Thursday, October 27

Looking Back in Anger: Solaris - Solar Is - So... Laris?

There is good reason to believe that Steven Soderbergh's Solaris (2002) could have easily been called George Clooney's Ass In Space, and probably would have netted the same box office profits.  Actually, maybe even more, considering they only snagged $6.7m opening weekend.  The film had a lot going against it when it released -- the book upon which it is based's author decried its overemphasis on the human conundrums in the film and Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film is often regarded as a science fiction masterpiece.

But they made it anyway and today I finally watched it.  And honestly, I liked it.  It struck a chord in me in the ways it addresses serious problems of modernity and identity that plague us not just as a society, but on a frighteningly individual level.  And in the end, after posing countless questions, the film merely shrugs its shoulders.  This, no doubt, frustrated people, but what more can you ask today?  Perhaps it wasn't quite as resonant in 2002, but in today's mediate climate, where every political, social, and cultural move is met with endless questioning and a demand for an answer, our endless yearning for emotional finality often IS met with perplexing suspension.

The worst place to fart.

No, this film does not have the answers.  And if that bothers you, then don't watch it -- you won't miss the greatest film of the era by any means.  But you can never count out Soderbergh to offer you something patient and beautiful, which Solaris most certainly is.  There is a symbolic focus on poetry in the film, no doubt because the hour and a half of the film plays like an ode to lost loves.

If you're not familiar with the plot, then go read a synopsis because I don't care enough to rewrite it here. It's not overly complex, and the 'twist' at the end barely even plays like one.  Soderbergh isn't really trying to mislead anybody, here.  But the construction of the film's final act, albeit initially confusing, is structured to best capture the film's penultimate question: "What now?"  The characters make choices in this film, but do they come with consequences?  Maybe not.

It's a lot like earth, only covered in purple Kool-Aid

If this film rant sounds at all ambiguous, that's because it is, because so is the film, and I liked the ambiguity.  The meditative tone of this intensely vibrant, masterfully scored, and radiant (pun intended) film will, at the very least, leave you entranced.  It doesn't hurt that Clooney and Natascha McElhone knock their respective roles out of the park.

Regardless of whether or not you identify with these characters (and you probably won't because they're all very sad and, with any luck, your life doesn't seem quite as pointless), the planet of Solaris will pull you in with the same mysticism it holds over the main characters.  And when it leaves you with questions, just remember that this is the entire point.

(PS - Now I really want to see Solaris [1972], so you best believe there will be a follow-up to this post)

Monday, September 12

Pumped for Pipeworks

For those of you Chicago-based craft beer nerds who have yet to hear, Chicago Pipeworks Brewing Co. found themselves a home much earlier this year.  Not news, PK.  Right you are, self.  So what is so extra awesome about Pipeworks new brew house?

It's not even a full block from my apartment.

Having a talented group of craft brewing pros nearby to any domicile should cause endless excitement on its own merits.  But Pipeworks has me especially pumped up especially because of its storefront concept.  They are shying away from producing beers on a larger scale, even on the scale of citywide distribution (something Half Acre is often criticized for not QUITE achieving), in favor of a very localized business model.

As they noted in the Chicago Tribune, their brew house will feature an ever-changing rotation of craft brews (though some form of IPA and Berliner Weiss will always be available [which has the IPA-freak in me decidedly tickled]), promising something for your growler at any given moment that you've probably never had.  The craft beer geekiness of these Pipeworks guys is apparent the very minute you visit their website and check out their Kickstarter campaign video (which was a success).  They loves themselves some brewin' and I loves myself some tastin' so I'm thinking this neighborly relationship will pan out pretty well.

These lads also have some successful collaborations with local breweries around the city like Half Acre and De Struise.  My growler and I are already thirsty.

Can't forget about Piece, just down the street. What's a neighbor to choose?

Any favorite craft brewers in the area you guys dig?


Thursday, September 8

A Call for Comedy Studies

Recently, I was talking with my buddy OJ about the problems of comedy when talking about matters of Cultural Studies and Media Studies.  A lot of times, when people do their analyses of particular shows, movies, videogames, what have you, the role comedy plays in that analysis is nonexistent, even if the text in question is comedic.  You can do in-depth gender and racial studies of popular sitcoms like Friends or Arrested Development, but since these shows have an aspect to their design that's intended to make the audience laugh, why should that be neglected just to get a broader point across?

I got kids all over town.
This has always been something that's bothered me.  I come from a comedic background -- I used to do improv comedy and have always been a huge admirer of the sharpest comedic talents out there, either on television, doing stand-up, on the improv stage, or otherwise.  For me, the comedic value of something is oftentimes the most complex in its meaning, as it's a direct result from the cultural zeitgeist, funneled through individual (and broader) perception.  It gets at the toughest parts of a text's meaning -- which, frankly, is part of the reason I hold it in such esteem.  The age old adage that there's "truth in comedy" comes from a very real place.  If the point of any media text is to illicit some sense of humanity or human-ness, then oftentimes it's comedy that does this most accurately.

But you don't really see this kind of thing discussed in academia very much, or even the popular media for that matter.  The value of comedy and its inherent (and ever-changing) structures are pretty much always just accepted as "understood."  Either you get it or you don't, and I'm not just talking about "the joke."  There is very little discussion, other than people debating what comedian is better and why or what show is funnier and how they go about their comedy, on the matter of comedy's role in the way we approach, digest, and comprehend our media and its meanings.

So I was super pumped to see that a very smart friend of mine, AJ Aronstein, wrote this piece about the state of comedy immediately following 9/11 (smartly released in the media flurry surrounding the 10 year anniversary).  It's an excellent article and I highly recommend you check it out.  Go ahead.  I'm not going anywhere.

Not to be confused with The Crying Game

See?  Very well said, AJ.

What I love most about this article is its clear linkage between the state of comedy as a whole and a crucial historical moment in which everything American's culturally felt, understood, and knew was dramatically changed faster than a natural evolutionary rate would otherwise allow.  It's become somewhat trite, perhaps, to go on and say that "9/11 changed everything," but at the risk of bombast, it's kind of true, and AJ takes that case to comedy.

Here is a shining example of what it would look like to thoughtfully engage in the role of comedy on the level of culture and media.  There has been plenty of work done on SNL and its cultural significance, but AJ is more interested in what their comedy means in a broader sense through specific example (and the conclusions he draws from that Giuliani moment are excellently stated).

I don't mean this post to be a praise session for AJ's writing -- which is very good -- but I wanted to get this point across so that people can truly talk about it.  I want this to be a call for Comedy Studies (a fancier name would be nice but probably overlook the point).  There needs to be serious work done examining the role of comedy in culture on all levels, from the broadest peak to the most specific instance, to get at the way it changes our media's meanings.

This shit is HILARIOUS

If a character in a film crack's a black joke, sure we can use that as an excellent entry point into a broader discussion of race relations, but what do we make of the comedian's intent?  Where does the joke stop and the analysis begin?  It is my belief that they are too intertwined to separate and so we need to just as thoughtfully consider the shape of the joke as well as its latent meanings.  Cultural Studies would argue this point on the basis that the meaning of the author isn't necessarily the meanings derived by the media receiver -- and that's totally valid.  But I see this as a reason to look even deeper into the comedic complexities of an issue because it often is so intensely personal.

It's not as though comedy is the same for every person (obviously, because as far as I'm concerned, Larry the Cable Guy should have been lynched years ago for being the unfunniest man alive), but that doesn't mean there aren't connecting factors that are worthy of examination.  And as AJ does a good job portraying, the implications of comedy can be hard to deny when examined across a breadth of examples and media.  This mode of comedic analysis is worthwhile, dammit, and I hope that we can begin considering it as such.


Tuesday, August 30

The Future of Videogame Consumption: Digital or Analog?

The recent GI article about the Videogame History Museum brings up an interesting point -- the founder and curator of this proposed museum foresees a future akin to what other industry analysts are predicting, in which games are no longer purchased from stores but downloaded to console or PC hard drives.  Gone will be the era of instruction manuals, game cases, and *gasp* discs.  Instead, our games will simply be gigabytes (maybe terabytes by that time) of information, seamlessly interwoven into a singular box of console gaming glory.

Now that's an archive.

This foreseeable future has led to the invention of the Videogame History Museum, an effort to preserve all the physical products of the videogame industry to date and effectively constitute an archive to the world's new favorite medium's early beginnings.

My question then is this -- is this prediction not the same prognosis for the music industry?  And if so, will we not see the same revivalist trends down the line for firm hardware over ethereal software?  Record sales are a tiny, meager faction of music sales even today, for sure, but they are a small area of the industry that has at least shown modest growth.  There is a real desire, especially amongst today's youth (of all people), to hold a record on your hand, to appreciate its luscious cover artwork, and to hear it "as it was meant to be heard."

If there is one key difference between music and games in this regard, it is that last point.  Fundamentally, there will be no change in quality or perception in playing the game based on whether or not you are using a disc or a digital file, whereas an mp3 doesn't quite sound as rich as an analog playback.  This, I fear, will catapult gamers overwhelmingly into the "yeah, digital!" camp, fully embracing a time of less disc-clutter and an equal amount of digital carnage ensues.

But I won't be a part of this revolution.  And, yes, part of it is because I am a gaming curmudgeon.  I'll be the first to admit it, in fact.  I simply ENJOY going into a gaming store, looking around, checking out titles and scouring the bargain bins, until I've settled on my purchase and bringing the box home.  No, I don't really read instruction manuals anymore.  I don't have any nostalgia for them, necessarily, but the loss of a physical product to me is simply unimaginable.  For me, it disrupts the ritual.

Get off my lawn or I'm calling Karl Rove!

Despite my nerdy, nostalgic, and overly-emotional appeal, there is a degree of practicality involved in this idea as well.  Forcing all game transactions down the digital pipeline means that, just like your giant mp3 collection, if your data isn't backed up and your hard drive crashes -- bye-bye game library.  This isn't a very positive potential outcome, to be sure, and at least in the foreseeable short- to mid-term future, I see it as the greatest barrier to widespread digital transaction of big budget games.  The XBOX 360's red ring of death plagues gamers everywhere on an annual basis and Sony's record of consumer happiness in the past year isn't exactly stellar.  If they can't protect their own servers, how can they guarantee your data?  Software navigating this rocky terrain is no doubt some years away.

Still, the indie game scene thrives on digital download, but no doubt because losing a $10-$20 digital purchase doesn't hurt quite as bad as a clean wipe of hundreds of dollars of blockbuster game titles in a single crash.  If we are heading for a digital future, it will be the indies leading the charge.

I guess my point is this -- if the cost is the same and I receive added enjoyment from going to an actual store to pick up my new game purchase and the disc acts as a physical back-up (assuming all read-times from hard-drives and disc drives are equal, which, functionally, they almost are), I'm going with the game store every time.  I can chat with the dorky shopkeeper and listen to his pitch to pre-order the next big game (I won't do it, but it's fun to listen), pick up aging Gamecube, Xbox, and even Wii gems for pennies, and continue enjoying my ritualized experience, just as music aficionados do in record shops nationwide.  

Those were the days of glorious disco hits.  And Grover.

And isn't the goal the same?  To preserve a commercial institution that founded the games industry in favor of the antiseptic, anti-social, instantaneous digital transaction that just leaves me feeling like I stole something?  I'll stand with the physical product -- games, music, books -- every time.  Maybe this is what Walter Benjamin was talking about when he suggested mechanical reproduction destroyed an object's "aura," some esoteric quality that can't be replicated by a xerox machine.  Only this time, it's not just the aura, but the digital safety net as well as the ritual of purchase altogether.

What do you guys think?  If push comes to shove, will you commit to buying games in a shop, or are you totally comfortable with digital purchases?

Sunday, April 3

Excellent Article from the Star Tribune

Bill Ward of the Star Tribune has written a totally baller piece about the explosion of craft beer enjoyment. I especially like his articulating the question of which came first: beer geeks or beer deserving of geekery. My personal suspicions lie with the former.

Check it out Here

Either way, it's a great article if you're curious about the current state of America's craft brewing scene. Just watch out for the know-it-alls who are only in it for the chicks, like me.


Friday, April 1

Spectacle, 3D, Immersion: Misplaced Arguments

Anyone who has brought up the topic of 3D's revival in modern cinema knows how I feel about it.  I hate it.  I feel like an aging curmudgeon in these arguments, like Roger Ebert furiously tweeting about the (literal) headaches of 3D glasses and the slight downtick in visual clarity that the technology requires.  This is all true, of course.  3D is, indeed, a step backwards for cinematic viewing rather than a step forward, in many respects.  But I don't want to talk about the technology here, I'd rather talk about some of the assumptions people make when discussing 3D as it pertains to cinema as well as to videogaming.

How could 3D get any cooler?! Oh yeah, bulky headphones.

There seems to be a general argument behind 3D proponents that it offers more immersion.  By creating a 3D film, you, the spectator, are actually getting closer to the characters, environment, and diegetic world of the movie.  Holy shit, I'm watching the world of Pandora in 3D!  It's like I'm there, actually flying beneath floating islands and waterfalls that don't follow the laws of gravity!

Here's the thing, though: this idea, which is constantly tossed about by filmmakers who advocate 3D's proliferation, is based on a bit of backwards logic.  3D's recent surge is based on some pretty spectacular technology.  How many 3D films have you seen that are shooting for IMAX releases?  It's almost always a major spectacle when 3D is involved.  And while spectacle is certainly fun on its own right, it's inherently the very opposite of immersion.

Let's assume you're watching Avatar in IMAX 3D.  Let's also assume you're not higher than Wiz Khalifa.  Chances are you're geeking out on the special effects, the insane world-construction, the marvelous color schemes, and not exactly concentrating on how tall Sigourney Weaver is in human form.  The entire reason Hollywood developed a definitive system of filmmaking was to guide the spectator's eyes to the best vantage points for narrative storytelling.  Spectacle removes our focus from the film's diegesis.  Instead, it slaps us across the face with shock and awesome.

Aren't Na'vi chicks hot?

Tossing 3D into filmmaking that already celebrates an overdose of spectacle only calls more attention to the medium itself rather than situate the spectator into a deeper sense of immersion.  It also hurts our heads.  That's why I'm so curious to see what happens with the Nintendo 3DS.  Games are often thought to have a similar sliding scale between immersion and game mechanics.  Players can easily play a game, even one deeply narratively-based, on its own mechanics and rule systems rather than get immersed in the narrative.  The balance is difficult to strike.

So will the introduction of 3D refocus all player's attention on the spectacle of 3D?  And furthermore, is the a technological introduction that will ever become totally ingrained in the way we watch film and play games?  I'm inclined to say no.  But I do think, if anything, the 3DS is the best example of a good way to approach 3D in gaming.  No glasses.  Solo perspective.  Portability.  Immense amounts of wireless goodies and the introduction of Alternate Reality Gaming as a feasible commonality.  

It also orders pizza

The thing is freakin' sweet.  It's just not going to be very "immersive."


Friday, March 25

An Ode To Half Acre

O, Half Acre Brew'ry,
How do I love thee?
Something something Jessica Rabbit was a hot cartoon something something.

There's enough beer in there to get a small city relatively drunk

This is an earnest plea to the entire city of Chicago.  Walk, DO NOT RUN, to your nearest store of beer purchases and pick up anything Half Acre has brewed.  There are no wrong answers.  You will not be graded on the quality of your answers but rather the quantity of your purchase.

One reason Half Acre is awesome: Cans.  At said Beer Shoppe, you will no doubt notice four-packs of Half Acre cans.  Currently, they have canned Over Ale and Daisy Cutter, both exemplary ales.  The Daisy Cutter especially is a thoroughly enjoyable Pale Ale that really highlights the beauty of the American Pale Ale style by not messing with it too hard (the Double Daisy Cutter is a whoooole 'nother story).

Another reason why Half Acre pwns: truly inspired small batch beers.  Just to name some of the amazing beers I've tasted from Half Acre via growler in the past few months: Ambrosia (currently pouring, a fantastic take on a wheat beer, which I typically abhor, but the slight tartness in the citrus notes does wonders for this beer's finish), Chocolate Camaro (Chocolate Stout), Baume (Rye Stout), Callow Knife (Session Pale Ale)...  All of these beers take your assumptions of traditional styles and detonate them amidst several tons of TNT and wet hops.  The Callow Knife especially blew my mind.  Hovering near 5% ABV (if I remember correctly), this Pale Ale substituted the tongue-smacking bitterness of the style for a still-complex-yet-highly-palatable session style.  One growler was not enough, but alas, many other Chicagoans felt the same way I did and this fine beer was gone the next week.

That's not a knife, THIS is a knife

Oh yeah, and their bottle art is completely baller.

Half Acre is located on Lincoln Ave and Cullom Ave in Northcenter.  To be sure, it's worth the trip from wherever you are in the city.  The lads by the front desk are very down to earth and clearly love their beer, which they most certainly should.  Do yourself a favor and bring your growler (or buy one there) to fill up on whatever small batches they are pouring -- these are truly some of the most brilliant beers being brewed in Chicago today (with much due respect to Metropolitan, Goose Island, Revolution, and Piece).

One of these things is not like the other


Thursday, March 24

Beer Review: 2011 Sierra Nevada Hoptimum

I'm starting this party off with a review of a beer that's been sitting in my fridge for a week or two, waiting for the right moment.  A brand new blog obsessed with beer sounds like the right moment to me.  Let's take a look.

Soon I'll figure out how to fix these mirror images

I know essentially nothing about this beer going into this tasting.  I know that I enjoy Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and, come Christmastime, can't get enough of their annual Celebration Winter Ale.  But if you were to ask me two years ago what other beers Sierra Nevada made other than that ever-present pale ale, I would have returned your quizzical gaze with a slap in the face.  "Nothing, dipshit!" I would have elegantly retorted. "Sierra Nevada equals Pale Ale.  That's all they do.  Don't be dumb."

Indeed, I was the dumb one.  Sierra Nevada has a rich library of delicious beers and I'm really looking forward to giving this one a taste.  The bottle advertises Hoptimum as "The Whole Cone Imperial IPA."  Any Imperial IPA is good in my book.  I'm a bonafide IPA whore.  When Half Acre (a Chicago staple and a brilliant, forward-thinking local brewery) releases their Double Daisy Cutter, a Double IPA, I typically go apeshit for a few days until every last drop has magically disappeared -- except whereas wizardry might be blamed in earlier days, now all signs point to my thirsty ass.

Anywho, the beer looks great and I'm eager to dig in.  The bottle is covered in hoppy art and the mere mention of a whole cone experience is making me weak in the knees.

10.4% ABV


Carefully positioned as a beer boner

Hoptimum pours a fairly thick head and a dark amber body.  The suds in the head cling to the glass for dear live, clearly aware of their overbearing deliciousness.  No, I have still not tasted this thing, but it's killing me just to look at it.  It has all the aura of a fantastic and hop-heavy IPA.    The carbonation seems a bit light, but then again, it's been cooling off in my refrigerator for a couple weeks now and has been staring me in the face for over eight minutes.  Let's smell this sucker.

A massively resinous sniff.  The beer smells like a dense pine forest with very mild citrus notes.  There is a touch of malt to the whiff as it coats the nostrils in a thick smog of hoppiness.  The smell tickles the back of the tongue as it dig deep in the nose.  Honestly, the hops smell so fresh I'm amazed this beer wasn't brewed three days ago in my own basement.  Time for a taste.

My first taste bathes my tongue in bitter hop glory.  The hops really are the story here.  They swarm the taste buds and don't stop the harassment until well after the sip has dissipated.  The beer is so rich in hops that it has developed sweeter notes in fermentation, like burnt caramel and toasted marshmallow.  Almost all the action takes place in the back of the mouth.  For an IPA, I'm surprised by the lack of a citrus bite.  There is a touch of tartness on the finish, but it's overwhelmed by the bitterness.  This beer is no joke.  If you don't love hops, don't even bother opening your wallet.

This beer, as I just noted, is a hop beast.  However, at 10.4% ABV and with such an overwhelming hop flavor, I might suggest the cellar for this guy.  Don't get me wrong -- if you're trying to get beaten up by your beer (which I often am), this one will do the trick.  It's delicious, if extreme.  Still, I have to believe that nine months in the cellar will really bring out some crazy flavors in this one that will aid its lack of a lighter side.  Every great hop-heavy beer has some serious complexity that works with its hoppiness.  This beer lacks that, but give it some age, and it surely will break out of those caramel and hoppy flavors to develop some real funkiness to melt your face clean off the bone.

Nonetheless, this bear is a freak of nature in the best of ways.  If drinking now, pair only with the meatiest and most flavorful of meals.  A burger from Kuma's Corner or a rich Hanger Steak.  Sweet merciful crap, stay the hell away from poultry on this one.  Or just drink one on its own, but if I might suggest, start your night with this one instead of finishing it as long as you enjoy waking up without a blistering headache.


Drink up me hearties, yo ho.


Those Who Are About To Drink, We Salute You

For awhile, there, I considered entirely reformatting my previous blog.  There was some good work done on there.  For a couple (and I stress, a couple) of insightful posts on gaming-related issues, by all means, go check out The Next Medium -- a failed attempt at serious game-blogging.

Which begs the question: why did it fail?

Which begs the answer: because I was a lazy shit about it.

NO MORE!  With The Mediated Hophead, I am (digitally) reborn.  Here I account for my other loves, outside of videogaming: beer, cinema, a bit of television, the occasional graphic novel.

I'll endeavor to do my fair share of the obligatory posts, like reviews, previews, wants and do-not-wants.  But I'll also attempt to throw a bit of my own perspective on the whole mess.  My budding education leads me to a lot of positions and opinions that I feel strongly about and am in desperate need of some feedback.  I wouldn't quite say I'm a blowhard.  I certainly do blow with considerable strength, but I also attempt to back it up with some lung endurance.  That's a backwards way of saying every once in awhile I actually know what I'm talking about, but I don't let it lead to arrogance.  As far as I'm concerned, I have nothing to be arrogant about -- the best academic and progressive thought comes out of dialogue.  So please, for the love of all that is holy (I realize not much is outside of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus), leave a comment!  Post it up!  I won't tear into you unless you're a troll.

Oh, which is why I ask that you back your posts up with an email.  Nothing personal, I just prefer a little bit of face-based dialogue over anonymous.

So there you have it.  That's kind of what I'm about.  What this blog is about.  The rest, we'll figure out as I go along.  But to begin, I'd like to start off with my greatest hobby.  No, it's actually not videogames.

It's beer.