Recommendations, 2/28

This week we like hedonism, haiku, and guitar games that aren’t really games.


The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) immediately enchanted me: one of the first scenes, a rooftop dance party in the heart of Rome, pulsates with incredible, infectious energy. When the camera pans over various inebriated partygoers reveling in the moment, it’s clear that while this crowd is glamorous, much of it is aging and seedy (take, for example, the squat, balding man who plants himself in front of an attractive, leggy young thing and repeatedly hisses up at her in time to the beat: “I’ll screw you, I’ll screw you”). At the center of this hedonism is Jep Gamberdella — it’s his 65th birthday party, and it’s hard to imagine a bachelor his age who’s having a better time.

Still, despite all the women, Negronis, and perfectly tailored sportcoats he’s able to enjoy, Jep’s struggling with — what else — ennui. A one-time novelist, now half-invested journalist and de facto socialite, he receives the unexpected news that his first lover died, leading him to reexamine his lifestyle and the scene that he’s been a fixture of for decades.

The Great Beauty is a long, sweeping film, but Jep guides the viewer through his Rome in a series of vignette-like interactions that make the grandeur feel manageable and intimate. The most striking parts are the scenes that are so visually lush and dreamlike that they verge on magical realism, but the seemingly mundane ones — say, stopping at a café to buy cigarettes — are particularly moving and, indeed, beautiful.


I labor in the Humanities – that’s the building in your university that hasn’t been repaired or remodeled since the early 1970s – and modern Humanities-types have to be flexible. You never quite know what class is going to run so you try to develop every possible class you could conceivably teach. That’s why I am teaching leading an exploration of Japanese poetry this semester. This is also why I carry around a heavy briefcase full of Japanese poems, from ancient to modern. Of the various tomes I have sampled, The Art of Haiku by Stephen Addiss is my constant companion. The book provides a history and context not just for haiku, but for other forms of Japanese poetry. It takes the reader on the intellectual and historical journey from the longer choka to the tanka through the renga and finally arriving at the haiku. The translations of the poems provide Romanized Japanese along-side beautiful English renditions. Reading it, I feel a bit like Basho’s frog jumping into the sound of the old, clear pool of Japanese poetry – plop! It is a pool that has been waiting, patiently, for me to be wise enough to jump in.


For anyone who cares too much (read: at all) about the history of videogames, the Gameboy Advance is a fascinating system. In many ways, it’s a continuation of the Super Nintendo, a console where two dimensional graphics ruled and games mostly avoided the numbing clutches of realism. The GBA continued in this spirit, producing some of the best and most innovative titles ever (cough), and it also carried on the torch of pixel art. That little chunk of plastic with its tiny screen etched more images into my memory than the first two Playstations combined because it showcased veteran pixel crafters at the peak of their powers.

If you remember this art as fondly as I do, you need to follow the fabulous new blog Pixel Digest. Using some digital sorcery, the (anonymous?) author rips the sprites and backgrounds straight from old GBA games and, because it’s Tumblr, turns them into gifs. The results are spectacular. Note that every one of those Luigis is its own tiny image with a transparent background. They’re like perfect little jewels of internet. I bet these start showing up all over the web in a few months’ time.

The blog is still young, so it’s no sweat to read through the whole archives, but a few posts stand out to me. I love the eerie emptiness of this background from Mario and Luigi (make sure to click on the full-sized version). And the layout of these Metroid sprites is pure art. The author also gives technical explanations for how artists and developers squeezed so much visual richness out of such underpowered hardware, like how Dragon Quest III switches enemies from background images to sprites when they need to animate. Finally, this huge chart that details the graphical evolutions of the original Gameboy Pokemon is completely mesmerizing and yet more evidence that Psyduck is the best. The author says they’ll move onto new systems soon, and while I’ll be sad to live the GBA behind, I can’t wait to see where Pixel Digest goes next.


Despite the fact I have no kids, I think I’ve reached Peak Dad. In December, as a birthday/Christmas gift to myself, I bought a guitar with the purpose of “jamming to old tunes,” as dads are wont to do. (It’s a Mexican-made Fender Strat, for those who know about guitars). I hadn’t played in any regular capacity for three or four years, but I figured this might be a good time to get back into it. I imagined myself occasionally noodling around while watching TV or waiting for laundry. It turns out when you come back to something after not doing it for a few years, you are terrible at it. I’d lost the dexterity in my fingers, my sense of rhythm, and the ability to hang onto a guitar pick for more than 30 seconds. And even though the point of buying the guitar wasn’t necessarily to be good at it, I was immediately frustrated with just how poorly I was playing.

So I bought the newest edition of Rocksmith, a videogame that’s more or less Guitar Hero with a real guitar. (You plug your guitar in with a special cable.) Back when music games were in their heyday, I was pretty good at Guitar Hero and Rock Band, mostly because I played them so often. Rocksmith is far less game-like. In fact, nowhere in its promotional material does it ever refer to itself as a videogame. It’s a method by which to learn guitar — the “fastest way” if its motto is to be believed.

At first, I didn’t like Rocksmith. As someone who knew the basics of guitar, it felt like the game was teaching me how to play itself rather than sharpening my picking and strumming. If you ever thought the five buttons on a Guitar Hero controller were a lot to handle, you’ll be terrified by the visual representation of notes in Rocksmith. It depicts the fretboard and each of the six strings on the X-axis of the screen while future notes come at you through the Z-axis. The information design is a bit of a mess — a chaotic string of moving numbers and lines — but once I got used to interpreting what the game was asking of me, it started becoming pretty enjoyable.

I’ve been playing regularly for a week now, mostly drilling the same songs over and over (the track selection is similar to those featured in Guitar Hero and Rock Band: a mix of classic and ’90s rock with a few newer indie songs for good measure). There are game-like motivators, like scoring and accuracy percentages. It all adds up to a sense of accomplishment and progress. And in the end, it’s far more satisfying to learn the entirety of “Reptilia” on a real guitar than in Rock Band.

I still take issue with a lot of the visual design. There are some strange inconsistencies, like the way the fretboard moves and which notes are numbered and which aren’t. But I realize Rocksmith has more to communicate than Guitar Hero. Actually, once I accepted that Rocksmith wasn’t a game, I had a lot more fun with it.