S & M & XBLA

In case you missed it: Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space (formerly known just as “Season Two”) is out now on Xbox Live Arcade. It’s 1600 Microsoft points, which equates to:

  • $20 for the entire season of five episodes
  • $4 per episode (or if you prefer, $2 for the first three and $7 for the two at the end that are especially good)
  • 60 cents per Xbox achievement
  • around 1.1 cents per hour of my life spent working on the season
  • around 0.003 cents per newly-white hair on my head and face
  • around 4 cents per joke
  • around $1.25 per really good joke

As a special bonus: for the people without the Xbox 360s, Telltale is currently selling the PC version of Season Two for $19.95, to make things fair.

No, it’s real! This is a thing that is really happening!

And here’s a bunch of clips they used at PAX!

Shutting off the Satellites

b52satellites.jpgAccording to this here weblog, it was almost exactly 11 months ago that I canceled off my satellite subscription. At the time, this seemed like an earth-shattering decision. Sure, I knew lots of people who’d gone without cable or satellite for years, and they claimed not to miss it at all. But I knew that they were really living the hollow lives of shadow creatures, coming home from the drudgery of their jobs to find a David Lynchian living room silent except for the incessant drone of an old refrigerator, sitting on a couch and staring blankly out a window into the darkness as they waited for death to release them.

I expected one of two things to happen: I’d achieve a Buddha-like state of awareness as I used my free time for reading and exercising and cleaning up around the apartment and grooming, able to quote from the greatest works of Western literature as I shattered bricks with my fists and I stood, shirtless as a Bowflex ad, inviting the neighborhood children to bounce quarters and superballs off of my rock-hard abs. Either that, or they’d find me in my apartment after I’d hung myself with a coaxial cable, a forlorn suicide note scrawled with a manic hand and addressed to Sal Castaneda, the cat having gnawed off as much of my lower extremities as he was able to reach.

Neither of those actually happened; in fact, it’s been such a non-issue that I wish I’d skipped all the hand-wringing and cut the cord years ago. The status quo is pretty much the same: I still have more stuff available than I have time to watch. The only difference is that instead of spending hours numbly flipping through cable channels, I now spend hours numbly flipping through RSS feeds. And I have a skewed idea of what is and isn’t supposed to be popular, which as it turns out isn’t as useful as I’d always assumed.

While I had a freakish dependency on television, I’m pretty sure there are plenty of other people who are in the same boat. So here’s what I’ve found after a year, the kind of stuff that would’ve helped had I known it a year ago. Maybe it’ll help anyone who’s been wondering if they really want to keep paying $80 a month or more for television:

  1. All this assumes a broadband internet connection. You’re not really getting rid of an addiction; you’re just trading one for another. I don’t know if the SF Bay Area is particularly well-connected, or if it’s just 2009, but high-speed internet access seems to be pretty much a given these days.
  2. I don’t watch sports or reality TV. If any one of those were true, I’d probably be missing the live TV a lot more. As it is, I hear rumblings about things like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars but couldn’t tell you much more than that they exist.
  3. I don’t work from home. When I was freelancing, it was important to be able to set aside the “computer area” from the “entertainment area,” which is harder to do if you’re getting all your entertainment from the computer.
  4. Consider getting an antenna. As sad as it may be to admit, sometimes you really just want to sit in front of a TV and watch indiscriminately. Now that everybody’s made the digital conversion and you can get over-the-air HD broadcasts, TV antennas aren’t nearly as ghetto as they used to be. I’ve mentioned it before, but it still surprises me: an over-the air HD broadcast is indistinguishable from an HD cable or satellite picture. Unlike an analog signal, a digital signal doesn’t degrade when you lose reception: it’s all or nothing. Either you get blackness, or you get the full, crystal-clear picture with 5.1 surround sound, the works.

    I bought an “HD Antenna” (apparently any antenna will work, and the “HD” moniker is just clever marketing) for less than the cost of one DirecTV bill. I’ve been too lazy to install it on the roof, but even indoors in San Francisco, pointed away from Sutro Tower, I can pick up all the major networks except NBC. And as it turns out, PBS is surprisingly entertaining as long as it’s not the hellish Sunday afternoon home improvement block.
  5. Reconsider getting an AppleTV. At the time, the AppleTV was a no-brainer. But then hulu.com revealed the full extent of its evil and started cock-blocking boxee in favor of its own player — apparently, there are ways to work around the limitations, but it got to be more hassle than I was willing to put up with. So now, the AppleTV does no more than it advertises: funnels content from your iTunes library to your TV and/or home theater. Anything you want to watch over the AppleTV (that’s not YouTube, anyway), you’re either going to pay for or convert yourself. The AppleTV feels very much like an interim solution that’s either going to change significantly or get discontinued altogether.
  6. If you’ve got a computer anywhere near the TV, hook that mother up. Both Microsoft and Apple are paying more attention to the home media functionality of Windows and OS X, making either one basically plug-and-play. You might even be better off in the long run getting a full media computer for the television, instead of getting a dedicated box like the Apple TV: you won’t be tied to one provider like the iTunes Store, and you’ll be able to use hulu’s player as well as boxee or plex or whatever else comes along for free content. It’s even better if you don’t mind watching TV at a computer; I’ve never had the attention span (or a comfortable enough computer chair) to do that.
  7. If you’re using Macs, ditch the G4 machines. I have an old first-edition Mac mini hooked up to my TV, but it’s basically useless. It doesn’t have an IR sensor for the remote, for one thing. Worse, though, all of the free media center apps require an Intel machine — boxee and hulu desktop both refuse to run.
  8. If you’ve got a videogame console, find out what you can do with it. Both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 let you buy TV shows through their online stores; I haven’t used either, because they both run a little more expensive and are a good bit more inconvenient than iTunes. (Plus it’s been nice to occasionally copy a TV show onto my phone to watch on a plane or elsewhere). But if you’re using a Windows machine, the 360 can act as a “media extender” to let you watch video from your PC on your television. If you’re using OS X, nullriver software makes MediaLink to connect to the PS3 and Connect360 for the 360, which let you watch videos or listen to music from your PC on your home theater. Be aware that neither version supports content you’ve bought from the iTunes store, whether music or video (even, surprisingly, the supposedly DRM-free “iTunes Plus” tracks). And finally, if you’ve got a 360, the Netflix streaming support on the new version is pretty great.
  9. You might save money, you might not. I’ve avoided using BitTorrent* and can’t easily use hulu, so I’ve been getting series and individual episodes from the iTunes store. Instead of a monthly fee spread out over the year, I end up paying a big chunk whenever a new season starts. I haven’t yet gone through an added up how much I’ve spent over the past year, but I doubt it’s quite as dramatic as I’d expected. On the other hand, I haven’t felt like I was missing anything.

So there’s really no excuse for reading or going outside these days. And you can rest easy knowing that you’re still giving lots of money to Rupert Murdoch and Disney and NBC Universal and all the other big media conglomerates; you just now have more options to pay a la carte.

It Makes Me Wonder

It’s standard operating procedure for our cruel and unjust universe that anything we loved when we were younger invariably fails to hold up when we see it again years later. That’s why it was such an amazing experience for me to watch A Matter of Life and Death this week and to feel just as overjoyed by it as I was the first time.

I first saw it as a freshman in college, in a cinema studies class. At the time, those classes were more tedious than enlightening; the novelty of “I get to go watch a movie every night… for education!” tends to wear off pretty quickly. (Especially when you get the teaching assistant who springs Un Chien Andalou on you unawares at 8:50 in the morning). In retrospect, though, I saw some great movies I probably wouldn’t have seen or even heard of otherwise, from 8 1/2 to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Out of all of them, my favorites were Rear Window and A Matter of Life and Death.

Rear Window is perfect fodder for cinema studies classes: it’s a great movie on its own, and it invites an academic to come in and suddenly give it more depth (and make himself seem more insightful) by talking about movies within movies and applying the liberal application of terms like mise en scene. But A Matter of Life and Death is different. It’s relentlessly charming, and seemingly straightforward 40s romantic comedy, until it goes off on some bizarre tangent or tosses in some weird detail that makes the whole thing resonate. At the time, I hadn’t seen anything like it before, and it instantly became one of my top five favorite movies.

And then I completely forgot about it for the next 20 years. It wasn’t until I read Matt Dessem’s posts about two other Powell/Pressburger movies, I Know Where I’m Going and Black Narcissus, that I remembered loving some bizarre WWII-era take on Here Comes Mr. Jordan. I actually felt a little guilty for forgetting about it, and put it in the Netflix queue with some trepidation: could it possibly be as good as it was back when I was a freshman in college?

The movie didn’t waste any time reminding me how much I’d loved it and how much I was surprised by it. Within the first fifteen minutes, it shows you: a tour of the galaxy, a wide-eyed dead body inside a crashing WWII bomber, Kim Hunter (surprisingly beautiful when not disguised as a chimpanzee) in a featureless void listening to the last words of a doomed pilot, the waiting room in heaven, and David Niven talking to a naked shepherd boy on a beach. (I’m still wondering about that one: was it really de rigueur for kids to hang out nude on beaches in 1945 Britain?) The shots of heaven are appropriately fantastic, including the image included above, looking down into the records room. All of the set design and art direction is genius, but instead of lingering on it, it’s treated as a backdrop for Powell & Pressburger’s extremely dry, British sense of humor: the arrival of a group of American pilots in heaven is just a perfectly-executed gag.

The directorial touch that gets the most attention is the shift between monochrome and Technicolor when the scene shifts between heaven and Earth. (As much as I loved Wings of Desire, I probably would’ve been more impressed if I hadn’t seen Stairway to Heaven just a month earlier). Powell & Pressburger make a fourth-wall breaking joke about it via one of their national stereotypes, the foppish French dandy in charge of David Niven’s case:
It’s a character that would’ve been insufferable anywhere else, but this movie is so gleefully eccentric that an over-the-top caricature like this one fits right in. (Also, he can stop time right in the middle of drinks or ping-pong games).

Take, for example, the hero of the movie. Technically, it’s David Niven’s character Peter, but I say the real hero is the movie’s stable voice of authority, motorcycle-riding action neurologist Dr. Frank Reeves: actionpsychologist.jpg

We first see him while he and his cocker spaniels are scoping out the town via his camera obscura. After that, he saddles up on his hog to check out the local US Army base, where he can diagnose Peter’s head injury while the soldiers are putting on amateur Shakespeare festival. He then invites Peter and his new American girlfriend to shack up at his own place, where he can pump the airman full of sedatives while he and the lady play ping pong. The motorcycle does become an important plot point later, but when it’s introduced, it’s hard to tell if it’s supposed to be funny or exciting or just weird. Considering there’s a similar motorcycle sequence in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I imagine that Powell & Pressburger just thought that motorcycles were cool. In any case, it gave us this scene:

where a goateed Roger Livesey in full-on 40s biker gear storms into a hospital on a stormy night and schools a surgeon about adhesions involving the olfactory nerve in the brain. As an impressionable 17-year-old, I thought he was just the biggest bad-ass.

It’s around that scene that the movie goes back into full-on fever dream mode, pelting you with one fantastic image after another. It’s possible that everything plays differently now, since it’s been ripped out of its WWII-era British context. I imagine this scene of heavenly nurses was always intended to be memorable, but I honestly couldn’t tell you if it was supposed to be this creepy:

It’s also here that the movie becomes its most pedantic. All the national and ethnic stereotypes we’ve seen so far aren’t just examples of Powell & Pressburger’s dry sense of humor. They’re part of the movie’s message. This clearly isn’t just a romantic comedy, and it’s not “just” a fantasy, either: it’s part propaganda film, just as much as Colonel Blimp. And the lesson was for the Allies to stay allied. Remember that this was in the 40s, back before society had evolved to the stage of renaming French fries to demonstrate patriotism; back then, people had to make whole movies to get past stereotypes. This part of the movie takes the form of a court case, to determine whether Peter can remain on Earth. Any court case needs evidence:


which in this case is to prove that British airman Peter and American communications officer June are truly in love. But the two “main” characters are really ciphers — I had to look up “June’s” name again, since she’s given no character beyond “all-American girl from Boston.” The real trial is an excuse for Powell & Pressburger to poke fun at Americans and Englishmen (and our common enemy, Frenchmen). But it’s not in any way cynical, or bitter, or spiteful. They’ve got real love for their characters and real optimism and genuine good humor. This was back when people referred to The Good War with a real understanding of its importance, and without any sense of irony.

And while the movie spends its last half hour in danger of becoming too talky, it’s also filled with some of the most fantastic imagery. The conclusion of the trial is kind of a spoiler, but it’s also the best example of the kind of genius filmmaking that makes this somewhat silly, somewhat goofy romantic comedy fantasy propaganda piece so unforgettable:

On the surface, it’d seem like there’s nothing making A Matter of Life and Death relevant anymore, now that it’s been almost completely removed from its original context. But it’s a testament to Powell & Pressburger’s talent and imagination that it’s still completely charming, odd, and fascinating. Looking for more info about the movie online, I saw that it was turned into a stage play in the UK a couple of years ago, reportedly despite the protests of Pressburger’s relatives. Based on the pictures and occasional write-ups on English blogs, it sounds like the play involved a good bit of wire-work and “imaginative” staging, and the gimmick of a random ending for the story with each performance.

I don’t object to the idea of a stage production — especially if it raised awareness of the original — but everything I’ve heard about this production makes it sound completely superfluous and more than a little condescending. It reminds me of Old Man Murray’s (brilliant) review of American McGee’s Alice and that game’s clumsy attempts to make a darker, edgier, more trippy reinterpretation of Alice in Wonderland. A Matter of Life and Death isn’t some quaint relic of a simpler time. It’s every bit as weird, wacky, gimmicky, and innovative as anything a 21st century stage director could come up with. If anything, it makes modern attempts seem trite for reproducing all of the gimmicks but not being able to fit them into a decent story.

We all tend to be dismissive of anything older than 20 years; clearly, as a culture we’re more advanced and enlightened than the simple, formulaic stuff that the old-timers put out. But whether it’s because they were fiercely independent, because they didn’t depend on a Hollywood model or Hollywood formula, because they had one of those rare examples of a creative partnership that just “clicks,” or just because they were geniuses, Powell & Pressburger managed to rise above that.