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Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair.


On the surface, an artist tries to frame his ideals in an image, to challenge his audience and make his vision immortal. But the parasites say ‘NO! Your art must serve the cause! Your ideals endanger the people!’ Lacking its own ingenuity, the Parasite fears the visionary. What it cannot plagarize, it seeks to censor; what it cannot regulate, it seeks to ban. Rapture was founded on an idea, and here they are held inviolate.“Hmm…maybe they should’ve moved the Barnes to Rapture, then. Gamers might recognize the rantings above as those of the Ayn Randish industrial magnate Andrew Ryan, whose Journey to the Surface amusement ride is one of the cleverer setpieces in the recently-released Bioshock 2. But they also reflect the basic conceit within Don Argott’s Art of the Steal, a rather aggravating documentary about the recent moving of the Barnes Collection from Lower Merion, PA into downtown Philadelphia.

Art of the Steal starts off as an intriguing albeit confused retelling of this political story: Intriguing in that there’re a lot of interlocking and complicated motivations at work, and confused in that the documentary assumes certain first principles — and, later, malign intent — without backing them up. And while I was willing to forgive Art of the Steal its imbalance for awhile just because it was so clearly compelled by a sense of injustice done, the documentary gradually becomes so grossly one-sided in its telling that it skips right over myopic and naive and ends up feeling downright corrupt.

The story of the Barnes begins with the rise of our Andrew Ryan figure, Albert C. Barnes, a forward-thinking, working-class Philadelphian who, by dint of extraordinary intelligence and a hole in the pharmaceutical market, was a millionaire by the time he was 35. Considered a curmudgeon and misanthrope even by his friends, Barnes also had an undeniably great eye for art, and he started buying up masterpieces of the Post-Impressionist and early Modern periods — Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse — well before any other museums caught on to the scene. And when his attempts to show off his impressive collection in the town of his birth are ridiculed by the stuffy, conventional Philadelphia swells, Barnes angrily vows that he will never show off his private collection to these philistines, ever again.

Barnes is nothing if not a man of his word. He builds his own palatial gallery-school in Lower Merion, a suburb of Philly 4.5 miles outside the city center, and decides to restrict access to his collection to art students, working-class folks, and anyone else he deems worthy. The good news is Mr. Barnes’ sense of worthy is actually pretty keen: Barnes is a New Deal man well ahead of his time, particularly on the race relations front, and he greatly enjoys ridiculing the Philadelphia glitterati, most notably the Yang to his Yin, the conservative-minded Annenbergs. But even the Great Man cannot live forever, and when he dies in a car accident at an advanced age, the scions of Philadelphia begin their slow, convoluted plot to wrest Barnes’ art from him…for the good of the City, of course.

To his credit, Barnes did anticipate thus, and so his will clearly stipulates that this world-historical collection of art never be shown nor removed from its Lower Merion stronghold. (And, as a final screw-you to the Philly elites he loathed, he leaves it as a last resort to the local African-American college, Lincoln.) But, as time passes, and people die off, and Fortress Barnes itself starts to decay from within, the dead man’s ghostly hold over his property becomes more and more attenuated. To the point where — when a case is made that the art would be better off in Philly — well, the Great Man himself has been gone for fifty years, right?

Art of the Steal is at its best in the first hour, when it sets up the personalities involved and recounts the byzantine, death-by-increments process by which the Barnes collection finally got relocated. But, quite frankly, I thought there were some problems with its central thesis from the start. The documentary goes well out of its way to depict the people in favor of moving the collection as despicable and/or corrupt (and it is clear that some of the shadier operators, like Walter Annenberg, were indeed motivated by personal pique). But, nobody ever presents the counter-argument, that maybe (gasp!) there is really a legitimate case for moving the Barnes to downtown Philadelphia.

For one, the Barnes is an impressive building, and one of the best arguments the Barnes disciples make for keeping the collection there is the Great Man’s — again, extremely forward-thinking — methods of curation. (Unlike most museums, Barnes never subdivided the work by period or artist. He grouped by aesthetic, across cultural, geographic, and chronological lines, thus emphasizing a universality of art which is only now becoming more popular in museums.) But round the decay of that colossal wreck, nothing beside remains. For all intent and purposes, the Barnes really did seem to be falling apart, and attempts to continue using Lower Merion as a home base for the collection — adding parking lots and such — were roundly fought off by many of the same locals (Barnes might call them elites) later shown, when it’s convenient, to be “friends of the museum.”

And if the Ozymandias quote didn’t tip you off, I would also argue there’s a world-historical eminent domain question here that should at least be addressed. Albert Barnes may have been a Great Man, but…Mistah Barnes, he dead. (“God rest his soul, and his rudeness. A devouring public can now share the remains of his sickness.“) He’s as dead as King Tut, who probably would not have signed off on what Howard Carter et al did to his tomb. (In fact, I’d argue Tutankhamun almost assuredly got screwed over worse than Barnes.) And, speaking of which, there’s a reason why Indiana Jones’ usually undisputed refrain is, “It belongs in a museum!

You may disagree, of course, and think that Barnes’ will should be held inviolate from now until the End of Days — Ok, that’s cool, we disagree. But a good documentary would at least entertain this obvious opposing argument. Instead, Art of the Steal keeps making overbroad assertions that merit some serious unpacking. This tale, according to the movie, is a devastating triumph of Unbridled Commerce over the Purity of Art. But wait…wasn’t this about Commerce as soon as Barnes bought the art in the first place? He didn’t paint this stuff. And, according to the movie, the Barnes collection stands for Democracy in the face of the Corporatization of Art. It does? I thought Barnes hated “the mass experience” and wanted to show his collection only to the worthy. That doesn’t sound particularly democratic to me.

And in its final half-hour or so, Art of the Steal just fulminates and rages, barely making any sense at all. It accuses City officials of enacting an elaborate and corrupt scam on the people, and then depicts County officials, as well as the area’s GOP Congressman, as if they’re pure art lovers or something. (Like, I dunno, maybe Lower Merion and Montgomery County, etc., have some financial interests at stake here too?) It accuses the Philadelphia Art Museum’s backers of orchestrating this nefarious plot, but never satisfactorily explains how having a rival art museum moved downtown would benefit them. (Presumably, the argument is a rising tourist tide lifts all boats, I guess. The movie has a better case against the Pew Charitable Trust, who pretty clearly use the Barnes rather dodgily as leverage to improve their tax situation.)

And, with the possible exception of Richard Glanton, an enterprising former Foundation head seen as either the first crack in the Barnes dike or, as he sees himself, Cerberus defending the gates of Hell (Apres moi le deluge), the movie keeps shoehorning everyone involved into either hero or villain, without ever conceding that the issues are more complicated than they first seem. (Julian Bond of the NAACP, for example, is a witness for the prosecution here. But one of his more compelling arguments — that the powers-that-be screwed over Lincoln University, an historically black institution, by Bigfooting them into the move — is mostly elided over.) And the movie generates so much heat in the end that the light is lost. At one point, Governor Ed Rendell says the move of the collection to Philadelphia just seemed like an easy call to him, and after watching this documentary, I didn’t see much to disqualify that claim. Other than following verbatim the will of a man with no heirs who’s been dead for fifty years, what were the reasons again for keeping the collection in Lower Merion?

In choosing to be a one-sided screed rather than an in-depth exploration of the subject at hand, Art of the Steal does its very interesting topic no favors. In the end, the movie works less as a definitive statement on the thorny entanglement of art and commerce than as a sad testament to the narcissism of petty differences. And from the muddled picture one gets of Mr. Barnes here, the Great Man deserved a better advocate.

For the People who are Still Alive.


I’m still working my way through the very playable Mass Effect 2Paragon now, Renegade later — and Bioshock 2 is competing for my attention as well. Nonetheless, Aperture Science waits for no man: Portal 2 is on the way, and Game Informer is making a month out of it.

Oh, word. It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction…but let’s hope the cake is real this time (and the Companion Cube isn’t ticked.)

Love Songs ’10.

A very happy Valentines Day to you and yours. To keep tradition going for its sixth year here at GitM — ’05, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09 — time for the yearly musical valentines from yours truly.

First off, in keeping with the usual once-a-year romantic status-update, you’ll be happy to know that this 2010 post actually comes with 44% less whining than usual. (Yay, and there was much rejoicing.) I am still single on this end, as per the norm, which means my trusty sheltie sidekick is once again holding down the official valentine spot. (Aw, he got me Bioshock 2. How did he know I wanted it?) But, having at last escaped the egregious emotional, financial, and general personal sandtrap that is late-term gradual school, it’s safe to say I’m in a much happier place these days. And, since returning to DC, a town that’s been swell to me so far, I’ve at least been taking a few swings at the plate lately. So, no wallowing this V-day. I’m in a pretty good place, all in all, and hope springs eternal. In any event, on to the music:

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Hang with me in my MMO,
So many places we can go!
I’m better than a Real World quest
You’ll touch my +5 to Dexterity Vest.

What role do you want to play?
I’m just a click away, night or day.
And if you think I’m not the one,
Log off, log off and we’ll be done…”

But can she kite the adds? First off, as always, I offer some quality cheese: Singlehandedly raising unrealistic expectations for gamergrrls the world (of Warcraft) over, The Guild‘s fetching Felicia Day scored a massive (multiplayer) online hit last summer with the supremely catchy “Do You Wanna Date (My Avatar)?” In some ways a peppy, poppy update to Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” (which led off the order in ’06) this was one of two songs I heard in the past year that I knew — immediately — would make it into this post.

Now, having spent more than my fair share of time MMO’ing over the past few years — everybody say hi to Jacklowry — it’s safe to say that the bubbly, infectious enthusiasm that drives this track isn’t really a huge part of games like Warcraft. (In fact, everyone usually seems vaguely depressed — There’s a reason why some of the biggest facets of WoW-life are “grinding” levels and “farming” mats. If you take it seriously, it sorta becomes a day job.) But, all that being said, Day and The Guild crew know their WoW — how ’bout a little tank-and-spank? — and they’ve delivered a ditty that works as both a fun and knowing riff on the MMO life and a silky, effervescent pop song all on its own. Great job, y’all…Lvl 80 rogue lf healbot pst?

*********

You told me you loved me,
Why did you leave me, all alone?
Now you tell me you need me,
When you call me, on the phone.

Girl I refuse, you must have me confused
With some other guy
Your bridges were burned, and now it’s your turn
To cry, cry me a river.”

Don’t it make you sad about it? This song probably needs no introduction — most everybody knows it, and I’m sure a lot of people are totally sick of the durned thing. Still, since the last song, however cheesy, is already a gamer standard and perhaps not nearly as embarrassing a guilty pleasure as I’ve tended to offer in years past, I give you JT’s “Cry Me a River.”

It’s easy to playa-hate Justin Timberlake, and to be honest, I think I can only name three or four songs of his anyway. Still, I’d argue this well-crafted track and “SexyBack” put JT as the truly deserving 21st century pop heir to, say, Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson. He’s got the pipes, he’s got the beats, he’s got the production values, the dance moves, and the marketing savvy, and to my mind “Cry Me a River” just holds it own as a classically catchy pop ditty. And when the scorned lasses of this world roll out Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” as their peppy post-break-up standard on the dance floor, I in turn will call forth this track, Pokemon-style. Game on.

*********

I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm.
Yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new,
in city and in forest they smiled like me and you.
But now it’s come to distances and both of us must try,

Your eyes are soft with sorrow,
And I know when to say goodbye.

While I threw up some Dylan in both ’06 and ’07, I try not to repeat artists just yet for these V-Day posts. Still, while the sublime “I’m Your Man” — which quite possibly can’t be topped as a V-Day song — was part of the 2007 mix, I’m going with Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” this year from Live in London. Not only because it is beautiful, but because, frankly, I played the hell out of this record over the past year.

When he’s at his best, as he is throughout Live in London, Cohen’ sheer rawness — his naked, direct emotion — cuts like a knife. He’s not one to dabble in misdirection, or to try to obscure his feelings with extended metaphors. He just goes right to the heart of it, every time.

With that in mind, I much prefer this version of “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” to the original 1967 version. At times, the young Cohen sounds too callow to me. It took years, even decades, for his voice to catch up to the power of his poetry. And the slight change in lyrics here — Now it’s “I know when to say goodbye” — helps push this ballad from petulance to poignance. It’s one of many transcendant moments on this superlative album.

*********

Well I could sleep forever
But it’s of her I dream.
if I could sleep forever
I could forget about everything…

And, really, who doesn’t love sleep? As a love-song sorbet of sorts, here’s The Dandy Warhols’ “Sleep.” Like Brian Eno’s “By this River” and Hot Chip’s “Crap Kraft Dinner” (written up in ’09), this is one of those songs I find endlessly soothing. It could just play on and on like this for twenty minutes and I’d be blissfully content…perhaps eventually nodding off, fading away into the wilderness of dream…

*********

I’m so tired, of playing
Playing with this bow and arrow
Gonna give my heart away
Leave it to the other boys to play
Been tempted for too long

Go on, give me a reason to love you
Give me a reason to wanna be your man
Give me a reason to love you
Give me a reason if you can.”

As I said back when hyping Third in 2008, Portishead’s Dummy was one of those ubiquitous albums for a few years there in the mid-nineties, with the most memorable track therein possibly being “the second single, “Glory Box.” I include the late guitarist John Martyn’s cover of “Glory Box” here not because it’s an improvement on the original — they’re both amazing — but because it captures so well that song’s hothouse sultriness, while managing to sound quite different in the end (and switching the gender dynamic.)

Also of note on this subject: Portishead’s “Scorn,” the ice-cold B-side version of this same song. I love how it completely inverts the sensation of the original tune, just by switching the beats involved. Now, the whole song plays out atop that sensual, brooding oil-tanker rhythm only heard when everything goes wobbly in the original version. And, conversely, only in the climax of this mix are the original lyrical strings heard, like a moment of clear-thinking grace before the hammers descend anew. (The Youtube of “Scorn” below cuts out the end, unfortunately, although you can hear the whole mix here.)

*********

“A love-struck Romeo sings the streets a serenade
Laying everybody low with a love song that he made.
Finds a streetlight, steps out of the shade
Says something like, ‘You and me babe, how about it?’

Juliet says, ‘Hey, it’s Romeo, you nearly gave me a heart attack!’
He’s underneath the window, she’s singing, ‘Hey la, my boyfriend’s back.’
You shouldn’t come around here singing up to people like that…
Anyway, what you gonna do about it?”

You and me, babe, how ’bout it? Now, if forced, with a gun to my head, to pick the Dire Straits’ absolute finest hour, I’d have to go with “Sultans of Swing”, that testament to resolute keep-on-keepin’-on long after the crowd’s gone home and all the midnight oil is burned. Still, their brief retelling of “Romeo & Juliet” is an unabashedly lovely song indeed. (Full disclosure: This was, in fact, the favorite tune of one of my former ex’s, a long, long time ago. But, no plagiarism here. I ended up earning this streetlight serenade’s stripes myself…the hard way. Anyway, let’s move on.)

There are a lot of covers of “Romeo & Juliet” floating around — Indigo Girls, The Killers, Edwin McCain — but none of ’em really do the simple beauty of this song justice. Also, the original Dire Straits video is also online, but frankly it’s so bad and ridiculously Eighties-ish that it detracts from the timelessness of the tune. No wonder they later plunked down big dollars for “Money for Nothing“…

*********

“Looking from a window above,
It’s like a story of love
Can you hear me?
Came back only yesterday
Moving farther away
Want you near me…

All i needed was the love you gave
All i needed for another day,
And all i ever knew,
Only you.”

As I’ve said ’round here many times, I’m a big Depeche Mode fan from way back. (Their “Here is the House” went up here in ’06.) And I think they became a better, darker, richer band in 1982 with Vince Clarke’s departure after Speak & Spell, when Martin Gore took over the songwriting full-time.

Still, with all due respect to melancholy Marty, Vince Clarke always had a way with a happy three-chord love song that the minor-key-obsessed DM never ever really got back to. Case in point: Yaz’s “Only You” (as well as almost all of Erasure’s many hits over the years.) There are no regrets or guilt or religious allusions or teenage scared-stiff-of-sex angst or black cars driving around in the distance. It’s just a simple, very pretty ode to that one special person.

There are a lot of very good tracks on the better of Yaz’s two albums, Upstairs at Eric — “Don’t Go,” “Situation,” and “Winter Kills,” for example. Still, I’d put “Only You” as the pick of the litter: It’s the perfect blend of Vince Clarke synth-pop and Alison Moyet soul.

*********

“Love is a delicate thing,
It could just float away on a breeze!
(he said the same thing to me)

How can we ever know
We’ve found the right person in this world?
(he means he looks at other girls)

Love is a mystery, It does not follow the rules!
(this guy is a fool)
(he’ll always be a boy, he’s a man who never grew up)
I thought I told you to shut up…”

The first time you get dumped, it feels like a tragedy. It just plain sucks. The second time, it…well, actually it’s even worse. And by the third or fourth time, you start to really wonder what’s wrong with you. But, after enough iterations of the dismal cycle, as the Conchords’ “Carol Brown” points out, it does become farce. And a really funny one, for that matter.

Along with Felicia Day at the top, this is the other song I knew I was going to post here this year as soon as I heard it. The Flight of the Conchords’ second season included a lot of really hilarious tunes: “Hurt Feelings” (and its reprise), “Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor,” “Fashion is Danger.” But “Carol Brown” is, imho, their magnum opus. It’s funny on its own terms (as well as a great riposte to Paul Simon’s smarmy “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”) But, more importantly, it’s just a funky-sweet song with truthiness to spare. (The Michel Gondry video is great too.)

I’m sure most of y’all out there know the old Annie Hall joke: “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and…but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us…need the eggs.

That’s the gag that “Carol Brown” gets so well. The whole song is a litany of ugly dumpings for most of its run. But every time that peal chimes (at 1:15) and the angelic chorus kicks in for the first time (“He doesn’t cook or clean…“), you can hear exactly why Jemaine — and so many others of us, for that matter — keep leading chin first regardless. Carol Brown took a bus out of town…but I’m hoping the next gal sticks around.

*********

That’ll do for ’10, I think. Have a safe and happy Valentines Day, everybody. I’ll see y’all on the flip side. And, until next year…

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