WordPress transition. Pardon My Dust!

Hey there. I’m in the process of transitioning all this blog’s content from Blogger to a WordPress installation. As such, there is likely to be some weirdness (duplicate pictures, mismatched fonts between posts, etc). Thanks for understanding!

Lucasing the Joint – Look at LIFE (1965)

Background

Unlike his contemporary, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas did not grow up making films. His major at USC–cinematography–was something of a lark, as he needed something artistic but professional-sounding so as not to arouse the suspicions of his conservative father. He dived into the art form with zeal, however, and was disappointed to find that many of his early classes were more about theory than practical, hands-on filmmaking (those were the days when films was a limited resource!).

His first real filmmaking experience came in an animation class. Students were given a 1-minute section of film and told to run through a series of basic exercises with the animation camera. Lucas, ecstatic to finally have the opportunity to make something real, took it to another level. It’s the equivalent of assigning a spelling test and getting a fully-formed short story in return.

The Film

As a student assignment, it goes above and beyond what’s expected. Look at LIFE is a fully-realized film, clearly reflective of the social strife of the 1960s. As Lucas’s first film, it’s awfully ambitious.

Let’s not be too gushing, however. It’s impressive as a student project, but it’s hard to call it required viewing. It feels very much like the output of a young college man–raw, political, imprecise and a little bit nonsensical. Some of the images are powerful: Martin Luther King Jr. along with images of racial violence (at least implied; it seems likely to me on repeated viewings that several images are taken out of context, which is a sign of clever editing). Some are less striking: a random woman in a bra, possibly an advertisement, which doesn’t suggest much of anything.

In one of the film’s best moments, a haunting biblical narration contrasts love and hate. And then we’re helpfully informed of the film’s end by a cutout reading “END,” followed by an ominous “?” The punctuation is so trite that it’s tempting to read it as a sarcastic joke; but if that’s the case, the tone of the rest of the film does a poor job in helping the viewer reach that conclusion.

In the end, ‘Look at LIFE’ is an interesting beginning to the career of an interesting filmmaker. Like his future films, it’s political, but overly simplistic. It’s technically impressive, with moments of genuine emotion, but also moments of “…huh?”

In any case, it’s freely available online. See what you think!

Lucasing the Joint is a monthly dive into the career of George Lucas, from his early student films to his later behind-the-scenes roles.

Lucas-ing the Joint – The Beginning

Inspired by Brian Jay Jones’s excellent biography, “George Lucas: A Life” (which, if you haven’t read, you should), I’ve decided to do a deep dive into the filmography of Mr. Lucas? Why? Simply because he’s one of the most fascinating directors in existence. Note, of course, that ‘fascinating’ does not necessarily mean ‘best’ or ‘worst’ or ‘most genius’ or ‘most selfless’ or anything like that.

We’ll be starting in May with “Look at LIFE,” an animated tone poem, and George Lucas’s first student film. See you then!

Carrie Fisher has died. Princess Leia lives on.

Carrie Fisher passed away today. She was depressingly young–only 60 years old. She had more wit, more snark, more acerbic takedowns of Hollywood culture to give to us. We will never get to hear them.

Many people have spoken at length about Carrie’s most important traits. Unapologetic. Intelligent. Hilarious. Unashamed to speak about her mental illness and substance abuse. And of course, her status as the sole woman in the boys’ club of Star Wars, at least as it was originally conceived.

It may seem crass to write about Fisher’s most iconic role so soon after her death. As others have pointed out, she was far more than Princess Leia. She was a renowned novelist, sought-after script doctor, mother, daughter, and champion for the lives of so many living with invisible ailments. And after all, she didn’t create the character which brought her so much fame. She wasn’t responsible for her continued portrayal in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, where many (like me) grew to love her even more than in the films. She was not the primary author of Princess Leia.

That last point, though, could be argued. There’s a degree to which any actor informs their character, of course. Jodi Foster or Cindy Williams may have done the role justice, but it would not have been the Leia we knew. “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board” would have been imbued with a far different meaning if delivered by anything other than Fisher’s sardonic, strangely accented voice.

Beyond that, Fisher was responsible for at least some of Leia’s dialogue in the later films. While not limited to that character specifically, her work on Return of the Jedi served as one of Fisher’s first opportunities to punch up a script, condensing lines of dialogue to be snappier and less … well, Lucasian. Fisher was not simply Leia’s actress; Leia, in many ways, was Carrie Fisher.

And Leia is important. Many women have expressed how much it meant to see such a powerful woman represented on screen. For me, Princess Leia was not only one of the first female characters I felt encouraged to root for, she was one of the first female characters I felt comfortable identifying with. It may sound strange, but that’s an incredibly powerful–and freeing–feeling for a young boy. Leia was a gate through the fence of gender segregation, a pathway to the realization that there are no boy toys or girl toys, no limitation on playacting certain characters because of their gender identities. Princess Leia was my proto-feminism. The significance of that ideology to my identity speaks volumes about how important a character she has been in my life.

It is Princess Leia who wisecracks to Tarkin and Vader–not Han, not Luke, not Lando, who bends over backwards in fear of the Empire’s retribution. It’s Leia who stands up, fierce and sarcastic, to fascism personified, and who continues to mislead her captors even as her beloved homeland sits in the crosshairs of the Death Star. It is this false information which leads to the sole moment in the film where Tarkin recognizes he has been outplayed. “She lied. She lied to us!” His first underestimation of Leia and her band of rebels is an embarrassment; his second, fatal.

To be sure, Leia hasn’t always been handled well by writers and directors. While she was one of the original Wisecracking Princesses Who Can Save Themselves, her storyline in Return of the Jedi was much closer to a standard damsel-in-distress. And the Expanded Universe often had trouble using her effectively, afraid that political storylines would be far too boring and that Force-heavy storylines would be some sort of betrayal of her character. At the end of the Legends universe that preceded the current canon, however, Leia did receive Jedi training, and watching her navigate abilities the films foreshadowed and face her foes with humor, ferocity and a glowy lightsaber was one of the most genuine joys of those novels.

I hope the writers of future Star Wars tales don’t kill Leia offscreen. I hope they don’t kill her at all, though I’m also apprehensive about recasting the role or using a CGI double (as well as I think it worked in Rogue One). My preference would be to let Leia live on, even if this means awkwardly shuffling her into the background of the story in Episode IX. Unlike Han, whose story arc was completed by a heroic (or tragic) sacrifice, Leia deserves a chance to continue the fight. Or to retire to the life of consultant for the next generation of freedom fighters. Especially in this era of resurgent fascism, we need Leia. We need her stories. We need characters who have been in the fight before, who can show us how to resist.

I do not know in what direction future writers will take Leia. But I do know that even if she joins Carrie in leaving our galaxy for one far, far away, neither the princess and general, nor the comedian and advocate, will ever be forgotten.

(Correction: The original post mentioned Fisher’s work on The Empire Strikes Back, along with a marked-up script. The script was actually marked up by the director, Irvin Kershner. Fisher’s first script work for Star Wars was on the third film).

The Fight Never Ends

I read, with some bemusement and a lot of frustration, an article asserting that President Obama “permanently” protected Planned Parenthood by executive action. It’s interesting to me that this piece was written prior to the election, but only went viral after Trump’s win, now that sane people are rightly horrified at the coming erosion of rights in the foreseeable future and looking for some reassurance. The unstated assumption is that Clinton would be elected and continue the executive action. Now that Trump is president, he can and likely will rescind the executive action — if he can stop jerking himself off long enough on his victory tour to actually govern, which hopefully is beyond his capacity.

So the idea that Obama has done anything “permanently” with an incoming Republican government is foolish. But beyond that, I get the feeling that my generation (Millennials, or as we’d call ourselves, 90s Kidz!!) lulled ourselves into a sense of complacency. For many of us, President Obama was the first President we voted for, the first time we were really politically aware. After galloping forward on gay rights, racial awareness and more for eight years, the idea that we could turn backward so dramatically was unthinkable. And the idea of Trump becoming president was basically an apocalyptic fantasy. So, we got comfortable. We stopped shouting. We ignored our racist family, we rolled our eyes and kept our mouth shut about our sexist coworkers. We ignored the oppressive laws being passed in our cities and states because, don’t worry, Obama will protect us from anything truly terrible. Our progress was often slower than we’d like, but at least it was solidified.

Flash forward to President-Elect Donald Trump. But actually, put him aside. This isn’t really about him. Yes, he’s abhorrent and dangerous in a hundred different ways that a generic Republican isn’t. But even a generic Republican threatens gay rights. Even a generic Republican  threatens reproductive rights. Even a generic Republican threatens to undo the already meager work we’ve done to beat back climate change. If victory on these issues is utterly dependent on electing a Democratic president in perpetuity, it’s not a real victory at all.

While Trump is particularly awful, the idea that any of our progress, ever, is “permanent” is hopelessly naive. For all the “gummint moves slowly on purpose!” nonsense were fed, you’d better goddamn believe the GOP can move quickly now that they’ve got a majority. We’re only ever one election away from undoing decades of social progress via laws and Supreme Court nominations. We’re only two or three elections away from plunging into a fascist, racist, Handmaid’s Tale-style hellscape. If you consider that hyperbolic, consider that our next president is THE standard bearer for literal Nazis.

Most of the people reading this are going to be both frightened and emboldened by this election. Good. Chase that feeling. Use it to fuel your activism in politics, social justice, charity. But don’t let it fade at the first sign of success. Donald Trump is set to enact a ton of disastrous changes. And then, sometime after–maybe 2018, maybe 2020, maybe later–the Democrats will have a great resurgence and you’ll feel your worry and fear start to dissipate. Don’t let it. Hold on to it. Don’t live in a constant of trauma–enjoy the world, enjoy art, music, family–but don’t ever forget that we’re mere votes away from a hard turn toward nationalistic theocracy.


Fascists and morons alike call us social justice warriors. Wear it as a badge of honor, but realize that the war is never over.

Will I “Give Trump a Chance?” Sure. Here It Is.

Over the weekend, liberal and conservative pundits alike were falling over themselves to implore us to give President-Elect a chance. A chance to do what, exactly, is terrifying to think about. But let’s assume the best. Let’s say we do give Mr. Trump a chance to prove himself. What would that look like?

Here’s a list of actions Trump could take before his oath of office to prove that he’s serious about governing as a president for all the people. Note that this is not all-inclusive, and there are still pages of policy proposals that I’d vociferously oppose him. These are just the issues that go above-and-beyond mere political disagreement.

  • Validate the ongoing protests with something like, “I respect their right to organize and their passion for our country’s future. I am their president too, and I hope to earn their trust in the coming years.”
  • Confirm that his stupid fucking wall was a pipe dream, and that any border enforcement will be much more reasonable.
  • Repudiate his running mate and confirm that LGBT rights will be protected in a Trump administration.
  • Revoke his promise to ban and/or register Muslims on the basis of their religion or nationality. Confirm that, while we will “extreme vet” anyone who enters regardless of origin, everybody who wants to come here will have the opportunity no matter their race or religion.
  • Unequivocally condemn the acts of violence and hatred against Jews, Muslims, women, gays and racial minorities that have occurred since his election.
  • Confirm that the US will remain a staunch ally to NATO, and that a Trump administration will categorically oppose the use of nuclear weapons.
  • Promise that, under a Trump administration, torture of enemy combatants will never occur.
  • Promise that not a single person will lose health coverage as a result of ACA change or repeal.
  • Assure us that he will accept the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server and apologize for the abhorrent threat to jail her.
  • Apologize for demonizing journalists and ensure an open a free press.
  • Follow up on his campaign promise to disallow lobbyists in a Trump White House.
  • Take back his call for a nationwide stop-and-frisk.
Why, as an opponent of Trump and everything he stands for, am I comfortable giving him this chance, especially given that most of them are highly reasonable requests that every other Republican candidate would have no issue fulfilling? Because he’ll never accomplish a single line of it. In fact, he’s already gone against several of them. He told hate criminals to “stop it,” but only along with the caveat that he didn’t think any of it was actually happening. He condemned the protests against him before offering a milquetoast walkback. He’s already hired several lobbyists on his transition team and defended the move because ‘gradual steps are needed.’ And worst of all, he’s hired Steve Bannon, a literal white supremacist, to be his chief adviser.
In the first seven days since the election, he’s already proved himself to be every bit as vile as his campaign. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve already given Trump his chance. Fascists don’t get a second one.

White Liberals Need to Listen — But Not to Other White People

Over the past few days, I’ve been hearing two sentiments repeated among my liberal friends — most of them white.
“I’m disappointed. I knew there were racists and xenophobes. I just never thought it was a majority.”
and
“We should have listened more to the other side.”
The people espousing these ideas mean well, and I envy their optimism. Truly. I do not intend to condescend. My pessimism is not a virtue. Faith in humanity is never a bad thing.
But the frustration is that we have been told, time and time again, about this doom, this cataclysm, this sleeping giant of horrific xenophobia that exists outside of any single man. And many of us chose not to listen. It was not Trump’s fanatical brownshirts that we failed to listen to. It was people of color who have been warning for months, years about the vile, seedy underbelly of white America.
When people of color said Black Lives Matter, at once the most innocuous and the most radical statement one could imagine, we nodded and threw up our thumbs. And when our friends and neighbors said, “no no, ALL lives matter,” we sighed and shook our heads and walked away. We called it by its cute little euphemism, white privilege, and failed to see it for what it was: white supremacy.
People of color told us America continues to thrive on an ever-present system of racism. We vociferously agreed, yes, goddamn that fucking system, man! The system sucks! But people are good, in general! People are kind, people are generous, people love their neighbors.
The system is people. It’s not a nebulous, amorphous blob of artifacts from the Jim Crow era. It’s individuals making bigoted comments to their white coworkers. It’s individuals ignoring it because they don’t want to make waves. It’s individuals making the choice every single day to engage in white supremacy even at a micro level.

When Ruth Bader Fucking Ginsberg, progressive champion and hero of civil rights, called Colin Kaepernick stupid and disrespectful because he doesn’t want to celebrate a country that is literally murdering his brothers and sisters, we should have seen a problem.
White pundits and politicians, all of whom promised Donald Trump would never take the White House, are telling us that this election is about economic anxiety, even though the median Trump voter makes nearly twenty thousand dollars more than the median Clinton voter.
People of color, who are the only reason Trump failed to win the popular vote, are telling us this election was about something else entirely.
I don’t have the solution for electoral success going forward. But I know the first step. Listen.

Craymer vs. Craymer: A Podcast about Politics, Pop Culture and Philosophy

Hey everyone, hold on to your butts! If you just can’t get enough of my musings, you can head over to craymershow.xyz and check out my new-ish podcast, Craymer vs. Craymer! It’s a discussion show I run with my cohost, White Locke, It’s generally half-comedy (we make fun of stupid startups and listicles) and serious topics–things like moral colonialism and the drug war.

You can check it out at the website above, or via iTunes! If you do use the latter, please leave us a review, and if you enjoy it, tell your friends! If you have a topic suggestion or comment, you can also contact us at craymershow@gmail.com.

That’s it for me this week. Have a good Monday!

Retro Review: Legend of Dragoon

I’m something of a retro game connoisseur, especially when it comes to role-playing games. But even I have blind spots. For the past month or so, I’ve been working though Legend of Dragoon, a game with the reputation of being a me-too copycat of other, better RPGs of the era, but which nonetheless has a huge cult following. To this day, you can find people on message boards asking for a sequel that will likely never come.

I played this game nearly to completion back when it was released. But given that it’s been so long, and that I never finished it, I thought it’d be fun to go back through and see how it had aged. The answer was evident pretty quickly.

The game is a mess.

Visuals

Let’s start with the best first. The graphics in Dragoon are top notch and easily stand toe-to-toe with their contemporaries (your Final Fantasies and such). The field sprites are surprisingly detailed, though it’s still a PS1 game, so don’t expect to be blown away. The battle animations are likewise decent, and technically more impressive than Final Fantasy VII, though they lack the flair to be infinitely rewatchable. Most of the backgrounds are pre-rendered, and while this technique is decidedly passé in the modern era, I still enjoy it quite a bit. 
Where the game stumbles is in its Full-Motion Video. These were basically a requirement for PSX RPGs, but the Sony studio had nowhere near the CGI aptitude of golden age Squaresoft. The cutscenes are choppy, busy and ugly, and the addition of horrible voice acting is incredibly distracting. 
At the end of the day, the visuals are Legend of Dragoon’s best feature. But even for all its technical achievement, the graphics lack the soul that made other games of this era shine.

Gameplay

Legend of Dragoon sports a fairly bog-standard PS1-era combat system. Three characters on your side, one to three on the other. Characters take turns attacking, using items, defending or running. That’s about it. In fact, as far as available options go, Legend of Dragoon actually pales in comparison to many of its peers. Any magic available to characters is locked behind limited Dragoon transformations, and the vast majority of these skills are simply elemental damage, with a few exceptions that heal or provide protection to your party.
Now, let’s be fair. Even in Final Fantasies where your spell list is stuffed full of options, a good 50-75% of them are rarely or never used. But even so, there’s a distinct shallowness to the battles in LoD.
The most talked-about feature is still the most fun, and that’s the presence of “additions,” damage-boosting rhythm mini-games that pop up every time a character attacks. While it does incentivize (some might say force) the player to pay attention to even the most straightforward battles, even these became fairly rote when you perform the exact same maneuver for the hundredth time.
There are a few other interesting twists, such as the ability for the Defend action to heal characters. Even this provides little tactical depth, though. In the early game, it’s absurdly overpowered, as it allows you to simply Defend each turn to fully heal your characters even in the toughest of boss battles. Later on, enemy attacks become far too fast and powerful for Defend to be effective, which makes it essentially useless.
Annoyances abound. The UI is lackluster, the absurdly small item limit constantly gets in the way, especially as you begin to collect non-consumable “repeatable” items which are useful enough in some battles not to discard, but generally just take up space. The game loves to force you to return to lower level areas, seemingly for no reason other than to pad the run time. Several long, unskippable story sections consist of running back and forth in wide areas, seeking out NPCs.
There are some silver linings. The level design is strong and the developers have included some interesting Quality of Life enhancements such as a random battle indicator. But even at its best moment, the game is never really a joy–it’s mostly just tolerable.

Audio

Abysmal. The music was composed primarily by a western composer I’ve never heard of, with no prior experience in video game composition, and it shows. Here’s the menu music, an example of a song you’ll be hearing a LOT of:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdzYsNLoeGY
It’s lazy, boring and tonally mismatched with the rest of the game, which describes most of the other songs as well. At best, I’ll say that a couple of the town themes are catchy. But aside from that, the music is so unmemorable that I fail to have anything meaningful to say about it. Put on literally any other PSX RPG soundtrack while playing this and you’ll have a better experience.

Writing

Bad, bad, bad. It’s trite from the get-go: the big, bad empire is burning villages, imprisoning people, yadda yadda yadda. Though it’s even worse than standard RPG fare, because there’s no political cohesiveness. No one in the world seems to care the the Empire exists, so there’s no rebellion; it’s literally just a handful of people roaming around getting into fights with the government.
And those people–the game’s cast–are no saving grace. The game is incredibly earnest about them, convinced that you’ll absolutely fall in love with them. You won’t. Part of it is just the horrific dialogue, but the design itself is nothing you haven’t seen before. Old (kinda perverted) Martial Arts Master. Slow-Witted Big Strong Guy. Boring, No-Personality Protagonist. Annoying Anime Girl.
And it’s worth talking about Shanna, the main female protagonist. The game’s treatment of Shanna is sexist as fuck, even for Y2K. Even beyond sexism, the game has no idea what to do with her characterization. Half of her lines imply some sort of weird will-they-won’t-they thing with Dart, the main character. The other half assume that the two are basically already married. It means that Shanna comes off as an insufferable nag with extreme memory loss. She has no other traits.
Dart, for his part, has no chemistry with Shanna. His only relationship with her is to scream “I WILL PROTECT YOU!!!” at random intervals. To say Shanna is objectified is an understatement; she might as well be Dart’s priceless family heirloom for all the interaction they have.
None of the rest of the script is any better. The dialogue is written like poorly translated anime from the 80s, complete with multiple exclamation points!!! After every single sentence!!! I haven’t created a full concordance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more lines of dialogue ending in a bang than a period. Menu entries and item descriptions are often written in arcane Engrish better suited to Zero Wing than a big-budget, AAA role-playing game.

Shana: Ahh… ahhh… Ah…?
Diaz (Zieg): It’s been a while. Rose? Dart?
Dart: Father?
Rose (Dragon Campaign): Ahh! Zieg! Zieg!!
Rose: Oh, it cannot be!!

The story itself is completely incomprehensible. It is full of incredible twists, though, such as the main villain secretely being the protagonist’s father. Real innovative stuff. Oh, at one point you team up with the guy you’ve thought of as the villain up until that point. Pretty standard trope, until you remember that he outright murdered one of your party members earlier in the game. None of the other characters seems to mind that, though.

Conclusion

I never finished Legend of Dragoon as a kid, and as an adult I had fairly mixed memories of it. I remember laughing at the music, while thinking the battle system was novel. I had no idea, starting it up again, that it would have aged so poorly. There’s very little redeemable about the game. The idea that it warranted a sequel is silly, even with its small but vocal fanbase, given how slapdash and nonsensical the story is. If you, like me, are on a mystical quest to revisit the games of your youth, buckle yourself in for a slog. If not, skip Legend of Dragoon entirely.