Give It Up for the Holidays
A gift guide with something for everyone
Edited by Davina Baum and Patrick Sullivan
It’s time to take down last year’s New Year’s resolutions from the fridge and put up a new list: “Ways for Others to Stimulate the Economy on My Behalf.” This holiday season, the sound of jingle bells is “cha-ching”–in other words, it’s the season to spend.
For our part, we offer this guide to ways you can please your loved ones without emptying your wallet. The key? Buy gifts that keep on giving–cultural objects that pack an entertaining wallop. For examples, see the following list of music CDs, high-value movie DVDs, and the ridiculously cheap offerings of Cheapass Games.
So unwrap the love. Free the dove. Santa ain’t got nothing on you, baby.
Heads or Tails
Consider the following philosophical puzzle. If God were a game player and our lives were merely the stuff of some giant board game, how much cash would God have had to pony up to buy the game in the first place?
Ready for the answer?
Well, if you suspect that your own personal game of life rates up there with such competitive classics as Trouble, Monopoly, Battleship, Clue, or even (ouch) Operation, then God probably paid between 15 and 30 bucks.
On the other hand, if your thrill-packed life more closely resembles being chased up a building by a satanic rabbit, or being stuck among brainless zombies in the fast-food restaurant of the damned, two things are almost certain: God forked over a paltry five dollar bill, and your life was manufactured by Cheapass Games of Seattle, Washington.
Founded in the early ’90s by a gleefully low-rent entrepreneur named James Ernest, Cheapass Games is a tiny, five-employee company that has made a huge name for itself by producing great little games–often with perversely catchy names like Unexploded Cow, Devil Bunny Needs a Ham, and Give Me the Brain–at a fraction of the cost of those other games with the sweeter names.
The motivating force behind Cheapass Games is Ernest’s two-part belief that board games have become too expensive, and that, at a basic level, all games are alike.
While most board games come in classy, colorful boxes and offer shiny, new dice and fake money and nifty plastic playing pieces, Cheapass’ games, to put it succinctly, don’t. Providing only the parts that are uniquely specific to his own games, Ernest designs his creations with the assumption that, if needed, players can borrow all that run-of-the-mill stuff from some other game.
“Part of the appeal of Cheapass Games,” says Ernest, with a sly chuckle, “is that we take such pride in our cheapness.”
Indeed. While some Cheapass games do come in boxes–if you can call those wraparound cardboard cases “boxes”–most of them come in simple 7-by-10 inch envelopes. If the game includes a board, it comes on card stock, printed on separated pieces that must be assembled.
Instructions–the heart and soul of the Cheapass experience–are single sheets of nonglossy paper, with clear and simple text wrapped around some very R. Crumb-style illustrations. When the game involves playing cards, they always come bound with strips of paper cut from magazines and stuck together with scotch tape. These things aren’t called Cheapass for nothing.
All of which adds up to very affordable products. Cheapass games rarely run more than $7, and most of them cost closer to $5. They even have a new line of stocking-sized card games in little ziplock bags that run a mere $4. Those are pretty attractive numbers to savvy gamers with limited pocket money, not to mention economical gift givers with game-oriented loved ones on their list.
Ernest, though, prefers not to think of it that way. “A Cheapass game is a hallmark of intellectual distinction, not tightfisted gift-giving,” he says. “Everyone should play and display their Cheapass games with pride.”
Insisting that cheapness is not the only secret to Cheapass Games’ success, Ernest says, “I think that story sells games. That’s proved by the fact that some of my games flop and some don’t, all at the same price point. The better the story, the better they sell.”
By story Ernest means the premise on which the game is based. In the case of Cheapass Games, these stories incline toward the bizarre. In the best-selling Give Me the Brain, players are zombies attempting to make it to the end of their shift at the fast-food place from hell, but have only one brain to share among the whole crew. In Unexploded Cow–which combines mad cow hysteria with France’s unexploded mine problem–players, using detailed cards and dice, parade infected bovine across live bomb fields.
Not all of Ernest’s game stories are so grisly. U.S. Patent No. 1 imagines competing inventors of the time machine attempting to register their invention with the patent office by moving further and further back in time.
“My favorite trick is to find a well-known situation and look at it from a novel perspective,” Ernest explains. “Sherwood Forest has Robin Hood and poor people in it, of course, but if these poor people get irregular infusions of cash, then logically there must also be traveling salesmen. That could be the basis of a Cheapass game.”
Sounds like another bestseller.
But back to God for a minute. If the Big Guy really were a gamer, and our lives the machinations of the ultimate Cheapass game, does Ernest have an idea what that game would be titled? Of course he does: “Don’t Make Me Come Down There.”
You’ll find Cheapass Games on the web at www.cheapass.com.
Why buy DVDs? Let’s hope it’s not just for the bells and whistles. It can be downright dismaying to watch an actor stumble over his words in a “Special Features” interview. Better visual resolution, though another plus, is not completely important; crisper images won’t transform a dumb movie into a smart one.
The most attractive DVD feature is permanence, which is why, when collecting DVDs, it’s best to pick up films you’ll want to watch over and over again.
Citizen Kane: The Special Edition ($29.99), on DVD, is the visually cleanest copy from a recently discovered positive. Considering the original negative was lost in a fire about two decades ago, the film looks much better than we could ever have hoped. The new edition carries two commentaries, one by Roger Ebert, and one by director Peter Bogdanovich. There is another, slightly more expensive two-DVD set ($35) that includes the documentary The Battle for Citizen Kane, Thomas Lennon and Richard Ben Cramer’s study of the making of the film.
My advice? Go cheaper. The Battle for Citizen Kane is well researched, but it clings to a doubtful premise. Cramer and Lennon portray Kane as a collision between an irresistible artist, young Orson Welles, and an immovable media baron, old William Randolph Hearst.
Whether Welles was ruined by Hollywood or by his capacity for self-destruction is a matter film critics will be mulling over until the end of cinema. Yet–and this is ignored in The Battle for Citizen Kane–Welles had an impressive career after his masterpiece flopped. His vandalized second feature film, The Magnificent Ambersons, is more important than the entire careers of several brand-name classic directors.
No one since Welles has had the vigor or the freedom to complete a film like Citizen Kane. All the more reason to own a copy–and to mull over, on frequent viewings, the corrosive effect of wealth on politics and the communications business, and the question: “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul.” In a lesser movie, say, Jerry Maguire, these matters can look inane. But when a man has a soul like the soul of Charles Foster Kane. . .
Only The Godfather DVD collection (listing at $105.90; on sale for around $80) approaches the ambition of Kane as a study of vast power and dashed hopes. (Indeed, Welles wanted the part of Godfather Vito Corleone, says his biographer David Thomson.)
The DVD set includes a disc of addendums providing real life backstory for the film. These DVDs chart out Coppola’s grand yet intimate history of the immigrant Vito Corleone and his heir Michael (Al Pacino). Michael saves the family’s fortunes but ends up ruling in isolation. Marlon Brando’s warmth in the role of Old Vito spurs insane emotion in more than one viewer: “God, I really wish my dad had been there for me like Don Corleone.”
For years, director Francis Ford Coppola has been debating making The Godfather IV. But really, the sequel already exists. The first two years of the HBO series The Sopranos is available on DVD (list price $99.98; available for as low as $75). The Sopranos is the first important inquiry into the questions raised by Coppola’s epic. David Chase’s continuing TV series portrays the new generation of gangsters not as operatic figures of tragedy but as players in a comic opera, with a rock/pop music score.
From the vantage point of the bleak 1970s, The Godfather looked at how postwar America had all gone wrong. The butterball anti-hero Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), Mafia chief of New Jersey, doesn’t pester himself with such matters. . .until panic attacks reveal that the trouble’s in him. Why else can’t the usual remedies–the sweets and the sex and the luxury–ward off the terrors as they once did?
Tony’s immigrant grandfather was a master mason. Tony is in the trash business, an idle king, surrounded by an untrustworthy court of overgrown boys. The Sopranos is a continuing moral drama, counterpointed by the evil comedy of decline.
We love Tony because he’s suspicious of sham, and these qualities connect his criminal career with the hero of another must-have on DVD, The Big Sleep ($19.98). Howard Hawks’ 1946 detective film makes an appealing virtue out of its own pointlessness. Like The Sopranos, the film divides the world into likable and disagreeable characters. The former are careless and without hypocrisy; the latter are passionate bores about something or other: their power, their cuteness, their moral fiber, or their toughness. Detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) plays our none-too-hardworking hero (“Don’t you know better than to wake a man up at 2 in the afternoon?”).
The Big Sleep makes a more impressive present when bundled with The Humphrey Bogart Collection (listing at $79.99). This package includes Bogart in four films: three of them classic, one of them minor, the preachy Key Largo. Another in the set is The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s ornate tale of San Francisco corruption, performed by a rich cast of supporting actors.
Casablanca, also included, of course, needs no description. You must remember this: these are movies, like the DVD discs themselves, that are made to last for decades.
–Richard von Busack
Mixing Up Christmas
Clip this list and present it to gift givers, along with a pleading look that conveys the idea that if only one gift is to be gifted this season, let it be music. Recently released or soon to be released, these albums are a sonic quilt that you can blanket yourself with over the cold, wet months to come.
DJ Spooky, Under the Influence; Six Degrees
Paul D. Miller, otherwise known as DJ Spooky “That Subliminal Kid,” is a post-modern sculptor, whittling away at careful soundscapes. This avatar of turntablism has elevated the art into an intellectual pursuit. But while his art may be abstract and conceptual in theory, in practice it succeeds on a more basic, aesthetically delightful level. Under the Influence is the first release in a series from Six Degrees that features Spooky remixing influential works–a tribute of sorts. Spooky’s choices–from dance-floor mainstays Moby and Mix Master Mike to Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and Iranian-born vocalist Sussan Deyhim, to avant rockers Sonic Youth–are a testament to the diversity of his inspirations, and meld on the album into an eminently listenable product. The 26 tracks bounce and bump with lively yet intricately controlled abandon.
Bebel Gilberto, Tanto Tempo Remixes; Six Degrees
Da Lata, Songs from the Tin; Palm Pictures
Si*Sé , Si*Sé; Luaka Bop
Forget Ricky Martin. Twenty-first century Latin music comes directly out of the electronica scene: layered, richly-produced music infused with house beats. This house element complements Latin music’s inherent lounge-y sophistication in a truly euphoric way. At the forefront of the scene is Bebel Gilberto, daughter of the famous Brazilian musician João Gilberto. Bebel’s 2000 debut album, Tanto Tempo, set her up as the voice of bossa nova; with this month’s Remixes, studio producers such as Peter Kruder (of Kruder and Dorfmeister), King Britt, and 4 Hero shake up the original tracks with love and inspiration, creating less of a remix album than a tribute. Then there’s Da Lata, comprised of two Latin music outsiders, Christian Franck and DJ Patrick Forge. Da Lata put out Songs from the Tin last year, inspired by bossa nova and tempered with lush orchestration. Every song sounds like a rain forest. Lastly, the New York-based group Si*Sé’s self-titled debut, out on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, takes bossa nova to a truly cosmopolitan level. The group, headed by heady vocalist Carol C and DJ U.F. Low, produces gorgeous mixes with strings soaring over drum machines. Together, all three albums will spice up the holidays for someone you love.
Kittie, Oracle; Artemis Records
The fur flew when Kittie ripped a hole in the male-dominated world of metal with its aggressive debut album, Spit, a vicious, snarling attack fueled by fierce female fury. Despite a dispute that caused former guitarist Fallon Bowman to sever ties with the band, these dark metal maidens power on with their new effort, Oracle, released Nov. 13. With sisters Morgan and Mercedes Lander on lead vocals/guitars and drums, respectively, and Talena Atfield on bass, Kittie’s latest demonstrates a sharp and matured progression of the band’s abrasive style. The first single, “What I Always Wanted,” delivers raw, throat-skinning, death metal rage and choking, guttural screams tempered by almost-sweet melodic brutality.
Mates of State, My Solo Project; Omnibus Records Our Constant Concern; Polyvinyl Records
Kari Gardner and Jason Hammel are in love. They’re married. They make beautiful music together. A keyboard/organ (Kari), drums (Jason), and two soaring voices are all that’s needed for such a deceptively simple endeavor. The duo, which started out in Lawrence, Kansas and now makes its home in the Bay Area, perform with the brilliant fervor of a thousand bright stars, marrying lovely boy-girl harmonies to a sound that tickles like the elegant bubbles of a fine champagne. Mates of State’s second effort (which doesn’t release until January 22 but will make a lovely post-holiday gift, because everyone needs gifts in the late winter months to allay the effects of post-holiday malaise) includes songs like “I Know, and I Said Forget It,” which opens with a tingly keyboard riff and then drops layer upon precise layer of delicate pop.
No Doubt, Rock Steady; Interscope Records
It took less than a year for No Doubt to write and record this upbeat party album–a bouncy, synthed-up blend of pop, New Wave, rock, rap, and reggae that serves as the perfect support for glamour girl Gwen Stefani’s sexy cotton-candy vocals. The eclectic Southern California band’s new effort boasts an impressive cast of collaborators including Prince, Ric Ocasek, and William Orbit. The group even spent time in sunny Jamaica with renowned producers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare who twiddled knobs for the first single, “Hey Baby,” a hot dancehall number featuring rapper Bounty Hunter. Described as the happiest No Doubt album to date, Rock Steady hits stores on December 18.
Jill Scott, Experience: Jill Scott (826 +), Hidden Beach Records
Thank God for the resurgence of soul. How would we ever get our groove on without a Maxwell or Angie Stone CD? Another must-have for the turn-the-lights-down-low collection is Experience: Jill Scott (826 +), a soothing, sugary double-disc compilation from singer Jill Scott. Scott, whose debut album, Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1 went multiplatinum, gives us a live rendering of songs plucked from her debut album as well as six new songs. Experience features her hits “Gettin’ in the Way,” “Do You Remember,” and “A Long Walk,” as well as an uptempo mix of “He Loves Me.” Scott says Experience, which was recorded live from her performance August 26 at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., is a gift to fans who couldn’t be there to catch the D.C. show. It’s an aural testament to her blend of spoken word and jazzy balladeering in the tradition of ancestral torch singers Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Give someone the Experience tonight.
From the November 22-28, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.