The most popular video game for the PC right now is a game called The Sims, where people get to play people doing ordinary things in ordinary settings — instead of fighting monsters or conquering countries, they're battling with leaky faucets and going out on dates. With a premise like that, one wonders what you need the video game for in the first place. Or maybe that is precisely the point: We can use the simulation to be vicariously ordinary, to feel more real than we might normally feel.
I find myself frightened by such an idea. Many friends of mine are fairly heavy video-game addicts; they spend a great deal of money and time in on-line games that are huge, elaborate multiplayer simulations featuring tens of thousands of people at once. For the truly hard-core, their real life is nothing more than a holding action until they can get back online again. I can hardly say my own hands are clean, so to speak — one of my major side projects is an on-line gaming community I designed from scratch. I definitely understand the allure of a simulated world that threatens to replace or supplant the real one. Read more
Walker Percy was one of the few truly philosophical American novelists: he didn’t just have his characters playact out ideas, but had them embody them. Not all of his books hit the mark, but the ones that do are among the best fiction we have that has something valuable and real to say about our world. He’s also a gifted storyteller and stylist; any one of his books are a pleasure to just read for the way he uses language so spellbindingly.
Lancelot stands as one of his best and probably most misunderstood books, a mid-Seventies shotgun blast at American hypocrisy and self-satisfaction. What most people missed the first time around, though, was that Percy was not advocating the madness of the book’s protagonist. He was holding it up to the light like an X-ray film, showing how any insane philosophy, when inflated large enough, can sound almost rational, especially to those (like us) who harbor a germ of unsatisfied resentment. Read more
The Eel is a very confused movie that has the best of intentions, but it’s a shame about the script. It's saddening, since The Eel was not made by some tyro but by Shohei Imamura, one of Japan's best directors of thoughtful movies about adult characters. He gave us Vengeance Is Mine, arguably the best movie ever made about the psychology of a serial killer; Black Rain, a chilling portrait of the survivors of the atomic bomb in Japan; and The Pornographers, a highly sardonic look at Japan's sexual underworld. He also gave us the controversial History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess, which divided critics as to whether it was farce or a serious sort of post-modern journalism.
All of these movies were smart and deftly made. The Eel is neither of these things; it's filled with the sorts of conceptual mistakes that an amateur filmmaker would avoid, and its philosophy is thimble-deep at best. And yet somehow it's garnered an incredible amount of critical acclaim. Thomas Weisser, usually one to sniff out a pretentious dud, gave the movie a three-star rating in his Japanese Cinema: Essential Handbook. The film garnered the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997, beating out the far superior L.A. Confidential and The Sweet Hereafter, and appeared on dozens of critics' Ten Best lists for that year. Is it that people are unwilling to single out mistakes in a foreign film that would be blasted on sight if it was in their own language? If nothing else it serves as a perfect example of how foreign audiences can be easily hoodwinked by what only looks profound from the outside. Read more