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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2008

I was surprised to discover that Thomas Frank, the Baffler founder and author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God and other left-leaning cultural critiques, would be writing a regular column for the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. I learned about it when he wrote about the Obama “bitter” crisis for the paper on Monday. His new gig is especially striking considering that he has derided the page so thoroughly in the past, making it a go-to source for conservative nonsense when he wants to make a point about some typical piece of disingenuous right-wing rhetoric. Now he’ll be sidled along next to it—if only he could know what else was on the page and debunk it as it appears. And you figure the perch was something Frank really couldn’t turn down; it’s too prominent, too tempting a place from which to polemicize. He can serve as a fifth column, preparing the way for the hoped-for takeover of business culture by sensible minds—people who see the futility of creating asset bubbles and the evil of suppressing unions and wages, who are willing to denounce the marketing racket and question the imperatives of consumer-driven growth at all costs, and so on.


But you have to wonder, What is Murdoch, et. al., up to here? It’s a move that seems akin to the NYT‘s printing Bill Kristol’s risible columns, which are fulsome fodder for liberal tut-tutting and so make a certain sense of the NYT‘s presumed readership. But Frank is no hack, like Kristol; Frank’s columns are not so easy to laugh off, nor are they rote recitations of the current state of the ideology he is supposed to represent. The WSJ used to have Alexander Cockburn write a token lefty column for its editorial page back in the 1980s, as Kathy G notes. But unlike Kathy, I don’t believe that the editors at the WSJ “see the writing on the wall, and they know they can’t ignore liberals anymore.” This does not strike me as an attempt to give credence to or acknowledge liberal readers, but maybe I underestimate the attraction Frank might have for people who otherwise wouldn’t bother with WSJ. Maybe it will drive some traffic their way on the Web, as his Monday column was probably more widely linked than the customary tripe. But maybe the editors recognized a kindred spirit, not in ideology by in rhetorical technique. Far too often, liberal polemic is earnest, self-righteous, humorlessly urging some borderline condescending concern on readers for those who can’t speak for themselves. Frank is not that kind of writer; like kindred spirit Barbara Ehrenreich, he seems to delight instead in sarcasm and the kind of haughty diction that frequently enlivens Marxist critiques while eschewing the sort of punning triviality or jargon-laden turgidity that sometimes undermines more-contemporary leftist discourse. Here’s a typical sample, from Monday :


Ah, but Hillary Clinton: Here’s a woman who drinks shots of Crown Royal, a luxury brand that at least one confused pundit believes to be another name for Old Prole Rotgut Rye. And when the former first lady talks about her marksmanship as a youth, who cares about the cool hundred million she and her husband have mysteriously piled up since he left office? Or her years of loyal service to Sam Walton, that crusher of small towns and enemy of workers’ organizations? And who really cares about Sam Walton’s own sins, when these are our standards? Didn’t he have a funky Southern accent of some kind? Surely such a mellifluous drawl cancels any possibility of elitism.


Note the ironic rhetorical questions, the juxtaposition of played-out words like “funky” with colorful, near ostentatious ones like “mellifluous.” Not to mention the absolutely perfect put down of the lazy media coverage of Clinton’s campaign stage management. It’s sardonic, unapologetically smart and allusive, and it verges on downright mean-spiritedness, and that’s what links it to the WSJ’s customary editorial voice, which is often sharpened with contempt. Frank, too, often seems nearly contemptuous, which is a great asset—it conveys confidence in left-wing ideas that you don’t walways see, and suggests strongly (just like Economist “leaders” frequently do)  that you’d be stupid to disagree. Some misinterpret this rhetorical strategy as elitist, but it strikes me as just a refusal to wheedle.


Still I don’t think regular WSJ editorial page readers will be dismayed by Frank’s columns, but perhaps they’ll recognize the tone and delight in its flamboyance.


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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
Nada Surf's Ira Elliot really loves the Beatles and blood sausage.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Screech, unfortunately.


3. The greatest album, ever?
Abbey Road dude. C’mon.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Trek. No, wars. That’s a tough one. There’s lots of great treks but only two great wars. Feel me?


5. Your ideal brain food?
Blood sausage.


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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Les Savy Fav
Disco Drive (live) [MP3]
     


In These Woods [MP3]
     


Precision Auto (live) [MP3]
     


Reprobates Resume [MP3]
     


Manu Chao
Politik Kills(feat LKJ, remix by Dennis Bovell) [MP3]
     


El Perro del Mar
Glory to the World [MP3]
     


Constantines
Hard Feelings [Video]


Beach House
Gila [Video]


South
Better Things [MP3]
     


Awesome Color
Eyes of Light [MP3]
     


Dan Deacon
Okie Dokie [Video]



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Tuesday, Apr 22, 2008

It’s time for our weekly look into some of the worst movies of all time. Today, it’s the tale of a boy, his best friend, and his incredibly flatulent bottom.


Poor Patrick Smash was born with a problem: a gas problem. You see, he has two stomachs, and his overactive digestion produces an excess amount of colon blow. From the time he was an infant to his current pre-teen years, Patrick has been one incredibly farty fiend. He farts day and night. He farts in school. He farts in private. And it’s caused him nothing but trouble. His father leaves the family because of it. The bullies pick on him over his continuous crack coughs. Even the teachers dismiss the needy child on account of his active ass. But when our sad little lad meets up with science geek Alan A. Allen, the two become best friends for life.


Unfortunately, their camaraderie is challenged when the U.S. government whisks Alan off to help with a space station malfunction. Hoping to locate his pal, Patrick joins up with an opera singer who wants to use the boy’s butthole as a means of obtaining vocal heights (don’t ask). When that ends badly, our poot prodigy winds up in the hands of Uncle Sam as well. Turns out, his tushy produces the perfect rocket fuel to send Alan’s specially designed rocket into the stratosphere. Even better, Patrick will be able to live out his lifelong dream - he has always wanted to be an astronaut. Too bad his Thunderpants kept getting in the way. Now, for once, they won’t.



Thunderpants is a one-joke movie that decides to abandon said gag about 20 minutes in for some routine Roald Dahl-like misadventures. When focused on the farting - yes, this film is really just an extended barking spider spoof with half-baked kid-lit fantasies thrown in for unequal measure—the movie mostly works. But once it decides to warm to the whimsy, everything falls apart. Granted, the humor is coarse, and forced through a decidedly British concept of comedy, meaning there’s lots of personal embarrassment and exaggerated freakishness to be found. This is the kind of film that wants audiences to laugh at oversized bullies cold-cocking the decidedly dorky heroes, to celebrate the inhuman stench coming out of a little boy’s bottom, and cheer as he uses his multifaceted flatulence to show up his enemies and win the day.


Such a concept is not without its charms. When handled correctly, the air biscuit can be a beautiful thing. Its combination of sound and sour substance has been known to leave many a listener doubled over in uncontrollable snickering. It’s the pre-schoolers’ first foray into funny business, an art form to adolescents, an adult’s primary form of non-erotic bonding, and the elderly’s personal entertainment element for the grandkids. But here, writer/director Peter Hewitt (working with co-writer Phil Hughes) decides to do away with the butt trumpet early on, focusing instead on a bizarre opera singer subplot, and then the movie’s main mission, using poor Patrick Smash’s overactive alimentary canal as a means of saving some space shuttle astronauts. With Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint along as uber-nerd Alan A. Allen, we’re stuck with not one but three storylines that basically don’t work.



Let’s take them one at a time, shall we. First, there is Patrick Smash’s personal predicament. Granted, it’s pretty hysterical when an infant version of our hero basically blasts away for 10 minutes straight. From the moment he’s born to the second his father leaves, tired of putting up with the nonstop sphincter popping, Hewitt has us in toilet-humor titters. But like many English fantasies, things turn dark rather quickly. Mom starts pounding the sauce, and the school tormenters go to outrageous extremes to undermine Patrick. After a while - the aforementioned 20 minutes - Thunderpants is no longer funny. It’s sad, dour, and kind of cruel.


Even when Patrick discovers Alan (a boy who can tolerate his toots because of a defective nose), their friendship is fragile and very desperate. It makes us wonder what will happen next - and then the singer storyline kicks in. Embodied by U.K. luminary Simon Callow, this oversized vocal egotist employs Patrick to hit the high notes in an impossible aria, the goal being international acclaim and the title of world’s number-one tenor. Naturally, it makes no sense, as does our lead’s ability to fart like a singing voice (where’s La Petomane when you need him?). But things really go out of whack when Patrick is charged with murder - huh? - and ends up on trial. The courtroom material is not clever, and wastes the sizable talents of Brit wit Stephen Fry. Before we know it, however, the U.S. government is stepping in, and Patrick is off to lend his anal gas to the Red, White, and Blue.



It’s the transition over to action man mode than really fails Thunderpants. We discover that Alan has been working on an engine which mimics Patrick’s two-stomach situation, but thanks to some bumbling adults (the research staff of this NASA-like agency is all brainiac kids), the system has failed. So Mr. Russet Gusset must sit in a toilet-like booster seat on the space shuttle and literally “blast” the rocket into orbit. This is all taken with tongue-in-cheek seriousness, mind you. Ned Beatty plays the God-fearing director of the agency, his occasionally inappropriate remarks (“this boy’s a fruit,” “this boy’s a tool”) explained away as misconstrued religious musings. He’s matched in shame by Paul Giamatti, skinnier than we’ve seen him in a while (the film is five years old, after all) and doing the straight-laced secret agent bit to the 40th degree.


Of course, everything is warm and fuzzy - and apparently quite odiferous - in the end, with our hated human oddities the celebrated saviors of the day, and everyone who ever wronged them gathered up for a pre-credit grab at a piece of the pair’s fame. The unsuccessful melding of the sentimental with the slapstick, the sincere with the scatological makes Thunderpants nearly impossible to enjoy. In fact, it’s so mannered in its presentation (Patrick overuses certain supposedly clever catchphrases over and over and over again) that it’s hard to imagine kids being the least bit interested - at least, after the ass-gas blasting takes a bum burp backseat.


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Tuesday, Apr 22, 2008
There is no better time than now for Cliff Johnson to release his long-awaited sequel to The Fool's Errand.

The time is right.  The time is now.


Please, Cliff Johnson, won’t you release A Fool and His Money?


Hell yeah Speedball was awesome.

Hell yeah Speedball was awesome.


Once upon a time, I bought an Amiga from a friend of mine for $300.  It seemed like an incredible deal at the time, given that he threw in something like 60 games for the thing, including some impressive technology show-off type games like Dragon’s Lair and Speedball.  Damn, I loved me some Speedball.  What I was coming to realize was that computers could do things that consoles at the time could only dream of, and the possibilities intrigued me.


Of course, finding out that I had to go to a specialty store to buy my Amiga games was kind of a buzzkill.


Regardless, one of the first games I ever came home with from that very store was The Fool’s Errand, which I mostly bought because its cover said it won some kind of award and my dad thought it looked good (and because it was one of the only new-ish games at the time that my Amiga, maxed out at a piddly 512K of RAM, could handle).  It turned out to be one of those games.


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