Tuesday, July 28, 2009

You're Welcome, America

It's no fun to be a racial scold. And it feels pretty ridiculous when I've vociferously defended Resident Evil 5 from charges of racism---maybe more than it deserves. But among the many good things about the end of the Dubya regime, one benefit is that I'll no longer have to watch liberals wandering into genuinely icky minstrel-show territory.

The most recent sample is Will Ferrell's one-man show: "You're Welcome America - A Final Night with George W Bush", which was shot for broadcast on HBO. For the most part, it's a fairly entertaining piece---though the jokes are mostly just recitations from the Harper's Index, Ferrell's Bush impression has always been eerily spot-on. It's not just the accent, though he does do a lovely job of nailing the way Bush's affected drawl slips and slides depending on his self-image. What Ferrell gets is Bush's belligerent confusion, the way his slitted eyes seemed to be looking equally for a brawl or an escape. No matter how much I hated the guy, I always felt a little bad for him too---deep down, he seemed to know how out of his depth he was, and much of his cowboy toughness was a transparent cover for his well-deserved insecurity.

All that's fine, and good, and pretty funny. The problematic part comes about halfway through, as Bush/Ferrell is going through his memories of the members of his cabinet (you already see where this is going, right?). There's fairly standard jokes about Wolfowitz, Rummy, and a pretty funny bit about tickling Richard Perle's jowls to make him giggle. But then he turns to Condoleeza Rice, and things get profoundly icky, as an African-American woman dressed up like Condi comes out and does a music-video lambada with Bush.

Allow me to proffer a suggestion to comedians who would like to not be racist assholes: If your gag involves an African-American woman doing a hoochie-mama dance, think twice. If your gag involves a powerful African-American woman being turned into a white man's sexual fantasy, think three times.

The worst part---what makes it not funny along with racist---is that the tired sex-mammy stereotype doesn't map onto Condi at all. What's striking about Condi is her icy hatred, the way she would always flash the stink-eye when she thought no one was looking. Building jokes around her evil-nun persona could be plenty funny, and you could even get some comedy gold out of the contrast between Bush thinking of her as a warm mammy, and her actual chilly deadliness---like everyone in the Bush administration, she seems to have specialized in carefully manipulating the dauphin.

But presenting her as a gyrating stripper doesn't map onto her as a person---it's simply the most available stereotype of a black woman under 50. That's what makes it racist as well as bad comedy; it's hard to believe a pro like Ferrell could come up with something both less funny and more egregious than the Right's ugly-Chelsa jokes, but he did.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars: Continued

So, I'm slightly less hyped about Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars now that I've, er, finished the entire game in a month of big, big bites; given the game's addictiveness and enjoyability, my complaints should probably be taken with enough salt to pay off a centurion legion. Chinatown Wars pays tribute to the old-school GTA games with its top-down view, but also with its fairly crappy third-person shooting controls, and the last stages of the game involve way too much of this mediocre shooting. GTA games are always strongest in their driving system (the Midnight Club experience really pays off in the series' strong car differentiation), and CW is no exception, so I wish they'd built more of the missions around unusual variations on driving, which the engine does really well, instead of on-foot shooting, which it does really badly.

That said, there's a moment near the end that makes me love the game all over again. SPOILERS AHEAD! if you don't want to see them, but...

When driving around the marvelously-rendered city of Chinatown Wars, you'll sometimes see a little icon indicating an optional side mission. I spotted one around the back of a building I was driving past, so I carefully backed the car up, drove through a narrow alley, and found myself in a standard GTA trash-strewn back lot. Walked up to the optional-mission-giver, a tiny little female sprite. Up pops the cutscene (a series of comic-book illustrations), in which the woman asks me if I "wanna have a good time".

Ah, it's a hooker! Well, hookers are a long-standing tradition in the GTA world, one that I've defended before as an important part of the series' satirical perspective. Now, everyone knows what happens to hookers in GTA games. But this time, said hooker *also* seems to know---just as you start to respond to her, she says (I'm paraphrasing from memory here) "Oh I know your type! Guys like you get me in the car, then shoot me to get your money back! Well we're not going to stand for it any more---get him, girls!"

At which point dozens of prostitutes charge you, Sin City-style, exacting vengeance for all their sisters cut down in previous GTA games. Auto-critique plus violence---that's the good stuff!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bernstein Would Like to Take You Higher

I finally made it to a River2River event: Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra Plays The Music of Sly & The Family Stone. "Plays the music of" are generally words that strike ennui into the heart of music-lovers, signaling the presence of a---shudder---tribute band, all-too-often with and overenthusiastic singer and embarrassing outfits. And Bernstein is probably overenthusiastic, not infrequently pausing between songs for long, rambling stories about growing up Jewish, Woodstock, and utopian musical hopes. But in fairness, the show was the start of a tribute to Woodstock, and Sly & The Family Stone have been inspiring utopian hopes for a long time.

As part of a Woodstock tribute (seemingly sponsored by the makers of the film The Road To Woodstock, who were out in force passing out fliers to the urban grey-hairs who are pretty much dead center of that biopic's demographic targeting zone), the show focused on the music S&tFS played during their show-stealing performance at Yasgur's farm, which means the hits were well represented. It was a good choice, not least because those songs take very well to the big-band transfer---like the Mingus Big Band, Bernstein's group alternates between brainy deconstructions of a song's musical elements and a full-court press of syncopated volume.

Also on site were a succession of terrific, interesting singers, each determined to bring their own stamp to the classics. Highlights included Shilpa Ray's East Indian punk drone on "Everyday People", Martha Wainwright's god-abandoned gospel keening on "Que Sera Sera", and Dean Bowman busting out his deep-piped cerebral genius freak act all over "Sing a Simple Song". The great Bernie Worrell was on keyboard, and though his instrumental medleys leaned a little heavily towards the jokey, he's a player who's always instinctively understood the jangly jump of the Family Stone's keyboard lines---looking back, the synth that propels The Name of the Band Is Talking Heads sounds not unlike the hyperactive jangling on "I Want to Take You Higher".

Understandably, though, there wasn't much heard from the landmark album "There's a Riot Going On". While we did get the ballad "Family Affair", most of that strange, murky, grim album is pretty much the exact opposite of what you want to hear at an outdoor summer show. It says a lot about my musical tastes that "Riot" is my favorite S&tFS album---it reverses all the principles of funk music, replacing the propulsive crispness that defines the genre with a grim, lurching swirl. Again, the Talking Heads connection---"Riot" was the first album to realize that the tightness of funk tunes could become a prison, and the sound of the singer being buried alive in "Luv 'n' Haight" and "Poet" anticipates the vocalist's paranoid lurking all over "Fear of Music".

Also of note: This was my first time seeing a show at the Castle Clinton space, in Battery Park, and it's quite a charming little venue. It's an enclosed open-air space that seats about 250, and it's a hell of a lot better designed than the average outdoor stage. The ground is well raked, which means that the seats in the back still get good sightlines (better than the seats in front, actually), and although the volume was kept a little on the low side (perhaps out of consideration for the kind of audience drawn to a Tribute to Woodstock show), the enclosure held the sound in nicely. Looks nothing at all like a castle, but 'ey, dis is Amurrica!