Thursday, March 29, 2007

Culture Shock 03.29.07: Wii breaks the mold for video game consoles

After years of being an also-ran, Nintendo is riding high again with its new Wii video game console, which has become the must-have system by breaking all the rules.

Gamers can be fiercely partisan when it comes to their favorite game systems, so I'll start by saying I don't have a Mario Kart in this race. I haven't owned a console game system since the Atari 2600, and the last PC game I bought was Diablo II. My idea of a killer application is Pitfall.

I know. I'm showing my age.

Currently, sales of Nintendo's Wii have outpaced by about 2-to-1 those of Sony's new PlayStation 3. In January, Wii sales also surpassed sales of Microsoft's Xbox 360.

How did Wii become the No. 1 game system?

It wasn't by beating PS3 and Xbox at their own game. Rather, it was by starting a whole new game. Wii hit the "reset" button in the console wars.

Before Wii came along, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft were locked in an arms race. Each new game system was faster, more powerful and more versatile than the one that came before it. But after PS2 and the first version of Xbox trounced Nintendo's GameCube, Nintendo had to find a new strategy or risk going the way of Sega, which abandoned the console business after its Dreamcast failed to catch on.

That would have been a sad end for Nintendo's game console division, which had reinvigorated the home video game market in the mid- and late 1980s, after the early '80s Atari boom went bust.

But with Wii, Nintendo has changed the playing field. Wii forces players to get off their sofas and truly interact with the games. When you play Wii bowling or tennis, you're literally going through the motions of playing the game in real life. This has the added advantage of making game play simple enough for even the least tech-savvy player.

So, I wasn't really surprised to read a Reuters story last week about a retirement community where residents organized their own Wii bowling tournament.

When 80-year-olds are playing video games, something strange is going on. After all, these are people who didn't even play Pac-Man when they were young.

Wii making players more active participants in the game experience is a natural evolution. And we can see where it's heading — toward the sci-fi dream of virtual reality, in which players don't merely play a game, they're part of it.

Don't expect Sony and Microsoft to sit back while Nintendo gobbles up market share. They'll develop responses to Wii just like they came up with bigger and better consoles to compete with the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Super NES back in the 1990s.

Imagine a game with the intuitive, immersive game play of the Wii combined with the cutting edge graphics of the PS3. And if you can't imagine it, someone at Sony probably already has.

And when someone comes up with a role-playing or fighting game that plays like one of the sports games for Wii, Nintendo may find itself back on the defensive.

In the breakneck world of technological innovation, video game companies are the ones that can least afford to rest on their last big breakthrough.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Culture Shock 03.22.07: Commie zombies haunt the world

When Karl Marx told the workers of the world to unite because they had nothing to lose but their chains, I don't think he had zombies in mind.

But given the fall of the Soviet Union and the fact that the world's only practicing Marxists run Venezuela, Cuba and the workers' paradise of North Korea, it's clear that prediction wasn't Marx's strength.

To get back to the issue at hand, however, what do zombies have to do with the man who co-authored "The Communist Manifesto"?

Answer: everything.

Marxist class analysis, in one form or another, has been part of zombie movies since there was such a thing as zombie movies. It's evident as early as the low-budget 1932 shocker "White Zombie," starring Bela Lugosi as one of the most memorably named characters in cinema, "Murder" Legendre, who uses zombies as workers in his mill.

According to Marx, class struggle is history's defining characteristic.

In the 1800s, with capitalism on the rise, Marx saw the upper class, the bourgeoisie (owners of capital and businesses), as being in conflict with the wage-earning masses, or proletariat. Eventually, as Marxist dogma would have it, the proletariat would rise up to overthrow the bourgeoisie.

Marx died in 1883, and 124 years later, the only communist revolutions that have occurred have taken place in poor countries with little or no capitalist class at all. But that Marx has been proven wrong doesn't mean his ideas have died. Like zombies, they keep shambling along.

Which again brings us back to zombie movies.

In zombie movies, we are the bourgeoisie and the zombies, which have nothing but numbers on their side, are the proletariat.

When people think of zombie movies, they usually think of George Romero's black-and-white classic "Night of the Living Dead," released in 1968. But before Romero began his franchise, Hammer Films, the British studio behind the Christopher Lee "Dracula" series, unleashed "The Plague of the Zombies."

"Plague" takes the political undercurrent of "White Zombie" a step further while dispensing with the Lugosi film's damsel-in-distress plot. In "Plague" British mine workers, a symbol of labor if ever there was one, turn into zombies and create havoc for the upper classes.

By the time Romero got around to his fourth "Dead" film, "Land of the Dead," in 2005, the political message had graduated from subtext to the whole point of the exercise. Dennis Hopper plays the upper-class ruler of an upscale residential development where the idle rich live in relative splendor amid the ruins of zombie-infested America. It all comes crashing down when the zombies break in and eat the rich.

Other zombie films are variations on the theme. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" takes place in a shopping mall and casts the zombies as mindless consumers. His subsequent "Day of the Dead" and director Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" pit zombies against the military, standing in for the military-industrial complex.

Of course, none of these films paints a flattering picture of the proletariat, which is portrayed as mindless zombies. But in "Land of the Dead," Romero tried to make his zombies smarter and more sympathetic, with mixed results.

The irony of most zombie films is that their political slant favors subhuman monsters that feed on the brains of the living. Filmmakers compensate by making most of their living characters so nasty or stupid they deserve to be eaten.

If Ayn Rand had written zombie movies instead of 1,000-page novels, she would have had an easier time of it — heroic capitalists vs. mindless zombie hordes hungering for the brains of the creative class.

That script writes itself: Capitalists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your brains.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Culture Shock 03.15.07: Captain America is just resting

Captain America is dead. Long live Captain America!

There is a temptation to view Cap's demise as a kind of metaphor. Is it the death of patriotism? The death of the American dream? The death of the nation's innocence in a post-9/11 world?

Oh, sure, I could join in the chorus of commentators searching for meaning in the demise of a fictional character. But how could I sleep at night?

For those of you just coming in, Captain America died last week in issue No. 25 of either the fifth or sixth volume — depending on how you count them — of his self-titled comic book. He was shot while being escorted into a federal courthouse to be arraigned on charges of some sort.

Wait a minute. Captain America under arrest? How can this be?

It was the fallout from Marvel Comics' most recent "nothing will ever be the same again" miniseries, "Civil War," in which, instead of fighting villains, superheroes fought each other over the issue of whether they should have to register with the government.

Of course, when superheroes fight, things, like entire cities, get broken. And when Cap's side — the anti-registration heroes — lost, Captain America was hauled in to stand trial.

The bottom line is that Cap's death was simply the dramatic payoff to a months-long story line of interest to only the most obsessive fans of superhero comics. Ultimately, it is meaningless, except as a way for Marvel Comics to grab some headlines and sell a few more books. "Captain America" No. 25 is already sold out at most retailers and going for about $25 on eBay. A second printing is due in stores later this month.

If all of this seems familiar, it's because we've been through it before.

Superman died in 1993. He got better. But not before his death became big news and DC Comics milked it for a year, during which four pretenders to the Man of Steel's legacy reigned.

Expect pretty much the same for Captain America.

He'll be back within a year or two, if not sooner. In the meantime, someone else will put on Cap's red, white and blue costume to fight the forces of evil.

A good candidate for Cap's fill in is his former sidekick, Bucky, who, for reasons too complicated to relate here, now goes by the name Winter Soldier. And that would be ironic, seeing as how Bucky himself came back from the dead just two years ago, after having been officially dead since either 1964 (our time) or 1945 (comic-book time).

For most superheroes, death isn't much of a problem. Off the top of my head, I can think of lots of heroes who have died and come back: Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Green Arrow, Wonder Man, Wonder Woman, Robin (Jason Todd), Nick Fury, Mr. Fantastic and Hawkman, just for starters. It's not much of an exaggeration to note that every member of the X-Men has died and come back at least twice. Thor is still dead but is scheduled for resurrection later this year.

You only really have to worry if you're a C-list hero. DC Comics has declared open season on its lesser-known characters. Within the past couple of years, Firestorm, Blue Beetle and The Question, have met untimely ends. But DC has replaced all of them with new characters using the same names.

So, don't shed any tears for Cap. He's beaten the Red Skull, and he'll beat death, too.

Old superheroes never die. They don't even fade away.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Culture Shock 03.08.07: Documentary takes on the hypocritical film ratings

The system used to rate the content of movies isn't all it appears to be. And that's a problem both for parents and filmmakers.

The Motion Picture Association of America's ratings system has been in place for about four decades. It has been modified twice, first with the introduction of the PG-13 rating, and later with the substitution of the NC-17 rating for X, which had come to be associated exclusively with hardcore pornography, as opposed to tamer "adult" films like "Showgirls."

But those small tweaks can't make up for the fact that the MPAA's system is broken and should be scrapped entirely.

Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick set out to learn just how the MPAA rates films. The result was his 2006 movie, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," recently released on DVD. The title refers to the standard disclaimer used on ads for films awaiting an MPAA rating.

Dick learned that the MPAA's supposedly impartial ratings system is anything but. But he had to hire a private investigator to do it.

The board that rates films for the MPAA is kept top secret, supposedly to shield its members from outside pressure. It is supposed to be made up of parents with small children.

Dick's investigator learned, however, that several of the board's members didn't have school-aged children. Others had ties to major movie studios. And, on top of that, two representatives of major religious groups served in "advisory" capacities.

In interviews with filmmakers, Dick found that independent films are held to a higher standard than are major studio releases. "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" was itself slapped with the dreaded NC-17, even though its content seems to merit only an R. (Dick released the final cut of the film without an MPAA rating.)

Then, of course, there is the longstanding criticism, which Dick notes, that the MPAA has a double standard for violence. Extreme violence earns a film a PG-13 or R. But too much sex can get a film an R or NC-17. Which are you really more concerned about your children viewing?

"This Film Is Not Yet Rated" leaves little doubt that the MPAA's ratings system benefits its member studios at the expense of independent films. Which is just what it was really intended to do. That's no surprise when you consider that the father of the ratings system, former MPAA President Jack Valenti, was a political hack in the Johnson administration. He had made a career out of crushing enemies, real and imagined.

Of course, Valenti sold it to the public as a tool for parents and a way to ward off any kind of government-run ratings system. Big corporations have a history of using the threat of government action to scare their smaller competitors into going along with things that end up benefiting only the big corporations.

One lawyer interviewed in Dick's film, however, says he'd prefer a government-run ratings system because he has no doubt it would be found unconstitutional. I think he is far too optimistic about the Supreme Court's ability to read the U.S. Constitution, but I can see his point.

Dick's film is strongest when it stays on message. A digression about "media consolidation" is simply factually incorrect. And in a discussion included on the DVD as a bonus feature, Dick downplays the MPAA's waning influence. Clearly, however, as more people view movies at home rather than in theaters, ratings are less of an issue. Unrated versions of films are widely available, even at retailers that claim to avoid racy entertainment.

Quibbles aside, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" is a powerful indictment of the MPAA's self-serving, hypocritical approach to rating films.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Culture Shock 03.01.07: Loving celebrities is in our genes

It's a common complaint: People are too interested in trivial celebrity gossip and pay too little attention to real news. And the mass media fosters this "culture of celebrity" by pandering to it, while coverage of important issues suffers.

Instead of reporting on the war in Iraq and the state of the economy, the argument goes, cable news channels offer hours of coverage of the Anna Nicole Smith legal battles, Britney Spears' shaved head and Madonna's latest trip to Africa in search of some unsuspecting child to adopt.

In the stuffy neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein writes "Without celebrities, whole sections of the New York Times and the Washington Post would have to close down."

The assumption, usually unspoken, is that the culture of celebrity is something new, something forced on us by "crass consumerism" and media saturation. All I needed, however, was a quick Google search to find some genuine, capitalism-hating Marxists making the point forthrightly.

A blogger at writes disparagingly of Andy Warhol's pop art. Warhol, you see, had the gall to turn celebrity and pop culture into an art form. The same blogger also slams Oprah Winfrey: "... Oprah, whose fetishizing of celebrity and high-end consumer goods is legend, has fed that compulsive consumerism as much as anyone in modern media."

There is no doubt that capitalism produces more — better, faster and less expensively. That is why the capitalist West was growing rich while people in the former Soviet Union were standing in lines for hours to buy toilet paper. Capitalism and the mass media make celebrity gossip, and even the rare instance of real celebrity news, convenient and inexpensive for anyone who wants it.

But they don't create the demand for it.

People have been obsessed with celebrities going virtually as far back as our written records take us. Archaeologists have found graffiti about famous gladiators of the day scrawled on ancient Roman ruins. And ancient Greek athletes had cult-like followings.

Our collective interest in the lives of celebrities has been with us all along because, like most human behavior, it has its roots in our genes.

Celebrities, after all, are not like the rest of us. Some are bigger, stronger and faster. Others are prettier. Others still are just stranger. They stand out.

In prehistoric times, those were the sorts of qualities that helped get you a mate, enabling you to pass on your genes to the next generation. And genes are all about being passed on.

To get an idea how this works in practice, it helps to think about birds. In many bird species, males have brightly colored plumage. This makes them easier prey for predators, but the females love it. Attractive feathers are so useful when it comes to finding a mate that the advantage outweighs the disadvantage of possibly being eaten. Male peacocks in particular have elaborate tails that require a lot of extra calories to maintain. This would be an evolutionary minus if not for the fact that those otherwise useless tails drive the ladies wild.

Paris Hilton is the human equivalent of a peacock. She is mostly useless, but she has wealth, looks (to a degree) and fashion sense that signal "successful mate" to the primitive parts of male brains. Her night-vision sex tape probably didn't hurt, either.

Still don't believe celebrity culture comes from your genes? Well, not even the Marxists are immune. They're the ones buying T-shirts emblazoned with the image of communist guerrilla and ruthless killer Che Guevara. Che is now the celebrity icon for people who claim to hate celebrity icons. Regardless of politics, we all have some celebrity who arouses our interest. After all, we're only human.