Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Aughts: Influences

For the past couple of months, I have been thinking that it is time to start putting together my "top of the decade" lists. This is the decade in which I have had the most access to media, and in which I have most directly interacted with material in pop culture. I cannot say that my lists are anywhere near complete - I've missed 25 films I wanted to see in 2009 alone - but I have been thinking about the kinds of lists I wanted to include here. Some will be predictable - favourite artists, albums, movies, tv shows of the past decade - and some will be embarassing - movies, tv shows I've missed. But I'm enjoying the process, and I hope that you also enjoy it. I thought I would start with a set of lists: my top media influences over the past decade. Some of the influences here will call back to material released before 2000, but I thought it would be interesting to start with the artists who have most shaped my existence over the past decade. And although their works may appear on future favourite lists, it should not be assumed that my top five songwriter influences are necessarily my top five songwriters, for example. The members within the lists are given in no particular order, and I have included short descriptions for each. Enjoy.

Coens - It's not so much that their movies this decade were great - there were two negligible comedies, one other that didn't quite work, and I still have not yet seen A Serious Man - but that I experienced the totality of their work within the past decade.
P.T. Anderson - There Will Be Blood and Punch-Drunk Love alone are enough to put him on this list, especially when combined with 1999's Magnolia. PTA has made me think more about human nature than almost any other artist in just these three movies.
Wes Anderson - From Royal Tenenbaums to this year's Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson's quirky musings on family and duty and goals are interesting in both the immediate context and the bigger picture. Anderson is a master at setting deep characters with a shallow context.
Charlie Kaufman - Kaufman's mind-bending scripts question the very nature of reality and art, and all of those less meaningful human enterprises like love, faith, and hope along the way.
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The only non-director in my top 5, Hoffman is a master at choosing roles that allow him to explore in depth how a person will react to a given situation.

Bill Simmons - ESPN's The Sports Guy is admittedly shallow, and focusses mainly on sports I don't really watch, like baseball and basketball, but he is one of the most entertaining sports and pop culture guys out there. Plus, he helped introduce me indirectly to the next two people on the list.
Chuck Klosterman - I have been a latecomer to Klosterman's work, only discovering it in the past year, but I have devoured it eagerly (I read his latest collection of essays in the past day). He has a unique way of viewing the meaning in pop culture, and of bringing it into a discussion about the nature of human reality.
Malcolm Gladwell - Like Klosterman, I am a relative newcomer to Gladwell's work, but it has nonetheless had an impact on me. Gladwell's ability to analyze social trends and apply them to an abstract construct is very interesting, and it has made me think about the world in a new way (much like Steven Levitt's Freakonomics).
Donald Miller - Even before Blue Like Jazz, I had unknowingly dialed into Miller's honest and hilarious admissions of self-shortcomings; at times, my writing reflects his, and his books continue to make me think about why I do what I do.
Rob Bell - From Velvet Elvis to Nooma videos to the many theological criticisms of his work, I do not think there is a more polarizing figure in contemporary Evangelical thought, simultaneously igniting passion in some readers while offending others beyond belief. At least he's a part of the conversation, and a thought-provoking one at that.

U2 - As if this wasn't obvious. Before the decade began, my knowledge of U2 was the "Best of 1980-1990 and B-Sides" disc. Then I discovered their work from the 90s, and I knew there was something there. They have, of course, continued to produce new material and to further engage the critical and creative parts of my mind.
Andrew Schwab - The frontman of Project 86 is a thought-provoking songwriter, poet, adn author. His journey through the last decade is chronicled in his songs, and they continually speak to me.
Dustin Kensrue - Between his solo work and the ever-evolving work of Thrice, Kensrue is metaphorical, poetic, and at times prophetic.
Jon Foreman - Between Switchfoot and his solo and side projects, Foreman has ruminated on the nature of his existence on eight separate albums in the decade, and he still has not figured it out. I suppose that's a good thing for me, because his questions make me think.
Johnny Cash - Although Cash died in 2003, I have spent a significant amount of time since then investigating his back catalog and looking at his life. His death made his impact on my life all the meaningful, and he deserves to be on this list just for the song and video for "Hurt".

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Morality of Survivor

Russell Hantz was one of the biggest scoundrels in the 19 seasons of Survivor. He lied, cheated, stole, sabotaged, and manipulated his way to the top three, where he lost to Natalie, a Southern belle who smiled her way through most of the game and claimed her presence in the top trio as a moral victory. It was one of the worst travesties in Survivor history, along with Boston Rob losing All-Stars to Amber; Russell played one of the best games ever on Survivor, and was never in a position in which he did not control the game for more than a few hours. But what I found very intersting about this whole season of Survivor is that Russell was cast as a "villain", which seemed to be primarily because he was unscrupulous in his methods of keeping control. He did not allow any moral or ethical expectations to govern his behaviour; at any point, his mind was on doing whatever it took to win. He took his case boldly to the jury, who denied him the prize seemingly based on his lack of ethics. On the other hand, the finalist who attempted to achieve some sort of moral redemption - Mick - was shut out of the voting, a clear indication that the jury felt that Mick's attempts to cast himself as a moral player were even more misguided than Russell's outright bravado. The winner - Natlie - positioned herself as a player who made the best decisions she could, but who tried to play as honest a game as she could, and her combination of gameplay and morality won her a million dollars, despite the fact that she was not in the running for one of the best three players of the season according to the fans' votes. So although there is no morality inherently present in the game, Russell lost because of the moral and ethical wrongs perceived by the members of the jury - an external construct of morality applied to the game. It could, of course, be argued that said morality is part of being human, and that it is more unnatural to shed a moral code, as Russell did, than to adhere to one, but it seems to be fallacious to enter into a game and to decide the game based on "rules" that exist outside the game - just not outside the contestants. Russell is pissed off, and I do not blame him - he is now arguably the best player not to win Survivor. But what will really be an interesting twist on this discussion of Survivor and morality is the upcoming "Heroes vs. Villains" season: 10 of the most altruistic contestants taking on 10 of the most devious. But the question, of course, is how the villains are decided, and whether it is true that there can be such a construct as a "villain" in Survivor; these are people who take a certain perspective to the game, and they are held in moral judgment for their actions. Russell will almost certainly come back as a "villain", as will some of the memorable participants from years past: Jerri, Jonny Fairplay, Ace; but the only facet that makes them villains is their willingness to abandon a moral code that arguably should not have applied in the first place. It's going to be a fun season.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Many Legends of Zelda

In the past two weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the Legend of Zelda, one of Nintendo's most successful video game franchises. Nintendo has successfully duplicated its formula throughout the evolution of its systems, and the concept has introduced many now-familiar motifs into not only the video gaming world, but also the general pop cultural consciousness, despite the fact that Zelda's only other forays into the entertainment world have been manga, a memorable theme, an amusing but cheesy cartoon in the late 1980s, and streaming sitcom called The Legend of Neil (which I just discovered today). An aside: I'm not sure why no one has made (or even seemingly considered) transposing Zelda into a film medium; perhaps the costs are too prohibitive, or the general lack of success in translating video games into movies has discouraged producers, but it sure seems like it would be a sure thing. I have been reminiscing about the series lately, primarily because there is a new game for the DS (Spirit Tracks), as well as the fact that I have been playing through Minish Cap (a 2004 GBA entry). It is perhaps my favourite video game series, and I have not played a Zelda game I have not enjoyed. (I thought about trying to rank them, but I think it would be a fruitless pursuit - they're all so good!) I have a lot of good memories associated with playing Zelda games. I remember playing the original NES game with my dad as a young child (7-8 years old); I still have the maps that we graphed out as we looked through the dungeons. I remember playing Link to the Past for the first time, and spending months trying to discover all of its secrets while I was in elementary school. I remember that the first time my parents left me alone at home for the weekend that I went to a video store, rented the then brand-new Ocarina of Time, played it for something like 50 hours in a 2.5 day span, and still only got 1/3 of the way through the game. I remember being continually frustrated by Majora's Mask, the only title I have not finished within a month or two of starting; maybe that will be a project over the holidays. I remember finally buying a Gamecube on my internship in 2006 and playing through Wind Waker and Four Swords Adventures on weekends when I couldn't really think but had to do something. And I remember replaying most of these games repeatedly; it is surprising how much fun it is to go through these games again, even when I knew what to do and what would happen. I guess there is some joy in simply experiencing the games, whether for the first or fifth time. Zelda is like chili; it might not taste exactly the same each time, but you know it's going to be good. And yes, I'm a big dork.


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