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Friday, Nov 7, 2008

Following up on my last post about cultural questions for the next prez, who thankfully is Mr. Obama, the President-Elect now has a site up to talk about his transition process including a blog and an agenda of issues.  Though it comes under “additional issues,” he does address the arts:


“Our nation’s creativity has filled the world’s libraries, museums, recital halls, movie houses, and marketplaces with works of genius. The arts embody the American spirit of self-definition. As the author of two best-selling books – Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama uniquely appreciates the role and value of creative expression.”


Kind of brief and vague for now so let’s hope he puts more thought into it.  If you have your own ideas about it, he’s got a place for you to sound off too.  Needless to say, I’ll have a thing or two to suggest to him.


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Friday, Nov 7, 2008

In a post titled “Recession Trumping Brand Loyalty,” Yves Smith links to this WSJ article about consumers discovering generic products while shopping:


About 40% of primary household shoppers said they started buying store-brand paper products because “they are cheaper than national brands,” according to a September report by market-research company Mintel International, which interviewed 3,000 consumers. Nearly 25% of respondents reported that it is “really hard to tell the difference” between national brands and store brands of paper products. Store brands on average cost 46% less than name-brand versions, Mintel found.


That 25% figure seems a little low to me and suggests the tenacity of brand brainwashing.


But progress is being made on that front, if the several, almost comic anecdotes the article offers as evidence can be trusted:


When Summer Mills visited her local CVS drugstore recently, to save a few dollars she bought the store-brand facial scrub rather than the Olay version she normally uses.
“I thought I’d be able to tell the difference, but I couldn’t—I looked at the ingredients and they seemed almost the same,” says 30-year-old Ms. Mills, a stay-at-home mother of two in Ardmore, Okla. On her next shopping trip, “I’m going to buy the store-brand moisturizer and cleanser—it’s less money.”


You don’t say. (Smith’s acid aside on this: “Moisturizers are one of the many ripoffs foisted on the fairer sex to keep them broke and dependent on male support.”)


It seems silly that people would need to discover that there’s little qualitative difference between branded and unbranded goods. But perhaps what makes this discovery so salient for consumers is the reassurance it provides that their changing spending behavior won’t lead inevitably to a decreased standard of living. You can kept the same sort of stuff, only cheaper, when you go generic. People generally choose to fail to recognize this discovery in flush times because it impedes the chief appeal of brands, which is to serve as a vector for the consumer to experience the lifestyle marketing for various products vicariously—brands allows us to turn the soap we use into an expression of our inner truth, to make buying a new shirt our momentary entrée into a world of glamor, to make a richer identity for ourselves through the myriad associations brands can be made to bear.


The Economist’s Free Exchange blog, in this response to the WSJ article, blames the abandonment of brands on “recessionary thinking,” an inordinate crisis of confidence at the individual level that has irrationally driven up what economists call the demand for cash.


Only, it doesn’t make sense that everyone else is cutting back. Yes, many people have lost their jobs. Some other have founds themselves with enormous debt burdens they’re struggling to meet. But many households, maybe even most households, aren’t facing seriously different circumstances than they were six months ago. And yet their behaviour is changing, and those behavioural changes will themselves generate reductions in spending, investment, and ultimately employment. Good labour will find itself idled because folks like me are nervous, and for no other reason.


From this view, the stream of bad economic news alone was sufficient to alter consumer behavior and undermine consumerism, even though the chief consumers are not actually feeling the economic pain. If you want consumerism to be thwarted, is there reason for optimism in that? Or does that show how shallow shopping habits are and how susceptible they are to capture?


Update: Rob Walker points out that “unbranded” goods are merely branded by the retailers themselves, without the aid of expensive marketing campaigns. He suspects these branded store lines have better margins then the old generics because they get a brand premium—a better price for the name and look alone. I think those ad campaigns are what make brands feel like brands—something you are participating in as a consumer—and even though the store brands have gotten better at mimicking the packaging appeal of branded goods, they fall short, unless the store itself has become a powerful brand, a la Wegman’s.


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Thursday, Nov 6, 2008

Hollywood hates poking fun at itself. While it’s handled its fair share of good natured cinematic ribbing, once we get to the seething scalding takes like The Stunt Man or The Player, amiability turns instantly to animosity. Heck, even a comedy like Tropic Thunder seems overwhelmingly mean-spirited. Ex-members of the Tinsel Town elite are notorious for burning as many drug and debauchery induced bridges as possible, with examples like the late Julia Phillips’ tell-all tome You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again arguing both in favor of and totally against personal reserve. Now comes What Just Happened? , based on Art Linson’s memoir about his (mis)adventures as one of the industry’s leading producers. With Barry Levinson behind the lens and Robert DeNiro heading an all-star ensemble, what could go wrong? The answer - EVERYTHING!


Ben has big problems. The test screening of the film he produced starring Sean Penn was a disaster, and his latest movie won’t start shooting because its lead, Bruce Willis, has arrived on the set overweight, angry, and covered in a mountain man level of facial hair. While his boss, the no nonsense Lou Tarnow, wants these issues resolved pronto, Ben hasn’t the backbone to figure out how to fix them. Instead, he obsesses on his second wife, the beautiful if insecure Kelly, and worries about Zoe, his teenage daughter from his first marriage. In between, there are battles with hot tempered directors, egomaniacal actors, ineffectual agents like Dick Bell, and a friend/screenwriter who, when not pitching scripts to Ben, is possibly pitching woo to Kelly. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, or death. Ben, however, is barely driven to distraction.


What Just Happened? commits so many cardinal motion picture sins that it should be excommunicated from the entertainment arena on principle alone. It wastes the talents of several sensational performers, leaving actors like Willis, John Tuturro, and Stanley Tucci looking absolutely lost. It takes what should be a potent insider skewering and turns it into a pseudo-sudser where the character’s melodramatic meandering substitutes for La-La Land insights. It proves that, where once he was a mighty maverick of individual filmography, Barry Levinson is now back in tattered Toys mode - self-indulgent, lazy, and utterly lacking in artistic, creative, or commercial merit. And this after the one two bombardier-ing of Envy and Man of the Year. But perhaps the greatest abomination created by this 104 minute affront is that it is never, ever funny. Not when DeNiro does his sheepish schlep routine. Not when Willis goes bug-butt over his beard. Not when a Tarantino like filmmaker argues for the aesthetic integrity of a scene where criminals kill a dog in a full blown head shot.


It goes without saying that What Just Happened? is stiflingly bad. It has one redeeming element, and she - Catherine Keener as a no bullshit studio executive - is on and off screen so rapidly she barely has time to register. The rest of the time we are left with characters we care little about, problems that have no basis in the real world, and plot contrivances that push the very boundaries of the “based on a true story” paradigm. Linson may indeed be taking liberties here, going far too fictional to protect the innocent (or the regularly litigious). In the book, Alec Baldwin was the prima donna celeb, and Fight Club was one of the incredibly troubled productions. On screen, such authentic intrigue would have been a welcome internal connection. Let’s face it - viewers love gossip. But when turned make believe, the already larger than life facets go rogue. As a result, they reinvent the narrative into something like a fetid Aesop’s Fable, sans moral.


The cast, of course, is no help. They see this as their chance to bite the fiscally beneficial hand that constantly overfeeds them, and when they’re not chewing up the scenery, they’re mentally checking the zeroes on the end of their paycheck. Willis is especially weird, ranting and cursing during his hackneyed hissy fits like he forgot the cameras were rolling. He’s constantly threatening to break out into a ‘wink at the audience’ smirk. Similarly, Tuturro milks his cowardly yutz agent for less than 10% of his narrative worth. This is perhaps the worst performance he’s ever given - and no, we aren’t forgetting Transformers. Only Keener and Robin Wright Penn (as the iconic Kelly) save face, and it’s no thanks to Levinson. Directing in a manner that uncovers no pacing or comic timing, What Just Happened? winds up looking like a badly dubbed foreign film.


And then there’s big Bob. DeNiro has never been an easy fit within the comedic genre. Unless he’s playing with his own tripwire type (Meet the Parents), he comes off as a Shakespearean snob doing dinner theater. Here, he’s actually not bad, affecting a neurotic nebbish persona that could best be described as Woody Allen via Hell’s Kitchen. There are times when he is just a Paul Rudd impression away from being a total cliché, but he imbues Ben with enough dimension that we don’t instantly dislike him. No, it takes nearly an hour and one bathroom pick-up later to find our lead to be loathsome. Once Ben goes overboard into stalker mode, everything about What Just Happened? fizzles and flops. The ending seems anticlimactic and unimportant, the resolution offering the standard middle finger salute to audience attentiveness and consideration.


Frankly, something like this works better on the page, the brain free to recreate the scene where studio execs literally dodge some of the directorial choices made by David Fincher in Fight Club. We can do a much better job of watching the prose Linson lumbered across the Ethan Hawke version of Great Expectations than watching a English dope fiend argue why a dog has to get shot in the noggin. One might argue that What Just Happened? is too inside to connect with everyone. Only those who truly understand the business called show will snicker at Levinson’s labored satire. Everyone else should steer clear. Movies about the movies and those who make them usually don’t deliver in the way a typical mainstream effort would. What Just Happened? proves this point over and over again.


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Thursday, Nov 6, 2008

Andrew Gelman’s rundown of what happened in the 2008 U.S. presidential election has attracted a lot of attention, much of it directed at his finding that Republicans lost voters among the young and the very rich. This seems to be the fruits of running a jingoistic, anti-intellectual campaign that appealed to base forces of ignorance, race hatred and xenophobia. Will Wilkinson characterizes the cause of this as “secularization”:


Rich people who don’t go to church are especially socially liberal. The richer they get, the less they prioritize economic issues over social issues, as Inglehart’s “post-materialism” theory predicts. And, if I recall from recent surveys, there has been a big decline in religiosity among the young, which tends to go along with an increasingly socially liberal cast of mind. The overall effect is that the Republican Party has become too socially conservative for increasingly secular wealthy people and increasingly secular twenty-somethings. The GOP is now pretty clearly the party of the religious, white, middle-aged and elderly middle class–not a group with a shining political future.


An interesting assertion, since we so often hear that America is an extremely religious country and growing more so all the time. Candidates who reject evolution are not immediately laughed out their attempts to run for national office. Much political energy is expended debating the role of the words “under God” in the U.S. pledge of allegiance to the flag that many public-school students are basically forced to recite. Politicians who plainly reject church-state separation and seek to build their base by using the church as the basic building block are rife. Megachurches are presumed to be growing more and more mega, and prosperity gospel seems poised to become even more appealing as what will likely prove to be a long recession takes hold. But I hope Wilkinson is right, and that the same forces that encourage the exploitation of religion politically have also been at work in the media, prompted various outlets to trump up its omnipresence to cater to what is in fact a dwindling niche.


This fits in with my sincere hope that a stronger Republican party (or some new center-right third party) emerges from this election. Already there are signs of civil war in the G.O.P. with the proudly ignorant wing of the party trying to root out the “lepers” who gave “aid and comfort to the enemy” in questioning Sarah Palin’s qualifications. For those who dread the influence of religious bigotry on politics, nothing can be better than this rupture between those on the right who wish to engage in serious debate and the overgrown children who are excited by loyalty oaths, enemies lists, demagoguery and mass manipulation in the name of imposing their simplistic world view. (For another sampling of this mentality, read this WSJ op-ed, which Steve Benen suggests might be the most foolish editorial every printed in a national newspaper.)


So I agree with Greg Mankiw when he worries about the disappearing Young Republicans (as if such inquisitional campaigns as “Operation Leper” weren’t enough to permanently alienate young people still making the effort to think). “So what does the Republican Party need to do to get the youth vote back? If these Harvard students are typical (and perhaps they are not, as Harvard students are hardly a random sample), the party needs to scale back its social conservatism. Put simply, it needs to become a party for moderate and mainstream libertarians.” I wouldn’t join that party personally, but it would sharpen the public debate over meaningful issues that actually admit discussion. After all, when a party’s politics are basically religious tenets, as they have become for the G.O.P., there is no room for discussion at all.


It seems almost intuitively clear that nothing about the Republican platform has much appeal for the young: the essence of social conservatism is to legislatively constrict choice for the preservation of society as it has already been crystalized by an earlier generation and passed down through religious institutions. Historically, it’s an ideology that has been imposed on youth only by force. The high-profile young Republicans of the 1980s seemed to be overrepresented in media presentations, but these P.J. O’Rourke types seemed to be attracted not by the social agenda so much as the freedom from political correctness (that bogus specter so dear to right-leaning demagogues—complaining about political correctness is tantamount to whining, “Oh, come on, let me be a bigot. It’s funny!”) and the Republican championship of greed—the freedom to say whatever you want and hoard as much as you want.  Considering the manner in which tax cuts have been at the heart of every Republican campaign since Reagan, greed has really been the essence of the Republican appeal across the board. Can the young be inspired to be greedy rather than idealistic once again? Will there be an uplift fatigue, a weariness with the sort of earnest crusading that is already becoming trendy and found dramatic expression in the righteous street celebrations of Obama’s victory?


No one was happier than me that Obama won; I felt an enormous sense of relief. But I wonder about the people who would have felt uninvited to those street celebrations, and fear their hardening into a silent reactionary majority. Republicanism may rise again out of sheer contrarianism, a weird inversion of identity politics that has individuals choosing party allegiance out of novelty and the need for distinction rather than any ideological sympathy. No doubt much of the youth vote is earnestly liberal, but the profusion of Obama T-shirts and buttons reminded me of being in Philadelphia, seeing all the Phillies regalia people were wearing. Obama’s triumph among the young seems less a triumph of ideology than a triumph of an excellent, stylish youth marketing campaign. (McArdle makes a related observation, that Obama became a rooting interest, and his “fans” are now gloating.) Clearly there is a bandwagon effect with Obama, and he appeals to voters at a vicarious level. He enhances people’s sense of themselves without securing a single political accomplishment. If the ideology of youth is ultimately consumerism, Obama has proven a very attractive lifestyle good. But he will lose this appeal as he becomes a familiar, oversold brand.


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Wednesday, Nov 5, 2008
A few sex games on the internet and their merits. Warning: video (embedded after the jump) is NSFW.

In response to the fuss caused by the Mass Effect “Sexbox” controversy, a lot of bloggers and YouTube Critics were quick to note that the game hardly features any real sex. A little bit more digging however, and a frank reality began to strike some people: it’s not like sex has ever been handled maturely in video games anyways. Daniel Floyd’s excellent video on the history of sex in games makes a simple conclusion: if sex is an expression of love, then we need to handle the topic maturely and allow players to express in appropriate ways. Which I heartily support and believe sounds great in theory.


It’s just that I can’t think of too many times in an artistic medium where the first forms of sex depicted were done for any reason other than…depicting sex. Thinking of that as an ends rather than a means may be crude, but it’s also a bit more realistic in terms of how one gets the ball rolling. There are several interesting sex games out on the web now that vary from the tasteless to the tasteful that explore this. Starting with the tasteful is the free to download Dark Room Sex Game. Using the keyboard or Wiimote (provided you have a bluetooth rig), you have to develop a rhythm with the moaning in the game until you can induce an orgasm. The game has no graphics and is instead entirely based on sound and in the Wiimote’s case, vibrating. You press keys until you match the pace of moaning with the partner, trying to synchronize so they can have an orgasm. The game gets much more interesting once you use the co-op or orgie-op modes of play as each partner has to coordinate the moaning with the person standing next to them. It’s an interesting game because it responds to Floyd’s chief complaint about sex in games being belittling to women thus far. Playing the game with your partner (or orgy members) is going to result in requests to ‘slow down’ or ‘speed up’, etc. Rather than the sex being a one-sided affair, it instead takes on a supportive and team-oriented game design. I’m not trying to give myself an orgasm, I’m trying to give one to the other person.


Back on the subject of tastelessness is the recently released indie game BoneTown. Acting like a cross between Grand Theft Auto and a Ron Jeremy Sex Guide (he’s actually in the game), BoneTown is basically an exercise in masculine empowerment. You go on missions to improve your style, cash, and ‘balls’ power. This, in response, lets you increasingly score with more women and pleasure them better. I’m not going to really defend the game one way or another since I haven’t played it, but it has good production values and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It would probably be more respectable if it let you play as a woman, but that’s a psychological mirror even my male, job before social-life, mid-twenties singledom brain might not be able to handle responsibly. But at least the game is honest about the RPG mechanics it’s using and it beats the creepiness of two World of Warcraft players arguing over whose sword is better. At the very least, it gives people something to say whenever a deranged parent or news network is raving about some barely nude kissing sequence in a videogame. “That’s not a video game about sex. This is.”


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