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Thursday, Oct 16, 2008

It’s strange to believe that in these days of the twenty-four hour news cycle a minor scandal can be caused by something as old-fashioned as a book.  But this is exactly what has happened in the latest chapter of the Bill Henson case.


If you haven’t followed the story, a Sydney exhibition by the photographer Bill Henson was shut down in May following a complaint about the content of the show—namely nude photos of pre-pubescent boys and girls.  There was moral outrage from the tabloids, condemnation from the Prime Minister and defensiveness from the arts community.


There was a lot of discussion about the boundaries of art and pornography, none of it very edifying, but it did remind us of the strong differences in outlook between “middle” Australia and the creative community.  One side thought that there were few, if any, circumstances when depicting naked children was appropriate—parent’s bathtime photos of their own children being about the limit.  The other caught a whiff of censorship and feared a return to the 1950s or worse.


As things played out, Henson was investigated but not charged with any offence.  Things were quiet for several months, then it all blew up again with the publication of excerpts from David Marr’s The Henson Case.


Marr is a prominent journalist and intellectual.  His treatment of Henson was sympathetic and presumably he intended to defend Henson from the accusation that he was…well, a bit of a perv.  The problem was that the book included a brief reference to Henson visiting a Melbourne school to identify possible subjects—a red rag to the mainstream media bull if ever there was one.


The big question is what Marr intended by relaying the story.  Was he merely following a good reporter’s commitment to disclosure?  Or was he oblivious to the likely reaction?


The second option seems particularly unlikely, given Marr’s familiarity with the best and the worst of the Australian media, but perhaps it’s closest to the truth.


If the Henson case has revealed anything, it’s that Australian public dialogue is hampered by a lack of mutual understanding.  The “truth” seems to self-evident to most people—but that “truth” is different depending on a number of factors.  There seems to be genuine bafflement by the Henson supporters that the majority fail to understand the merit of Henson’s work.


Naturally it’s the job of artists to challenge the status quo and show us new perspectives, but hopefully the arts community will stop being so surprised when the public don’t take too kindly to what they see and hear.


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Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008
One advertising company attempts to lure consumers to a new IP by faking its own popularity.

One of the interesting problems that the entertainment industry must confront in an economic downturn is finding a way to turn consumers onto new characters and games. In regards to video games, people are more inclined to spend money on sequels and games they’re already familiar with because of the supposed quality assurance. At the very least, even remaking an old classic banks on people’s nostalgia and will score a few buys. So D3 Publisher’s ad team at Maverick Public Relations had a major problem when they were handed a brand new, original Intellectual Property (IP) involving a protagonist named Matt Hazard. It involved guns, grizzled space marines, and most dangerous of all, comedy. Naturally, since they didn’t have any nostalgia or pre-existing fan base to work with, they did the next best thing and made one up.


  Starting with a satirical fan site, the ad team created a long and sordid history for the Matt Hazard franchise. What began as a successful 8-bit Arcade game led to success on the consoles, 3D shooters, and adventure games. Alas, the IP had its weak moments as well such as creating bizarre spin-offs like a go-kart game and replacing an old game with Matt Hazard images. Everything from Super Mario Brothers to Duke Nukem get a smart-ass nod in the long catalogue of games such as ‘A Fistful of Hazard’, ‘Goonzilla Versus Matt Hazard’, and ‘Choking Hazard: Candy Gramm’. The website has been followed up by a mock blog created by a developer ranting about the industry and the downfall of the Matt Hazard IP he worked so hard on. It also contains the ominous screenshots of a new game that will redeem the doomed franchise. A recent Youtube video, featuring an interview with Matt claiming he nailed Lara Croft, ditches any doubts about how far they’re willing to take the joke. As commenter Lord Andrew notes on one website, “Oh man, this **** is awesome. Bring on the Hazard!” For a good interview with the ad team, check here.


I don’t normally take much interest in games that aren’t available yet just because we all know the only true test for a video game is playing it yourself. Still, one has to pause and admire a good advertisement sometimes. Given the economy and forecasts for doom & gloom in the months ahead, perhaps the ad team realized that people could use something far more important than a fake history or familiar franchise. They could use a good laugh.


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Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008

Though fans love to toss them into the same supernatural boat, Clive Barker and his main inspiration Stephen King have very little in common. The man from Maine works in a traditional terror territory while Barker believes in the mantra “blood, beasts, and bedevilment.” King claims the rank of best selling genre author of all time. The brazen Brit’s resume is a little less successful. So it’s safe to say that in meaningful macabre circles, they are as different as Bram Stoker and Anne Rice. But they do share one thing in common. Each has had incredibly successful novels and/or short stories destroyed by hackneyed Hollywood film adaptations. However, in the case of Midnight Meat Train, Barker finally sees his ideas wholly realized in brilliant fashion.


Though he’s very good at what he does, photographer Leon Kauffman is barely making a living. His girlfriend Maya believes in him, but that doesn’t help to pay the bills. So when his pal Jurgis gets him an interview with influential gallery owner Susan Hoff, Leon thinks his ship has finally come it. But the shrewd businesswoman sees nothing that interests her - that is, until she comes across as particularly grim photo. She suggests Leon head back onto the streets and capture the real city - mean, vicious, unrepentant. During one of his night shoots, our hero comes across a brawny man in a well tailored suit. Following him around, Leon soon discovers that he may be a serial killer. Intrigued by the motive behind this butcher, he continues his surveillance. What Leon doesn’t know is that he is putting his life, and the life of everyone he knows, in mortal danger.


Midnight Meat Train can best be described as splatter noir. It’s Fritz Lang by way of an abattoir. It is part genius, part genre excess, with enough inventive gore to make even the most seasoned lover of arterial spray sit up and take notice. Thanks to the visionary work by Versus helmer Ryuhei Kitamura and the most unsettling kills this side of Eli Roth, we get a true gut wrenching experience. This is a movie that grabs you by the errant body parts and literally rips you apart. Kitamura is a big fan of over the top violence - his infamous zombie mob movie from 2000 is second only to Riki-O: Story of Ricky in individual offal spilled. But in Midnight Meat Train, he makes every death count. By keeping the camera locked on the victim as eyes fly out and faces crumble, he turns the cinematic threat intensity up to near apocalyptic levels.


It helps that he balances things out with a romantic subplot that’s deep with emotion. Actors Bradley Cooper and Leslie Bibb turn Leon and Maya into a couple you can root for. She only wants the best for him and he loves her unconditionally. Even when her beau goes bonkers and starts acting odd, she does nothing but support him. Some might question her dedication - she ends up putting herself right in harms way during a typical “what were they thinking” brand of inappropriate snooping - but even at the end, she’s determined to stand by her man. Cooper compliments this devotion nicely. His decent into obsession may seem abrupt, but a story element near the end may help explain the sudden shift.


But it is UK thug mug Vinnie Jones who steals the show as Mahogany, long pig butcher to…no, that would be spoiling things. Indeed, the famed onscreen heavy portrays someone so enigmatic, so full of secrets that part of the joy in Midnight Meat Train is uncovering all his character clues. As they fall into place, one by one, the portrait painted is unsettling indeed. In fact, the minute Jones is proven fallible, or even worse, human, we start to really hate him. Unlike other famed mass murderers, Kitamura and his writers aren’t out to make another Voorhees. Mahogany has a purpose, and you’re enjoyment of the movie in general just may turn on it.


In fact, the ending reveal is the make or break point for Midnight Meat Train. The explanation for all the deaths, the reason the cops don’t care, how one man manages to dispatch dozens of people without raising much of a stink is satisfying if slightly surreal. It does explain what Kitamura was doing with all those remarkable CG shots of subway trains careening down unearthly tracks, and it pays off in ways that are plausible. But horror fans are a notoriously persnickety bunch. Fail to fulfill your promise or try to trick them and they will laugh you out of the fright fraternity. But Midnight Meat Train does deliver. It may require a bit more of that patented suspension of dread disbelief, but thanks to the visionary behind the lens, we enjoy the deferment.


As usual, the studio behind the film unceremoniously dumped it on a few dozen “dollar theater” screens this past August - and this after touting it for months as some kind of macabre milestone. It just goes to show how marginalized and misunderstood the genre really is. Of course, the track record of the brain behind the bloodshed may have given some of the suits pause for concern. Ryuhei Kitamura is far from a household name, and Clive Barker may be a fascinating individual and celebrated writer, but as the foundation for a film, he has very limited appeal. Midnight Meat Train might have changed all that, had the fright community been given a chance to celebrate its paranormal panache. Sadly, it looks like DVD will have to save the day - which is typical for terror.


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Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008

Via 3QD comes this intriguing essay by Arjun Appadurai about the role of faith in capitalism.


we are in a new Weberian moment, where Calvinist ideas of proof, certainty of election through the rationality of good works, and faith in the rightness of predestination, are not anymore the backbone of thrift, calculation and bourgeois risk-taking. Now faith is about something else. It is faith in capitalism itself, capitalism viewed as a transcendent means of organizing human affairs, of capitalism as a theodicy for the explanation of evil, lust, greed and theft in the economy, and of the meltdown as a supreme form of testing by suffering, which will weed out the weak of heart from those of true good faith.  We must believe in capitalism, in the ways that the early Protestants were asked to believe in predestination. Not all are saved, but we must all act as if we might be saved, and by acting as if we might be among the saved, we enact our faith in capitalism, even if we might be among the doomed or damned. Such faith must be shown in our works, in our actions: we must continue to spend, to work hard, to invest, and, as George Bush long ago said, “to shop” as if our very lives depended on it. In other words, capitalism now needs our faith more than our faith needs capitalism.


Capitalism no longer has to justify itself through its efficacy; we are simply supposed to believe in market magic, which tests our individual worthiness by requiring us to believe—to trust and take on debt and spend—whether or not we ultimately profit from it. The faith alone is presumed to be edifying, its own reward. This faith, which we the subjects of capitalism must demonstrate, is different from the trust required by capitalism’s high priests—the financiers who fuel its wondrous achievements. That has broken down, and the state is laboring to rebuild it—it remains to be seen whether trust can be compelled with a mountain of money. But in the process of chasing risk to enhance yields in the past decade, prompting ever more opaque means of risk management, capitalism took on further religious overtones. Derivatives worked not because anyone could explain the mechanism but because investors seemed simply to accept them as truth, especially since the initial outcomes were favorable. Appadurai mentions “re-enchanted capitalism,” alive with the sort of faith sociologists once expected its rational underpinnings to obviate. Instead, As Appadurai explains, we are not trying to rescue capitalism by ending superstition and letting economics work scientifically, but instead we are taking measures to restore faith, to encourage the belief in belief despite economic fundamentals.


The appetites of the beast require restoring uncertainty to its more calculable form as risk, as a first step in restoring trust between lenders, so that they will move money to yet others, so that in turn the wheels of commerce can begin to turn and our faith in the eternal mysteries of capital can be restored. Among these are the mysteries of debt as the virtuous bride of consumption, money as capable of begetting more money, and profit for the few as the key to the welfare of all. The cardinal mystery of the market, of course, verily its Spirit, is the Invisible Hand. For the Invisible Hand to move again, it needs a Helping Hand from us, the wretched of Main Street. And in lending this helping hand, in the biggest bailout in human history, we are asked to show our Faith in the Economy. For once, and perhaps for the last time, capitalism needs our Faith as much as we need its mysteries. The global economy will never be secular again.



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Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008


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It may seem a bit implausible that anyone would be reading PM (let alone this blog) while the presidential debate is going on, but on the off-chance that there is someone out there doing same, I thought I’d give a shot at live-blogging the debate. It sort of fits the Peripatetic Postcard theme, as I am on the other side of the world at the moment that Barack Obama and John McCain are squaring off. Tuning in thanks to the Internet—on MySpace. This is how we peripatetics get our political fixes.


Keeping with the PM theme, while this is a political event, I will try to keep it all focused on the popular cultural dimensions (as if I can ever keep the politics out of my life…)


Well, just started so here we go…


 



 


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