Ask Zompist: Star Wars

Read your thoughts on the original trilogy that you posted on your blog, and I kinda have a question or two related to them.

1. You have the non-Special Edition version? Out of curiosity, how did you get that? (I have to make do with the 2004 DVDs…)

2. Have you tried comparing the original with the DVDs? If so, which changes did you approve of and which ones annoyed you? (leaving aside the obvious like Han shot first or the freakin Ewoks…)

3. Any thoughts on Michael Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars and its basic theory that the original trilogy turned out good because Lucas surrounded himself with talented people who helped him make it good while the prequels suck because Lucas tried to do everything himself?

4. This one’s entirely mine, but… What do you mean by the whole “bury your feelings” being a weird philosophy for the 70s? Jedi came out in 1983…


1, 2: I just got them from the library… indeed, two of the films happened to be available only on video.  I don’t really want to see Lucas’s changes, and especially didn’t for the rewatching since the whole idea was to see if the original films held up.

3. Eh, surely he had more people working for him on the prequel trilogy— though perhaps he listened to them less.   But I don’t think that was the problem.  I think he was just reaching above his talent level.  The first movies are fun adventure movies, and essentially pastiches of World War II and samurai movies. That’s something he can do well.  The trilogy attempted something much more difficult— to explain personal and societal corruption— inherently harder, and certainly not his forte.  And it didn’t help that his plot required the romance element to work, and it didn’t.   The romance elements in the original trilogy were no better, but they weren’t central to the plot.

4. The ethos of the ’70s was “let it all hang out”— we were exhorted to show our feelings, talk about everything, stop being uptight and hung up.  The Jedi creed clashes with this… even the spiritual figures of the ’70s and beyond (Pentecostals and cults) embraced emotionality and excess.  (Cultural decades don’t always match the calendar; I think of the ’70s as ending with Reagan’s election.  And films take time to make.)


FUD for thought

A spending freeze?  Has Obama lost his frigging mind?

As Krugman points out, this is just capitulation to Republican ideology.  Brad DeLong adds that in itself the spending freeze could lose 700,000 jobs.  This is what they think voters want?  We’re barely pulled back from the brink of Great Depression II; the new plan is to jump back in?

Republican ideology isn’t even a plan anymore– it’s a FUD machine.  The Tea Party doesn’t actually care about deficits– they supported Bush’s irresponsible spending and tax cuts for eight years, and Reagan’s before that.   They aren’t the solution to the economic problems we’re in; they’re the cause.  But if they can keep the FUD going about big government, they can block needed reforms and maybe get back into office.

Bill Clinton was a master at stealing reasonably-good ideas from the Republicans.  He undercut them by supporting free trade, welfare reform, increased police funding, and deficit reduction.  The problem is, Clinton already got all the reasonably-good ones; all that’s left is the crap, the librulls-spendin’-mah-money mantra that was cynically designed to win the 1980 election. 

The appeal of FUD is that we always worry, and skepticism always seems like a safe choice– surely there’s something to the worry, the truth must lie in the middle?  Not when it’s FUD; FUD is just noise and should be ignored.  We’re in a deep recession; if the Republicans want to shrink the economy, that’s not a reasonable point of view, it’s just wrong. 

Besides, does Obama think this will defuse the Tea Partiers? What’s his next plan, to doubt his own birth certificate?

Evil Mass

Massachusetts, what the fuck? I hope the Pats lose now. Oh, they did.

We’re not talking North Carolina or Indiana here, but gay-marrying, universal-health-care Massachusetts. The state went 62% to 36% for Obama one year ago, and 52% to 47% for Brown today. So, 15% of the state is a bunch of idiots.

What’s changed in one damn year? I can only see two possibilities. One, the economy, which was handed to the Democrats spectacularly broken by the Republicans. No one could fix it in a year; you can argue that the stimulus wasn’t enough, but the Tea Party plan– doing zip-zilch– would simply have produced the Second Great Depression. This isn’t rhetoric; the relative dip in world production matched the Great Depression, but government action in the last year pulled us back.  But even if you thought more should’ve been done, why is that a reason to hand power back to the party that got us into the mess? 

Food for thought, Mass.: under eight years of Clinton the economy added 25 million jobs.  Under eight years of Bush it added one tenth of that, not even enough to take care of increasing population.  You’re worried about recovery, you’re looking at the wrong team.

The other possibility: health care.  This is even stupider; the GOP has not only the same program (do nothing) but can only attack the Democratic plan by outright lying.  It’s sad that this continues to work; what it doesn’t do is make sense.  Brown is yammering about the cost, as if Bush’s tax cuts and wars and TARP didn’t cost trillions, as if health care wasn’t a spiralling, deteriorating miasma now, as if the health care bill didn’t contain hundreds of pages devoted to reducing health care costs.  But it’s not a matter of reasonable objections; if it were, they’d have negotiated with Obama.  It’s about making enough noise to avoid letting Obama actually solve a problem. 

More interesting, to students of political theater, are the plans to pass health care anyway.  Of these the cleverest is the simplest: have the House pass the Senate bill– which could then go right to Obama.  This would be an enormous victory for health care and a defiant kick in the rear for the Republicans, and so probably some tards in the Democratic side will scuttle it.  Bipartisanship is nice, but it’s really not necessary for Democrats to share the Republican obsession with defeating Obama at all costs.

Update: A couple correspondents pointed out that Coakley was a really, really bad candidate; both mentioned the Fells Acre case.  Which at least broadens the blame– surely there was a better candidate available.

Stuff I’ve just read, could use more of

Exactly like sweets, Nick Hornby essays can’t be kept for the next day.  I read the others today.  Here’s an opinion that made me think:

I appreciate that I’m in a minority here, but I just don’t get the appeal of the reappearing hero.  I don’t get Kay Scarpetta, or James Bond, or Hercule Poirot.  I don’t even get Sherlock Holmes.  My problem is that, when I’m reading a novel, I have a need– a childish need, B.S. Johnson would argue– to believe that the events described therein are definitive, that they really matter to the characters.  In other words, if 1987 turned out to be a real bitch of a year for Winston Smith, then I don’t want to be wasting my time reading about what happened to him back in ’84.

Now, this is an opinion I don’t necessarily share, but it’s interesting and, more to the point, teaches something about writing that hadn’t occurred to me quite that way before.  Of course we want to make engaging characters, and we know that something has to happen to them.  But is it the most important thing in their lives?  If not, why aren’t you writing about that?

(There are no rules in writing, only heuristics… sure, you can violate this one.  But it’s something you should think long and hard about.)

Pointless trivia: The Believer had a rule about not slagging other writers, so on the occasions he hated a book, he’d suppress the name.  But one book he hated I both recognized and liked– one of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s thrillers.   I’d have thought his combination of noir and Wodehouse would amuse him, but no.  I think it’s politics– you might think they’re all the same, but those Brits have politics of their own; Bonfiglioli was clearly a Tory.

I also learned that not only was High Fidelity moved from London to Chicago for the film version, but his first book, Fever Pitch, a memoir about supporting the Arsenal soccer team, became a movie about the Boston Red Sox.  This is a Hornbyesque sort of thing to happen, isn’t it?  It seems bewildering that your life can be moved to a foreign country, and translated from the things it’s about into other things, in order to be more accessible to viewers.  Though I guess if the inevitable film about my life is made, and I turn out to be French or Chinese, I’d probably be strangely flattered.

Stuff I’m reading

I’ve been consuming, exactly like popcorn, Nick Hornby’s book reviews from The Believer, which have been conveniently collected in three comics-sized volumes, starting with The Polysyllabic Spree.

He starts out each column with a list of what books he’s bought that month and what he’s read, which tells you a lot about him right there, because right there, ruefully recognized, is the gulf between aspiration and realization.  It’s rare that the lists have a large overlap.

Hornby is the author of High Fidelity (and if he ever read this I can imagine the description triggering a smile that’s also a wince), which might lead you to think he’s nerdy and acerbic.  And he is, though constrained by what is apparently a house rule at the Believer to speak no ill of authors.  He manages to get around this in various ways.

He is, or is adept at seeming to be, effortlessly hilarious in a way I think only Brits can manage.  Americans are can be smart and funny, but we tend to earnestness, and can never quite forget that we’re huge in the world.  In our national mythos we appear to ourselves as Bugs Bunny, but everyone else would compare us to Foghorn Leghorn.  The Brits no longer have to worry about all that.  Surely no British author, however young, worries about writing The Great British Novel.  It’s been done, right, so you’d might as well relax.

Although he can be a great salesmen for the books he reads, the column can be read as pure comedy, with rueful undertones and frequent digressions on Arsenal.  A typical bit, on a biography of the poet Robert Lowell:

…perhaps Hamilton’s criticism of the poems tends to be a little too astringent– the Collected Poems runs to twelve hundred pages, but Hamilton seems to argue that we could live without a good eleven hundred and fifty of them.  And this is a poet he clearly loves…

Which reminded me of Robert Graves’s idea, in Watch the North Wind Rise, that a future civilization might create anthologies of the masterpieces of the past– suitably selected and truncated– I think Graves allocated a hundred pages to England.  It’s a really pretty depressing thought.  Morbid thought: what if all that’s ever remembered of me is the less than a dozen lines found in Wikiquote?  Morbider thought: what if not even those?

I don’t mean to get you down… come on, wasn’t that bit about 1150 skippable pages amusing?  When it comes down to it, Hornby’s is a really pleasant head to spend some time in and I suppose I’m going to have to read some of his novels as well.

A Grand Theft Day Out

“Sandbox game” and “bargain” don’t have a huge intersection, perhaps, but it contains Grand Theft Auto IV: Liberty City, which was just $7.50 on Steam.

My first evening with it was frustrating, because of the strange controls, both for driving and for combat.  It reminded me of driving the roadsters in Borderlands before I learned that you can smoothly steer them using the mouse.  Only in GTA4 you can’t– you just have to get used to using, or abusing, the WASD keys.  As for combat, it felt like nothing worked predictably.

What helped was trying some multiplayer with friends.  Usually it works the other way– single-player helps multiplayer– but it seems I just needed practice.  Multiplayer with friends is a good time, if you can get past the truly retarded multiplayer system.  You have to log into both Rockstar Social Club and GFWL, notifications require way too many keystrokes, the game crashes a lot, and voice probably won’t work at first.  I never thought Borderlands’ multiplayer would look good.  Still, actually playing missions or hanging around wasting each other is fun.

I’ve always been curious about GTA, and it’s fun so far… I’ve played approximately forever; I’d be finishing most modern games at this level, but the game is still giving tutorials and says I’m 1o% done.  The map is amazing… it’s just a huge city, certainly the biggest I’ve seen in a video game– it makes City 17 look like a village.  (It’s not, of course, the size of actual NYC… at a rough calculation, it has about 1/4 the number of streets between Central Park and the Battery.)

Is it terribly immoral?  Well, of course; you’re an aspiring gangster, though you start out extremely small-time.  The first of your crimes is likely to be speeding… this version of New York is tantalizingly low on traffic.  Then you’ll probably want to steal a car, since the taxi your cousin Roman provides you with is crap.

The missions are highly varied so far– to say nothing of the dates, clothing shops, pool halls, and bowling– though pretty much everything requires driving.  If Borderlands is for gun freaks, this game is for people who really really like vehicles.  And crime, of course.  Some missions are easy, some rather difficult– at least till you’ve mastered the damn cars, which I haven’t.

The in-game media parodies are hilarious… notably an over-the-top hate radio show, and Republican Space Rangers, an animated TV show about taking the fight against libruls and terrists to the skies.

Game updates

What’s new in various games…

Paying a visit to Dr. Ned

By the way, when did WordPress decide to hide the damn Insert Into Post button?  Finally found it hiding on another tab, but I swear it used to be on the upload dialog.

Borderlands: It’s surprisingly fun to play through the game again with all the enemies upped 30 levels.  But the fun stops about halfway through when you hit the level 50 level cap as well as $10 million— so you’re no longer advancing in anything visible.

But, new DLC!  With zombies!  I found that I had to go back to a lower-level character and work her up to level 24 before finding the sweet spot of difficulty: the zombies are no fun if they’re too easy or too hard.  It’s atmospheric and big and has the usual Borderlands humor… the Claptrap robot with the split personality is a nice touch.  It’s not as intense as L4D2, but it has some original touches— e.g. Lance zombies that still know how to put up a turret.

More DLC is coming, but apparently it focusses on PvP which sounds like a snore.

Speaking of L4D2, not much to add except that I love the Sniper Rifle.  Well, in campaign mode, which few people want to play.  It’s devastating at long range, and fires quickly enough that it’s still useful against a nearby horde.

I hate Jockeys though.  They’re highly situational, and the situation rarely calls for them.  If you have a knot of Survivors, they’re nearly useless.  Boomer is not much better since the hordes are nerfed.  The others are all fun.

TF2 has updates for the Soldier and Demoman.  I love the Pickaxe— it’s hilarious to dash around like a Scout, and it’s nice when your health is low to get a kill or two instead of just dying.  Plus it opens up some interesting strategies, like fighting your way to the intel and rushing back with it at high speed.

The Direct Hit is better than I expected.  My aim is, let us say, variable, so I thought it’d be just frustrating.  But a) if I do hit it’s more likely to be a kill, and b) since it’s so fast, the enemy is more likely to be in the vicinity of where I fired.  I do miss the splash damage, so whichever rocket launcher I have equipped, I tend to wish I had the other one.

Gunboats: also a plus, worth the loss of the shotgun. It really points up the lack of something to make the Heavy lumber along faster.

Frigging Demomen are a curse now.  The sword  + shield makes them virtually griefers.  A good counter is either the pickaxe or the Axtinguisher, which motivated me to master fast weapon switching.  Sadly, I went for about a year wishing I could switch to any of my 3 weapons with a single keystroke.  (It’s in Options if you didn’t know either.)

Crafting: Valve still seems to be thrashing about finding a purpose for drops.  I suspect it was easy to put together and thus was thrown into the product, but I wish they’d figure out where they’re going with this.  (Want an idea, Valve?  Forget the damn drops and tie Hats to Achievements.)

The update made me realize, sadly, that I’m a much better Pyro than Soldier.  But there’s maps that just aren’t good for Pyros.

Last night I  finished Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.  It’s a really good game, a nice integration of combat and stealth… with a few heady moments of invincibility as you pilot mechawarriors around.

Some of the maps are confusing (there are some annoying dead ends… the problem with a big dead-end area is that it’s hard to believe the designers were just messing around, so you waste a lot of time going over it looking for buttons or doors you missed). I also had to repeat the whole mines section, after learning from a walkthrough that you really really want to buy a Tranq Gun from an inmate.  Unfortunately the first time through I’d wasted the guy.  Vinbert is like that.

There are also some really nastily difficult rooms— though fortunately enemies almost always follow a pattern, so you can at least anticipate where they’ll be.  One room nearly defeated me: there are guards, aliens, and rail-mounted turrets, all trying to kill you.  You have a great minigun but it stops firing in a pattern I can’t quite figure out.  (Sometimes it kicks out after a few seconds, sometimes it seems happy to fire for a long interval.  Hell with it, I got Vinbert out of there anyway.)

Enemies tend to be few, but high-powered compared to you, so the game teaches you not to spray ‘n pray, but to lurk and try for the single well-placed shot.

Butcher Bay definitely is better than Dark Athena, if nothing else because it’s far longer, and the character interactions are more interesting.  Plus you spend a longer time limited in your weaponry, and the paradox of gaming is that though we want to be invincible, the most addictive parts of a game are when you’re still struggling.