(In)validating The Past

Why do we human beings feel the need to bash what came before, in order to make whatever’s out now seem like a big deal? The big marketing beast is ever making a concerted effort to somehow invalidate the past, so the present can become more “valid” in some way.

Case in point number 1:

I read a review of the videogame “Grand Theft Auto 5” the other day which managed to completely piss me off. It seems the reviewer was not so much interested in reviewing the game as a stand-alone product of its own merit; instead, the entire review was one long rant against the previous game in the series, “GTA 4”. The entire way through, the author picked apart GTA 4, feature by feature, in order to show us how “GTA 5 is so much better in every single way”. Now, I’m not necessarily saying he ain’t right. Indeed, when placed side-by-side, GTA 5 is superior in every single way. What I’m arguing, however, is that we shouldn’t make these comparisons in this way, in the first place. When GTA 4 came out in 2008, it became the “best game ever” at that particular time, and as of last month, it was still the highest-rated video game of all time on IGN (I haven’t checked to see if this has changed since GTA 5 came out). So why should we diminish the fact that it’s such a great game, in order to sell the newer version? Why can’t we celebrate both products for the masterpieces they undoubtedly are, and enjoy them side-by-side. Why this pathological need to always compare things, and to desperately try to prove that one is better than the other?

Case in point number 2:

Elton John’s first new solo album in 7 years, “The Diving Board” came out recently. A fantastic album from the aging troubadour, with both Elton John and Bernie Taupin running full steam in creative terms, and still breaking new artistic ground in their late 60’s. A nice throwback to their very earliest work, bringing Taupin’s “always-too-mature-for-his-age” lyrics of those first albums full circle as they are now sung by an older man, and as such, make perfect sense. I read a review of this album, which heralded this album as “Elton’s artistic comeback, his finest effort since the early 1970’s”. Why? Why must we do this? Ever since Elton returned to his trademark piano sound, in 2001, with the album “Songs From The West Coast”, every subsequent album has been heralded as his “true return to form”, which, indirectly, reduces the albums that came before to apparent irrelevance. So, although he’s released 5 excellent albums since 2001, the reviewers insist on hammering the point that he’s only just returning to form, with each new album. When, in fact, he’s returned “to form” in 2001, and has pretty much remained “on form” since then. That’s over a decade of being “back on form”, which is longer than the entire recording career of The Beatles.

It might be better to stop comparing things to other things, and embrace each new thing that comes out. It might be better if we only judged each new thing that comes out, only against its own merits. And then add it to the library of fantastic things that came before, because the masterpieces of the past will never go away just to make way for the latest shiny thing.

Gamers’ Stigma

As a twentysomething still “playing video games”, I have to say that I am met with a lot of social stigma by a large percentage of people I come across, mostly from the older generation. This is something that baffles me to no end. Firstly, I think it is vital that we finally acknowledge that the term “video game”, and the verb used to describe doing this activity (“playing”) may no longer accurately describe, or apply, to this activity. The words “playing” and “game”, to me, bring to mind something a toddler would do. Or a primary school kid. Granted, a large percentage of video games still fall under this umbrella, being nothing more than exercises in rapid button-mashing, and repetitive elimination of enemies in order to reach the next level of the game.

These are not the games that I play anymore. The games that I myself play nowadays, and the activity of actually playing them, would be better referred to as “experiencing an interactive multimedia story”. For, these days, there is another type of video game which has risen to prominence. The story-driven game. These interactive experiences now have production budgets that rival those of Hollywood productions. And the comparisons to Hollywood do not end there. With stories as entrancing as the best books I have read; with scripts rivalling (or in many cases, surpassing) those of Oscar-winning films, with symphonic soundtracks giving Hans Zimmer and John Williams a run for their money (or sometimes even composed by them!) – and with increasingly talented and well-known actors doing the voice work (up to, and including, Oscar-winning actors) – the line between cinema, video gaming, and literature is starting to blur.

I can understand part of this stigma against gamers. Because most gamers play games so much that they cease having any sort of social life. They get fat, they lock themselves away in a dark room and do nothing else except button a controller for the better part of a day. I was never this person, nor do I ever intend to be. First of all, I’m a functioning human being that goes out of the house to go about my daily business. Secondly, in my spare time I still read books (in fact I can never just read one book at a time), I love watching a good movie or going for a bike ride in the park as much as the next guy!

But let me ask you this? For an upstanding guy who works out, makes music, doesn’t waste nights, has a social life and takes care of himself – why should it be more of a waste of time if, in my free time, instead of getting wasted at 3 in the morning, or paying good money to see the 5th sequel to some crappy action film at the cinema, or watching boring and depressing news on TV – I choose to spend a couple of hours experiencing something qualitative. And not just experiencing it, but being in the middle of it. Doing it. Shaping it. If the game itself is intelligent and immersive, doesn’t that actually put more of my brain to use than just passively watching a movie?

In Vino Veritas

It always amuses me terribly, how, most of the times when modern Western literature and cinema requires some sort of quasi-mythological creature with savage, superhuman abilities – they tend to originate from Romania. Starting with fin de siรจcle novels, then Hollywood movies, and even contemporary television shows, narrative art has had no shortage of vampires, werewolves, hags, witches, dragons, cultists and zombies. More often than not, these come from Romania. Dracula being the most obvious example (played in the films by a series of charming Hollywood leading actors). Benicio del Toro’s “Wolfman” being another example. Not to mention J.K. Rowling’s penchant for sending a few of her secondary characters from “Harry Potter” to study and/or battle dragons in Romania. FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder has also struggled with his share of Romanian-speaking weirdos in more than one X-Files episode. And so on, and so forth.

All of this probably started when Bram Stoker visited Romania near the end of the 19th Century, had a glass of quality white wine near Medias, found out about a rather cruel medieval Wallachian ruler named Vlad the Impaler (who was apparently so ruthless, that he would literally skewer his political opponents through rather sharp wooden spears). A few bottles of wine in, and he probably came up with the basic concept for his novel. And, because in the present day, my father and I make quality white wine near Medias, I can attest to the fact that a couple of glasses of this potion will cause any aspiring author/artist to imagine whatever superhuman beast most tickles their particular fancy!

During my time abroad, I have actually been asked (no joke!) to my face: “Are there really vampires in Romania?”. And, although the first few times this has happened, my natural reaction was to laugh – gradually I came to realize that this is, ironically, not very far from the truth. One fleeting glance at the political ruling class of contemporary Romania, and you’ll find there all the beasts and creatures we’ve just been talking about. All manner of claws, protruding fangs, unshaven fur – intimidation, exsanguination, manipulation. Every beast-like attribute in God’s green Earth. All done with a charming smile on their faces!

In English, Please!

It saddens me to see that the children of today, in Romania, are watching all their cartoons dubbed in Romanian. On the surface, this seems to be a reasonable and useful thing, and I’m certain there’s a whole host of people who would take this moment to go to war with me arguing that we should be patriotic, that kids should learn Romanian and whatnot. And, being the patriot that I am, I don’t disagree with this aspect of the argument. However, when I look at the children I come into contact with, and seeing that all the cartoon TV channels are now fully dubbed in Romanian, it makes me realize the following thing:

Today’s children are deprived of one of the best, and most effective, ways of learning English.

When I was their age, Cartoon Network had just been introduced in Romania, and it was still broadcast in English. This happened when I was in primary school, it was a massive hype, and I could not believe that, suddenly, there was an entire TV channel dedicated only to cartoons. I would spend literally every available moment (when I wasn’t in school, or doing homework, or all the other boring, irrelevant things like having dinner, sleeping etc.) glued to the TV screen watching cartoons. In English.

And my knowledge of the English language was still in its incipient phases at that point. So I mostly didn’t understand what Scooby Doo was, desperately, trying to tell Shaggy (I still don’t, but that’s not the point!). I had no idea what Fred Flinstone was yelling about. But I watched. And, gradually, I learned. And eventually, I said to myself: “Hey, guess what? I can speak English now!” And now, looking back, I realize I have Cartoon Network to thank for setting me firmly on the path to becoming the erudite, eloquent English speaker that I am today.

Romanian kids today don’t have this anymore. Watching cartoons in Romanian is kindof like not needing to chew your food anymore before you ingest it. And many-a-time, I find that primary and secondary school kids speak less English than I did, at their age. Yes, it’s important for a Romanian citizen to know, and speak, Romanian first and foremost. But let’s cut this dubbing crap already. If, for no other reason, because Romanian voice actors sound like crap when trying to do cartoon voices. And secondly, because, as a lyricist and musician, it irks me to no end to hear even the theme songs translated into Romanian. With all those extra syllables and forced rhymes they have to add in.

It just doesn’t really cut the mustard for me!

Someone To Watch Over Me

Sometimes, when the bleak reality of this world gets to be too much, I have the natural tendency to withdraw into my shell and live in some sort of internalized utopia of my own construction. I guess “daydreaming” would be a good word for it. I’m quite sure this is something that we all do, to some degree, and if you also happen to be an artist, and an utterly hopeless dreamer (like yours truly), then daydreaming gets to be the norm, pretty much.

Sometimes, all I feel like doing is lounging out on a nice sofa with a glass of red, and with a song like the one below, playing softly on my iPod speakers, in the background. Ideally with a F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque vista of the city at night sprawling in front of me. Then, in that moment, things are perfect.

Gershwin wrote it. Sinatra and Miss Ella crooned the heck out of it. Oscar Peterson certainly knew his way around it. And Chet brough out the pure poetry in it. But perhaps the most heartfelt rendition of this timeless classic is from the eponymous episode from “Star Trek: Voyager”, when the Doctor sings it, in absentia, to Seven of Nine, at the episode’s conclusion.

Prime Directive

It should come as little surprise to anybody that knows me even a tiny bit, that I am a major Star Trek dork. Now, when I use the term “dork”, I do not wish to assume the mantle of a proper nerd, because I am not. A nerd is somebody who stays overtime after classes at school just to make sure he gets perfect grades in his academics. I was never this person. I only ever aimed for decent, passing grades, so I can get the heck out of class to go to either a music rehearsal, or a theatre rehearsal. So, when I use the term “dork”, it really means the committed, and slightly cool, sci-fi afficionado that I am.

Just recently, I have completed a year-long marathon of the television series “Star Trek: Voyager”. Very briefly, for those who have no clue what this is about, it’s the one with the female captain, Kathryn Janeway, majestically played by Kate Mulgrew. Echoes of my all-time favourite actress, Katharine Hepburn, abound in Janeway. The hair, the cheekbones, the metallic, authoritative voice – all Hepburnesque. No wonder Miss Mulgrew played Hepburn on Broadway in the play “Tea At Five”, eh? Coming back to the show itself, I kindof like “Voyager” the best out of all the Star Trek TV series. Even though I grew up with the Picard one. I like “Voyager” the best because, to my mind, it best exemplifies the core values and themes of “Star Trek”. One lone ship, on its very first mission, with a crew that is only just getting to know one another, is suddenly and irreversibly thrown on the other side of the galaxy. And, by getting to know one another, and learning to work together, they set out on the long journey home. A journey which lasts for 7 magnificent seasons, and which makes you feel, by the final episode, like you were a member of the crew along for this ride.

The metaphor of “Voyager” is universal, and transcends the sci-fi context of the show, and in so doing, applies to life in general. Voyager, the starship, is life itself. The journey is our journey through life. And we all have to work with others, and interact with others to get to where we want to be in life. The captain is each of us, as we have to each be in control of our own “ship” and learn how to navigate through life. And, philosophical ramblings aside, it’s damn great entertainment! Go and watch a few episodes!

Redux

Hello, world!

After over a year and a half of being absent from this blog, I have decided to return to the site of my former musings, in an attempt to restore it to at least a fraction of its former glory. Think of it kind of like Emperor Justinian attempting to restore the Byzantine Empire to the former heights of the Roman Empire. And perhaps it’s not such a great idea to restart a blog when one is extremely sleepy, but, come to think of it, it is only fitting! What better way to start rambling again, than to go on a sleepy rant about nothing in particular?

Actually, I did want to impress upon you that, if you’re looking for a gripping, page-turner of a book to read on your summer vacation, you could do a lot worse than picking up Dan Brown’s new novel “Inferno”. It features Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon in yet another history, art, and symbology-riddled breakneck chase – the setting is again Italy, with the majority of the book being set in my second-favourite city in the world – Florence. The main code that Langdon is trying to break this time around is (you’ve guessed it!) based on Dante Aligheri’s “Divine Comedy”, more specifically the part that bears the same title as Brown’s book. Will Langdon save the day again? I will just say that the novel doesn’t turn out as predictable as you’d think, so give it a chance!

Until my next post, here’s lookin’ at you, kids! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Quotation Marks

Today’s post will only consist of my Quotations section on Facebook. I wanted to post them on here too, so their wisdom can reach more people. Every single one of these quotes has great meaning to me, and they represent either the way I think about life, or the way I am trying to think about life. Read them closely and you may find that they apply to yours as well! ๐Ÿ™‚

 

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” – OSCAR WILDE

“Know Thyself” – SOCRATES

“I’m an artist. You give me a fuckin’ tuba, I’ll get you something out of it” – JOHN LENNON

“I think, as people, we must learn to put up with each other. We must stop if there’s someone broken down on the road. And you say, ‘well, they’ll hit you over the head’. Well, they won’t all hit you over the head” – KATHARINE HEPBURN

“Even a broken clock is right twice a day” – STEPHEN HUNT

“I think Western Civilization would be a very good idea” – GANDHI

“Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get – only with what you are expected to give – which is everything.” – KATHARINE HEPBURN

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” – STEVE JOBS

“I used to complain I had no shoes. Then I met someone with no legs” – HANIF KHAKI

“If you never try, you’ll never know just what you’re worth” – COLDPLAY

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” – STEVE JOBS

“Good things take time. Great things happen all at once” – RAT RACE (THE MOVIE)

“Do onto others what you would like done upon yourself” – THE GOLDEN RULE

“When I was 5 years old I went to school and they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I misunderstood the meaning of the assignment. I told them they misunderstood the meaning of life.” – JOHN LENNON

“For small creatures such as we, the vastness of the universe is only bearable through love” – CARL SAGAN

“Always be a first rate version of yourself, instead of a second rate version of somebody else” – JUDY GARLAND

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say…” – J.R.R. TOLKIEN

Red Keycard Required

Much has been made in the media about children who pick up weapons and kill half their high school because of the negative influence of violent films and video games. There was an excellent film made a number of years back by Gus Van Sant, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, called “Elephant”, which in itself is a fictionalisation and re-interpretation of the Columbine High School massacre. Society placed the ultimate blame on the children’s premature exposure to overly-violent media, which supposedly determined them to pick up shotguns and massacre their mates.

I am going to walk a very fine line with this post, because while I partly believe this to be true, I also very firmly believe it to be untrue in other ways.

It is true that there is an excessive emphasis on negativity and violence in today’s world, and nobody is more guilty of propagating this than the media. Movies are, generally speaking, a lot more violent, gratuituously violent, these days than they were prior to the 70’s. In the Studio Era, because of the strictly censored nature of the movie industry, films in general were made to contain positive messages, heroes and values to aspire to, there was little violence or sex presented, and even when it was, it was more implied, rather than explicitly shown. Nowadays, filmmakers have no problem to show us a person’s head being blasted by a shotgun, graphically seeing bits of brain splattered against the wall. Then we see the killer grinning, and in many films, even great films like “No Country For Old Men”, the villain more of less gets away with it. Or Hannibal Lecter bashing people’s heads in while listening to Bach and preparing a gourmet meal. You might say, well, the explicit and the macabre is also an art form, following on from prior traditions such as Grand Guignol. But it’s undeniable that a great deal of what we see on TV these days, including the violent news reports that insist on mostly showing the disasters happening daily, has a bias towards violence.

Then we have the video games. Here we have even more gratuituous violence than in movies, shown even more explicitly in some cases, and the difference here is that the person who plays the game gets to COMMIT these virtual atrocities – as opposed to a film where the viewer simply watches it happening. There are many games in which the main objective, from start to finish, is to shoot your way through endless rooms and levels, blasting a huge variety of monsters, aliens, robots, animals and other human beings.

Having argued this point enough, I will now switch sides and argue for the other side. Personally, I am the best example that an exposure to violent films and video games in my youth does not produce a killer. I have watched violent and scary films pretty much since I was in primary school, and have started playing video games in earnest, in middle school. My first video game was “Doom”, one of the earliest “shoot-em-ups” in which you blast your way through an alien invasion. And never had I taken what I was seeing as anything more than entertainment. Even in primary school, I was able to make the distinction between art (even violent art) and reality. I have never had any kind of violent, homicidal urge in my life. I am not a rapist, or sadist, or junkie, or drunkard, or a person lacking chivalry and moral fiber because of playing those games. I am one of the most non-violent, most non-combative people I know. Even from a verbal argument, I tend to be the one backing down if I see that it’s dragging on for too long. Except if the argument is with an intelligent girl that I fancy. In those cases, I find a good intellectual argument very enjoyable, ร  la Tracy and Hepburn. ๐Ÿ™‚

So what is the correlation between violence in media and a teenager picking up and using a shotgun? Well, I am the best example that exposure to simulated violence does not produce a criminal. So it must be something else. Maybe those kids were neglected, unloved. Who knows? Maybe it’s just something part of your nature. You either have those tendencies, or you don’t. And if you’re already predisposed to violence because of the genes coded in your DNA, or because of some sort of dysfunctional upbringing, then, violent media and games may influence and stimulate that. But the argument that they are universally responsible for it is wrong, and in placing the sole blame on it, these people are washing their hands of more serious responsibilities to our youth.

Advertising Space

The extended Romanian summer has given way to a very sudden and chilly autumn. In the space of no more than two days, temperatures have dropped from a summery 29*C to a mere 11*C, and there was the first snowfall of the season up in the mountains.

This is the first autumn in a long long time in which I am not a student. I have only experienced this feeling two other times in my life, the first was before kindergarten (but understandably, I can remember very little from that period, given that I was less than 5 years of age). And the other period was my gap year before I went to LIPA. It’s a strange feeling, but one that I’m starting to get used to. On the one hand, there is so much freedom that it’s refreshing. On the other hand, freedom can sometimes be scary when you don’t know what to do with it.

What am I doing with it? Well, I have started working on some new tunes with one of Romania’s leading music producers. Call that a big or small achievement if you wish. I have started being more active, waking up at 7am daily to go trekking through the woods close to my house with my two dogs. Those who know me will know that I consider this to be a great achievement for me, complemented by the occasional visit to the gym. I have also started finding members for my band, and we are basically one drummer short of a full basic lineup at the minute. First rehearsals start this week, and then I can consider that as my “job”, and going to rehearsals as “going to work”. It’s so weird for musicians. In a way, we’re always “at work” because our instrument of work is always attached (especially in the case of a singer) and much of our work takes place at home (vocal workout, writing songs, managing the band).

If you define “work” by the payment you receive for it, then no, I guess I’m not there yet. I have done two gigs with two separate groups of musicians since coming back home, neither of which was paid. But it’s all part of my establishing a reputation/foothold in the musical world back home, a world which is in dire need of improvement. Put very simply, the music industry here consists of a few well-endowed (albeit artificially) girls who can only “sing” because they are auto-tuned to death. Some of my colleagues in the Romanian music world make asses of themselves by forgetting the lyrics to the national anthem at stadium inaugurations (but I suppose Aguilera’s done that too) and by failing to string together two notes in tune, when asked to sing live.

Of course I’m exaggerating a little bit. Not ALL Romanian artists are artificially-endowed females with questionable talent! There are a few who are indeed talented and hard-working, but they tend to be relegated to the sidelines. This, to me, is a great travesty. How can you dismiss the real talent you have in this country, and then complain that our country lacks talents? I’m very worried this might happen to me, as well. But it’s part of the bet I accepted with myself, by coming back home to ply my trade.

So there is much improvement to be done, and I realize that my potential in the current Romanian music scene is pretty much that of Sebastian Vettel’s in the Formula 1 scene. And he’s my age, incidentally. If I do things right, I realize, with all false modesty aside, and with sober realization as opposed to arrogance, that I can set a new standard in music here. And it’s a comforting thing to know.