THAT I SAW FLASHING ON-SCREEN BEFORE A FEATURE: “Which star lost 80 percent of her hearing in one ear from a physically abusive boyfriend? Answer: Halle Berry.” Party! (By the way, I hope she didn’t lose the other 20 percent when Adrien Brody kissed her.)

WHOM DO YOU MISS MORE?: Katharine Hepburn or Buddy Hackett? Johnny Cash or Fred “Rerun” Berry? No, I’m really asking.