Monday, August 18, 2014

Malcolm and Me

Two rather coincidental things happened yesterday.  One, I finally finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, and two, I got suspended from a forum for posting a picture I drew that was arguably racist for cruelly mocking rapper dialogue.  I originally drew the picture (it's the fourth panel) in a Drawception game (note that despite the warning, there's no nudity or porn in that link, only language and racial humor), and if you don't know what Drawception is, the front page should give you a good idea. (Edit: It has now occurred to me that you need to log into the site to see NSFW games; fortunately simple Facebook or Google accounts work.)

I'm not going to say I did nothing wrong, when clearly this offended people.  Insofar as that game goes, I was just following the prompt, and in fact, my panel affected a change from a game that started as racist to one mocking wiggers, but it was, indeed, stupid of me to post that image on a forum thread devoid of context that explained it.  Nevertheless, I feel obligated to provide the context I conceived of it in, to explain why I don't believe this is truly racist at all.

The most immediately racist implication comes from the notion that I'm making fun of how black people talk.  Well, that would be a valid criticism, except absolutely no black person I've ever known actually talked like that.  In college, I had a good friend who was not only black, but from South Central Los Angeles, and he talked like an intellectual addressing other intellectuals; quite ahead of some white people I've heard.  The actual people I've heard spewing the sort of thing depicted in that drawing are of other races, trying to imitate a commodified version of black culture in order to be "cool".

This is how some High School students actually addressed me/the teacher, and none of us were black.
This is, in the words of someone who actually used such lingo (and wasn't black), all part of "the hip-hop subculture".  The image I drew isn't meant to be a stereotypical black man, but (as the prompt called for) a stereotypical rapper; the common perception of a rapper being both black, and using that sort of jargon.

Now, I want to pause and say I like rap music.  It varies in quality like every music variety, but it has am appeal to me musically that it doesn't for many people. (Though it is becoming increasingly more accepted, which, as I will note later, is a problem.)  Yet I've heard enough of it to deduce that something stinks, too.  I'm not getting fed up with people using bad grammar and a slang terms just in and of themselves.  I'm getting fed up with them for doing so because it's showing contempt for education in the most banal way popular, and because the slang terms are very often, something negative turned into a positive, and they aren't used facetiously, either.  I made certain to include in that drawing a lot of the terms for things I find particularly troublesome.  I do not like living in an era where "gangster", "pimp", and "dope" denote high quality and/or charisma, and furthermore, some relation to black people; had we only the latter connotation, everyone would see this association as blatantly racist, but somewhere along the line, hip-hop made vice look cool.  Which does not mean it isn't a huge problem for the race it's supposed to represent.

Usually, when people consume period literature, they remark on how different popular culture was back then.  Upon reading Malcolm X's autobiography, one of the most shocking things I discovered was that black popular culture actually wasn't very different.  Already in the World War II era, the ghettos were filled with black people using bad grammar and slang to be cool, and dealing in gambling, drugs, and prostitution to make themselves wealthy; many of them falling victim to the same temptations, or to rival gangsters, or the cops.  Malcolm X fell to all three, and during a long stint in prison, when he had a chance to meditate on all of it, came to the exact same conclusion I would decades later: The "gangsta" culture is degenerating the black race, and now it hasn't stopped at them, either.

In Malcolm's opinion, and especially that of the Nation of Islam, who were his mentors at the time, these things were largely set in motion by devious white members of society with the specific goal of keeping blacks down, and this could be true, as America was still quite a racist nation at the time. (Which is not to be taken as a wholesale endorsement of the NOI's beliefs, but sometimes it doesn't take a weatherman to see which way the wind's blowing.)  It could also be Nietzschean resentiment; that is, people who find their lives in the low levels of society inescapable, identify aspects of their life in the low levels of society, and reinterpret them as positive parts of their identity that, in fact, make them above others; sinking into nihilism and becoming their own worst enemy.  It could be both.  What caused it, though, is not important.  The fact is that was the state of black popular culture then, and that it still is now proves that something in the Civil Rights movement didn't go quite right.

I've certainly had people suspect me of being a racist for my myriad attacks on what hip-hop values, and I actually wondered about my own negative views when I first started listening to such music, but now that I've found respected black sources that share my criticism, I feel no more reservations in stating it.  Listen to what these men (and now, women, too) are spouting and ask yourself what it says to listeners about their race.  What does it say when black people revel in subverting grammar standards taught in school?  What does that say about intelligence?  What does it say when black people brag about killing other black people (whom they frequently call by the N word) for being competing criminals?  Whom does that really help?  What does it say when they brag about their diamonds, which were quite possibly mined in Africa by other black people enslaved by terrorists?  What does it say when they brag about their price-gouged designer clothes, made by companies run by white people?  What does it say when they boast about subjugating women to be their "bitches" and "hoes", and their hatred of homosexuals, when the trod-upon members of society should be helping each other out?  Who's the racist here; us people who criticize this shit, or the people who endorse it and actually buy it as a quintessential part of being black?

If a white person drew this picture, how would your reaction change?  Should it matter?
Now, some will say things are improving.  That we don't have many lyrics about killing other black people anymore (though it took two hugely influential and respected rappers dying in a feud to stop it), or about violent crime in general.  Now, it's just people bragging about their obscene wealth; partially squandered on status symbols that are only worth so much because people are stupid enough to pay that much for them, and their virtual sex slaves, and their drugs.  So whereas before, hip-hop sold an image of black people as tough and immoral, now it just makes them look immoral.  Is that an improvement?  It certainly isn't a fix to the damage that this culture has done.

Things aren't looking to stop, either.  Nietzsche said something else about resentiment; he said that, while it's born among those at the low end of society who have the most impetus to make it the most hypnotic, it can spread upward, as the forced valuation of the trappings of being at the low end of society sweeps people higher up in its spell.  That's what's happening now, when non-black people imitate what they mistakenly believe is black culture and think is cool.  It's happening in the casual, positive use of "gangsta" and "pimp" and "dope", it's happening in the Far East Movement's ridiculously pretentious claims of being awesome for getting high off cough syrup, it's happening in myriad young people, of every race, who view success as doing immoral things for money, all so they can buy Gucci and Louis and ice and dope and SUVs with decorated hubcaps.  If this cancer ever spreads to the point that society breaks down from being too immoral and stupid to function, whom do you think they're going to turn around and blame?  The black people, whom hip-hop convinced them started this all.

This is why I feel absolutely justified in mocking the stupidity and one-dimensionality of many rappers, because they don't represent their race or what's good for their race; they represent a lifestyle that gives hollow, short-term gain to a few people while being worse in the long run for them, and worse immediately for many others.  Now if you enjoy this music, as I do, go on back and enjoy it some more; the same as you might enjoy hearing Scarr sing about how he plans to kill Mufasa and crush the remaining opposition.  But think about how things could be better; how rap could be turned into something that retains its appeal and edge without being stupid and immoral, and consider drawing the line more thickly sometime in the very near future.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Ten Lamest Pokemon Names!

I'll return to my regularly scheduled essay format after this, but tonight I bring you a cynical look back at my 1990s childhood; as I am prone to taking often enough.  These are the Pokemon names for which Nintendo and Gamefreak dropped the ball and didn't even try.

10) Ekans

This sounded like meaningless gibberish until we realized that it's just the word, "snake", backwards.  There was ample precedent to call it "Serple", or "Purpent", which would be both more descriptive of exactly what sort of snake (I'm pretty sure that there's no purple snakes in this world, after all) and creative.  Still, at least the lameness was subtle enough in this one; unlike the rest of these.

9) Krabby

I really don't know if they were trying to make a normal animal sound cuter, as in, Doggy, Kitty, Birdy, or Eely, or trying to convey that it's a constant grouch.  Either way, I can't hear it without thinking of Spongebob cooking it into a burger.

Though it does beg the question of exactly how crabs got associated with being grouchy in the first place.  Because they pinch people who pick on them?  Yeah; that's self-defense, genius; almost every animal has some sort.  Are you ignoring this just because they look so different that you can't empathize with them, or because they taste so good you don't care to think about their wishes?

Well, you fail extra hard then, Pokemon staff.  Not only is this name lame; it's also racist!

An attitude they have fortunately moved on from since then!

8) Hippopotas

First of all, I don't know of anything including the syllables "popo" that I can take seriously.  Moreover, though, there's no way this could stay off the list when it needed to be said that removing letters from a word could create results just as stupid as adding them.  It would be like calling Rhyhorn "Rhinocous", or calling Lapras "Pleasiaur", or calling Meowth, "Siamat".  I can't even say this thing's name right without preparing myself, since it is in effect, going against 29 years of saying "hippopotamus" correctly.

7) Seel

Sometimes, when I see the direction literacy is going on such places as the YouTube comments section, I worry that some evil witchdoctor might have revived E. E. Cummings and is  using him to take over the world with terrible spelling and grammar.  What I'm not sure is why I didn't have this worry back in the 1990s, when Pokemon decided to change one letter in an actual animal's name and call it a day.  Granted, I hadn't had as many pretentious literature teachers trying to convince me E. E. Cummings was a good writer at the time, but still, this one is so stupid I at least should have thought something.  Yet at least I know exactly what I'm dealing with when I hear it.  Unlike...

 6) Sawk and Throh

It's a good thing this article includes pictures; otherwise you might assume that one on the left is actually a wooly white tube that rides around on people's feet.  In reality, they're a double-tribute to the ongoing "Striker vs Grappler" battle MMA adores, and also to some of the most forced misspelling ever to pretend they actually named Pokemon.  I have to wonder if you're just supposed to pronounce them like the actual English words they bastardize, or add a dopey drawl to "Sawk" the Hell would I pronounce Throh?!

5) Tauros

If this wasn't a word frequently used to refer to maybe somewhat cool (in a New Age, hipster sense of the word) things, it would be higher on the list, but as it is, it's still on it somewhere, as it consists only of substituting in an exact Greek translation for the word, "bull".  I think they could have done better; like why not "Bullhardy"?  Or "Bulldreaded?"  Or "Bovinihilator"?  Come on; that one has to be a Pokemon name; guys!  Send me post a comment down there with your depiction of what "Bovinihilator" looks like, and I'll give you my Paypal for royalties.

4) Golem


Apparently, a "golem" (Not to be confused with "Gollum"; the ugly materialist creature from LOTR) is an animated stone behemoth in Jewish mythology.  So they applied the name directly to an animated stone behemoth in Pokemon, I guess.  In case you never considered, that's about the equivalent of naming a Dragon type Pokemon, "Dragon".  Or a Ghost Type "Ghost".  The worst offense, though, is that in its original stage, this Pokemon is known by the awesome name, Geodude, which conjures up all sorts of insane mental images of valuable stones asking you to slap them high-five in a mess of dated skateboard lingo.

3) Haunter

As noted above, fortunately the stupidity behind naming a big rock monster, simply, "Golem" did not extend to naming a Dragon Pokemon, simply, "Dragon", or a Ghost Pokemon, simply, "Ghost."  No; they were clearly exercising massive amounts of brain power when they presumably asked, "Hm; what does a ghost do?" and came up with this embarrassment.  I'm not exactly sure what name they should have thought of for this thing, but I do know that by these standards, Pikachu should have been named "Shocker", Hoothoot and/or Noctowl should have been "Hooter", Cubone and/or Marowak should have been "Boner", and Fearow should have been "Pecker".

Which, to be fair, would have been awesome.

2) Mr. Mime

 In all fairness to the people in charge of naming this thing, I have a feeling that no casual observer could have looked at it and come up with a name for it that wasn't a derogatory term for gay people.  Yet since the people in charge were obviously told it was supposed to be a Mime, they had much more to work with, but somehow decided to focus on the possibility that it was also a male mime, and hence we should address it like it was our teacher or boss.  It would take a total of one generation to introduce Pokemon gender; rendering the name potentially inaccurate on top of its lameness.

And this is on a Pokemon that wasn't very charismatic to begin with.  Which makes our final entry all the more tragic.

1) Persian

Somehow, when naming a cat Pokemon, the Pokemon company went back to the old "Golem" trip and just defaulted to the exact name of an actual cat, and that would have been lame enough.  However, what really earns this the number one spot in not only lameness but also stupidity, is that they actually got the wrong breed!  Seriously; that's a Siamese cat crossed with a mountain lion; plus a chakra to make it seem as though it could curse us with its Jedi powers, and they named it after this:
"Rawww; I are thcary, fierthe fighter!  Yawn!"
Not even getting into the immense physical differences between the two, the Persian breed is a lap cat with a belly that would drag in battle, and a perpetually held nose that makes air intake difficult.  Compare that to this description from the games: "Behind its lithe, elegant appearance lies a barbaric side. It will tear apart its prey on a mere whim."

Yeah; fail.

Think of some I missed?  Write about them in the comments!  But don't be surprised if I fail to see them from gaping at Bovinihilator's epic awesomeness.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) Review

I will start by answering the preeminent question everyone has: No; this isn't Bayformers.  You can breathe a sigh of relief if you were expecting a disaster that's Revenge of the Fallen bad.  The plot will confuse nobody (save for the very young, maybe), the action is fluid and visible, Megan Fox actually does a good job, and although not all jokes hit, you won't be driven crazy by their stupidity.  If you're worried about the allegations of penis and fart jokes, rest assured there is just a penis joke and a fart joke that pass quickly, and best of all, there's no racism to be found in any characterizations.

Unfortunately, this new take on the iconic reptilian roughhousers is grounded to the point of being tedious in many places.  The revised origin of the turtles; loosely based on the Fred Wolf cartoon's take but essentially its own thing (a theme prevalent through much of this version), eats up time as it's revealed by the film's pedestrian human cast.  When I said Megan Fox does a good job as April Oneil, I mean that she adequately conveys when she's happy, sad, moved to tears by a sweet moment (and to be fair, you might be, too), and terrified, but she's still not playing a very interesting character.  Also along are Will Arnett as Vernon Fenwick, who is much more likable than his Fred Wolf counterpart but not nearly as great as he was as Batman, Whoopi Goldberg as April's boss, Bernardette Thompson, who is sadly no more likable than her Fred Wolf counterpart (though for whatever reason, a different race and gender), and the Foot Clan, almost entirely reinvented as a gun-toting, western terrorist organization.  Some may like this change of pace, as it's at least different from the Foot in every other Turtle movie, but when Karai, a character whose most faithful adaptation was in 16-bit fighting games, is reduced to pointing a pistol at people and driving a Humvee, the change truly rears its ugly head.  I have no idea why she's in this movie.

Questionable new elements aside, things progress more-or-less the way you know if you're familiar with the brand; April runs afoul of the villains, the Turtles save her, she faints, they wake her up and introduce themselves and their rat sensei, Splinter (played by Monk himself, Tony Shaloub), a flashback montage is played, pizza is eaten, and then the fight is on to defeat the Foot Clan.  It's at that point that finally, the movie comes into its own.

I'm not ashamed to say that Platinum Dunes' skepticism-prone take on the series does a few things better than the past movies.  Aside from the original books, I think this is the most violent I've seen the Turtles and especially their foes get, and although it will be discomforting to some, it was long overdue.  Heavy, brutal, head-bashing, bone-smashing impacts are inflicted by both sides, and nobody screws around.  People hold up the original 1990 movie as the ideal TMNT film, and also as a rare adaptation that tried to reconcile the original Mirage series and the vastly altered Fred Wolf cartoon, but even it contained an extremely awkward moment where a scene of the Foot attacking April's apartment was interrupted by Michelangelo challenging a Foot ninja to a "chuck-off", and both sides just stopped and watched.  As is well-known, the other live-action movies just got more inane from there, but no such illogical cheese is present here.  Jokes get in where they fit in, sometimes as mid-action quips, and a fair amount are even pretty funny, but there's no pausing to fool around when lives are at stake.  There's a pretty great truck chase segment; not something any other TMNT film has had, and Shredder is all new levels of menacing.  He's barely a character, but his amped-up, "old-meets-new" arsenal of technologically charged blades provides some great new fights with the heroes.  He's not taken down in any cheap way, either; the Turtles all bring their A-game against him, and even Fox's April gets some nifty licks in.  It's cool, it's exciting, and it's funny.

But then it's over.  Much as the film seems to go on too long during the boring exposition, just when it's gotten good, it flies by too fast.  The pacing is awkward enough that I wonder if things were filmed first and then arranged in some arbitrary order, because it seems like it just coasts at first, and then fires off all of its exciting bits in rapid succession; like some constipated machine gun.  The closest it came to enraging me was in the form of scenes that, in the trailers, made it look like we were going to get more adventures, instead being throwaway gags at the end--though in all honesty, they're more likely sequel hooks.

In summary, this new take on the Turtles isn't a total loss.  It gets some things right about the brand (or as right as they can be; given how many different versions there are), there are some fun, if brief and objectively trivial, nods to old fans, and at least some of the new things it brings to the table have merit.  Still, while there's only so much one can do retelling the origin story of the Turtles (this is the seventh time; count them), this film disappoints even those modest expectations, and ultimately the highest praise I can give it is that I was left wanting more instead of less.  Hopefully, what we got at the end of the first film promises more character development, and more fun exploration of the Turtle mythos in the inevitable sequels.

Then again, we remember what happened last time.