Thursday, 29 August 2013

My Life in Music

So I finally find a page on the internet where my writing seems needed, because who doesn't want my entire musical life mapped out in front of them? And those uptight bastards over at Pitchfork have made it an exclusive club; turns out I need to become famous before they let me in. Go give them some page hits anyway. But what are blogs for but ultimate self delusion; so here's my musical life mapped out in the style of Pitchfork's 5-10-15-20 series, only with a slight bit of tweaking due to age restrictions. So don't worry if the below numbers don't seem to be actual stages of life but a random assortment of dates plucked out of the air for writing convenience: because that's exactly what they are.

Party like it's 1999
So 1999 sucked for music? I was too busy turning 3 at the time to notice. Forgive me, I'm not completely sure if this adds up; do children start to form actual proper thoughts at three years old? We'll say they do. A few years ago at school I was asked to sum up my childhood. I simply replied "Abba and trains". I did like trains, and I can remember being pretty knowledgeable on them to; I just don't remember the actual knowledge. I do remember Abba though. Apparently my grandma bought every Abba LP that was released during their hey-day (the 70s) and since I spent a good chunk of my childhood with my grandparents I subconsciously took it all in. I still put Abba on now and again, it's my ultimate source of nostalgia. I can't imagine a more childhood-orientated band. No drugs swindles or messy break-up; everything behind doors was as clean as the music. I always associate them with The Beatles: Abba are like the fab four of the 70s, by which I mean a family friendly mainstream pop act who because of their picturesque view of everything gave me a very optimistic view of the past, and what other band, or living entity in general does that?

"You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life/ See that girl, watch that scene, diggin' the dancing queen"

Pre 9/11 Music 
I always wonder which music my generation will call our own. We're too young to claim music from 2000 and 2001, yet there's an era of music from then that no generation seems to want. The 90s were easy to call; everything segregated by different musical "movements": there was the Nirvana-Pearl Jam grundge movement of the early 90s, then there was Oasis and Blur blazing through Brit-pop in the middle of the decade, and the end of the decade was some juvenile punk/millenium angst bullshit. Lots of S Club 7 cheese floating around; enough to cause a backlash from Radiohead-types who took a more pessimistic look into the future. But my earliest memories of listening to music that was actually just releasing at that moment is the feel-good hip-hop and R'n'B wave of the early noughties. Surely Outkast's 'Hey Ya' is the national anthem of this time. It's not that 9/11 made all music serious, only people stopped tolerating songs that gave out feel-good messages. If the 90s was a feel-good decade; no wars or global warming or recession, all music and movies let people just drift into fantasies; over the top Michael Bay cartoons and Tarantino pulp fictions, then everyone spent the noughties listening to music that was to supposedly remind them of the real world. Lots of political messages and big issue songs, and lots of movies about war and internal struggle. So this early noughties music is my glowing view of innocent childhood. It's was all about the groove and getting high; what other time could have produced hits like Afroman's 'Because I Got High' and R. Kelly's 'Ignition Remix'. It's like people were celebrating the lack of any 1999 apocalypse. This music exists solely unto itself; simple tunes from people who were just making their way; after that no-one believed in anything but second-guessing and being a smart ass. I'll very happily claim this era as my generations music.

"Uh, thank god for mom and dad/For sticking two together/Cause we don't know how"

(Early) Teen Angst: 2004
I listen to Smells like Teen Spirit over and over. I try and unload it onto every poor sap who will listen. The speakers on my computer break and I'm testing them out, put it to full volume although it still doesn't work, then finally get them on and it's blasting full volume through the house. Wakes my mother up. Yet that's the only way to play that song; extremely loud. If you don't it just sounds like the last 20 years, the 20 years since it's release, of boring mainstream rock that owes nothing to any song but this one. I don't even like that song anymore; ever eaten the same cereal everyday until you think if you eat it again tomorrow you'll be sick? That. My dad had Lithium on the computer too so I listened one day and hated it. But I spent a day at school with the tune ringing through my ears. So I decided to listen to their greatest hits; it's the only Nirvana CD my dad has; it's on the shelf in the living were we used to keep a big CD collection; just like the movies and games on this shelf I look through all of them not knowing what they are. I did never listen to more than half of those CDs but those I did listen to went somewhat into shaping my musical tastes. So I'm listening to the greatest hits and apart from Teen Spirit and Lithium I hate every song. What a terrible band. But like Lithium I keep listening to every track, eventually I like all of them. My uncle gives me Nevermind. I still haven't given that back. Before I was 10 I must have had all Nirvana albums: and I mean ALL of them. Not just the studio albums: the compilation albums, the live albums, everything. Needless to say they're my favorite band I can pinpoint this early moment as probably the most important in forming my musical tastes. I thought I was some sort of connoisseur in grundge music despite not listening to any other grundge bands: Alice in Chains was far too scary and I had never even heard of Pearl Jam. I was now officially a fan of rock music.

Yet I still wonder why I went for Nirvana. You can almost spot Nirvana fans; I took guitar lessons in middle school and the Nirvana fan there was a girl who I remember for wearing all black and looking like the definition of rebellion. I don't think someone could point me out as a fan of Nirvana or for that general vibe. I was actually pretty popular at school when younger. Now I'm more an outcast. Because y'now, people: what a load of fuckers. But thinking back I don't have the same lonely-and-bullied-kid-seeking-solace-in-kurt-cobain sob story that most have; I just liked the music.

"I found it hard, it was hard to find/oh well, whatever, nevermind"

2006: Rock & Roll is back? 
To give some clues as to pinpointing the exact date we're talking here; on my Limewire playlist, the service I used at the time to download vast amounts of illegal music, had on it a song called 'scummy'. When this song was released as a single, where it became a big hit, it was renamed to 'When The Sun Goes Down' and confirmed the rise of the Arctic Monkeys; the first band recent enough for me to follow from the start. They're the best band of this time, for the most part lacking the same generic nature that I hate about most other modern bands. Their music would fit in with almost any era of rock. When they first appeared they were a unique creation; a combination of Alex Turner's London-rapist style lyrics and very punk learning-it-as-we-go guitar work.

Another band, maybe not as respected, but no less important to me, is Nickelback. They really have went downhill lately haven't they? You say you don't know, that you've never given a band like Shitelback enough thought to actually ponder any ups and downs the band might have went through. Well as someone who was very proud to tell of my love for Nickelback (Cringe) I can tell you full well that yes they have went downhill. They've went so far downhill they've plunged straight-through the ground, straight past Coldplay (used to like them too) and are plummeting straight for the center of the earth. Hopefully it's uninhabitable. But that does show that at one point they were flying high; like all 21st century bands they have done no experimentation or brought us any innovations and they have kept that misogynistic rockstar pose that everyone thought was banished away in the 90s (so much for forward progress) but when they weren't sucking up to the mainstream they gave me my childhood template for modern rock. Which meant lashings of 'How You Remind Me' and 'Rockstar' on endless repeat.

My opinion of this moment in rock is like two opposing forces pushing against each-other. Looking at it as a wisdomous music critic I must say this music is horrifically bland. Following on from the three-cord rock of the 90s and inspired by the simplistic tunes of Nirvana, this rock is recycled from the past but without any of the emotion or inspiration which made those older bands so good. But, but... ah fuck it; I love this music. Or at least it has a glowing halo above it's head protecting it from any negativity I might throw it's way. I grew up buying albums by Red Hit Chili Peppers, Snow Patrol, The Kooks, Foo Fighters and Keane; most represent a misdirection from 90s which was all about dark emotions and self-indulgence; this music is all meant to appeal to the mainstream, to be played in stadiums and fit the standard bill of what "rock music" is; by which I mean none of the people involved in these bands were of the Jim Morrison drugs-sex-rock-n-roll ilk of rockstars, they either pretended they were or just buckled up and stayed clean. Not exactly a bad thing, but most likely the reason for my determination to find bands that acted the complete opposite.

"And what a scummy man/Just give him half a chance
I bet he'll rob you if he can/Can see it in his eyes,
Yeah, that he's got a driving ban/Amongst some other offences"

The Spotify Years (2009 and onward...)
I know I'm supposed to be keeping it in the generation but it was my granddad who discovered Spotify. Reading all these PC magazines he found it before it was cool (Which makes it better, right?) and I got sucked in. So my musical discoveries have been mostly a muddle since then. Only they partly haven't since during these years I was said to hate older music, was said to have heard a Beatles album at a family get-together and exclaimed all their songs sounds the same, and thought of my inkling with bands like Alice in Chains and songs which I would classify as "vietnam music" as making me a far stretching man of music. It's strange to think of this time because even though I took ever chance to cut it down; I listened to as much modern pop as I did rock. And few pieces of older music.

Which makes this the only era in which I can properly report on the modern music of the time. This was when music stopped sounding enhanced by machines and just started sounding like machines. Trademarks of this era include songs which ended with a high pitched "Jasoooooooon Derulooooooooo" just to make sure you knew who was singing, incase y'know, MTV forget to put the titles up or something; the beginning of modern artists trying to seem down with the moment, usually by utilizing twitter, internet speak and very poor dance moves; and lots of women, all apparently inspired by Madonna and Britney Spears (If only people could take other sources of inspiration) which has lead to a swarm of Katy Perry, Rihanna and P!nk, who you'll be happy to admit are pretty decent as long as your the same age as me and didn't grow up in some musically elite family, as well as spawning lesser demons such as Nicki Minaj and Selena Gomez. Yet I listened to it all, and enjoyed most of it. The music here starts to blur together but I'll choose OMG by Usher to sum up this time perfectly; it's a title derived from text speak, lyrically it's a by the numbers love song that has no self referential elements to Usher whatsoever, it's sung in auto-tune and lacks any live instruments, just computer work and a solid beat. Thing is, I enjoy this song; I will clarify: if asked to list my favorite films I would place Captain Ron very high purely for nostalgic reasons, yet asked my favorite songs OMG wouldn't be near, not even though it's attached to such a great time in my life.

In other words it was this period of my life I became a music snob: a huge one! Eventually, if your interested in music, the large world of music out there will be opened up to you, but until then you find the occasional band because the singer was married to Kurt Cobain or because your dad has their entire library of CDs. The Prodigy, The Beautiful South, Hole; all of them fueled the idea that I had heard all great music; that other than those oldies; Elvis and The Beatles and the like, all too old now to be relevant or in any way enjoyable today, I had heard everything, and was able to know for fact that the modern pop of the time was all rubbish that didn't stand up to the classics.

I believe the first real musical discovery I would call my own was Cream. You probably won't recognize them but you'll recognize the guitar riff from 'Sunshine of your Love', everybody does. It was them and Jimi Hendrix. There was something unique about these artists, not only because they were older than the other bands I'd listened to but because the vibe they gave out: manly and self-assured. Their sound was heavy, like a wall of sound coming at you. At the other end of the spectrum to modern rock. They were all about technically crafted guitar work and psychedelic lyrics.

At that point I thought I was to spend the rest of my life hunting down obscure records from unsuccessful bands in the hope of finding a gold mine, because what else was there?

"So don't mind me if i repeat myself/These simple lines be good for your health"

January 25th 2013
It was The Royal Tenenbaums that did it. In the quirky Wes Anderson flick there's a moment near the beginning, a real end of an era moment, when Luke Wilson lets his pet bird fly free, and the musical chant over the top was amazing. At the time I wasn't even sure if it was a real song, maybe just some inspirational music put together for the movie. Turns out it was 'Hey Jude' by The Beatles (Obviously not the actual Beatles playing, that's far too expensive for any movie production). I didn't know they could sound like that, so that day I listened to the only Beatles we had in the house: a greatest hits collection called 1. All the songs were in chronological order which put me to a shaky start with their early hits, but it was with 'A Hard Day's Night' that the whole thing finally clicked. It was the same catchy riff and pop hook that all rock music has had through the ages. Kurt Cobain was a Beatles fan and I saw that music in Nirvana. Having a big interest in music and listening to The Beatles has the same effect as being a film fan and watching Citizen Kane; it's a giant medium sized bookmark. The Beatles didn't invent rock but they took rock n roll from the 50s and classic blues guitar work and created a template for all music since. They dabbled into so many different genres of music and were part of so many musical movements that all other music seems to just stem out of The Beatles.

Oh and I'll use this as a chance to thank Spotify for not signing The Beatles; it brought me back to my childhood where I went through and collected the complete discography for some artists. And from then it's all a blur: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground, Joy Division, The Beach Boys, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Guns 'n' Roses, Radiohead, Kurt Vile, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Stone Roses; everything. I'm not saying I've heard everything, or even a small percentage, but I feel like it's all been opened up to me. I'm that astronaut at the end of 2001 flying through the infinities of possibilities and colour, all of them passing through me at once.

And it was once this all opened up to me and I could finally see musical history and all it's influences and connections and the early roots of everything new that I felt like I could finally claim modern music as my own. I could finally hear it and not look down on it; I see what other generations had and when I listen to new music it doesn't have to prove anything, doesn't have to stand up to what I imagined was there, it simply is what it is. So I started listening, turns out modern music got good; the pop machine is still in the crapper but thats good; this new brand of music may not be some politically charged fight against the powers that be but they shine like aluminous paint around the black heart of the corporate machine. Kanye West is the best of the modern artists, his whole life is one big performance art and his performance as an ever-exploding ego carries over to the music; very ambitious and all consuming. Daft Punk had a big comeback with Random Access Memories, a future classic, and The Prodigy look to be on a comeback to; so that's techno sorted. Arctic Monkeys, with the singles that have came out of their upcoming album, have escaped the trap that their early success put them in, and from Arcade Fire to Florence and the Machine to Taylor Swift, everything seems like it's going to be alright.

"Jenny said when she was just five years old/There was nothin' happenin' at all
Every time she puts on a radio/There was nothin' goin' down at all, 
Then one fine mornin she puts on a New York station/You know, she don't believe what she heard at all
She started shakin' to that fine fine music/You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll
Despite all the amputation you know you could just go out/And dance to the rock 'n' roll station"

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Thoughts on Porn

I write and write and write and none of it sticks; it's all this pop culture whirlpool. I feel like the advertisers have grabbed me and folded me neatly into a box. I ask for ideas on this forum and one guy stuffs my reading ears full of preachy talk on how all my writing must come from the heart or when he's reading he'll sense the lack of feeling. So here's one just for him, straight from the heart: inspired by David Cameron's plan to ban porn in the UK (there's a British word for this, it's "cunt") and the fact I've had a whole summer to wank the sunshine away. Some thoughts on porn from a seasoned pro:
  • I wish I could go back and save the first porn movie I ever masturbated to; it was a lesbian video, recently filmed but vintage looking. It was nothing special but it would be a nice time capsule for one Saturday afternoon when I was 13 years old. I still don't know the thought process that goes into the discovery of masturbating for most, although I look forward to that discussion, but I picked it up from a Lee Evans gig. His O2 tour; he does jokes about shopping for beds and at one points he acts out a pervy shop assistant and therein does that hand movement. I'd looked at porn videos before, thinking the aesthetic pleasure as all there was, but it was this Saturday I decided to apply that hand movement to see just what Evans was on about. It all spun off from there.
  • My first inkling for porn goes back to being a kid, around the age of 10, watching The Legend of Zorro (that's the pretty average sequel to the great Antonio Banderas original) on a dreary Saturday night; I don't know either, I guess Saturday is just perfect for pornographic consumption. I was close to my appointed sleepy time so I quickly excused my self from the living room with the vagueness of "I have to use the computer" then loaded up AOL (yeah baby!) and simply typed in "porn". Contrary what I was expecting Google did exactly as I told it to and I was faced with a page full of links; I didn't dare click on them. I've always been paranoid about what other people my age are doing - probably brought on by a lack of siblings - although I know now that if I had clicked any of the links Google forwarded to me in that moment I would have been the first person out of everyone I knew to look upon those images. So lucky I chickened out; Taxi Driver fucked me up when it comes to violence so atleast I wasn't as damaged when it comes to sexuality. Also lucky was the fact that on at-the-time AOL the "recent searches" didn't show searches with adult words in them. So no telling off for me; although I still decided to leave porn alone for a while. 
  • That leaves some gap years from The Legend of Zorro to Lee Evans at the O2: in which I eventually grew restless enough that I tried again to get to porn: only this time with so much built in paranoia that my computer would rat me out that I ended up attempting to get onto porn sites in the most convoluted ways that have ever been done. This early obsession played itself out with me watching a lot of "youtube porn" which for anyone not in the know is basically a cheesy story of jealousy or cheating followed by (primarily Japanese) girls making out. This of course because porn can't be shown on Youtube. The stories, although silly and only existent at the beginning of the videos, are still sadly some of the best porn movie stories I've seen. There was tons of crap on Youtube too: one video promised the highest quality video Youtube porn had ever offered; right up until the point where the actor stopped, turned so his whole face engulfed the camera, and ranted to me about what a sicko I was for trying to watch porn. I don't remember the details of his rant although it probably had nothing to do with the act of watching porn itself: just disgust that I must have became so bored of porn on Redtube  and other real sites that I needed the thrill of watching porn on Youtube to get me off. 
  • Inevitably these videos stopped fulfilling my primal needs and I was forced to devise a plan so cunning Steve McQueen himself would have applauded. I loaded up some Youtube porn, one of the short videos that shows you nothing sexual but promises you a video on some other site. Why I never thought to just search for porn and delete the history, or even write the porn links on these videos in the html bar, which my parents would never think to check, is beyond me. But thankfully Youtube (old Youtube that is; you kids don't know the shit they're feeding you) had a feature on each video that had links to every site that particular video had been shown on. Admit it, if porn was illegal I would be some sort of black market trader with this find. It took me a few attempts looking through all the links on every piece of super-soft-core porn I could find but eventually I found one that linked to a real porn site. Which was also my first realization that the majority of porn on the internet is free. I felt like a bored middle-aged man living in an oppressed Orwellian hell who had burst out of his cell block and was surfing through the streets on a hoverboard while the rest of the earth went along with their boring rituals as usual; unknowing of what was happening right outside. Here I saw my first real porn video, another time capsule I wish I had, of a black woman wearing a cowboy hat dancing naked on a table. Pretty soon I figured I could just search for porn like everyone else and not get caught which eventually lead me to that first masturbatory experience. 
  • I don't think talking sex or masturbation is weird; only as weird as you find the acts themselves, really. Like everything in life it's better to just share your twisted view of obscenities. Why? because everyone has them, at least you can paint yourself an interesting colour by sharing.
  • Which could of lead us to my one masturbating anecdote; only the internet, or maybe just written word, sucks the lifeblood straight out of that one. Lets just say I've came close to being caught, and in surprising stupid ways.
  • But that was when I was younger; I doubt I could be badly told off now; if you are a parent and find your kids masturbating wrong then it's not that your a prude, just a self-deluded prick. I've discussed this with friends before; I doubt in the moment my brain would be able to translate the bullet points we came up with; although it doesn't matter, they're all just translations of "we're teenagers, this is what we do". Ever hear the old saying "the liar's punishment is he can't believe anyone else", well I'll translate that into porn (like Sid Vicious covering Frank Sinatra) because all good things are more relatable when they're made dirty. Everytime my parents shout my name from the other end of the house, annoyingly using that formal phone-call voice as if they're shouting from the secret CIA office hidden in our house, panic rips through my mind. Said panic would be nowhere to be find if they shouted in angry-as-fuck voices. I have this weird image of answering this formal reply, going up into the room where the family computer is kept, my dad leading me in with an eager smile, then my mother jumping out and slamming the door behind me and all hell breaking loose. Again: lucky, it hasn't happened yet. 
  • Which all wraps into a sort of "prologue" to my experiences with porn; not many noticeable things or points of interest after that, just tons of wanking. I've still never seen the "classics" by which I mean the pizza delivery boy or the plumber, which I guess is a compliment to the modern porn industry. Although even with all the industry can throw at you your bound to get bored of the videos; no matter the category. Your imagination's good for a few, although eventually that just gets depressing. Never to fear though, the internet has other supplements for you too. Sex stories are my favorite of these; especially the ones on seriously-aimed sites that try to pass their weird situations and random sexual occurrences off as truth. There are sites aimed solely at sex stories but the majority of these writers seem to get carried away; I usually end up skipping to the end only to find a completely different set of characters have taken over the story. Another type is celebrity fakes which are varying degrees of photo-shopping craftsmanship used to place a famous head over a naked body. Which is porn's distorted take on celebrity culture in which people can take their gossip mag fantasies as far as they want.
  • And that's porn in a nutshell. A (fantastically so) irreplaceable part of our culture. Go watch Boogie Nights, it doesn't make fun of porn; it uses it as much of a backdrop as Tarantino uses slavery in Django Unchained, some would say to the cause of less offense. Boogie Nights is also a great reminder that there's so much going on behind porn. 
Any excuse to use this
And that's the thing about porn; there's actually something to it. That's why Boogie Nights exists; because there's a history there, different eras of porn, lots of famous figures coming and going. Yeah it objectifies people and whatever, but from what I hear it's a pretty good place to land if you get shot out into the wilderness. People become a family within the business and create good careers out of it.

And it's punk too. It's more rebellious than rock and roll could ever be. It's like drugs: young people doing something juvenile in nature to show how grown up they now are. Both drugs and porn, and rock n roll too, carry over into adult hood, but it's made for young people. Porn doesn't damage people; yeah you can get traumatized sexually, but it would take a lot more than what's on a computer screen or a magazine fold-out to do that. It's part of growing up; going on some wild porn bender, watching messed up shit and trying out all the different types you can and doing something fun with the full knowledge you shouldn't be doing it. Porn would be of less interest for everyone if it was a social norm.

And that's why David Cameron's idea won't work. I doubt it will even happen but if it does then it's just a glitch in the system that'll be sorted out in no time and will stand forever as an example of why to just leave this whole porn thing alone. It reminds me of Arnold Schwarzenegger, near the end of his term as mayor of California, trying to ban all violent video-games. He likely didn't care, after all why would The Terminator give a fuck about violence? It was a last-ditch effort to say he had done something, anything at all, with his time in office. Which I guess makes David Cameron the British equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, only without the acting chops, multi-million dollar film franchises, body-building legacy, or ability to have a cheating scandal and have no-one give a shit.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

FORCED TO READ: Reviewing Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner

Around two years ago my English GCSE required me to read that cherished slice of southern-fried childhood frequently referred to as To Kill A Mocking Bird; of course the hoodie wearing hoodlum in me forbid such boredoms and I never got around to reading more than what was read to us in class. Luckily, contrary to the popular beliefs of education it's possible to grab yourself an A without even reading the source material. I don't brag; I'm seemingly good at English in complete expense of a number of other subjects; not that I would want it any other way, it's simply a wonderful thought that a site that provides quick summaries of each chapter of every book you never bothered to read was enough to score me a qualification.

Unfortunately GCSEs don't mean shit. And believe me I am sorry to that small few who still picture that NASA job interview when you hand Mr. Smart Suit your Food Tech grades and receive a straight-faced reply like "Well that's just great, those astronauts do get damn hungry". So I bit the bullet with the hope NASA might except A-Levels instead. How could they not when I'm having to study The Kite Runner to get one? Which was when my just-flunk-it-off-and-don't-read plan hit jeopardy. And how could I refuse when I was handed a whole summer, an extended one at that, to read through a book which was a critically acclaimed bestseller; one that had been recommended by the master of all creation herself Oprah, no less.

My other forced reading was The Great Gatsby. You can find my not so enthusiastic mood coming out of that one in an earlier post, although the blandness I found in that story never reached any boiling point because the book's so short there really isn't any time to complain. And for that I applaud Scott Fitzgerald. Actually, the guy deserves more oscars than a vintage Jack Nicholson.

But on to the novel itself: I refrain from calling Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner a bad book because it's less a book and more a general atrocity. A bland, repetitive, horrifically bleak mess that has the same effect as those corridors drawn as optical illusions: it never seems to end. If that all seems a bit un-critical it's because my opinion since first picking up the book has changed from opened minded caution to a giant swirling mass of hate. I admit that my negative opinion of the book was implanted into my mind early on, but as far as I can tell Khaled Hosseini did nothing to swerve me off this crash course which lead me straight through the bushes, right past the stop sign and straight to the bottom of the fucking ravine.

No, no, no, my mother (or maybe it was Jim Emerson) taught me better than that; as much as I would like to just turn, walk away and leave this one for the dogs I feel some obligation to write down why The Kite Runner boiled my blood to such a degree; if for nothing else than as a warning to any future travelers who, for some god-be-known reason wish to take this path. So what follows is quite possibly every element that makes up The Kite Runner and why it sucks.
First, the plot: it's all told from the perspective of Amir who in his childhood in Afghanistan loved to do a multitude of things such as torture his servant friend, try and win kite running contests to please his arsehole father and witness rapes and decide for no apparent reason to not report them. I do understand it's all in service of letting the plot fall into place yet it became apparent to me early on that Amir makes more bad decisions than a Charlie Sheen level bi-polar. Then the Russians invade and Amir and his arsehole father move to America; highlighting the book's most beautiful message: that talking and winning kite running contests does shit for father-son relationships but unexpected moving to the land of opportunity practically makes you into a picture perfect image of the atomic family, or in this case the male side of said family. Then Amir gets a cryptic phone call and must go back to Afghan to go on a quest which will apparently make everything alright again.

So where should I start my nitpicking, the prose? Yes, those damn prose. Before the school started stuffing unwanted lettering down my throat I was coming down from a back-to-back hit of Hunter S Thompson and Lester Bangs, which was probably why there was still quite a heavy dose benzedrine in my system. If The Great Gatsby with it's squeaky clean style - Fitzgerald doesn't add a letter that doesn't have some major importance to the plot - was my come-down, then The Kite Runner was me hitting rock bottom; locked in a room with some screaming baby crawling across the ceiling to try and kill me. Maybe it's unfair because this author came from the same childhood move from Afghanistan to the western world that Amir does and English isn't his native tongue, but I'm only reviewing the end product and what you have here is prose that feel overly simple, and in moments of Spielbergian sentimentality only add unneeded hyperbole to the mix. And believe me it's a weird sort of sentimentality, with the story filled with hollywood-ready stereotypes and star-crossed coincidences all for maximum impact, yet where all the drama feels underdone, as if to show these set-ups in a "realistic" fashion. Hosseini's writing does do one thing that impressed me though, and that's the man's unique ability to turn even the simplest actions and story beats into the longest, most horrifically drawn out paragraphs you'll ever read without actually adding anything. The second I finished The Kite Runner I put the book down (I was tempted to set it alight) then went over to my book shelf and picked up Inherent Vice. I flicked to a random page and read the first paragraph of a random chapter, for the exact same reason a man lost in the desert for a week will run straight to the pool and start lashing the water into his mouth: to take the dry taste away. This was just a random paragraph but Pynchon added so much to it, most of it unimportant but it was great anyway; and that's because I don't mind long-winded writing or writing that takes it's time getting to the point, but Pynchon and Bangs and all those writers who tried so hard to put the freedom of the 60s that they stemmed from into their writing made the words just flow out of them. No matter how many times they sat there and wrote the smallest of paragraphs their writing felt unstructured and messy; the ultimate realization of a person literally spilling themselves and there soul into the writing. They, to me, are the real word-smiths, and on the complete other end of the spectrum sits Khaled Hosseini, who's every sentence feels like a strain. His explanations of funny happenings, that "that's just what happens in Afghanistan" like an added jab at his readers, made all the worse because he remains totally unaware of what he's doing.

So in the end it's a lack of personality that kills The Kite Runner. I always imagine troubled people, one's who have been through some great hardship at some point, as sarcastic or twisted in their sense of humor. It's a stupid cliche to follow, more stupid in real life, but in books and films it serves a purpose of standing opposite the horrors of the story. I'm not asking Amir possess the same off-kilter charm as Alex from A Clockwork Orange but Amir is an unlikeable main character. The first half of the book is there simply to enforce this point, yet I disliked Amir for the whole story. His guilt which appears later in life appears only so it can be quelled away. And in the end he remains as statically one-dimensional as all of the characters here. His childhood friend Hassan, the rape victim, is a symbol of untainted goodness; an incorruptible Atticus Finch in child form. His place in the story only to bring guilt to our hero. Amir's wife is just as simple, she has a troubled past yet that hangs over the story like the excuse it is; and excuse to why their marriage has so little turbulence, to why even when she finds out she can't have kids there is little drama created. She's the story's "solid rock", which in other words means she's the Seth Rogen of this story; only without all the funny. And our villain, oh god the villain. He loves Hitler because how else is one to show he's evil? and anytime a character needs screwing up or something traumatic needs to happen he rapes someone because how else is one to show he's evil? I'll give this villain, of which I've already forgot the name, his dues; he creates the one dramatic moment in the whole story. Not worth a read just for that, but this situation, bonkers in how it comes together, ditches the (fake) real world drama and gives us an old fashioned final fight. Which is how pitiful my praise for this novel is: that it's highpoint is a end-game boss battle.
Although even worse than Hosseini's writing style is the way he uses that said style to repeat information to use over and over and over again. Since the story is basically split in two: Amir fucking things up in Afghan and then America and then Amir trying to redeem himself by returning to Afghan, prepare to get a lot of reminders in the second half. Not a few pages go by without Hosseini describing, in painfully vivid detail, things that already happened. Smart writers would find a way to hide such reminders in their writing (or just trust their readers to put two-and-two together themselves), average writers will write of these reminders, albeit as quick remarks here and there, and then there's writers like Hosseini who will remind you of a man's hat blowing off in the wind, a pointless act the first time around, and describe it in as much vivid detail as the first time. Maybe it was all just the stigma of reading a book for school but I was sure The Kite Runner was structured more like a challenge; endlessly throwing things at me as if only to make my reading even harder.

And what more can I really say about The Kite Runner? It's a cliche told badly. Fuck you Oprah. Fuck you Khaled Hosseini and fuck you to all the idiot robots who wrote this one off as a winner on the idea it was about Afghanistan; Hosseini talks about his home country only in broad strokes, never making it feel like home. It's why later on the book when Amir returns to his childhood home, where I had spent more than 100 pages, I could sense there was a dramatic moment in there somewhere, it just wasn't here. My parents watch the soap opera Eastenders and my Dad once made the case for it with "But it deals with real issues" and I replied "Eastenders: showing real issues in a really unrealistic way" which is The Kite Runner. Some, not all, of the issues here are realistic, yet in trying to take the major dramatic moments out and be more like real life Hosseini has stripped all reality out of this story. Some will say that after all the heartbreak and "Tear-Jerking" moments that the ending is uplifting. But once again Hosseini has to cut ahead and show his story isn't some muddled fiction but a real piece of drama that could have really happened, and even on this page denies the reader a true payoff to all the stories troubles. Which is the least uplifting thing I could imagine from this story, because it shows a lack of faith in people; and I will never praise a book that shows such a low opinion of Humanity that even it's ending moment, to point us to the happiness of our characters, is bleak and unsatisfying.

Although I don't hate Khaled Hosseini. Well, ok, I really really really do, but I hate the fact this book wasn't shat out straight into the bargain bin more than I could ever hate the man himself. With American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis was, and not even satirically, trying to show that in a material world like ours, or specifically the world of 80s coke-fiend business suits, that a killer as sick as Patrick Bateman could not only exist but that our twisted society could let him get away with it; because after all he's got the fancy car and the expensive suit.. In all of The Kite Runners pages there is not, satirical or otherwise, any sort of meaningful sentiment or message, yet the book itself is a message. The message is a PG-rated version of the one found in American Psycho. That this book, released in 2003 by a first time writer, didn't need a unique (or half interesting) writing style, memorable characters, unexpected twists or any inkling of enjoyment or purpose, to become a major bestseller all around the world. All it needed was a story about a country we were all scared of, lots of symbols and characters we could easily understand and lots of sentimentality and big drama created for no other reasons than tears and quick shocks. 1/10

(So I managed to escape the kite runner, although not really since they'll have me studying this shit for the next 12 months. I actually felt my own writing getting worse as I read Hosseini. Hopefully Joseph Conrad's Heart of darkness will help set things right) 

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Bioshock: Infinite Review

(Back in April while I was still stretching my legs with this whole blogging thing I wrote what is so far my only post on the wonderful medium of videogames. It was a short post, too short in retrospective; at least when it's original task was to illuminate readers on the full spectrum of my videogame love. Although since then it's stood as an unfulfilled mission statement. Somewhere in the post I made a promise to review my at-the-time obsession: Bioshock Infinite, not that the idea ever slipped my mind, simply the game itself seemed to slip out of grasp. So here, for your very own reading pleasure, is my highly belated Bioshock: Infinite review.)

To me cut-scenes are a sin in the gaming world; if a man well versed in the grammar of film can lead a trail of fire to quick-cutting as a bad example of how to tell a story in his medium of choice then I see no reason why in the big book of How To Make A Video Game why a device as old and useless as the cut-scene shouldn't be crossed out once and for all. So it comes as a plus, the first of many, that Bioshock Infinite keeps you in the drivers seat for the entirety of it's adventure. You spend the game's duration in the slightly distorted head-space of Booker Dewitt. His past made mostly blank as to accomplish the whole point of the first person shooter and apply your own back-story over the game. Of course few will apply their own real life story, not with the heroic figure presented on the front cover of Bioshock Infinite, the box art being the only place you get a slight realization of what Booker actually looks like; so we simply except Booker for his personality alone, and the only back-story one could apply to the tough, scarred man we get is one of an adventurer. A darker, more troublesome version of Han Solo who has unfortunately thrown down a bad hand one-too-many times.

It's these personal troubles that lead to a game objective as blunt as "Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt". The girl in question, Elizabeth, is kept prisoner in a city that floats above the sky called Columbia. You find her early on, escaping the city being the main objective of Infinite, and you spend most of the game with her accompanying you. She's extraordinarily short, probably the shortest in the Bioshock world, her features are exaggerated and she wears an old fashioned blue dress that looks like royalty; simplifying everything down your the knight in shining armor coming to save the princess who is guarded at the highest tower in all of the castle. A fairytale turned on it's head; because you aren't really a shining knight, instead visions haunt Booker throughout, both of his debt and what he must do to wipe it; hand over his new companion. The morales in Infinite are skewed, a great improvement on the previous Bioshock games which operated entirely in black and white. This is actually the first Bioshock game where the story is fixed, no specialized ending for being an extra bad boy. Which is a good thing incase your wondering, the act of having multiple different outcomes to one game, especially when done in a way as basic as previous Bioshock games, has always felt too flaky for me; neither the good or bad endings meant anything because they were just a coin toss away from the complete opposite, yet there's only one ending in Infinite, and luckily it satisfies all loose ends.
The game begins as you arrive at a lighthouse, the same sort that set off your adventures to Rapture, only this one going up instead of down. I'll admit I'm a preacher of arcade style games; chuck me in the deep end, feed me the story as I go, and make sure the action is right around the corner. Only Infinite reminded me that my love for this style of game has nothing to do with preference but quality; a recent barrage of low quality stories leading me down a lane of endless nostalgia for simpler games that did away with complex narratives. Yet the opening of Infinite is fantastic, not just the lighthouse but the whole opening of the game as you explore the streets of Columbia and interact with what is a very happy society. I should note that Infinite is set in 1908, a steampunk world; not that anything but the propaganda on the walls and the old-fashioned phonograph movies scattered throughout the world reflect the time period. But this early sequence shows the attention to detail in the world which is mostly kept up throughout the entire game; the later sections that lack such detail make up for it with sheer spectacle.

After that it's all gun battles and vigors (the special powers that take the place of plasmids), this early sequence where the basic, non-combat aspects of gameplay combine seamlessly with the story gone. Both remain complete separates until the game's ending which returns us to the story, and is even more of an impressive spectacle than the opening. It's in the following ten or so hours of action that the game lost me. My playing went from daily to weekly until a month, maybe two went by without me returning to Columbia, only for me to get my motivation back and make a quick dash to the finish. I don't tell this as a criticism, or least it's not meant to be, as in a technical sense the gameplay and core campaign of Bioshock Infinite is all fantastic. You can't pick up as many weapons as you like in previous games, instead your straddled with the usual two, and there's a good variety of them past your standard shotguns and machine guns too, all of them with quite a good kick; especially the sniper rifle which turned even me, an avid hater of long range combat, into a fan. Such variety continues into every facet of Infinite; there's more than just the basic soldiers for enemies, instead there's Handymen, which like the name says have huge hands ample for pumping the ground full of electricity, and huge metal bodies of armor, or Patriots, giant gatling-gun wielding machines which cut out faces of old American presidents for heads. The environments too, from high up towers to the game's most inventive piece of imagery with the beach of Columbia, never gives a reason for boredom.

Talking technicalities makes Infinite a perfect game, yet it slogs in the middle; the reason I almost never returned to see the fates of these characters. The center of the game becomes stuffed with distractions; the most glaring of which is a subplot involving a Chinese weapons maker and more than one alternative universe. This and a lot else happens in the middle of the game that has very little, if anything to do with escaping Columbia with Elizabeth. Yes, the game makes excuses for these objectives, but none made me care about why I was starting up a rebellion with the people of Columbia or why I was having to find Elizabeth again and again after that initial rescue. The game's combat also turned into a slog, the variety of enemies and weapons isn't complimented by a variety of situations, the second half of the game suffers from the feeling that the game's combat isn't progressing but simply repeating over and over with only slightly different dressing each time.
Not that Infinite doesn't offer innovations. My favorite element of the game was the skylines, in which using a grapple hook you can attach yourself to the railings around Columbia and go for a ride. It's been done before of course, Ratchet and Clank had you using a grapple hook to navigate around more than 10 years ago, yet Infinite makes it a major part of the game, used both for getting to new areas quickly and as a new means of fighting enemies. While on the ground Elizabeth can open "Tears", which means making a variety of helpfuls such as a box of med kits or a fighter drone materialize, and don't worry; this ability has an actual explanation in the plot.

In total it's hard to rate the core gameplay of Bioshock Infinite. It's well made, it dodges the conventions of most shooters, and I did have a lot fun, yet the game starts to become easier in smaller doses when new elements start becoming a rarity and your objective starts to become muddled beneath an endless swarm of sub-plots. On the flip-side the presentation is good all-around. The graphics aren't the best around but the colorfulness of the world and size of the environments, usually fully explorable, makes Columbia one of the best realized environments ever made explorable in a game. The environments aren't destructible and the AI doesn't do anything special but the ways the game manages to tell the story in a cinematic way without taking control away from the player makes this an impressive enough package.

(Spoilers be here, so run far far away unless you've finished the game or just couldn't give a fuck) The ending of the game is a complex one. I got the ins and outs but when I turned to the interwebs for backup it just stared blankly at me, running through big plot points that my brain hadn't even picked up on in my rush to finish the game. To lay it all down: the tears that Elizabeth opens are gateways to alternative universes; which leads to a Matrix-esque scene of an infinite number of ligh-houses each representing a different choice one could lead to a different outcome, Elizabeth is actually Booker's daughter who he gave away to wipe away this bet; although distraught by the mistake he's made he heads to Columbia to reclaim his daughter, yet in the end we find out villain Comstock is really an older Booker, from an alternate universe, and to stop the endless loop they're in Elizabeth drowns Booker, ultimately killing Comstock as well. I liked the ending, as Booker dies, we leave the first person for the first and only time as the camera flies up into the sky; I said earlier of my dislike of this but here such a technique fits, the camera almost representing Booker, now flying out of body, watching things from above. The ending feels sad, and the images on screen are, yet the implication is that by ending the loop Booker, the original Booker, will be alive and well with his daughter, no giving his daughter away this time, and no Columbia. I liked the ending not just because of the surprising scope it attends to but simply because by the end the game has made you care about these characters so much that it doesn't even matter that the ending makes all events that have happened in the game completely void. It's a good closure, it ties off all ends and doesn't point to any sequel; the ending really hoisted the game up in my estimations.
(Spoilers over) In conclusion I really enjoyed Bioshock: Infinite. When taken as a whole I think it deserves to stand up to the best games of this generation; which is what I meant when I said that the point when I stopped playing from lack of interest wasn't meant as a criticism. It's the best Bioshock game made yet, Columbia is just as interesting a setting as Rapture, and the game plays a lot more smoothly here than in other games, not to mention the ending; not brought down by interactive choices leading to different endings mean this is the first Bioshock to offer an actual conclusion. 9/10