Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Feverish Culture/Pop Culture Report

Most of my work as a game designer and games researcher is influenced by my take on different emerging trends and exceptional phenomena in pop culture at large, as well as exposure to traditional cultural practices in other countries (because globalization not only brings global to local, but makes it possible for local to influence the global).

So I thought instead of writing about games, and to distract myself from my flu, I would blog a bit about some culture/pop culture experiences I've been enjoying lately. If my writing rambles, blame it on the fever...

Curacao and the Matt Savage Trio
When I first heard the new jazz track Curacao--described in a review I found later as "crazily percussive and hypnotic"--it only took about 30 seconds of listening for me to know, just know, that it was composed by someone with autism. Listening to the track is like hearing a fractal being created. (Fractals can be visualized, but have you ever heard one?) It is intensely chaotic and yet clearly, wickedly, ordered using some kind of massively-multiple dimensionality that the average brain doesn't process. I looked up the song online and found out that it was composed by Matt Savage, a 14-year-old prodigy who indeed was diagnosed as a young child with autism. (You can also listen to samples here.) Listening to the patterns in the music on Matt's is the closest I've come to personally experiencing the differences in brain architecture between average brains (like mind) and alternately structured brains (like Matt's). It's an amazing experience. I guess I'm a little late to the Matt Savage game-- I just dug up a Wired profile of him from 2003! But I think his compositions are really maturing and taking a turn into uncharted neural territory.

The Death Note Series
This is a phenomenon I'm still learning about-- the film series and TV series based on a best-selling vigilante/Death God fantasy manga series. (Here are some trailers.)Kiyash and I saw the theatrical film Death Note 2, live-action with huge manga influences, in Hong Kong, without even realizing we were going to a sequel. We found out later that Death Note 1 had been released only a couple of months earlier-- a really remarkable time compression between sequels. Also, curiously, a fully animated TV series of the same original manga IP is running concurrently, as a big hit. When something saturates multiple platforms -- print, film, tv -- simultaneously, you know to pay attention.

The aesthetics of the films are amazing. It's live action, with frequent appearances by "death gods" -- animated manga characters that look as if they were created using a Game Dev software and engine, Maya built all the way. It's a gorgeous blend of the real and the virtual, and done with such a straight face and little fanfare that you know the culture has reached a point where virtual landscapes and the real-world blending together is no longer remarkable, it is expectable. Brilliant.

The plot and themes are equally cutting edge: they deal with amateur justice, which in Asia in general is becoming a strange edge trend. (See my earlier post on Chinavenging, for example.) The characters using a powerful notebook to kill known sex offenders and murderers ("Write their name in the Death Note Book, picture their face in your mind, and they will die in 8 minutes") and use public Internet databases of criminals to figure out who to kill. This seems extremely relevant to me... especially given the New York Times' story today, for instance, on amateur online justice. The rise of amateur-driven social infrastructure to fill in perceived gaps is something to keep an eye on.

Dhoom 2 and Don
My best souvenir from my recent around-the-world trip is my newfound appreciation for Bollywood action movies. Kiyash and I had the opportunity to see Don (in Hindi, without subtitles) and Dhoom 2 (in Hindi, with English subtitles). You can watch the trailers for the films here and here, respectively; they're both like Mission Impossible with intermittent Bollywood musical numbers, and they're by far my favorite movies that I've seen in years. (The Dhoom 2 trailer is way better than the Don trailer, but Kiyash and I were both much more blown away by Don as brilliant, breath-taking action cinema.) The soundtracks are now among my most played tracks, and I can't get over the amazing masculinity of the singing and dancing heroes. While the women in the films tend to be objectified not much differently than U.S. pop culture--their songs and music montages most closely resemble a cross between a Britney Spears video and a Sports Illustrated photo shoot--the men represent a kind of masculinity I just haven't seen in Western culture. They sing, they dance, they are joyful--and they just work so hard to woo their women. The joyfulness of the interactions in the song and dances is a fascinating and somewhat jarring contrast with the rampant poverty and suffering we encountered in New Delhi, Udaipur and Agra. It reminds me of all of the photos I took of women wearing the most joyfully vibrant colors, fabrics in hot fuschia and bright, bright blinding yellows, shuffling along the roadside with exhaustion. I wondered how the culture could wear such colors while living with the difficulties of a largely undeveloped nation, which of course is an observation born out of some ridiculous Western fashion perspective.

At any rate, Dhoom 2 and Don epitomize my ambivalence about visiting India. I feel strange enjoying their pop culture out of context, taking the art out of the context of a missing social infrastructure that leaves so much of the country in appalling poverty and disease. For instance, the climate changes caused by global warming are making certain cities without robust public health infrastructure in place extremely susceptible to vector-bourne disease epidemics. India is expected to be most vulnerable in the coming years, according to recently published research. The month we were in New Delhi, there were 3000 cases and nearly 100 deaths from dengue fever, for instance, in the capital city. All of this is to say that in some ways it seems the pop culture of India is completely disconnected from the social realities. That's true of Hollywood, to some extent, but nothing like the gap between India's gorgeous films and the heartbreaking suffering of so many of its citizens. It's something I"m thinking a lot about -- nothing yet, but I know there's some important work to be done in terms of bringing reality closer to our art -- including games... what we achieve in our fictional expressions and virtual worlds we need to create in reality as well.


Oh. It's Kristen Again. *sigh* said...

my writing partner and I used to meet in an Indian restaurant to work, but we had to stop because they show bollywood films and I would end up totally distracted. Love them.

Patrick said...

I can relate to your utopian sympathies; I've been brewing an ARG in my head that aims to inspire participants to feasibly make the world a better place, but have been stymied by some obvious (and also some not-so-obvious) design problems. To be continued...

(Curacao is nuts by the way, digging it.)

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