Tag Archives: movies

Silver Screen Sentiments

A few years before my Dad died, my sister gave me a rather interesting Christmas gift: a ticket stub scrapbook. I was already well into my habit of seeing movies regularly, but there was something a bit more to the scrapbook than just a place to keep a record of what I’d seen. I put every ticket stub I had into it, which meant we went to see National Treasure 2 that weekend. As time went on, though, I meant to try to keep a perfect record of my cinematic consumption from there on out.

I love movies, but more than just watching them I love going to the movies. A theater is, for me, a place of refuge, where I can set aside the troubles of the real world for a couple of hours and watch someone else’s story unfold before me. There is peace to be found in even the most gleefully violent turn-your-brain-off action cliche heap. And it’s all larger than life, larger than is possible to replicate at home. I won’t ever give up my huge flatscreen, but it’s nothing compared to a glorious DLP IMAX wall of film. So I go to the movies, because some movies just plain deserve to be seen that way.

In Cleveland– actually Macedonia– I would almost like clockwork go to the theater and see one or two movies each Saturday. It was a comfortable and peaceful routine. I kept it up when I moved to Pittsburgh, but as I started to get back to collecting games and anime series for my library, I found myself more and more spending those Saturdays at home, marathonning a game or TV box set. I had almost ended the practice. 

The scrapbook changed that. I started paying attention to release dates; if there was something I wanted to see, I tried to go on opening weekend. Funnily enough this also meant seeing some big-ticket Ghibli films, too, like the theatrical runs for Ponyo and Arietty. And, of course, the Marvel movies were starting up again. It was a good time to go catch some flicks.

And then depression hit. One of the first things that depression does is take things you once loved to do and make you feel bored by them. Actually, you don’t feel bored. You don’t feel enjoyment. You don’t feel pleasure. You just plain don’t feel anything. The technical term for this is anhedonia, from the same Greek root that gives us hedonist. Someone who is anhedonic is literally unable to feel pleasure or happiness. You can tickle them all you like but the laughter will be a mere unconscious physiological response; there will be no sincere mirth in it. Kind of like baking out a tray of cookies, only to open the oven and find absolutely nothing inside, not even the baking sheet the cookies were on. You wanted cookies. You got a puzzlingly intractible nothingness.

Movies, either at home or in a theater, just didn’t do it for me anymore. It baffled me, because while I was in the theater I was laughing along with the punch lines, gasping at the villains, and generally appeared to be enjoying myself. But it never sank in the way it used to. Of all of the things that I could say about depression, that is the most frustrating topic to discuss because there literally is no vocabulary in any language on earth to accurately express the complete and total void within my mind. Even the word void doesn’t cut it: it implies a contrast with non-void. If it had been just a dead chunk of my brain– like I’d had a stroke or something– eventually neurons would reroute themselves within the healthy parts to restore proper order (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). Depression isn’t so much having to make detours in your brain’s highway system as it is waking up one morning to discover that every square millimeter of asphalt in said system has spontaneously become molten lava, and your car’s magnesium rims have just exploded, setting your garage on fire, and you have to be at work in ten minutes. Still not accurate. But close. The reality is worse.

The kicker of it is that it’s completely out of one’s conscious control. It’s all to do with neurotransmitter levels in the brain, the internal messaging system that allows four pounds of flesh to safely run the other hundred-odd pounds. The brain, already awash in a faulty mix of those signaling chemicals, overcorrects for their influence. Unfortunately, at this point the damage is done, because the overcorrection becomes the new “how to fix this” procedure. When next the sads hit, the brain goes overboard in the other direction, unbalancing itself unwittingly because it has difficulty telling whether or not a little grief is going to germinate into a full-blown crash.

I used to wonder why people drink to excess, or use drugs that they know are not good for them, or do other self-destructive things in the name of avoiding feeling bad. I don’t anymore. At a certain point, you become desperate to feel happy again– to feel anything again, even just for a little while. I hit that point. Hard. But I still count myself extremely lucky that I was lucid enough to know  the dangers were far worse than the potential benefits. Not everyone does. Worse, not everyone who hits that point even cares.

But I got help. I am on medicine now– it’s not a cure-all, but I’m not the zombie I feared I would be, either. I’m back in therapy. And, probably most importantly, I’m going to the movies again. Today was a double-feature, Jurassic World and Inside Out. I lost the stub for the first one, which upsets me (but not that much– it was a pretty basic monster movie, saved only by Chris Pratt’s outstanding performance). But the second flick… it felt great to go back into the theater and sit down as the lights dimmed. 

For the first time in a very long time, I found peace in the darkness.

No Surprises Here

The horrendous tantrum that started back last August rolls onward, which should surprise exactly none of you; these things tend to grow legs of their own accord and sooner or later nobody can catch them. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. The sense of sheer entitlement and exclusionism that started with “them damn feminazis tryin at take away my video games” has blown up into a general maelstrom of the Defenders of True Geek Culture trying to force out the insidious forces of “progressives” and “feels”, to ensure that the things they love will remain theirs alone and theirs forever– even if they were never intended for them in the first place. 

Perhaps, then, the fact that Joss Whedon deleted his Twitter feed on May 4th– mere days after the release of his most recent film, Avengers: Age of Ultron– is not so surprising in and of itself. Whedon has always been a polarizing figure in geek circles anyway, with some people not liking that he tends to write the same “powerful” female characters in every work, and others just not really liking the over-reliance on under-intelligent banter. But up until yesterday, he was seen as “safe” from the criticisms and havoc that literally anyone else ever saying those things would have to endure, owing to his previous success much less than his birthright as a white dude. And I say that as a white quasi-dude. That he threw up his hands and walked away from Twitter should have been a wake-up call for those who sent anyone any kind of abuse. That it apparently hasn’t been is unsurprising, the inherent unsurprisingness of which leads me to believe that I really shouldn’t expect to be surprised at the depth of human sickness anymore. (I’ll try to stop saying “surprise” now.)

What we have here is a rather unusual counter-stroke to what the Internet had allowed to occur back in the 90s and early 00s in the first place: a sort of reactionary-revisionist faction seeking to isolate and disenfranchise people en masse. See, back in the early days of the Internet, it was a good thing that people with incredibly diverse interests could connect with each other regardless of their location. No matter what you were in to, be it Star Wars, Final Fantasy, anthropomorphic animals, sex with furniture, whatever– the odds were that somewhere out there was someone else with the interest who is probably dying for the chance to chat about it. (Although the sex with furniture thing is pretty weird. I’m not judging, just saying it’s weird and not my thing, but if it’s yours, you’re welcome to it.) For people who were of a certain mindset that wasn’t common in the era or area that they were growing up in, the Internet was a godsend.

At some point, however, there started to be a backlash against the background weirdness of the universe being brought into the foreground. Like nebulae condensing into stars, the scattered pockets of weird in the Internet were coalescing into groups, organizations that could support their members as needed. Some people thought that these pockets of weird should not exist, that it was “convincing people that they were normal when in fact, they weren’t”. People started highlighting these groups and shaming them, ostracizing them in much the same way that the individuals had been isolated in their everyday life. The concept of “live and let live” was sorely lost on these people.

Then you had the parts of the Internet where there were no rules, where things could get shocking and horrendous without warning. At first there was an unstated rule saying that it was all done in satire, that the racist, xenophobic material being bandied about like cat pictures on Saturdays wasn’t at all representative of the users’ actual views. But it was unstated, and stayed unstated, and assertions that it was serious were not taken as the kayfabe that it was proffered as, but instead at face value. Eventually even the unstated assertion fell away, and there were actual violent psychotic monsters posting in full sincerity. In some sense it is Möbius’ Aristocrats: a setup so filthy that it turns inwards upon itself, ever escalating, never reaching the punchline that renders what came before it benign and funny (if it ever could be considered so). 

It’s not exactly clear when these two groups got together and birthed the mindset that the Internet was a horrible place, filled with depravity and devoid of mercy. Certainly, the mainstream media did not help matters; scare stories about websites where Your Children were At Risk of Predators were a dime a dozen in those early days. They’ve calmed down a little since then, but are still no more based in fact than the (similar vintage, but thankfully now-extinct) Ripped From The Headlines TV-movie about whatever scandal of the week. By calling out and highlighting the awful behavior of certain minority parties online, it painted the picture that the Internet was a lawless place free from consequences and populated only by unfeeling avatars. It was like a TV news crew broadcasting the exact times and street corners where a drug dealer hung out, in the hopes that the people who would make use of this information would be the police instead of the drug dealer’s customers. It attracted the people who would do these horrible things, and sought to make them “normal”.

But nonetheless, the mindset that outright hostility and sociopathic behavior were the baseline of behavior on the internet became the “accepted” norm. I say “accepted” because by and large the only time anyone calls this out is when they are themselves under attack. “Everyone else is fair game; hurt my feelings, though, and you’ve crossed the line.” And in a sense, it was the “live and let live” attitude from the early days that allowed that mindset to assert itself as “the way it is” simply because it didn’t want to tell those people they couldn’t do what they wanted. An abuse of logic allowed people to shoot down the argument of “you can’t bully anyone, they’re just doing their thing” by saying “well, bullying them is my thing, and by the same assertion you can’t tell me not to”. It again boils down to the unstated half of the axiom: “they’re doing their thing and not hurting anyone else“.

But getting back to Joss Whedon and the current state of affairs, the fight against the hostility which has now entrenched itself in the Internet that once brought people together is going… Poorly. The immediacy of the medium means that you have to be there to defend yourself, and if enough people push you to a breaking point through death threats or other promises of violence, well, you either soldier on or you fold up and go home. There is a severe lack of equilibrium within what passes for conversation online today: many can group together to attack, but a defender always stands alone. Faced with a crush of humanity in all its bile and wrath, what choice is there but to flee? Quite frankly, it’s probably safe to say it’s not worth fighting.

Except it is.

We are facing a new era of society: where our intrinsic selves are exposed to the entirety of humanity at a moment’s notice. Socially, this has not happened in several thousand years. What we are seeing is the throes of evolution at work; raw aggression, this time in social interaction, is being selected for as those who cannot properly process the emotions of seven billion humans being thrown at them are being weeded out of the gene pool. Unlike the evolutionary crises which allowed us to start using tools, or grasp the greater mysteries of the universe through advanced mathematics, however, we have a tool greater than any formula: we can become aware of what we are sacrificing in order to succeed in this new era of humanity. Who knows what skills or abilities we gave up when the Great Engineer of the Universe pushed us to our current state. But we know exactly what we are losing now: traits like compassion, empathy, gentleness, compromise. We are losing our ability to do the things which brought us to this point in our history.

It’s not my place to say whether or not the ultimate fate of humanity some hundreds of years from now is to touch the stars with the better angels of our nature by our sides, or to grasp them from atop a tower of our enemies’ corpses. However we are destined to survive this evolutionary inflection point, we must as a species do so. I will continue to fight for equality, for a world where hostility is the exception and not the rule, for a world where everyone is free to choose as dictated by the desires of their truest self, for the people who believe to keep believing, for the people who don’t know to find their answers wherever they may lie. I will champion the cause of positivity and compassion for as long as I live.

Which, of course, shouldn’t surprise you.

Unfinished Business

So, today seems to be rather more open than I had initially anticipated. I’m not surprised, of course, but it does leave me in the interesting position of not really having that much direction for the evening and weekend. I do have some plans, though.

Before that, I should probably mention that I finally got around to seeing How To Train Your Dragon last night. It’s a gorgeous movie, and extremely well-paced. I had some serious issues with the voice acting– seriously, why does every Viking sound Scottish? Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson are great actors, but c’mon, there’s a freaking limit. And I have to wonder why Hiccup sounded like he was thirty-seven. But, in truth, all that was forgiveable by the fact that it was just so wonderfully written for the most part. The progress of Hiccup and Toothless’ friendship never feels forced and never feels one-sided; you can see that they’re genuine friends by the end of the film. The rest of the village children… not so much; Astrid in particular does a personality-180 at such dizzying speed that it completely wrecked her character. Still, the final battle was suitably impressive, and its resolution a nice change of pace from most other kids’ fantasy these days. I’d heard rumblings that there was to be a spinoff television series and possibly more movies, both moves I’d greatly support.

Speaking of well-written children’s fantasy, apparently Season 2 of Wakfu is also well underway. So that’s good. It’s appalling to me that there’s been no talk of a North American localization for the series, even as Square Enix is handling the MMO. Appalling, I tell you.

Anyway. Last April, after Tekkoshocon was over, I took on what I called the “Rush to Judgment”– a pair of posts where I went through a dozen anime series’ first episodes, and wrote down first impressions. This was the second Rush– the first one had been for video games, which unfortunately didn’t work out so well. Anyway, this weekend I’ll be doing a new Rush with ten series I haven’t seen the full first episodes of. It’s worth noting that, of the twelve I watched last year, I only got through three full series (Baccano!, Slayers Next, and Ah! My Goddess Season 2), so a 25% rate isn’t that bad.

The list for this year is as follows:
Day One: Key The Metal Idol, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Strike Witches, Nerima Daikon Brothers, Gao Gai Gar
Day Two: Slayers Try, Haibane Renmei, xxxHolic, Squid Girl, Shattered Angels

The posts should be up on Saturday and Sunday; I’ll likely be liveblogging them, so if you catch the first RSS feed update, be sure to come back later in the day.

Next, I set out my list of games that I was going to try to get through during 2012. I’m shooting for a goal of 40 Clears again, and I hope to get through one or more of them before the Tekkoshocon Flyer Rally on the 14th. I’ve also set up ten additional “Extra Credit” games. The thing is, fully 25 of the total games on the list are long-form RPGs or SRPGs, so I’m not entirely sure how I’ll manage to get even half of the number of expected clears. I have a backup, though, what I’m calling the “Trump Card”: Demon’s Souls. If I manage to complete that nightmare of a game, I’ll call the year an unqualified success. But first, though, I’m starting to get deeper into the new Professor Layton title.

As an addendum: there’s someone in my apartment complex with a 3DS as well. The only reason I know this is because I managed to get a StreetPass tag from this person when I left my machine at home in the charging cradle. This is a remarkable coincidence, I think. I kind of wonder if I know this person… probably not.

Finally, in addition to the nerdery nonfiction writing, I’m also going to take some time to revise some of my older fiction outlines in order to prep them for eventual rewriting. I took a look back at the very first NaNo I attempted to write, a fantasy story, and found that, while it was flawed, it was still salvageable; I just need to think back about some of the ideas that I’ve had in the meantime and see which are worth welding onto the original plot, and to see what bits that I patched on are no longer necessary. I also want to take another stab at fleshing out the sci-fi universe I was working on, and seeing if it should or already does fit in with the universe set forth in “A Civics Lesson” and “Frangible Time”. Actually, writing that last chapter of “Frangible Time” might be worth doing, too– likely in February.

Anyway, that’s the plan for this weekend. Things are going to get very busy very fast with regards to the rest of my activities, so this may be one of the last few weekends I get to myself before Tekko prep causes all hell to break loose. I intend to enjoy it.

Rules Of Engagement

When it first came to prominence, I said that Blu-Ray was not going to supplant DVD in terms of the average movie viewing experience. I still stand by that, but the truth of the matter is that I have bought a handful of Blu-Ray movies since then, and have in some cases willingly sought them out. I have some very strict criteria for what gets bought on Blu-Ray, though.

1) Nothing older than 2008 will be bought on Blu-Ray unless it’s remastered, out of print otherwise, or offers some benefit over a DVD copy besides picture quality. Anything older than about 2008 probably wasn’t filmed with any kind of HD resolution in mind, and so it’s pointless to waste the money in order to see high-resolution film grain.
2) No TV series will EVER be bought on Blu-Ray. This is so I have the option of ripping the series to my iPhone or iPad and watching it in a mobile environment.
3) The only movies I’ll buy on Blu-Ray are ones where the visual effects are strong enough to necessitate the high quality. So far that’s been Inception, Summer Wars, and the new Star Trek. The Rebuild of Evangelion movies get a pass due to the CG and the fact that they’re the tinkered-with re-release versions and not the theatrical ones.
4) When possible, buy them used. This is just common sense.

The sole exception to the rules has been the ROD boxed set, but even that grudgingly fits Rule 1 because Aniplex decided not to release a DVD version. I only picked it up because I was able to get a decent deal on it, dropping it down to what the individual discs would go for on eBay. But it was still under protest.

I don’t think that the format has legs enough to completely supplant DVD. What I’m seeing more and more stores do, however, is scale back their physical media sections considerably owing to the fact that there are more people streaming stuff online, and owning a disc is seen increasingly as an oddity. Yeah, I do kind of hope that streaming catches on, but I still like the idea of having a physical disc on the very likely chance that contract squabbles take away a movie I want to see just before I want to stream it. Streaming services are too fragmented and volatile right now for me to entrust any of them with my sole desire to watch new movies and so forth. Maybe that’ll change, but I truly doubt it.

Winter Warring

So I happened to catch Summer Wars‘ showing in Pittsburgh today, at the Harris Theater. On one level, I want everyone reading this to go see it if it happens to be in your town soon (and I mean that, Zeitlers and Duffys). On the other hand, don’t watch too much of that trailer on the site linked above. What it doesn’t spoil outright, it completely misrepresents. This is a complicated movie, so bear with me while I try to get it all down before I go into what I hope won’t be a Tim Rogers-esque stream-of-crapciousness steaming pile of paragraphs.

Okay, so the first thing that the movie is about is OZ: a virtual world, along the lines of our reality’s Second Life, which has permeated society to such a great degree that it has supplanted the bare-bones World Wide Web. Think what would have happened if computer technology jumped from command-line telnet and GOPHER straight to the Matrix, or the Metaverse, or The World. It’s still all just people sitting at terminals, but the implication is that the electronic realm is still just a communications tool: e-mail, teleconferencing, and other applications we’re using today, in our world, are in the movie’s world under the purview of OZ.

However, at first the fact that OZ exists is seemingly brushed aside in favor of a couple of high school students, Kenji and Natsuki. Kenji is a part-time telecommuter working for OZ administration, and is noted to be a talented mathematics student who just barely missed being able to represent the nation in a global competition. Natsuki convinces Kenji to accompany her to her family’s reunion in the countryside as July winds down to an end, initially not telling him that he’s to pose as her fiancee in front of the family’s matriarch, Sakae. Sakae’s 90th birthday is coming up as well, and the family is quietly afraid for her health. Well, about as quietly as about a zillion relatives can be. Sakae is Natsuki’s great-grandmother, and so the celebration is for the extended family. Of course, Sakae herself is sharp enough to see through Natsuki’s deception almost immediately.

What nobody counts on is the black sheep of the family, Wabisuke, returning after a ten-year stint abroad in the United States. Pittsburgh, in point of fact– he’s supposedly a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. (This got a lot of laughs and applause at the showing this afternoon.) Anyway, he’d been in the bad books of the family after selling off a plot of land to fund his education, then running off to the US. Moreover, Wabisuke is adopted, and not everyone in the family takes a kindly eye to it. Natsuki, of course, is infatuated with him, and in fact modeled Kenji’s cover story on him.

After a chaotic first night at the reunion, Kenji gets an odd e-mail on his phone: a string of numbers and the phrase “Solve Me”. It’s late and Kenji’s searching for some way to keep from feeling completely hopeless, so he solves the problem– a ciphertext puzzle along the lines of the “Squeamish Ossifrage” puzzle of yore– and goes back to bed.

And that’s when everything goes to hell.

Suffice it to say, everything is connected, and while it may just have been a coincidence that Kenji has arrived at the door of the Jinnouchi clan, he’s practically part of the family by the end of the story. But getting there involves the world almost ending.

Seriously. It’s better than I make it sound. Trust me.

Anyway, from a technical standpoint the movie is a glorious change of pace from even the most beautifully animated series of late, mostly due to MADHOUSE’s ability to use CG in an anime and not have it look horribly out of place, but in no small part to the use of the Superflat design aesthetic. Think Andy Warhol taking a critical eye to generic manga and anime, and deconstructing it by exaggerating its fakeness. Scenes set in OZ are completely unreal, both in their technical complexity and in the sheer whacked-out-there character designs. Even still, the avatars are animated fluidly and stay on-model, except to prove the point of how fake the world really is; most of the combat involving the Harvey-like rabbit-man King Kazma highlight this very well. Scenes set in the real world of Ueda and the environs are, on the other hand, amazingly well done. The human character designs are diverse, but with some familial similarities that make certain characters look a little too much alike (in more than one case I couldn’t tell Natsuki and an aunt of hers apart, even though I had made a mental note of one of the ‘hints’ in the design).

The story isn’t bad either, and that’s where I’m going to have to put an end to the “professionalist” portion of this post and start getting subjective. I mentioned up there that I hoped that my own extended family would see this movie, and it’s not just because I know they’re keeping an eye on the blog and that sort of thing. The scenes where the entire Jinnouchi family is sitting down to dinner are something that, if you happen to have a large extended family like we do, will seem so very familiar to you. Between the kids and the food, the conversation and the community… it’s very hard for me to describe just how much that can mean to someone. A line late in the film highlights this, but sadly it’s way too much of a spoiler to mention here. (Seriously, knowing it’s coming wrecks the entire film.) There are other elements to the movie that sort of echoed with what I know of “family”. You’ll see, I hope.

If there was any doubt that people can be affected by even the silliest, most inconsequential little bits of fluffed-up entertainment that we can find, this film would erase it. I didn’t find out until later, of course, that the director came to this project after doing The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which is another fantastic movie that I think everyone should watch at least once. It’s strange, thinking that even now we have to defend the artistic merits of a medium.

Which brings up another interesting point about media. Throughout the film, OZ isn’t referenced negatively or positively. It’s simply a fact of life by that point, like how we view the radio, or television, or movies. As a society, humanity doesn’t think that a television is an inherently evil thing. It took quite a while to get to that point, but the point is that the method of communication is a neutral thing. A voice on the radio commands no greater influence than a voice in person. If we can afford that level of acceptance to a select few media, what makes newer media– newer ways to share and convey information– so scary to society? What causes people to be so afraid of a computer, a video game, a text message?

In the end, Summer Wars is a fantastic movie that warrants a lot more attention than I think it’s going to get. The film never descends into melodramatics, and it remains cheekily self-aware even as the fate of the world rests on this peculiar yet not unknown to us family. If it made the art-house circuit a few more times, I would line up every time it came back here… then again, technology has caught up with us yet again, and the DVD is slated to be out in February. If it can’t make it to a screen near you, I highly recommend at least trying to grab the disc.

1.21 Jiggaexcuses

Yeah, I missed a day. Not on purpose, I can assure you. Plus, the previous two days have been kind of terse. Maybe I ought to start there and explain a little.

Some of the weirdness that’s been going on these past two or three weeks has not stemmed from the move, but from the fact that at work, we’ve been wrapping up a release candidate. Friday was the last day for that, and as a result I ran into a situation where I needed to make a 30-mile trip into the unknown on Saturday morning in order to deal with some of the fallout. I had literally no idea where I was going, and if I hadn’t got there before noon, the goal would cease to exist. Fortunately, a) I had the GPS unit, and b) I woke up at 5a anyway and got there at 10a. So my store of adrenaline was pretty well gone by noon. My car wasn’t damaged or anything; the trip was smooth, though there was a small detour.

So that brings me to yesterday afternoon, the first point since… oh, July, where I had the weekend to myself and no major obligations left. I did a little bit of cleaning up, but the majority of the day was spent right where I am now– on the couch. Unfortunately, you know what they say about inertia, and around 9p I was asleep. I woke up at 11p to get a blanket from the bed but other than that I was done. (Sue me, the couch was already warm and the bed was not.)

Today, really, should be more of the same; I’ve got to take a quick run out to get groceries for the coming week or so, and later on a friend or two will be over to help test out Rock Band 3 in local multiplayer. Because if there’s one thing that I really want to do today, it’s rock.

So, I suppose, that means I’m going away. I hope you don’t mind. But, for tomorrow’s post, I promise you, I’ll be back in time.

………….all this has been a really convoluted excuse for saying that I also watched the Back to the Future Trilogy yesterday.

Tricky Picky

Gonna have to keep this short because I didn’t get to sleep until late last night– or rather this morning– but I did go see Iron Man 2, which was awesome, and I managed to snag a copy of Picross 3D for the DS as well. If you’re into puzzle games at all, or have a DS and a commute or some time to kill now and again, this game is well worth the budget-level layout (and I was very surprised to see Nintendo priced it at $20). Be warned, though, it’s really, really hard.

Later, kids.

But They Drew A Thirty-One

So I spent this night in anticipation of the “lucky” Final Fantasy… by watching the “unlucky” one, The Spirits Within. I still maintain it wasn’t a bad movie, just one that (like, well, most movies) over-promised and under-delivered. The project was ambitious and unfortunately ten years ago the tech just wasn’t there. It is now, which is why we have stuff like the gorgeous (yet, in terms of story concepts, absolutely wretched) Avatar.

That’s part of why I can’t bring myself to hate TSW or Avatar nearly as much as I “should”. To me, those films represent technological leaps that might be a bit over-reaching, but at least they’re trying something different. Would I prefer that a good (or, hell, let’s split the difference and say “not awful”) story go along with them? Of course. But the thing is, if you can only put your money in the writing or the visuals, while writing might get you Oscars, the visuals are going to get you butts in seats.

Let me say this, though. I don’t hate James Cameron. I can’t. The guy directed Aliens. I mean, that alone should be good for at least two or three stinkers. Then he did The Abyss and Terminator 2. The guy’s earned his right to write obnoxious furry wish-fulfillment, if you ask me.

The Collector’s Commandments

In 2002, I started what would eventually become the capitalized “The Collection” from some pretty humble beginnings: I had a single “CD tower” of Playstation 1 and 2 games, probably about four feet tall and barely a foot wide. I also had a handful of boxed up retro systems, and maybe a dozen or so anime DVDs (with a modest amount of VHS tapes as well). Obviously, I expanded; as most of you all know, I also had to sell off roughly 95% of my games and anime during a downturn between jobs. Today, the Collection is the largest it’s ever been, and it’s in no danger of having to be sold off anytime soon.

I don’t like to brag– particularly not about stuff that I own– so that’s not the purpose of this post. Most folks don’t see their piles of video games and movies and suchlike as collections– they see them, primarily, as just “stuff”. If they want to get fancy, they may refer to it as a “library”. Really, though, these are cop-outs: if one is really serious about becoming a collector, then there can never be a point where you just have a pile of discs. You have to start early, so that it doesn’t get away from you. I’ve been throwing around terms like the Reclamation List and all that for years now without really explaining the thought process behind it all; I figure, now that the majority of the work is behind me, it would be a good time to take a look at how I built up even this modest collection and how I go about expanding it.

I should note, though, that it’s perfectly okay if you don’t want to be a collector of DVDs, games, whatever. That’s fine. It’s not something that everyone can do or has an interest in doing. The thing is, of course, that some folks out there do want to be collectors, and there’s some stuff that I wish I knew when I was setting out. That’s the purpose of this post (actually, by the time I’m done, it’ll probably feel more like a lecture).

So, without further delay, let’s start with The Ten Commandments Of Collecting:
1) Thou Shalt Organize Thy Stuff Into A Collection. I make a distinction here between “stuff” and “a collection” because there is a distinction, even if it’s primarily psychological. Take, for example, my books versus my video games. My books are all dumped into bookshelves without any thought or reasoning behind their placement beyond “it fits here”. In point of fact, my books are overflowing the meager bookshelves I have them on because I cheaped out and didn’t get tall ones. Contrast that to the video game shelf, which is organized into “active” and “archived” games, sorted by system, and roughly sorted by purchase date or completion date within each system. It’s easy to tell which one I’m more serious about; because of this investment of time, the game collection feels like more of a long-term project.
2) Thou Shalt Save Every Bit Of Packaging. This one is pretty obvious, yet you’d be surprised how many people don’t pay the slightest bit of attention to it. With video games and DVDs coming in self-storing packaging these days it’s a lot easier to have complete packaging, which means manuals for games and liner notes for movies. However, if you want to go the extra mile, you might also consider saving the extra stuff that goes into the package– ads for other movies or games, for example. The sole exception to this is a one-time-use code, such as a download token or a rewards-program code; you can save the cards for this if you want (like if the card has promotional artwork or something on it) but make sure you obfuscate the code once you’re done with it.
3) Thou Shalt Not Buy Used Stuff That Is Incomplete. This is mostly for video games, but it could come up for DVD boxed sets as well. Buying used can be a real money-saver, particularly if you’re looking for something out-of-print or relatively old. It can be tempting to see the item you’ve been hunting for sitting there as a bare disc, and you know where to find high-resolution scans of the cover art. You should usually resist this temptation. First, it incurs an extra expense on you because you now have to rustle up replacement packaging– for DVDs, not a problem; for games, whose clamshell cases usually are only available direct from the manufacturers, it can be expensive to buy just one or two cases. Second, not having the original packaging severely damages the resale value of the item, making it potentially worthless: the value of an item you can’t get to sell is always $0. Third, unless you have access to a really high-quality color printer, making a replacement slipcover for the game leaves you with a cheap-looking case that screams to potential buyers, “this is probably a bootleg!” and looks ludicrously out-of-place on your shelf. Finally, unless you’re sure that the item had a production run in the sub-thousand copies range, you’re probably going to run across a complete version of the item in a few weeks of diligent searching anyway. I’ve been burned a couple of times on this, particularly with some relatively obscure PS2 games that I really should have known better about, so my policy now is that nothing newer than 2000 gets bought incomplete. For older video games, though, you have to make an exception: nobody saved their manuals for, say, an Atari 2600 game, let alone through up to the N64 era. Cartridges are also far sturdier than discs, so they’re more likely to have lost boxes. It’s usually okay to buy a bare cartridge, especially for portable games, but keep an eye out for the rare complete-in-box set.
4) Thou Shalt Not Pay Full Price (Unless Thou Must). This is another obvious tip that causes some folks to scratch their heads when they realize how much money they’re basically giving away. Because video games and DVDs are such a rapid market, they drop in price dramatically and quickly compared to other, more obvious collector’s items like Hummel figurines or old books. We’ll focus specifically on video games for this commandment but the principle is the same for DVDs and CDs as well. On release day, a new console game costs $60. If you’re excited to play the game and literally cannot wait for it, then by all means buy it at that price, as long as you value the entertainment you get out of it at that $60 mark. For me, a game like Final Fantasy or the like is easily valued that high, so I have no problems snagging the game on day one. However, as time goes on, retailers see that game sitting on the shelf for weeks, and start dropping the price to get it to sell better. If you wait a few weeks or months after release day to buy a game, you can save in some cases $10 to $30 off that initial price tag. It gets better once the game is announced to be on the system’s value-price line (“Greatest Hits” for Sony systems and “Platinum Hits” for the 360… Nintendo hasn’t announced a successor to the “Player’s Choice” line yet). These games are priced between $20 and $30, have larger print runs, and (unfortunately) have gaudy markings on their packaging. If you’re smart and keep an eye on game news web sites, you can get advance notice of when a game is added to these lists and pick up a copy of the original print run of the game at the value price, before the ugly-box version floods the market. Bear in mind, though, that in some cases there are value-adds to the bargain-bin version that make it more attractive; Microsoft, for example, is being very good about this by including download codes for DLC with some of their Platinum Hits games. If you’re collecting to play, this is a pretty good deal and could be an acceptable trade-off to the ugly packaging. And this doesn’t even get into the random deals (like, for example, the rash of “buy two, get one” deals from mid-to-late 2009) that some retailers offer!
5) Thou Shalt Purchase Thy New Stuff With An Eye To Collecting. Movies and games are a fast-paced field to collect in, because there’s always something new coming out. More to the point, there are so many different genres within the field– sci-fi, first-person-shooters, romances, tactical strategy– that everyone’s collections can be unique. There’s always going to be “must-own” items… and there’s always going to be crap. Lately there’s a silly trend of companies putting out “Collector’s Editions” of their items that have print runs as large or even larger than the “standard” editions; in some cases, the “collector’s” is the only edition released! Worse, though, are the critical darling items that are fantastically good but completely overlooked by the public; these are the kinds of items that have what I like to call “worldwide print runs of twelve”. It’s an obvious exaggeration, of course, but these items appear in retail on their release day, stick around for maybe a month or so, and then are never seen again except on eBay and under a dozen layers of dust in some godforsaken pawn shop. The bottom line is, do your homework. If you know enough about the genre you collect in and the companies producing the items you collect, you can easily know what you have to line up for on Day Zero and what you can let slide until it hits the bargain bin.
6) Thou Shalt Have A List Of Thy Collection At All Times. You’ve been there before, trust me: you’re on vacation somewhere remote, and you wander into a used game store or a pawn shop just to have a look around, when you spot an absolute steal of a deal on an item that’s fairly uncommon, even though it’s a bit of an expenditure now. You snatch it off the shelf, make sure it’s worth buying, and walk to the counter before realizing, “Wait, don’t I already have this?!” Doubt creeps into your mind. If you leave it at the store, you’ll get home and realize you didn’t have it; if you pick it up, you’ll head home and see that you do have it, and now you have to offload it. Obviously the second is better in that you can turn a little profit off of it, but wouldn’t it be better to not have to be in doubt at all? These days it’s fairly easy to have access to some kind of document storage from anywhere in the world. Most of us carry some kind of portable device, be it a smartphone or an MP3 player with a screen, or even a netbook. Consider having, at the very least, a flat text-file list of what’s in your collection on your portable device. If you want, you can even put the prices you paid for the items on it as well if you’re looking to make flipping items a side venture. Software tools exist to help manage these things; I use the excellent Delicious Library tool for the Mac (and was lucky enough to get the iPhone app before it was pulled– even if it hadn’t been, the tool can publish a web-based gallery of your collection which any smartphone or mobile web device can access).
7) Thou Shalt Not Treat Thy Collection As Your Retirement. I think a lot of people were burned out on collecting in the late 90’s and early 2000’s with the Beanie Baby craze. These small, relatively obscure dolls were being traded at ridiculously high aftermarket values for only a short while, until the manufacturer could ramp up production and flood the market, driving the aftermarket values into the toilet. People saw these dolls, not as items of intrinsic value, but as bonds or investments; obviously, they chose poorly. I ran into a similar problem myself: when I was unemployed in early 2005, I wound up having to slowly and steadily sell off my entire collection of games, DVDs, and CDs just to keep myself afloat. I sold some items at decent prices but the majority of them wound up being sold far too low because nobody else could give me cash at the time. I’m not proud of it, but I see it as a valuable lesson: the minute you buy something, its resale value is cut in half. Games, DVDs, and CDs (these last ones especially) depreciate in value far too rapidly to be considered a serious or even minimally viable “investment”. The only game that could ever act that way is blackjack at a casino, and even then the odds are in favor of the house. The point is, if you collect something like games and movies, make sure you get some intrinsic value out of the item equal to or greater than the depreciation of the item. Use what you collect– gently, of course– so that if (heaven forbid) you have to take it all to the pawn shop, you can do so with no regrets.
8) Thou Shalt Not Fear Parting With An Item, Or Even Thy Collection. Like I said above, times can get tough. If you get laid off, or if an emergency comes up, or if some disaster strikes, you may need some cash. In extreme circumstances, your emergency reserve of money could run out and you’ll need to find some way to make up the difference; selling off an item or two from your collection could save you, but it’d be painful. After all, you worked hard to find that item, and it cost you a pretty penny! The thing is, though, if you already got your money’s worth of enjoyment out of the item, then you should have no problem selling it off. Don’t become too attached to your collection, to the point where you start neglecting essentials in order to preserve it. You need to eat and survive first. If the literal worst happens, and you need to sell the whole thing off– or if it gets stolen– you’ll want to make sure you have the most current version of your list ready and stored somewhere safe, so that you can use that to reclaim the items slowly (or report it to the police). Don’t feel you have to get it all back at once: it took you a long time to collect it the first time, so it’ll take you just as long the second time. Or the third time, or the fiftieth time (though if you have to sell your collection 50 times in your lifetime I’d be more concerned about getting a steady income first). Although, in the interim, it could be wise to sell off items strategically if you’re coming up a little short on your entertainment budget: sell off stuff you know you’ll be able to buy back later at a price far lower than you sold it for. For example, if you’re not into multiplayer games, selling off a high-profile game once you finish its single-player campaign is a good idea, while the resale value is still high; you can then wait until the next version of the game comes out to pick it up on the extra-cheap.
9) Thou Shalt Know That Some Purchases Are Forever. Lately there’s a fairly big trend in the video game industry in particular to include single-use codes for downloadable content with new games; other games make such extensive use of DLC that you can easily wind up spending as much if not more than the game’s initial cost on add-ons. These purchases can never be passed on to anyone else: you bought it, and now you’re stuck with it. This isn’t as bad as it sounds for certain games. Stuff like Rock Band and Guitar Hero DLC is well worth the cash. Others, like map packs for games that eventually have only one or two players online each month, are not so valuable. Also, DLC is usually if not always tied to your hardware. Come to think of it, hardware itself should be considered a “forever” item simply because it’s better to get a new item and not have to worry about how badly someone else abused the console before you. Finally, game peripherals like guitars and extra controllers are nice to have, but they have almost no resale value by themselves and add only a little value to a console being sold. A special case should be made for CDs: it’s my policy that I don’t buy CDs anymore unless the artist is one I really like, or the music isn’t available digitally. I also buy CDs used whenever possible, and if I must buy new I try to do so direct from the artist (usually at a concert). Music is increasingly a digital medium, so this makes sense from my perspective, though as always your mileage may vary.
10) Thou Shalt Know Where Thy Collection Is Going After Thou Art Gone. A collection is a nice thing for you to have, but as always, you can’t take it with you once you pass away. It’s probably a good plan to have an “exit strategy” written up, even if it’s not a formal will. There are a million different ways you can do this, but the three most obvious ones are: sell it all off, split it up, or pass it on. You can say that the whole wad will be sold on eBay in one grand, dramatic gesture– you’d be surprised how much people will pay for a full collection if it has some rare or well-preserved items. Alternately, you can split the collection up and sell it in lots; a single lot of maybe 6-10 games with a fair distribution of rare games can sell for more than the games would alone. Finally, you can pass the collection on to a friend, relative, or group; this could itself be done in its entirety or in bits and pieces. Myself, I don’t yet know what’s going to happen to my Wall O’ Fun, but I’m leaning towards donating it to some local hospitals and charities so that people can get some enjoyment out of the things which brought me such fun– of course, that’s a very far-off thought.

Finally, while these are by no means commandments, here’s a few tips on finding those hard-to-track-down items that you might be missing. (Again, this is going to focus on video games primarily, but the techniques apply universally.)
Check online. eBay, the Craigslist for your area, and even your local newspaper’s online classifieds can oftentimes find what you’re looking for at decent, if not great, prices.
Flip lots of games. “Flipping” is the sales technique of buying several lots of games from many different sources, taking what you want out of the lots, recombining them, and reselling them at higher or more attractive prices. It takes a little bit more startup cash than just buying single games, but done effectively you can make it a self-sustaining cycle.
Garage sales. This would be mostly for retro or older games; most of the time people are going to send their current-generation stuff to GameStop. Still, it’s a great way to kill a summer Sunday afternoon, and sometimes you can find some genuinely good stuff.
Pawn Shops and Flea Markets. At the time that I’m writing this, I live across the street from a weekend flea-market site. There are two video game dealers in the building, and in the summer when the outdoor stalls are up two or three of those usually have a pile of games. I’ve come across some high-value items there… and I’ve been burned on more than one occasion. This is risky and a bit more expensive than buying online, but it has the advantage of being able to negotiate prices and not requiring shipping fees.

In the end, taking up media collecting as a serious hobby can be rewarding and fun, but it can also be really nerve-wracking if you’re not prepared for it. Obviously, I’m not setting myself up as an authority or anything, but these are all just stuff I’ve found out since starting the Reclamation project. It all comes down to what you get out of it; if you want it just to have it, or if you want it to watch/read/play it all at some point.

It’s Going To Get Messier Before It Gets Cleaner

Okay, so I now have the three new pieces of furniture I wanted in order to do the living room redesign, and to make the best use of the space (plus to open up room for the third, and very probably final for this apartment, media shelf once the Collection warrants it, which is probably going to be around January or so). Not only did I employ mad spatial estimation skills to get all the crap into my car in more or less one trip, I also rocked the raw nerd strength needed to get the boxes down the stairs to my apartment. (Those of you just joining me, this means pretty much the exact opposite of how badass I made it sound.)

I like putting things together, so ordinarily I would say that the hard part is over, and the fun was just starting. Unfortunately if I did that, I would be a liar. Y’see, I’ve kinda, well, lived in my living room for the past three years, and in all that time I still haven’t taken down the folding table that I’m currently using as a computer desk. The only improvement, really, has been that I replaced my very sketchy console-rack-bridge-thing with a proper media stand at the beginning of the year. As a result– and a natural consequence, completely justified by my being a single guy– there’s a lot of stuff here that needs to be organized and put away into my small and nearly empty storage space across the hall. I initially thought I was going to be able to just do the rearrangement all on Sunday without any stress. Yeah, that might not be happening. I suppose that if I’m really lucky and handy with getting the stuff packed away tomorrow night (read: I don’t decide to just blow it off and go see Ponyo like I had originally planned) I could still have a workable living room on Sunday evening. The odds of this actually happening are ridiculously slim.

Ah well. It’ll get done eventually. In the meantime, listen to the sweet serenade of the origin of my new desk.