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Going Waterboarding at Coney Island

Squishy with delight that Coney Island in all its ratty splendor has survived another year, I scramble onto the N train for the trip from 14th Street to the beach, a ride that includes a view of Olafur Eliasson’s waterfalls—so much nicer from this elevated track than they were from that East River boat—and culminates with a profile of the Ferris wheel looming over the sea as we pull into the Stillwell Avenue station.

My destination today is actually the ridiculously somber, somberly ridiculous installation “Waterboarding Thrill Ride” by artist Steve Powers, which I plan to visit immediately after a traditional pizza lunch at the wildly expensive, 104-year-old Totonno’s on Neptune Avenue. (How come I only ever see white people in this place?)

In truth, though I’m vaguely curious, I can’t say I’m exactly looking forward to this installation—despite my rabid lefty leanings, I usually can’t stand political art. Most of the time, I side with the late studio head Sam Goldwyn who, confronted with preachy movie ideas, reputedly grumbled: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

So, when I spy the cartoon of SpongeBob SquarePants being waterboarded on the side of the building that houses the Coney Island Museum and the legend “It Don’t Gitmo Better,” along with instructions to pay a dollar and see a demonstration of this odious technique, I want to hold my nose and run. Instead, I hand my Lanvin tote to K., who has accompanied me on this venture (in exchange for a free Totonno’s lunch) and scramble clumsily up a few cinderblocks to peer through a grille of rusty prison bars.

Because I am the lamest person on earth, I cannot find the slot to shove the dollar bill into, but a passerby, twittering nervously at the cartoon of SpongeBob being humiliated, sticks it in for me, and here is what I see: two life-size animatronics, a kind of robot I am only familiar with from the Mormon Visitors’ Center in Angels in America—one blindfolded, wearing an orange jumpsuit and writhing on the floor, the other hooded and pouring the water—and a soundtrack that sounds to me like it’s saying, “I’m gonna die.” The words “Don’t worry, it’s only a dream” are written on the back wall, there’s an old sink in the corner of the cell, and the whole thing lasts maybe 15 seconds, if that.

Brief as it is, this spectacle is so profoundly upsetting, so disturbing, so revolting, that for a second you just want to jump back on the N train and get the hell out of there. But you don’t, because as soon as you climb down from the cinderblocks, you find yourself in the exact same place where most Americans end up when they first find out about people being tortured in their name: Sure you’re upset, but then you hear the pounding surf and see kids eating cotton candy, and two seconds later you find yourself thinking, “Yes, that was pretty awful, but I want a lemonade! I want to go hang out on the boardwalk! I want to see if Ruby’s is still there!”

Ruby’s is still there. This gigantic boardwalk saloon—with its long wooden bar and its set of fetid living-room furniture stuck in the middle of a vast room and a woman behind the bar who responds to my explanation that no, I don’t want a drink, I’m just admiring the place by looking like she wants to spit at me—is open for another season. So is Lola Staar, the hipsterish boardwalk boutique where you can buy a Frida Kahlo shopping bag or a T-shirt featuring Topsy, the Coney Island elephant that was electrocuted in front of 1,500 people by Thomas Edison in 1903. K. kind of wants the T-shirt but is afraid that she will cry every time she puts it on, even though the pachyderm was murdered over a century ago.

We decide to walk down to the remains of Childs Restaurant, a hulking 1920s edifice decorated with crumbling friezes of sea monsters and ships that appears to be in the final stages of disintegration. (But no! A sign on the door announces that the interior now boasts a brand-new, hot-pink roller rink.) On our way back, we stop at Shoot the Freak, where a barker exhorts us to train a rifle loaded with paint at a poor creature scurrying around in a nutty proto-Viking outfit and a metal shield.

I am ashamed to admit that this horrible exhibit, with its links to Coney Island’s sordid entertainments of the past, gives me a faint but unmistakable thrill. No geeks, no conjoined twins, no hootchie-kootchie girls—just one little guy in an empty lot dodging paint and bearing the weight of carny history on his spattered shoulders.

Time to go home! Deliciously sleepy from a day in the sun, I doze all the way back to Union Square, the sad fate of the waterboarded animatronic far from my mind. Until the next day, when I call up Steve Powers, its creator, to discuss his unlovely work.

So, Steve, are you a guy who likes political art? “Nah. Most of the time, political art makes for bad art, which makes for bad politics. So what’s the point?” he replies, endearing himself to me. Powers says he’s cool with any reaction to his work: “Disturbing is OK—passionate love is OK, too.”

When he first saw the space, which belongs to Coney Island USA, it was untouched. “It looked like a torture chamber, and since waterboarding was so much in the national consciousness, the two things just went together.” (If you don’t catch the anguish at Coney Island, the entire tableau will be reassembled in late September at the Park Avenue Armory as part of Creative Times’ series “Democracy in America,” which the press release describes as “an activated space to both reflect on and perform democracy . . . “—which is just the kind of talk I hate, but never mind.)

Powers initially envisioned an installation consisting of a table and a bucket of water; he hoped that visitors planning for a day of frolicking in the sun would submit to a little suffering.

“That was totally unworkable,” he admits, so he came up with the robot idea, searched the Internet, where “you can find anything—it’s all out there” (don’t I know it), and went with the cheapest purveyor of custom-made dummies.

The artist clearly loves Coney as much as I do, and he’s not worrying that impending real-estate development (which, with any luck, the current recession will forestall) is going to doom the place anytime soon. “As long as we have the Water Wheel, the beach, and Coney Island USA, what else do we need?” he asks me.

What about Shoot the Freak? We need Shoot the Freak, too, right? “Shoot the Freak is the high-water mark. In fact, when I was working on the installation, that’s the one we had to beat.”

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Games That Make You Feel Like Janeane Garofalo

There are a ton of games that are cartoonish, and most of them are too cute and cloying for me to even deal with. But APE ESCAPE 3 makes me feel like I’m inside the cartoon, probably because the foes have more personality that my character does. They all have a kind of Janeane Garofalo, fight-back attitude—even though they’re monkeys.   

Ape Escape 3‘s concept is simple. You capture frantic monkeys with a net. If that sounds simplistic, it’s not. It’s a concept that’s served avid gamers well in the two earlier Ape Escape installments, the first of which goes as far back as the original Playstation.  

The fun still tickles after three installments because the concept is so well implemented, sardonically complex and humor-filled. It was also true with the first Ape Escape, which I gave to former Dawson’s Creek actor Michelle Williams to review when I was editing an online magazine. She said it made her giggle and put her in the mood, well, for other things.   

There’s a host of reasons that make Ape Escape 3 a superior game. First, all the monkeys you capture are a little different from each other, but they each have an appealingly frenzied waddle and a fuck you attitude. If you miss them with your net, they just might whack you so hard, you’ll fall down. Like the monkey catcher you play, the characters all have the big saucer eyes that are so popular in Japanese anime movies.

You’ll also like the humor mixed with touches of mild satire. The object of the game is to stop the evil monkey Specter from dumbing down all the world’s TV shows. One character, Natalie, says, “These shows are so stupid that anyone watching becomes a mindless couch potato.” OK, TV’s already mindless and stupid (with the exception of 24 and Lost), but these shows are even more inane than The Invention Channel. Throughout the game you’ll deal with a show that’s kind of a reality wedding and even a Titanic-based show.

You’ll be armed with a vast array of gadgets to help you capture your prey, everything from propellers to make you fly to a cowboy gizmo that allows you to shoot your net. You’ll have to watch out for nasty robotic toys and animals who are out to get you. (I destroyed a sly fox after he stole my net in an early level, but it wasn’t easy. I still feel scarred.) Since the monkeys get smarter and more evasive as you progress, you’ll need your wits, and a morphing ability that will temporarily increase your strength and powers. One of the powers, which I dubbed the Outkast morph, allows you to turn your foes into crazy, dancing fools. 

But, like those TV infomercial hucksters say, there’s more. You’ll discover a mall which lets you purchase music (some of which is terrific: There’s a ditty that includes a lot of yodeling that’s hilarious). Heck, at one store, you can even make your own monkey videos. As you move from level to level, you’ll unlock various minigames. You’ll locate an area that gives you your monkey horoscope and fortune. It’s not just fun for the entire family: If we got some of our politicians in Washington to sit down for a game of Ape Escape 3, I bet there would be a lot more camaraderie . . . and fewer Alito-type Supreme Court confirmations. 

Released in tandem with Ape Escape 3 is a PSP offering called APE ESCAPE ACADEMY. It’s full of minigames like soccer and hockey, which are just OK. But the overall concept isn’t conceived that well. These kinds of games have been done much better on other platforms where they’re more ingenious and more fun. Skip it.

  • Check out reviews of all the latest and greatest games (updated every week), along with past faves in NYC Guide.

  • True Swing Golf
    Publisher: Nintendo
    Developer: Nintendo

    After its inventive Electroplankton, Nintendo brought TRUE SWING GOLF for the DS to the shelves. I guess there’s logic to this since the big Bob Hope PGA event happens this week. But to call the game True Swing is really an overstatement—unless you play your real-life links with a plastic gray stylus, and not a titanium club.

    While there are some problems with True Swing Golf beyond the name, I have to say it’s often fun to play. There’s a pleasant piano background music that’s a step up from porn music and it helped me relax when I whiffed the ball on the classically designed easiest course, the Bluebird Country Club, one of 15 courses available. And the graphics are better than you’d expect for the DS since the courses look realistic and even lush. (Oddly, it rained on one hole, then stopped, then rained on another, the only unusual thing to happen in this game.) Whacking at the ball with the stylus is something you get used to quickly, and it’s challenging to hit the ball straight (I mean, it’s hard to make a quick, perfectly straight line with the stylus on the touchscreen.) Also nice is a fast, to-the-point tutorial to get you started.

    Yet overall, it’s kind of like Emily’s Reasons Why Not, ho-hum and so-so. At least, that show has a star, Heather Graham. There are no pros in True Swing Golf, no big names like Tiger or Vijay. There’s no create-a-golfer, either. You choose from eight male and female characters with the option to make their personalities ‘cool’ or ‘wild’ (of which I’m neither). In other words, the golfers are a bit like those in the well-known Hot Shots Golf from Sony, cute in an anime-inspired way. There’s wi-fi play, but I have to wonder how many people want to play video game golf head to head.


    Nicktoons Unite!
    Publisher: Thq
    Developer: Thq

    NICKTOONS UNITE! gets many of the Nickelodeon characters together for a sci-fi battle of good versus evil (ho-hum and so-so) with the nastiest criminals in the Nicktoons universe. It’s a variation on the popular console version of the game starring SpongeBob, Jimmy Neutron, and Danny Phantom as forces for good. Professor Calamitus and Vlad Plasmius sneer and pout as the baddies. SpongeBob can use his pants as a parachute and blow bubbles so he can fly through the air.

    But one of the things that bothers me here is that you don’t hear the strange, humorous albeit sometimes grating voices of the characters. Instead, you have to read their comments as text. I’m certainly not against reading even if it’s The Devil Wears Prada, but the sounds of the characters’ voices are so familiar and funny, they would have added some joy to the game. Still, I have to like some of the minor baddies here, like the Half-Finished Robots (which you can get by if you watch the patterns they make and move accordingly). Then there are the semi-cute Anti-Fairies who float toward you kind of sweetly (like some of the people you meet at Fat Baby). But if they get you, they place you at the beginning of a level. So watch out.

    There should be something really unique about these games beyond using a stylus to hit a ball or a cartoon character saving the world from evil. I mean, evil is so old, so 2001-Bush-speaking-about-the-evildoers, don’t you think? How about next time, they’re good and evil at the same time . . . with a real golf club?

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    SpongeBob and Streisand, My Favorite Cartoon Characters!

    It’s time to face it—the family values folks are right and SpongeBob Squarepants is even more of a gay sponge than my last boyfriend. But though the Catholic church would surely condemn SpongeBob to invertebrate hell (unless he confessed), the United Church of Christ has decided—in my favorite recent press release—that “Jesus’s message of extravagant welcome extends to all” and that totally includes the light-in-the-loafers cartoon creature. The release states that they’d also “warmly receive Barney, Big Bird, Tinky Winky, and Clifford the Big Red Dog.” Wow—I’ve certainly fucked the first three, but I didn’t know Clifford was gay!

    Moving on to my favorite real life cartoon character, gay icon Barbra Streisand has been on a new career high thanks to the massive success of Meet The Fockers, and the church of second-wind Jews is extendng an extravagant welcome. I’M thrilled too! Babs had languished for way too many years, turning down offers because they weren’t “important” enough, dawdling around on never-launched projects like her Normal Heart flick, and stewing over not getting enough recognition as the female Kurosawa. I always thought she should seize any available light, zany role (like her old ones in What’s Up Doc? and For Peter’s Sake) and just have a romp with it, to remind people she’s around and can poke fun at herself, rather than treat her every filmed utterance as a monumental life changer. Astonishingly enough, she listened to me (though I hear she put up a fight) and even got her old perm back—and her old career too. Hello again, gorgeous!


    musto@villagevoice.com

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    See The Sea

    A Jacques Cousteau quote, handwritten in a library book (Diving for Sunken Treasure), leads Max Fischer to Miss Cross in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. (When Max first sees her, she’s reading from another seaworthy adventure, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.) Anderson’s films usually glisten with details that hint, iceberg-like, at concealed depths, so it’s odd that his latest, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, literally takes to the sea yet feels a bit shallow by comparison. The impressive cutaway set of the Belafonte might be a revealing metaphor for the curiously landlocked atmosphere: His lavish artifice, usually so pleasurable, dissolves when the governing element is water.

    The fluidly animated but too glossy sea creatures clash with TLA‘s visual tone, but suggest this season’s more satisfying undersea vehicle for whimsy, invention, even male bonding: The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Bikini Bottom and environs strike the right hermetic note, with weird color chords, foods, folkways. As in Anderson’s films, uniforms are important—SpongeBob’s self-referencing trousers, Patrick’s tighty-greenies. And when the mediums mix—there are interludes of dry-land live action—the results range from daftly meta (the whole movie is being watched by pirates) to kind of terrifying (the workshop of the “Cyclops,” taxidermist of the life aquatic, exudes death simply by its absence of water). If TLA sketches out some of the perils of manhood—Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and long-lost son (Owen Wilson) find, punch, and lose each other—SpongeBob delves at least as deep, as sponge and starfish learn what it might mean to be, well, slightly more mature sponge and starfish.

    Next week: I explain why I prefer Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to The Aviator.