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Sunday, Aug 24, 2008

Been brewing on this for a few months so please excuse the fact that the article references below are a little old, inspired by yet another wave of ‘death of journalism articles.’


It’s not only this study claiming that critics are losing out to social networks and music services but also this survey of UK critics bemoaning their own profession.


Let’s admit it- the reason that you see a lot of these columns is because of self-interest.  The writers left standing in publications want to defend not just their peers but also their profession and their job.  The debate then is whether this is really warranted or not otherwise.  One argument against scribes is that the egalitarian nature of the Net levels the playing field and lets the masses storm the gate of opinion, making it more public again.  Then again, just because someone has an opinion doesn’t mean that they can express it well or as the old saying goes “Opinions are like assholes- everybody’s got one.”


There IS good reason to worry though as recently (well, relatively recently), the L.A. Times has cut more writers loose, including Chuck Philips (who admittedly had some big problems with sources to a recent story).


In my mind, a good music critic can serve two important purposes: 1) helping you to find out good music and/or 2) helping to think about music and issues around it.  Admittedly, there’s much more call for the former than the later and even then, there’s a lot of competition from other sources, mostly online.


And that’s where the big stink happens when professional writers complain about the Net, as for instance in this Guardian article.  What they’re worried about is whether blogging will or can (or should) replace print criticism, but maybe this a false set-up.  Posting a link to a story or an MP3 file or an embedded music video isn’t the same thing as writing a think piece or a carefully researched article- that doesn’t usually happen in blogs and maybe it’s expecting too much of them to think that they (always) should.  Posting info can be a valuable service which you can learn something from- a good music blog can just as well help you find good music.  To say that it’s not ‘journalism’ per se is right but that doesn’t take away it’s value as providing a public service.


In the next installment (hopefully soon), we’ll hash through some fallacies about the ‘anyone can write’ argument…


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Sunday, Aug 24, 2008

One imagines that if you gave Canadian auteur Guy Maddin a mainstream movie script and a cast of well known celebrities, he would still wind up making one unhinged example of avant-garde experimentalism. He’d have Brad Pitt as a half-blind double amputee with a kind of emotional Asperger Syndrome while co-star Cate Blanchett would be a mute muse he only sees while under the influence of a heady homemade elixir. It would borrow greatly from D. W. Griffith and the earliest days of moviemaking while adding enough Dali-inspired strangeness to make Un chien andalou look like Underdog.


Not known for his straightforward, rational, or even coherent aesthetic, this is a man manufacturing pictures based on his own fudged up film language. Maddin makes movies locked in his own unique approach, one that apparently hasn’t aged since Keaton and Chaplin were battling it out for box office supremacy. A perfect example of what he is after comes in the form of Brand Upon the Brain!, a self-described “97% accurate” autobiography of his early life as the abused son of a tyrannical couple who run a lighthouse orphanage while manufacturing an immortality serum. Seriously.


It’s not like the plot to the film (new to DVD from the Criterion Collection) clarifies things. When a fictional ‘Guy Maddin’ receives a letter from his dying mother asking that he return to the family homestead and give the place a much needed makeover, the middle aged painter agrees. Armed with a can of whitewash, he begins to touch up the fading walls of the Black Notch Island lighthouse, where his mother and father once ran an orphanage. Slowly, his memories of the past come flooding back.


He recalls his sexually frustrated older sister, and her physical awakening at the hands of a pair of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew like detectives - Wendy and Chance Hale, otherwise known as “The Lightbulb Kids”. He remembers late night footsteps and long lines of orphans entering his father’s mysterious lab. He balks at reminiscences of his mother’s watchtower worrying, a weird telephone like device and searchlight seeking out anything remotely fun or satisfying. He even revisits his own ineffectual rearing, complete with too many intimate cuddles and his own awkward carnal confusions. 


In general, Guy Maddin is either a stone cold genius or the kind of overly arty arsepipe that gives underground cinema a bad rap. Here’s voting for the former delineation. While you’ve probably never seen a silent scream as significant as Brand Upon the Brain!, Maddin makes his freak show fever dream relatively easy to digest. Sure, we grow slightly weary of all the peephole compositions and Lumiere like dissolves, but when the end result is this engaging, it really is hard to bellyache.


Indeed, Maddin earns major brownie points for out weirding David Lynch, circumventing Ken Russell, going gonzo where Terry Gilliam is merely giddy, and working it like a combination of James Whale, Tod Browning, and The Residents. Sure, it’s all pretend pretense, dramatics cleverly concealed inside manic moviemaking symbolism. But once you get a handle on Maddin’s cinematic dialect, the iconography becomes all too clear.


While he argues for the veracity of the events in Brand Upon the Brain!, it has also been suggested that the accuracy lies in ‘psychological’ truth. That means that Maddin’s character in the film was probably not the victim of a domineering and pseudo incestual mother. Instead, we can read in between the frame count to find the reality of an artistic young boy more or less smothered by his parent’s prearranged ambitions. Similarly, Sister could not have been a nun like nuisance that explored her sexuality via illicit trysts with ‘30s era teen spies. And let’s not even mention the occasional cranium draining that father forces on her.


Instead, Brand is plainly suggesting that, in a manner most understandable, Maddin’s sibling sought fantasy and freedom in unconventional ways, and when her family discovered this, their punishments figuratively leeched the life out of her. He wouldn’t be the first to cast relatives as reprobate from Hell. Such puzzle box pronouncements are all over this narrative. From Mother’s omniscient watchdog despotism to Father’s far away and distant kind of clinical disconnect, one sees a household orphaned, without the kind of conscious center that leads to love and open understanding.


Why else would Maddin’s movie mother want the residence painted over? Part of Brand Upon the Brain!‘s significance stems from the concept of hiding from the past. Indeed, the very approach of the film makes it all so meta. Sonic themes repeat - the call of the gulls, the ding of the off shore buoy, suggesting the kind of mental soundscape that shapes our memories. Maddin also repeats certain sequences, the better to emphasis his mother’s nonstop assaults, his Father’s “foghorn” like loss, or his own fascination with Wendy and Chance - the Lightbulb Kids.


Part of the fun in this film is deciphering the clues - what does naming these characters after Edison’s invention signify? An idea? An epiphany? Illumination? What about the statement that “raging = aging”? Is it merely a clever play on words, or a sensible psychological statement applied as a nonsense rhyme? The fact that Maddin literalizes everything, giving it shape and form where other filmmakers would strive for the suggestive, means that Brand is a film that fully expects you to play along. And since he employs a cast of unknowns, we can’t rely on celebrity to aid in our appreciation


Some can consider it confusing or even self-indulgent. ‘Interactive’ would be a much better label. Brand Upon the Brain! is like an incomplete composition, requiring the input and experiences of the viewer to realize its aims. Since the tale is told both visually and via a voice over narration, we get to play a kind of storyline compare and contrast. Even better, the implied dialogue frequently countermands the images, as when Mother’s maternal cooing appears almost erotic when applied to her young son.


There is a clear acknowledgement of the power of myth within Maddin’s work, and much of the time, Brand feels like Oedipus or some other famed Greek tragedy as spun and shuttered by The Brothers Grimm. The decision to use old silent filmmaking techniques really helps. By making Wendy and Chance the spitting image of Clara Bow, while his Father fumbles around in what looks like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the homage to the artform’s past is particularly potent. It gives the fantastical, almost science fiction like format a real sense of significance.


In all honesty, Brand Upon the Brain! can best be described as a monochrome responsorial to Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s brilliant City of Lost Children. That French fable also emphasized the loss of innocence, the attempt to recapture youth, the feminine dominance of offspring and the typical ineffectual pining of the male. While the acclaimed foreign film wanted to feel like a bedeviled bedtime story, Maddin is more interested in producing a psycho-sensationalized mind play. One could easily envision this film being transformed to the stage, the various orchestration and foley choices accompanying a highly stylized recreation.


Of course, the bigger question remains - is any of this entertaining? Do we buy what this daring deconstructionist is selling, or would we be better served steering clear of his scrapbook as scar tissue? The truth is that Brand Upon the Brain! is not necessarily built for instant amusement. Instead, it sets up a subjective surrealist wavelength and wonders aloud (and often) if you’re capable of syncing up. Those who can won’t be disappointed. Those who can’t will simply shrug their shoulders and back peddle to the comfort of the mainstream. In either case, it’s a clear win for Maddin’s malarkey, and motives - not that he cares about such commercial aims.


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Saturday, Aug 23, 2008

Earlier this week, Yves Smith linked to this FT editorial by Roberto Foa, in which he argues, citing this recent study,  that the world has become happier as it has become freer.


How is it that the world is getting happier? In the words of Thucydides, the secret of happiness is freedom. In each survey respondents were also asked to rate their sense of free choice in life. In all but three countries where perceived freedom rose, subjective well-being rose also. A chart, produced by the authors, shows how these increases in free choice and subjective well-being are strikingly related.
The world in which we live today is unquestionably a free one. For the first time in history, most of the world is governed democratically, the rights of women and minorities are widely acknowledged, and people, ideas and investment can cross borders. Since the study began in 1981, dozens of middle-income countries have democratised, relieving many from fear of repression: every country making a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy shows a rising sense of free choice. In addition, there has been a sharp rise in the acceptance of gender equality and alternative lifestyles. Countries where this revolution has been most pronounced, such as Canada and Sweden, continue to show rising well-being.


It would be easy to mistakenly conflate this with the view that “economic freedom”—the freedom of choice in a consumer economy—is sufficient to engender a happy populace, particularly since the people of former Soviet bloc countries have become so much happier since 1991.


In the space of two decades, several countries that were members of the Soviet bloc have become members of the European Union, with new freedoms to travel, work and live as never before imaginable. Not only has the proportion claiming to be “very happy” risen in every country except Serbia and Belarus, but this trend has been wholly driven by the younger generation. Among eastern Europeans aged 15-24, the proportion saying they were “very happy” was 9 per cent at the start of the 1990s, roughly the same as in other age groups. By 2006, this proportion had more than doubled, and steady rises were also evident among those in their 30s and 40s. Country after country in the study – Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine – exhibits this trend. Belarus stands out as an exception in changes in happiness by age (the young are still as miserable as in 1990, and the elderly only a little better off).


But as Foa stresses, the happiness the study detects is not a matter of purchasing power—it’s not merely that people are able to buy things, but they are now able to do things: “The link from free choice to rising happiness suggests that the appropriate benchmark of development is not income per capita, but individual freedoms and capabilities. This is the human development perspective associated with Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate. While income and well-being are closely correlated at early stages of development, once the threat of starvation recedes, social and political freedom appears to be as important.”
Smith notes the rising surveillance in Western society now threatens that social and political freedom. The problem is that the “economic freedom” can breed a kind of complacency while commercial interests busily promote a misunderstanding of the true source of happiness, urging us to see it in goods rather actions. These trends can conspire to blind us to how our “capabilities” become circumscribed. When the government forbids certain actions, it’s unmistakable; when actions are instead made de facto impossible by the culture industry, which schematizes for us our experience and renders it hard to conceive of alternatives, we might not be so quick to notice. This is not because things are forbidden, they just seem “unrealistic” and irreconcilable with the narratives and lifestyles mediated by our culture. It’s not that we are forbidden from an “alternative lifestyle”—it’s just that it is draining to attempt to pursue one, perpetually sapping the energy to resist other soft cultural commands about what to value, what to shun, what success means, how we should interpret our emotional reactions, and so on. We might end up mistaking complacency for a kind of happiness, even while nagged by feelings of dread and insecurity, of not not knowing who we really are since our identities are displaced to the things we own.


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Saturday, Aug 23, 2008

Can context really change your opinion? Can the changing cultural or political tide turn one set judgment, especially when the item being discussed seems irretrievably linked to said shifts? Morgan Spurlock must think so. When he offered his intriguing if incomplete dissertation on the Middle East and the so-called War on Terror a few months back, it seemed like a silly slapstick take on a very serious subject. Now, in light of an election which seems poised to be decided on issues other than our commitment in Iraq and threats from Islamic fundamentalists, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? appears much more lucid and likeable. 


The DVD release (from Genus Products and The Weinstein Company) of the title bares this out, especially when looking at the bonus material offered. Spurlock adds a few supporting snippets, including an insightful interview with Shimon Peres. The Israeli President makes it very clear that peace can be brokered, but as with any negotiation, it’s a matter of compromise. And when one side sees itself as totally marginalized within the process (as is the case with the Palestinians), there’s little desire to do anything except fight back. In light of his words, the entire foundation of this film changes. Sure, it’s still a goofy journey through world politics accented by Spurlock’s sunny slacker stance. But one cannot deny the connection to our own Western worries.


It’s clear in the main set-up the movie offers. A lack of education, unemployment, limited opportunities, rampant poverty, and future prospects that seem dim at best drive the problem. Young men, lives marginalized by a majority that doesn’t care, have no other outlet for their aggression. As a result, they become easy targets for gangs, groups that prey on such a disenfranchised feeling, using the rage to wage war on society. Again, this is not some overview of the urban crime scene circa 1988. We’re not dealing with South Central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit. Instead this is what Spurlock learns when talking to people in the Arab world. He wants to figure out why Al-Qaeda is so seductive to supposedly sensible individuals. The answer, sadly, shocks no one.


By using the impending birth of this first child as a catalyst for cutting through the political rhetoric and the international posturing, we see the personal concern and connection and though premised on a search for the infamous terrorist kingpin, this is really more of a Lonely Planet for the limited attention span. It does its job remarkably well, and is eye opening in ways both important and superfluous. But just as he did with his attack on McDonalds, Super Size Me (and to a lesser extent, his otherwise excellent 30 Days series for FX), Spurlock stuffs the cinematic ballot box. He hedges his bets, going for the obvious score vs. the insightful if complicated underpinning.


It happens almost immediately upon entering Egypt (the film is built around a multi-country tour with our grinning guide playing a terrorist-trailing Tony Bourdain). Whenever he comes upon a disgruntled group of citizens, the message is repeated like a mantra - we don’t HATE the people of the US, just their horrific, misguided, and totally out of touch government. Over and over again it is repeated: we love you, we despise your failed foreign policy. Even in occupied territories outside Israel, where the aforementioned Palestinian refugees suffer unusual and horrid hardships, few are fuming at Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews. Aside from one or two obvious militants, the same sentiment is voiced over and over - population good, president bad! 


Yet there is more to Spurlock’s madness than just delivering this one note communication. Unlike so many news reports that want to cast Muslims as one big bearded bunch of Islamic radicals, Where in the World… gives faces to this decidedly foreign issue. They are no longer villains in veils and headdress. Instead, they are actual human beings (Shock! Horror!) who just want schools, drinking water, financial help - oh, and some minor sovereign recognition and democratic rights would be great as well. The whole Jihad angle is substantially downplayed, the interviewees more than willing to rag on their radicalized brethren as not “representative” of the Middle East. As stated before, this is far from a revelation.


Still, there are times when even these comments seem contradictory. As part of the bonus features, three Saudi girls discuss their concept of freedom within a segregated, paternalistic theocracy. They argue that they have choice (they choose to conform) and they suggest they could drop the Muslim mandated rituals whenever they wanted. When pressed, they admit that the trouble to do so may not warrant the reward. The lack of follow-up remains one of this film’s few stumbles. Spurlock rarely gets to the Mike Wallace/60 Minutes question. Most of the time he offers nothing but passive aggressive acceptance.


Most of the time, he doesn’t even try to contradict or add context. He just lets jerks be jerks and moves on. Both sides get it good, from party line toting students to Hasidic Jews giving the people of Israel an equally bad name. Similarly, one senses that all these pro-peace pronouncements could be easily countermanded by a look at the cutting room floor - at least beyond the limited extras offered on this DVD. Like the director he’s most often compared to - Michael Moore - Spurlock clearly has an agenda. He’s more interested in fact flagging than finding. The viewpoint he puts out in Where in the World… may indeed be his overall experience, but it’s clearly one filtered through careful editing and a specific unbalanced viewpoint.


As the magnificent strains of Elvis Costello’s reading of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” start up, as the credits roll and the people we’ve met smile kindly for the camera (even the radicals), something strange happens. Beyond all the ADD inspired graphics, the video game grandstanding, the Charlie Daniels on Demerol theme song, and the overall reliance on generics, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden becomes a very effective film. It’s as if the music (and now the DVD) makes the points that Spurlock avoids, questioning and commenting on the tenets he tries to expose. There was never a chance he would find the fiery fundamentalist. Yet somehow, Spurlock still found the truth - or at least part of it.


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Friday, Aug 22, 2008

“I’m Sheila Heti, and I’m going to be reading a story called “The Princess and the Plumber” while having sex with my boyfriend ... Do you mind if we have sex while I read this? We’ll just do it ... slowly.”


And then Heti’s boyfriend proceeds to become cutely inflamed that his girlfriend has thrown away his sour dough. An argument breaks out: He was gonna eat it… She’ll buy him some more… It was perfectly good, he checked it this morning…


Do they end up having sex to the plumber story? You’ll have to buy the CD to find out. I might have to, too. Sex and a good book? That actually sound like my idea of pre-lights off bliss.


Can I say only at McSweeney’s? The upscale literary firm continues to change the way we look at and listen to our stories with its second audio collection, this one titled “Sweet Nothings and Essential Slow Jams”. This time, McSweeney’s authors including Heti, Ben Ehrenreich, Tony DeSouza, Chris Bachelder, and Pia Ehrhardt read stories featuring tales of best first dates.


Don’t expect, though, these stories to rival Danielle Steel with lusty grabs and longing dialogue. DeSouza writes about man-tree love, Heti’s story features talking frogs, and Ehrenreich’s is, so says the press release, a “post-apocalyptic love triangle between a man, a woman, and a giant squid”.


The stories are available in MP3 format from eMusic.com.


 


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