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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Photo A Week #1: Selena Beach, Victoria Day

I’ve been a photographer on and off since college, with a succession of Nikon cameras in my arsenal. Sometimes it’s given me money, sometimes it’s given me fun. right now, to keep my skills fresh, I’m part of the Port Perry Photographic Society. At their last meeting, a member talked about his project of posting either a photo every day of the year, or a photo every week. It seemed like something fun, and so I’ve decided to take up the weekly challenge. I’ll be posting a photo once a week on Facebook, but also here. If I have time for some commentary, I’ll throw it in.

 

This first photo was taken on Victoria day, in the beaches behind my friend’s house, nicknamed Selena Beach. We were lighting off fireworks, and I fervently attempted to capture them on camera, resulting in this nicely abstract pattern.

DSC_0794

A Brief Addendum to the Rob Ford Experience

So, this may violate my self-imposed rules about post length, but I wanted to get this out there. You’ll recall my earlier words regarding my distaste for the media’s coverage of Rob Ford. Well, now that he’s probably been caught red-handed involved in drugs we’ve finally found something worth reporting.

See, this is justified, and this is something worth reporting. More importantly, this is where the extremely close coverage should have started. It’s sad when Ford pegs it on the Star’s muckraking, and he actually has a point, and ideally we should not have given him room to make that defense.

A Traffic Jam When You’re Already Late, or Stockholm Syndrome Hits The Road

The view at 7 AM, on my way to work.

The view at 7 AM, on my way to work.

I had a car far earlier than most of my peers, mainly due to my family’s system of periodically upgrading their vehicle, and giving me the old one. And no, we don’t live in luxury. The new model was typically used and/or old enough to be cheap.

That magical first car was a red Saturn station wagon, the type that’s not quite a van, but still has a giant back end. Initially, it was a mechanical nightmare, with engine problems making it stall constantly. I still have nightmares about the time it just stopped working on the bridge out of the Scarborough Town Center, in the middle of heavy traffic.

Eventually, though, we ironed the problem out, and that car served me well for years. It wasn’t in the best physical condition, and so I called it my War Horse, and joked it’d survive the apocalypse. When we inevitably degraded to a Mad Max society, it’d be my ride. I enjoyed my identity as The Driver, even if, thinking back, I was wasting gasoline in the name of some sort of karmic reward. But I enjoyed the role, as the people I was lugging around were my friends and peers, and a good time was had whenever we were on the road. We had to take a trip downtown practically once a week for my classes at Centennial, and people would be bidding for seats, since it meant there was no need for a complicated public transit trip.
Of course, all cars are fallible, and its day eventually came to an end. Eventually, I had to trade it in for my current silver Toyota, which I call the Genericmobile, since everyone and their mother owns one, and good luck finding yours in the parking lot. On the other hand, it never breaks down, so I can’t really complain.

As someone that’s driven a bit more than people my age, I’m rather familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Toronto Traffic. Brace yourselves, because I’m about to reveal something that’ll make 90 percent of all traffic coverage invalid. Are you ready?

Never try to go west, or into Toronto between the hours of 7 and 9 in the morning, and never try to go east, or exit the city, between the hours of 4 and 7 in the afternoon.

Of course, the main reason those times lead to clogged highways, and the main reason you can’t follow those directions is because a lot of people, a road-jamming amount of people in fact, have no choice in the matter. They’ve got to get to work in the morning, and unless they’re willing to hang around until sundown, they want to go home when it’s over. Certainly, the times I’ve been stuck in that jam weren’t really my choice.

I think I may be suffering from a unique traffic-related form of Stockholm Syndrome, though, in that I’ve stopped caring about it. I know traffic tends to be one of those things that drives people up the wall, but it doesn’t bother me, provided I’m not actually in a hurry.

When I take a step back, I realize I’m making myself okay with ideas like leaving two hours in advance for a thirty minute trip, or being okay with not getting home until late in the evening when exiting the downtown core. But the way I see it, it’s not something that can really be avoided, unless you’re willing to risk skipping the obvious routes and going off the freeways. I do that for one of my jobs with a 5 PM start, but that’s because it’s in Pickering, and I know the back roads like my own hand. The same can’t be said for the rest of the GTA, and I for one am horrible at navigating and orientation. So if you can’t avoid it, you might as well live with it, put the radio on, pop an album in, and just relax.

And while I’m here, for the love of God, other drivers? Stop being obsessed with gaining 5 centimeters of ground when the traffic shifts slightly. Step back and think for a moment about what you’re doing. I know it feels like a small victory, but you’re not saving any time.

Media You Should Consume: Super Castlevania IV

Time to begin another experiment. I’m calling it Media You Should Consume, in which I take the time to gush about something I love. I’m going to try and talk about things that aren’t known to the majority of people around me, or are just below the general public radar. There’s no real format here, so I’m going to start with a retro video game. As a note, all screenshots here were taken from Gamefaqs.

I never owned a Super Nintendo (SNES), but have become very familiar with its library thanks to the Wii’s Virtual Console, to the point where I now consider it my favorite retro system. I think it achieved the perfect balance between simplicity and accessibility. Games were simple and approachable, like its predecessor, the NES, but had enough modern conveniences, like save systems, to not feel unfair. They’re the type of thing you can spend 15 minutes on, whereas it feels like sitting down to play a modern title requires some sort of minimum time commitment.

Castlevania’s an odd series, in that it’s long-running, and most people have heard of it, but yet few people seem to have played it, which means it’s always been a bit obscure and niche. The layman can probably spout the “WHAT IS A MAN?!?!” meme, and thinks of it as that anime-styled rpg-ish series of side-scrolling dungeon explorers, or the recent God Of War-ish action game for modern consoles. But before that, and before the Playstation 1 era, the series was something entirely different. It was series of simple, linear action games, easy to pick up, but hard as hell to complete. This is about my favorite entry into that series, Super Castlevania IV. 

It’s technically a remake of the original Castlevania for the NES, and so in contrast to later entries, the story is simple, practically nonexistent, and easily summed up in a text blurb at the beginning: Dracula has been revived along with his castle full of monsters, the titular Castlevania. You, Simon Belmont, have a magic whip, and it’s the only way to finish him off. Are you a bad enough dude to put on leather, wear no pants, grab that whip, and go kill everything?

According to the intro, yes. Yes I am.

The SNES typically featured bright, colorful, or otherwise cartoonish visuals in its library. But not this one. It was dark, gothic, and realistically styled, looking more like an interactive version of a british horror film than anything else. Adding to that was the sheer detail present in the game.

Picture everything in this shot moving.

See, it’s one thing to have good graphics. It’s another thing entirely to have good art and design, something the title has in spades. Every stage is unique, from a treasure room filled to the brim with gold, to a clock tower composed of spinning gears. And those gears do spin, as in nearly every spot in the game, something’s animated, even in the backgrounds. There’s bats flying through hills, books rattling on old bookshelves, and skeletons swaying in dungeons. It makes the castle feel alive and animated, and adds to the atmosphere immensely.

As a game, it’s simple and straightforward. You move through the stages on a Mario-style time limit, jumping over pits and obstacles, and whipping whatever enemies come your way, until you reach a boss, usually located at the end of the level. Unlike most series titles, you can whip in every direction, and even swing from grapple points.

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Complimenting your whip is an esoteric collection of secondary weapons you can pick up, fueled, oddly, by hearts you collect. The bosses are an esoteric bunch, including such Universal Monster staples as the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster, but they’re a weak point to me, in that most of them can be beaten by simply rushing them, and whipping them dead before their attacks have time to kill you.

An oddly familiar face.

It’s the very specific nature of the game’s difficulty that deserves special note. Make no mistake, it’s a hard game. You will die a lot, and get used to the sound of the five tragic notes you hear every time. But what makes it work it that somehow, it feels fair. It never feels like the game is cheating, or that it’s difficult because of poor design. When you die, you feel like you just need to improve a bit. And more importantly, it never feels impossible to beat, more like you’re *this* close each time.

Just try getting past these guys without getting hit.

The only exception is the final full level, a rush up a tower with a buzzsaw chasing you, featuring collapsing staircases. It gets a bit unfair, thanks to some really hard jumps. Fortunately, it’s one level out of all of them.

Yeah, be prepared to spend a lot of time here.

It’s hard to say why, but everything just kind of gels. It’s a simple game, but elegantly designed, visually and gameplay-wise, and it’s the kind of thing I find myself spontaneously revisiting every year or so, and so should you. There’s vintage SNES cartridges out there, but you can also find it on the Virtual Console for about 8 bucks Canadian.

Clearly a whip can defeat a giant rock man.

That’s it for this week, but I’ll be back after posting something a little less frivolous.

Knocking that Peg

Criticism has become a cottage industry the last decade or so, in that it’s become  a major entertainment form if you’re on the ‘net. Part of it’s the simplicity of the idea, as anyone who can type, or anyone with a cheap camera and a net connection can get a show going based entirely around it. In all fairness, not all armchair critics are created equal, and there’s people like the stronger members of the Guy with the Glasses stable, the Angry Video Game Nerd, and Yahtzee Croshaw who’ve made bigger names for themselves based on the quality of what they do. Still, it seems like there’s at least a bit of that style of video to be found on, well, Every Website Ever.

One of those critics, the Escapist’s Bob Chipman, recently pointed something out in his weekly column. The gist of it is that it feels like it’s become the job of these critics to simply trash talk everything for laughs, rather than actually seriously analyze and give their opinion. They’re not there for insightful commentary, they’re there to piss-take. It seems to be a natural mutation of the “anyone can do it” aspect of criticism, in that people tend to misinterpret criticism as “knocking something down a peg, regardless of whether that peg needed knocking.”

It’s made me think, and I’ve found myself lately questioning these critics, and asking, what makes them authoritative? At times, I feel like professional criticism should come with credentials, that it be reserved for people that have created something in that medium. It’s easy to criticize, (all together now, best Homer Simpson impression: “Fun, too.”) rather than create something, one of the points of the original article that started this business. As elitist as it sounds, maybe it’d be better if opinions came with credentials.

Because really, when you break it down, that’s what it is, just opinions. I have opinions. What makes mine better than someone else’s? If anything, who represents the average moviegoer? Someone like a professional critic who’s seen every major film release since 1950, or someone like me, who maybe watches about 30 percent of Hollywood’s yearly output? If anything, wouldn’t my opinion be closer to the majority? I thought 2001: A Space Odyssey was visually impressive, but agonizingly boring to sit through. I thought the Transformers trilogy was goofy fun, and I’m looking forward to the next Abrams Trek. According to the opinion of several of these critics (including Mr. Chipman), I am in the wrong here. Yet, out of the (admittedly small, but still existent) focus group of my friends, this is a common opinion.

The big difference is that I’m not trying to put my opinions out there for money, or launch popularity off it, because I don’t consider my own voice to be specially qualified. Yes, anyone can have an opinion, but at the same time, if you’re going to elevate yours above others, you need to have a special reason why you’re qualified. The reason I don’t immediately bash the opinions of guys like Bob Chipman, or the Guys (and Girls) with Glasses is that I recognize that they’re coming from an informed, intelligent place. Sure, I disagree, but they aren’t nobodies speaking out of ignorance.

And yes, I’m aware there’s an irony that this blog here has almost entirely consisted of my opinion. My only defense is it’s more so here to demonstrate my ability to write than to get any notability out of it. My qualifications consist of an English and Journalism background, meaning I know how to write and produce content somewhat eloquently, and that’s about it. But I’ll say it again: I’m not giving my words as gospel, and unless you’ve got the cred to back it up, neither should you.

Media and Malicious Intent: An Extremely Strange Post in Which the Author Compares Dove’s Marketing to Action Movies to Make a Point

So, let’s take a minute to watch this video by Dove, if you haven’t already seen it:

How’s it make you feel? In all honesty, my initial knee-jerk reaction was that it looked too good to be spontaneous, and that it must have been rehearsed and faked.

Anyway, it’s made the viral rounds, and acquired a fair bit of criticism in the process. Here’s a good piece about it.  It raises the points, among other things, that non-caucasian women are under-represented, that all of the featured women are under 40 and skinny, and that the video may, in fact, be missing the point. It’s that last one I want to dwell on a bit.

The crux of the argument is that the video itself isn’t actually uplifting, but is re-affirming the importance of a narrow definition of physical beauty, when it’s our focus on that definition that’s the problem. Basically, it’s not “all women are beautiful,” but “a lot of you women probably fit our narrow definition better than you think. And that narrow definition is really important.”

There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the problems with the video, and the fact that it might have sent the wrong message out. Here’s the thing, though. My impression, while watching it, was simply that it seemed a bit fake, and that it may have been trying too hard for sentiment, not that it was secretly promoting a sinister agenda. It just didn’t occur to me at the time. And reading the subsequent (valid, again) criticism of it made me think another thing: Could there be a chance that the people that made it didn’t have that occur to them, either?

Maybe I’m wrong about it, and there are ulterior motives. But I’ve been on the inside of artistic projects before, and it’s entirely possible that an outside observer will see things the people creating it simply didn’t. Not everyone that creates media is some sort of master craftsman. Many of them are just filling a need as best they can. I wouldn’t be surprised if less media creators than we think spend all their time studying every angle of their creation. And it’s certainly easier for an outside observer to find unfortunate implications from their armchair, especially when they’re specifically hoping to find some from the outset.

Is that wrong, though? Not really. Making us aware of such unfortunate implications is a noble idea. It’s the part where we assume the company was deliberately setting out to further a misconception that may be misguided.

Maybe using such a thorny issue as an example of this thought I’m having isn’t the best way to go about it, so let me find another example. The modern Transformers films are basically the Deep-Fried Mars Bars of cinema, and a guilty pleasure for a fan like me. They’re admittedly crass and loud and frequently brainless, coming from a director who’s openly stated he’s more interested in creating amusement park-esque spectacle-oriented thrill rides than anything deep or meaningful.

People love to point out the troublesome political and ethical statements present in them, some going as far as proclaiming them to have a right-wing, jingoistic agenda. People point to things like their glowingly positive portrayal of the American Armed Forces, and the villains of the piece being portrayed as irredeemably monstrous things that can never be trusted or negotiated with, only killed on sight, and they point to the current political climate.

My response has always been to wonder if that’s true, or if they’re simply shallow action movies created for the sake of shallow action movies, and that we’re thinking far more about the meaning and statement of the films than anyone involved in the production did.

This is all not to say that armchair analysis is bad, not at all. Questioning the media is an important part of living as an informed citizen in the modern world. Pointing out and being aware of problems and bias in that media will make you less prone to influence, and perhaps lead to the creation of better, more neutral media. It’s the perpetual assumption that the makers of said media are conspiring to promote an angle, and influence society in a particular way. I’m sure that’s true some places, but it shouldn’t be thought of as universal. Sometimes some people that work for a soap company want to make something nice for women, and don’t analyze it hard enough to notice a potential moral backfire. Sometimes high-powered movie makers crank out a shallow blockbuster, and don’t put enough thought in it to realize potential political ramifications.

I guess, if there’s anything to be gleaned from this, it’s that questioning is fine, but question the questioning at the same time, and don’t automatically knee-jerk your opinion too far in the opposite direction.