optimistic autosuggestion

forever in progress

At long (long) last I've returned to my often delayed writing project, a history of John Holmstrom's brief career as a video games and home computing journalist. My draft is predictably shaggy; I'm in the middle of trying to reconstruct the thought process I abandoned in July, which entails a lot of exasperated sotto voce grumbling (“What in the hell were you trying to do here, and where are you going, and really, why are you writing this dumb thing anyway?”). In any case, I think I'm slowly restoring sense and shape to my writing, which means I've had to prune, and will have to prune some dead ends along the way. No sense in killing these darlings when I can just post them here, my version of an odds and sods anthology.

I'm Beginning to See the Light

I wisely removed this detour into the interview Lou Reed once granted John Holmstrom. Other than being a casual gamer himself, Reed has nothing to do with the story I'm writing. This, then, is Michael spinning his wheels, putting words––any words––down on the page.

“Holmstrom’s wildest hopes for Punk were galvanized by a chance encounter with Lou Reed, the onetime Velvet Underground frontman who had recently dropped Metal Machine Music on an unsuspecting world. Reed was already a demigod of the underground when Holmstrom and McNeil sandbagged the rock ‘n’ roll animal at CBGB. Reed, nonplussed, agreed to an interview, which Holmstrom memorably reconstructed in three cramped pages of comics and hand-lettered transcripts. Reed made the cover of Punk’s first issue, of course, drawn by Holmstrom as Frankenstein’s creature, hollow cheeked and glaring at readers through dilated eyes like television screens. Later, Holmstrom would learn from friends that Reed had been “nasty and obnoxious” during the interview, but Holmstrom wasn’t bothered (Punk 11). Reed’s imprimatur gave Punk instant standing, suggesting an institutional credibility that didn’t exist except as a cartoon mirage. By 1979, and even as the magazine was collapsing, Punk’s bona fides were such that its pages included a wide swath of contributors from across the city and parts beyond. Among them was Lou Stathis, a budding writer who, like Lou Reed, would later do Holmstrom a favor that would prove to be a turning point in his career, one that would launch his brief but intensive contribution to the nascent field of video game journalism.”

Watching

Spike Lee's 3.5-minute tribute to New York City is as moving as you might expect, especially since it's cut to––what else?––the “Theme from New York, New York” as made famous by Frank Sinatra. It's impossible to suppress the surge of euphoria that swells and spills over as the song slows to its rallentando (thank you, Wikipedia).

Lee shot his short film on Super 8, giving the images the prettily decomposed quality of decades-old home movies found half buried in some junk shop. Which makes the contrast all the more cryball-making when Lee's lens finds one healthcare worker after another at the short film's climax. In fact, people are mostly absent from the film until that point. No surprise given the shelter-in-place order, but still elevating front-line workers to the place they deserve.

Watch New York, New York, a Spike Lee joint, here.

Listening

I've rediscovered Prefuse 73 after responding to one of those Facebook chain letters about influential albums. I wanted to choose something to represent my entree in electronic music but nothing came immediately to mind except Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II, a classic to be sure, but not one I discovered until relatively late. Apart from stumbling on occasional bangers like Squarepusher's “My Red Hot Car,” I doubt I seriously committed to electronic music (i.e., paid cash money for a record) until 2003's One Word Extinguisher, and even then I came to it sideways, from hip-hop. I'm also listening to The Books, with whom Prefuse collaborated. This musique concrete darling was a Pitchfork favorite back in the day, and I remember enjoying but quickly moving on from Thought for Food.

Reading

Most of my reading time is devoted to various books about monsters in preparation for a new course I'm co-teaching this fall. Finally, the nudge I needed to read Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula, books I've somehow avoided until now (some English major). I'm having trouble sustaining this monomania, however. A generalist to the last, my wandering eye flirts with the many unread books in my library: The Damned Utd, to fill the void where soccer used to be, and Moby Dick because if not now when?

a #bgsd two-fer

I'm participating in #bgsd (Bitches Get Shit Done), a daily inspiration, affirmation, or creative writing prompt sent via text from the comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. True to form, I'm already a day behind, so I'll collapse the last two #bgsd prompts into a single post.

Thursday, April 16, Gratitude List

small thing: I'm grateful for my Lamy fountain pen, one of the best writing utensils I've ever owned, even if I wish the nib were smaller. I'm also a big fan of Staedtler's pastel highlighters.

big thing: I'm grateful for everyone participating in the #Creators4Comics auctions, playing out on Twitter as I write this. For the creators offering one-of-a-kind incentives such as original art and movie props, for the folks with the means to bid on them. All of the proceeds benefit struggling comics and book retailers around the world. We readers understand the vital role these shops, these Third Places, play in our communities. Our cities, our cultures, our inner and social lives would be much poorer without them.

Long before the pandemic hit, Amazon proved itself hostile to community-serving retailers, or merchants that have motives other than profit in mind (you would have to possess such motives given the tight margins of bookselling). The retail giant's behavior has been predictably terrible under the Great Corona Closure, all the more reason to ensure that indie shops survive the shutdown.

an experience or memory: The Yak Babies ask, “Was anyone into novelizations of movies? Where did they all go?” I'd forgotten until reading this tweet that I did an oral book report on John Gardner's GoldenEye in the 7th grade. Naturally, I opened with some kind of assassination scenario (did you play my victim, Aaron?) before blowing smoke from my fingertip and speaking The Line. I probably thought this was terribly cool.

Friday, April 17

photograph something beautiful

Voila

“Write about what that beauty feels like as a sensation.”

Holding this arrangement kindles the warmth of nostalgia, its soft glow and radiance, without nostalgia's edge of loss or regret.

Elizabeth is ostensibly a novel about witchcraft, the eponymous character's embrace of her family's dark heritage, but it could go under the title American Psycho, for Greenhall traps us within the consciousness of one utterly without empathy, one who assumes the worst of people, always––one who coolly weighs the world and its people and finds them all wanting.

It's only to Frances, a 16th c. “cunning person” and matriarch of a witching dynasty, to whom Elizabeth holds any allegiance. Frances appears to Elizabeth in mirrors, awakening her latent powers and nurturing her talents, while Elizabeth pretends to the ordinary life of a well-to-do fourteen-year-old, living with her grandmother in a house of faded opulence.

Also living with her is James, Elizabeth's uncle, who maintains an affair with his teen-aged niece. Strip away the book's supernatural elements and you have a Lolita-like affair but told from Lolita's point of view. At first glance James and Humbert Humbert would seem to have much in common, including narcissism and cultured sophistication (James admires Don Giovanni), not to mention their noisome appetites. But it's Elizabeth and Humbert who have the stronger connection. They are united by a thoroughgoing superciliousness that justifies, in their minds, a contempt for the commonplace, giving eventual license to the harms they cause.

This slim chiller was reissued by the great Valancourt Books, which is offering free shipping on all its books during the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. Buy from them directly at www.valancourtbooks.com, or support your local bookstore at www.bookshop.org

#elizabeth #horror #paperbacksfromhell #valancourt #indiebound

I'm feeling precious about starting another book. My nightstand has, let's see

one two three

four books in various states of completion, speaking to a larger lack of discipline, or perhaps a phone-eroded attention span. This is at least part of why I'm rubbish at being a scholar, apart from the requisite smarts, I mean. I lack the monomania necessary to run the contours and plumb the depths of a given subject, arriving finally, and with a show of faux modesty, at the punchline of that old joke:

Q. What is a expert? A. Someone who knows more and more about less and less until he or she knows everything about nothing.

Tempting to look this up on Quote Investigator to determine its provenance and current state of corruption-cum-evolution, but that's how a hundred blog posts before this one wound up abandoned. Then again, just this morning I saw someone bandying about a saying by “G.K. Chesterton”.... or was that “Neil Gaiman”...?

Anyhow, I'm co-prepping a class for the fall on monsters: their socio-psychological origins, their cultural meanings and uses. And being not-expert on monsterology, I told myself, “Self, for once in your life you ought to exercise Discipline on your reading habits, first by reading more than you currently do, and second by reading only books on the subject of monsters in order to stand before a classroom of first-years and at least sound like you know what you're talking about.” And it worked––for a while. I got halfway through Skal's Monster Show! And half way through Asma's On Monsters! And now, rather than picking up either of those books, I'm reading Simon Spurrier's Hellblazer comics (very good) and casting come-hither-stares at the wall of unread books behind and to the right of me, and frankly in nearly every room of the house because, again, No Discipline.

Let this be my guilty confession, then, because we all know how this is going to end. But will it be half of Ken Greenhall's Elizabeth or half of Clive Barker's Weave World?

#tsundoku

I've just returned from Wonderland of the Americas. Were it ever worthy of its grandiose name, the mall has since lost any capacity to instill wonder in its shoppers. Wonderland is a mall that doesn't know it's dead. Malls of this kind are sometimes called ghost malls, but the zombie seems a better metaphor. About half of the Wonderland's storefronts are empty; the other half, outside of a couple national chains, are occupied by nondescript stores that only seem to be in business but may in fact be figments of an overworked imagination.

Today you could roller-skate the Wonderland without fear of endangering a soul (apart from yourself, escalators and gravity being what they are), but its broad corridors were once packed with shoppers, arms akimbo with jumbo-sized bags, trudging from one outpost to another. They're gone now, mostly, apart from the families who gather to sit on leather couches in one of the mall's several living room-style arrangements, or the couples who shuffle along, near-dazed, pausing now and then in front of vacant storefronts to peer through dusty windows and imagine, or perhaps remember, what commerce once took place there.

Perhaps they feel the same inexpressible pleasure that I feel while wandering zombie malls, the bittersweet of nostalgia, sharpened by wistfulness and seasoned with just a hint of schadenfreude. A sense of expectancy also, as if the mall could awake at any time.

The upside of being down at the heels, at least in Wonderland's case, is that rents have tumbled enough that small businesses now make up most of the mall's shops. Perhaps because the mall also doubles as a convention space, one that hosts geeky gatherings like Monster Con and Morphinominal Expo, many of these shops cater to various fandoms, making Wonderland of the Americas an unexpected hub of San Antonio's geek culture, a pedestrian-friendly space dense with desirable destinations unlike most of the city. There's the store that sells Funkos, and only Funkos. There's the shop that sells wrestling memorabilia, and the one where you can buy a dress patterned with art from EC Comics. And there's Gotham Newsstand, a comic shop managed by a Trinity University alumnus.

Located in the mall's Little Shops, a onetime department store now carved up into, well, little shops by means of gridwalls, Gotham Newsstand has expanded from its humble origins. Its floor plan, perhaps 400 square feet on opening, has doubled, and the staff have crammed every inch with comics. Note that I didn't write comics and memorabilia. Newsstand has its share of knick-knacks, like most stores of its kind, but the store is notable in that it specializes in comics, including many from publishers I had never heard of. I can think of no better piece of praise than that, except to note the wonderful display the store has made in honor of Pride Month, which is crowded with comics—like Gotham Newsstand itself, an encouraging sign of how far comics have come since I first fell for them in 2001.

Is this typical of the opportunity that zombie malls can provide local entrepreneurs? I don't know, but it makes me want to take up Haitian voodoo, or at least the kind practiced in the movies.

#deadmalls

The Star System: On rating scales, the meaning of the fifth star, and the curse of quantification

I've been thinking about review scales since completing my review of Black Bird. VGMO uses a five-star system and I awarded Black Bird 3.5 stars, to my mind a very good score. But I felt some anxiety making the designation. Would someone––a mega-fan, the composer himself––do a quick mental calculation and translate the stars into numbers, as Metacritic does, arriving at 70 out of 100 possible points? A 70? That's a C-, a grade only Bart Simpson could love. But where is it written that a star is worth 20 points? Not in any rubric I can find.

If it were down to me, I might strip the scale from the site altogether. It's deflating to write 1000 words on a given soundtrack (and for me, a dilettante, those words don't come easily) and then flatten the nuance into a visual shortcut. But it isn't down to me. I'm just a contributor, and an occasional one at that. So I'm stuck with the stars, and so long as that's the case I aim to be a bit stingy, at least in awarding that fifth star.

To me, a fifth star is one that a 4-star album grows into over time, time being the critical ingredient missing from most reviews written to a deadline. How does the music hold up a month, six months, one year later? I'm reminded of the way Roger Ebert approached his reviews. A new release could earn anywhere from one to four stars, including half-star increments (only rarely would a film be awarded no stars; Ebert refused to award even half a star to The Human Centipede writing, “The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine.”) But Ebert had a separate series of movie reviews. Dubbed “Great Movies,” these were films the great critic had revisited, in some cases repeatedly, over many years. Probably those films meant different things to him at the different points in his life that Ebert encountered them, but they never ceased to be great. At some point they became Great Movies—5-star films.

#movies #writing

Black Bird

I reviewed the opera-inspired Black Bird for VGMO: Video Game Music Online.

Overview

Pong wasn’t ten years old before games began borrowing the music of opera.

As noted by the scholar Tim Summers, these quotations, which appeared as early as 1981’s Route-16, were “not often presented in terms of staged opera.” Instead, they appeared in “general playlists of ‘classical’ art music, or as intertextual references to quotations of opera in other media.” Maria and Draco notwithstanding, opera has only sporadically appeared in games and then as much for its associations as its music. In other words, opera appears not for its expressive qualities but for those things it connotes: wealth and luxury, status and refinement, or the satire of such things.

But given the unprecedented growth of game development, and the resulting opportunities for composers of every taste and training, it was only a matter of time before opera moved from bit part to starring role. Black Bird, the latest curio from Onion Games, derives much of its drama, and not a little strangeness, from Hirofumi Taniguchi’s absurdist opera soundtrack. In an interview for this website, Taniguchi (Moon, Chibi-Robo!) recalled his teenage years of musical obsession. After the shock of discovering rock music—the Beatles were an early influence—an omnivorous Taniguchi devoured classical and neoclassical music in college before turning to the odd time signatures of prog rock seeking “some kind of individuality in music.” If Black Bird is any indication, Taniguchi found what he was looking for not in prog but in one of its sources.

Body

Strictly speaking, Black Bird is not an opera but an opera-like. This qualification seems unnecessarily stuffy, however. For one thing, the game has a story, albeit an enigmatic one. For another, the action, in which player inputs complete the libretto, unfolds against resonant vocals that are unmistakable as opera-style singing. Taniguchi himself plays most of the parts in squawks and grunts of cartoon gibberish that make Black Bird more like “What’s Opera Doc?” than La Traviata. “Bustling Streets are what Black Birds Lay Waste To” is typical of the album in its bombast and construction. Over a synthetic orchestra, a company of Taniguchis bellows the kind of gobbledygook you invent to sing along with K-pop when you don’t know a word of Korean. One Taniguchi is adenoidal, ratcheting his voice upward in a ridiculous falsetto. Another croaks like a bullfrog. Some of the voices are so comically exaggerated that one could mistake Taniguchi for a parodist. But given the surreality that suffuses Black Bird, I think the intended effect is not mockery but rather a stupefying disorientation familiar to fans of Scott Walker’s The Drift or Bish Bosch. Here the effect is more funny than frightening, however.

Some tracks, such as “The Bursting of Balnbaln’s Balloons,” leave Taniguchi free to pull faces in the mirror. Others feature Saika Kitazono, a classically trained mezzo-soprano whose past performances include the arias of Rossini and Mozart. Here she plays the Queen, a mechanical marionette whose three phases players must survive if they wish to complete their mission of vengeance. Kitazono gives a game performance, matching Taniguchi’s nonsense syllable for syllable. But unlike his loony tunes, Kitazono plays it straight, singing her lines with formidable grace. On “Finally, the Tower Appears,” her voice rises like the tide, then recedes in like fashion, sliding easily between octaves. Her voice has a dizzying and siren-like allure, the better to contrast with the defiant “Surely You Didn’t Think to Defeat Me?” which buffets listeners with a throaty and smooth-flowing patter to match the bullet hell on screen.

Under the vocals, Taniguchi conducts a sound-font orchestra of tinny strings and flatulent horns. Flourishes of marimba and harpsichord provide an occasional chromatic accent, but the music in Black Bird’s early stages is mostly Wagnerian thunder. Yet the music grows progressively less organic in its imitations as players near the center of the nameless kingdom in which Black Bird takes place. Beginning in the rural outskirts of Oppidum, where players roust peasants and topple timber-frame houses, the journey culminates in Aristocratia, a vision of the future circa 1950, all throbbing circuits and vacuum tubes overseen by a technocratic priesthood. The contrast comprises a sly if ambiguous class commentary and one that occasions a change in Taniguchi’s instrumentation. “Over the Nobility’s Dead Bodies,” for example, opens with undulations of theremin that linger long enough to supply a ghostly countermelody, a role reserved for flute in the game’s first stage. By the time players confront the Queen, opera gives way to symphonic rock, mating the orchestra to fuzzed-out guitar and chilly synths, and bringing welcome gravity to an otherwise comic opera.

Summary

I rarely use words like “flatulent” in the reviews of soundtracks I recommend, but then Black Bird is no ordinary soundtrack. In reaching for comparisons I thought not of game music but of the novelty songs on Dr. Demento compilations. At first you’re just giggling behind your hand as the Holy Modal Rounders extol the virtues of boobs (for the record, they’re big and round / they’re all around). But before long you’re cueing up “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” like it’s Duran Duran. Black Bird was like that for me. At first I admired it more than I enjoyed it. But over time, and especially while writing this review, I found myself humming its melodies in the shower, the ultimate sign of endearment. In making something for himself, Taniguchi has enlarged the boundaries of video game sound.

#blackbird #soundtrack #videogamemusic #music #opera #oniongames #shmups

(The Rows and Columns of) My Little Black Book

I'm keeping a movie diary.

I would call this post “The Moviegoer” after the Walker Percy novel, or the semi-forgotten Scott Walker album which borrowed its name, but I don't go to the movies as much as they come to me. In fact, I haven't seen a movie in a theater since the tiresome but not terrible Aquaman. Then again, it's only the first month of the year and one in which studios typically dump their duds while folks catch up on the Oscar nominees.

Usually I start projects like this only to lose track of them after a couple of weeks. So far, I've managed to keep up, in part by saving the damn thing as a bookmark. Remember those? It's early days yet, but I feel good about seeing this through. Unlike last year's failed Shakespeare-a-thon, the movie diary doesn't dictate content but only records it.

I'm not sure exactly why I'm doing this, except that AB is keeping one too. I also derive a mild satisfaction from seeing all that time (mostly) well spent. Plus, I expect it will be fun to remember that I watched The Stunt Man in January, that its complexity, its meta-narrative, its gonzo I-can't-believe-a-major-studio-paid-for-this sumptuousness practically demands a second viewing.

When I'm reading I'll often have a sudden and vivid recollection of an unrelated moment from my life. It doesn't seem to matter what I'm reading: it could be a dry slice of library science or Clive Barker's Books of Blood. Mid-sentence and without warning, my mind's eye will train on, say, the curve of the cul-de-sac** where my family's first home was located, or the green face paint I wore the year my friend Taylor and I went as Ninja Turtles for Halloween (I was Raphael, but neither cool nor rude). I don't have a name for this phenomenon. I have no idea what triggers these visitations. It seems likely that other people are prone to these surprise screenings, 24 frames cut from a longer reel of memory and spliced into the present.

#reading #random