the twilight dialogues

Muse, one of my favorite bands, has a new single out on the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack. I’m sure you can imagine my conflict here. I bit the bullet and gave the song a listen, and now I can only assume that Muse set out to mock fans of Twilight, parody themselves, or both. The title of the song is “Neutron Star Collision (Love is Forever)”. I get the feeling that the parenthetical was added purely for clarification, as the phrase “neutron star collision” doesn’t exactly scream “love song”. Oh sure, it does to me, but then, my life is all gaussians and null hypotheses, and I’m waiting for your points of data to make a beautiful line, baby. I’m not some teenage girl heading to the movies after the weekly outing to Claire’s.

The opening lyric is:

I was searching
You were on a mission
And our hearts combined like
A neutron star collision.

That’s right, baby, our love is a cosmic cataclysm, a destructive event so powerful that it could atomize Earth and its entire solar system in less time than it takes you to begin to blink. I love you, too.

“Neutron Star Collision” is short for a Muse song but contains most of their usual tricks. Overwrought lyrics made palatable through Matthew Bellamy’s unique vocals? Check. Quick shifts from slow and soft to fast and loud? Check. Piano outro? Check. The song itself is a good example of a band going through the motions, the one saving grace being that the band is Muse.

Music criticism isn’t really something I do, so I thought I’d share something that my incredibly talented friends created off the cuff. This originally transpired on Facebook, but I don’t see why Mark Zuckerberg should be allowed to centralize all of the internet’s content, no matter how many of my former classmates end up portraying his life or how melodramatic they make the trailer. But I digress.

THE MIDWESTER: There’s a Twilight convention in Boston? As a beautiful and emotionally abusive Dracula, I really should have been informed.

THE SOUTHERNER: But I’m sooooooo plain and clumsy and bad and vague! How could you ever love someone like meeeeeee? I need you to validate my existence.

THE MIDWESTER: No! I’m too dangerous! Wait here while I abandon you.

THE SOUTHERNER: I am saddened and plagued with guilt, for only I am to blame for your horrible behavior towards me. It makes me want you more.

THE BREWER: SOUTHERNER, MIDWESTER is dangerous for a reason that I will not specify. My family all distrust him.

THE TALL ONE: Do I feel a sudden desire to turn into an under-age wolf with great pecs? For some reason, I am feeling that urge!

THE SOUTHERNER: That’s funny, all I feel is shame and an urge to do whatever men tell me to do.

THE BREWER: Isn’t that what you felt before MIDWESTER was a teenage Dracula made of diamonds?

THE MIDWESTER: Hey I just got back from the Dracula convention and the great Obamapire gave me permission to draculate you, SOUTHERNER. PS my skin is sparkling because of beauty.

THE SOUTHERNER: I am conflicted. Like, super conflicted, you guys. But MIDWESTER told me to get draculated, so that seems like a good idea, I guess. Oh, woe is me, will I ever break out of this ugly duckling stage and embrace the true me, the glistening Swan unashamed of this shame and doubt and conflict? So, yeah, go ahead and undead me or whatever. I probably deserve it.

the last airbender

The only correct reactions to a screening of The Last Airbender are anger, disgust, and anguish. It is atrocious in the truest sense of the word, in that it is an absolute atrocity. Honestly, I would prefer to express my feelings about this film as a single, echoing scream of rage not unlike this one. The ability to turn back time would also be handy here, but since neither of these are realistic options, I’ll settle for a long string of words that accomplishes the same effect.

In fact, my already impressive stable of words, which I keep groomed like a herd of prize stallions for use in exactly these kinds of situations, is inadequate to the task. I find myself expanding the English language to properly encompass the unremitting catastrophe that is M. Night Shyamalan’s latest work, inventing words like omnihorrific and vomitacious and spectacuturd. My favorite of these new words is nontage. I believe this is a truly new word, as I can’t even find it in the Urban Dictionary. Formally defined, a nontage is a montage in which nothing happens. Airbender is full of these. In one scene, we see Aang and Katara practicing Tai Chi by a river. This is in a world where mastery of martial arts gives some individuals the ability to manipulate the four elements. We see the martial arts and we’re waiting for the payoff, the nifty special effect. Maybe a floating orb of water, or a column of the stuff snaking out of the nearby lake. We wait. We know that Aang is performing these movements specifically to learn the art of waterbending. It’s important. Moreover, it’s a perfectly good excuse to give us some Hollywood magic, a moment of fantasy made real by skilled filmmakers. We wait for that moment, but the moment never comes. They’re just moving around by the river in silence as the camera sweeps by, contributing nothing to the story. A perfect nontage.

So many things went wrong with this movie that it’s hard to know where to begin. The most galling thing about Airbender is that it’s based on really great source material. The series, which aired on Nickelodeon under the title, Avatar: The Last Airbender, is an absolutely terrific TV show, marked by vivid art direction, sharp writing, complex, lovable characters, and an attention to detail that rewards the audience and enriches the entire experience. The contrast between the excellence of the TV series and the willful incompetence of the film is unbelievable.

The picture I’m using to head this post is taken from “The Ember Island Players,” one of the final episodes of the series. It originally aired just before the huge series finale, and it functioned as a kind of recap of the entire show. Our heroes opt to take a break from their nerve-wracking preparations for the war against the Fire Lord to catch a show. The show happens to be a retelling of their exploits courtesy of a Fire Nation touring company. The production is full of exaggerations and inaccuracies, and it acts as a showcase for the producers to mock themselves. It’s also a creative, entertaining way to revisit the series’s major plot points for those who might have missed them. But even amidst this outlandish self-parody, the writers find time for some character development. Prince Zuko, recently converted into a good guy, is forced to watch every bad decision he’s made throughout the series replayed for laughs. His humiliation is matched only by his personal guilt over his actions.

Avatar is ostensibly geared toward children and therefore a comedy first, but one that’s not afraid to treat the audience with respect and take itself seriously where the story warrants it (in this respect, it has a lot in common with M*A*S*H*, the celebrated comedy about the Korean War). If you want to see the series at its funniest, you can go here and watch “Avatar Day”. This episode starts out, as many do, with our heroes running from a surprise attack by a group of Fire Nation mercenaries. Sokka loses his beloved boomerang in the scuffle, and the B plot in the episode concerns his attempts to find a new “thing” to define him. Ponytail? Torch? Pipe? Monocle? Nothing feels right. In the episode’s action-packed climax, the mercenaries return, and in the ensuing fight Sokka’s boomerang tumbles out of a satchel and into his hands. “Boomerang!” he cries, overjoyed, “You do always come back!” Ladies and gentleman, that is a long walk for a punchline. It’s not every show that would have the patience, confidence, or outright skill to execute a joke with a twenty minute setup.

As a TV show, Avatar never failed to strike a perfect balance between emotional weight and comic levity. Things never got trite. When Aang starts having too much fun, the writers deftly shift the tone back to the dramatic with a simple, stark reminder of the ongoing war. In retrospect, the jokes of a moment ago become a metaphor for Aang’s naivety and his unwillingness to accept the responsibilities of the Avatar. We, as the audience, feel his guilt, because weren’t we just laughing at his antics? Likewise, the writers always knew when to defuse the emotional torment and high drama with a well-timed joke or self-aware comment.

My point here is that Avatar: The Last Airbender was a great TV show, easily the finest American cartoon ever made. You’d be hard pressed to find a single bad episode in the entire series (spoiler alert: it’s “The Great Divide”, from the first season). Airing on a network that also seemed determined to milk the inane SpongeBob Squarepants for all it wasn’t worth, Avatar gave me hope for the future of American animation. I was thrilled to know that this was a hit, that there were kids watching this show today who might one day be inspired by it to draw, to write, and to create.

So now that we’re nearly 1,000 words into this, perhaps you can appreciate my utter horror at the movie’s failings. Not a single aspect of this movie went anywhere close to right. For God’s sake, they mispronounce the characters’ names. Aang (as in “sang”) becomes Ong (as in “wrong’), Sokka (as in “sock”) becomes Soka (as in “soak”). “Agni Ki” becomes “Agni Key”. Iroh transmutes from “Eye-roh” to “Eeee-roh”. As if this wasn’t enough, all but one of the characters pronounces the word “avatar” as “Ahhhvatar”. This is a word that definitely has an English pronunciation, one recently made very famous. The changes in pronunciation might make sense if the characters had been cast using Asian actors, but controversially, everyone’s American. Except for the Fire Nation, which Shyamalan chose to cast as uniformly Indian. Except for Iroh, who is American. What a confusing mess. As a fan of the TV series, the changes to the characters’ names are the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Yo, Shyamalan, why would you do that?

I’m not sure I have the strength to go on. No, wait. I do.

The plot, such as it is, is an unmitigated disaster. As a fan of the TV show, it’s heartbreaking to watch Shyamalan botch scene after scene, and just for kicks, at various points I imagined myself as someone who had never seen the TV series. In this context, the plot of the movie shifts from immensely frustrating to utterly incomprehensible. Katara and Sokka join Aang and leave the Southern Water Tribe before they even know his name. I’m not making this up. The three of them fly off to the Southern Air Temple and only after they land does Aang bother to introduce himself. It was at this point, about fifteen minutes into the movie, that I almost got up and left, before remembering that I had already paid $12.50 to see this catastrophe. It’s as if Shyamalan took four episodes from the first season—”The Boy in the Iceberg”, “The Blue Spirit”, and “The Siege of the North” (Parts I and II)—shoved them into a blender, and strained a script out of the pulp.

Shyamalan is the wrong person to have helmed this project. By his own admission, his preferred method of operation is to take topics typically thought of as trite—ghosts, aliens, mermaids, killer plants, etc—and treat them with absolute seriousness. As such, the tone of Airbender is relentlessly somber, utterly devoid of any of the TV show’s masterful good humor. It’s a weighty, depressing, bland mess, melodramatic to the point of unintentional comedy. The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi, miscast here as the villainous Admiral Zhao, at one point delivers what might be the most ponderous “Yes” ever recorded on film. One almost expects him to follow it up with, “Back to you, Jon.”

Shyamalan makes Michael Bay look like a genius. At least Bay knows how to spend an effects budget to produce an engaging spectacle. Shyamalan misunderstands how martial arts and element bending are supposed to interact, and as a result you get a lot of intricate, pointless flailing that produces very little in the way of action. At one point, an entire troupe of earthbenders launch into a choreographed sequence of stomps and chants, all to launch a single rock at their Fire Nation guards. It’s all very reminiscent of an episode of Power Rangers. Shyamalan has no idea how to direct a proper fight sequence, and everything comes off clumsy, brief, and unconvincing. Whoever cut together the snappy, misleading trailer out of this crap should win an Oscar.

I believe that Airbender has done the impossible. It has unseated Ultraviolet for the title of Worst Movie I Have Ever Seen in a Theater. In Ultraviolet‘s defense—which is a phrase I never thought I’d type—you can at least acknowledge that it’s a bad movie based on bad source materials. Airbender is worse because it’s a bad movie based on truly excellent materials. It’s a waste, a vast, spiraling miscalculation, a perfect example of Hollywood taking what should have been an easy hit and turning it into absolute garbage. It cost Paramount $280 million to produce and market this mess, a mess that caused the audience in my theater to literally boo and hiss as the closing credits rolled. Airbender covers the first of three seasons from the TV show, and I can only hope that this movie bombs badly enough to can the project forever.

It could have been great. Roger Ebert argues that the movie should have stayed a cartoon, but then, he also mistakenly believes that the movie takes place in Earth’s quasi-mystical distant future. Where he got that nugget, I’ll never know. For what it’s worth, I think that Airbender could have been a great movie, an Asian-inspired swashbuckling epic, like The Forbidden Kingdom crossed with The Princess Bride, The Never-Ending Story, or the criminally underrated Stardust. But instead, we got 94 minutes of sodden, deadening nonsense from a man who clearly couldn’t care less about the story in front of him. I hope M. Night Shyamalan is drawn and quartered for this. At least I’ll always have the TV series.

kinect shun

I’m still trying to figure out why I find Kinect so repulsive (Formerly Project Natal. Remember those videos?).

It’s not that I necessarily dislike Microsoft, though it’s never hard to find reasons. Take the Kinect website, for instance. It’s obnoxious that Microsoft asks you to install its proprietary Silverlight platform just to watch some commercials. Sure, this could only be the work of a boneheaded, anti-consumer company, but it doesn’t make me hate Microsoft, per se. I’m now at the point where I look at things like Silverlight or Windows 7 and just laugh. It’s easy to find the humor in such incompetencies when you have the luxury of distance.

It’s not that I necessarily dislike the Xbox 360, either. In days of yore I might have viewed Microsoft as a malevolent interloper in my living room, clawing at my door to steal the toys of my childhood and warp them into some kind of gaming stallion that only a fratboy could love. But that kind of thinking was silly, and it’s irrelevant today. While I don’t own an Xbox, there’s no denying that it’s a solid product. If nothing else, Microsoft has certainly succeeded in creating the definitive online console experience. XBox Live is a deserved triumph. Sony should be abjectly ashamed of the unpolished, disjointed experience they offer in comparison.

Kinect is an ambitious project, even when ignoring Peter Molyneux’s stage magic bullshit. Granted, the Wii has left me deeply skeptical of motion-controlled gaming, but a lot of that is due to the Wii’s pronounced limitations. A more sensitive system could do much more with motion, and I hope that Microsoft’s Kinect and Sony’s Move succeed in the places where Nintendo has fallen short.

Given that I don’t hate Microsoft, don’t hate the Xbox, and would like motion interfaces to succeed, why would I use a word like “repulsive” to describe Kinect? I don’t think I could have given you a coherent answer until today. I’d always found Kinect/Natal vaguely unsettling, but this Kotaku article really crystallized things for me. It turns out that although the Kinect does a great job of recognizing your major joints and body language, it can only perform this miracle while you are standing. You cannot use the Kinect while sitting, at least not yet. Or as one Microsoft developer put it, “Sitting is something we’re still calibrating for.”

Sitting is still something we’re calibrating for. First of all, are you joking? The Most Advanced Motion Interface in the History of Forever, Except If Maybe You’d Like to Sit? I suppose that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. But this is a minor concern. I’m sure that they’ll figure out some kind of solution before Kinect is released, which probably won’t be for another year or two anyway. Oh, what’s that? It’s coming in November? Alright. Well, we can expect either some very Microsoftian delays or a fairly disappointing recumbent experience, as Redmond’s PR boys might say. Say what you will about the Wii’s “waggle controls,” but they work just as well sitting as standing.

Second, you might notice that the very first comment on that Kotaku article is from a person with a disability. Are the disabled destined to be shut out of the Kinect experience, he asks? Well, probably, but that’s no different from the general state of console gaming, where the button-remapping functions that would make games more accessible are rare (speaking of which, there’s a petition on exactly this issue). But this isn’t really about disability specifically. I first played video games from a hospital bed. Maybe you played them because you weren’t any good at sports, or because you were too shy to handle people directly. Whether bedridden, fat, skinny, weak, or whatever, when you pick up a controller anything beyond your fingers ceases to matter. Even your eyes are optional. Many, many people play video games specifically to forget about their bodies.

It could be argued that the entire point of gaming—not just the electronic variety, but all gaming—is about escapism. A game like chess allows us to escape the tyranny of the body, but when you’re playing chess, you’re playing chess. In a video game you’re the adventurer, the puzzle savant, the murderer, the chef, the overlord, and the master of limitless domains. Electronic gaming offers the player a unique disconnect between the game and physical reality. The Kinect consciously reverses this. The whole body is the input device, which is how things work in the real world, which negates the entire point of playing these games.

I’m not saying there isn’t a market for this kind of thing. The intuitive touch interfaces of Apple’s wildly popular iOS devices prove that there is (interestingly, I don’t think that the Wii proves anything about motion controls, but that’s another post). I’d rather have the option of a motion interface than not have it, but it’s never going to sell me a system. I will never be the sort of person who finds a constant reminder of his physicality appealing, and I suspect that I am not alone in this.

modern nerd: how to enable multiple sender addresses in iphone’s mail

Nick Cernis, you are a godsend. I use Gmail to route messages from all my email addresses into a single inbox (quite similar, really, to Cernis’s Inbox Heaven). When using Gmail in a browser, it’s easy to select my “From” address. Thus any message sent to my .edu address will be responded to from that same .edu address, never mind that I’m actually using Gmail to compose the message. The problem is that the iPhone’s built-in Mail application doesn’t let you select your “From” address, so I’m always hesitant to respond to such messages on the go. Cernis solves the problem elegantly.

glee’s mixed signals

I’m finding it difficult to reconcile the last two episodes of Glee—”Laryngitis” and “Dream On”—in regards to their treatment of the disabled.

Let’s take them in reverse chronological order, blog style. The B plot in “Dream On” revolves around Artie’s struggle to accept his disability. This is by no means an easy topic for television. TV shows tend to portray disability either as a weighty curse or as a complete non-issue. Neither interpretation is very truthful, and I’m impressed that Glee‘s writers are willing to ditch these simplistic tropes for something more challenging to the audience. It made me very uncomfortable to watch Artie triumphantly hoist himself onto crutches, only to face plant in front his girlfriend a moment later. It was heartbreaking to see him laying there on the floor, telling Tina to get out and leave him alone. It might have been uncomfortable and heartbreaking to see, but I’ve been there, and the moment rings true.

Then the episode goes a little farther. Artie gets excited about stem cell research and the inevitably of a cure for his condition, and imagines himself leading the entire mall in a startlingly catchy “Safety Dance”. The school’s guidance counselor eventually brings Artie back to down to Earth, pointing out that these treatments are at least a decade away from human trials, and it’s unhealthy for him to pin his hopes on the slim chance of a cure. Jayma Mays’ delivery in this scene is excellent, again, very true to life. But no matter how gently she handles the situation, Artie can’t help but feel trapped and inadequate. The episode closes with Tina and Mike dancing to “Dream A Little Dream On Me,” with Artie providing the vocals, trying to come to grips with the idea that he may never be as close to Tina as he truly wants.

It’s a complex ending, to say the least. Artie isn’t stuck with his face on the floor, but nor is he exactly thrilled with his life. The episode leaves him, and the audience, somewhere in between. It’s daring, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show try to present disability with this kind of depth. This is one of the hard truths of living with a disability: you’re constantly walking a line between hope and pragmatism. It’s not healthy to let your disability keep you down and trap you in a box of limitations, but it’s equally unhealthy to pretend that there are no limits at all. For years—and I mean twenty years—I truly believed that my unusual walk was by and large totally unnoticeable. When I realized that it was, in fact, often the first thing that people noticed about me, well, that wasn’t such a good day. Or month, for that matter.

But that’s what it’s like. Some days you feel super confident, the equivalent of standing on two legs for the first time in years, and other days you’re laying there on the floor wishing everyone would just leave you the hell alone. Some in the disabled community (this guy, for instance) feel that it’s insulting to portray Artie as an insecure, pitiful victim, as aspiring to be able-bodied. I disagree. I’m perfectly comfortable with who I am, but I didn’t get there overnight, and I’d be lying if I said that I never imagine what it’d be like to move around without pronounced muscle spasticity dogging my every step. Like I said, some days are better than others. Teenagers are famously insecure about their bodies as a matter of course. Now try adding a wheelchair to that, and now tell me that it’s not okay to show Artie having a bad day. Glee did a great job on this one (Neil Patrick Harris’s stellar “Dream On” duet with Matthew Morrison and Joss Whedon’s skilled direction, particularly on the final Mike/Tina/Artie number, didn’t hurt either).

This makes “Laryngitis” all the more baffling, especially since it was written by the same trio who did “Dream On”. Don’t get me wrong, I felt that Kurt’s plot was well-handled, but the rest was a real mess. Drama queen Rachel comes down with laryngitis, which she immediately blows up into a catastrophe that will imperil her career and ruin her life. To set her straight, Finn introduces her to his friend, Sean, a former football player who, thanks to a bad day on the field, is now a quadriplegic. Sean’s lesson to Rachel is that you can lose the thing that most defines you and still go on. Or something. In other words, “You may have lost your voice, but things could be a lot worse, and even when really bad things happen, it’s not the end.”

Why did the writers feel the need to conjure a quadriplegic out of nowhere? Artie is right there, and it would’ve been nice to see he and Rachel have a substantive interaction for once. Instead, we get Sean, a character who we’ve never seen or heard of before. Hell, couldn’t you at least have had Artie introduce Rachel to Sean, instead of Finn?

It turns out that Zack Weinstein, who plays Sean, is a real-life quadriplegic. He was probably brought on board to answer some early criticism about the fact that Kevin McHale, who plays Artie, isn’t really disabled. Unfortunately, in trying to address one problem, the producers have only created a bigger one. Namely, that the disabled only exist as cautionary tales and object lessons for the able-bodied. “You think you have problems? Look what I deal with on a daily basis. Here but for the grace of God goes you.” It’s one of the worst (and most persistent) images of the disabled on television, and it blows my mind that the same team that writes Artie could make this mistake. Nice try guys, but Sean is still just a cipher who was brought into existence to teach one of our stars a lesson. Are you guys schizophrenic or something? Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, I’m talking to you. I need more “Dream On” from you and a lot less “Laryngitis”.