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by Rob Horning

2 Oct 2009

A reader of Felix Salmon’s blog named Chris seems to have written the comment heard ‘round the blogosphere, about financial innovation and risk:

The person most willing to take on risk is the one unaware he is doing so. He charges no risk premium…
The resulting market equilibrium is that the guy who is unaware of the risk ends up loaded with it. Then the music stops.

Salmon’s gloss on this is that it serves to explain investment banks’ profits during the recent bubble: “They charge their clients a lot of money to take risk off their hands, and then they transformed that risk, using sophisticated financial engineering, into instruments which didn’t, on their face, look risky at all, and which could easily be sold to risk-averse investors. Bingo, massive profits.” This means that financial innovation had become a matter of making risk disappear, not managing it better, as was so often insisted a few years ago (all that talk about how CDOs spread risk and made everyone safer, etc.). Financial innovations had become, as Salmon notes, “tools of obfuscation” in the hands of investment bankers. Further proof that the market for financial products is a market for lemons.

One might argue further that the innovation was designed to trick not gullible investors but the rating agencies those investors relied upon, only it’s probably true that the rating agencies were in on the scam all along and didn’t need deceiving—they got paid when the instruments become AAA rated, and they helped the banks figure out how to make them pass muster.

It seems obvious that regulation should aim to prevent hiding risk from being a profitable business. If there is to be an overseer of systemic risk, that regulator’s main function would be precisely to ensure that risk is visible and not tucked away in the shadow-banking system. The larger question is whether there is any way to direct innovation efforts toward things that actually help society rather than destroy it in the name of private gain.

by Nick Dinicola

2 Oct 2009

I’ve never played an MMORPG. I’ve always been fascinated with the genre, but have never felt a desire to enter one of those massive worlds and explore it myself. Until recently. When I heard what the latest expansion for World of Warcraft would do to the game world (that it would completely change it by turning deserts into forests and so on), I felt a sudden urge to play it and see these parts of the world for myself before they were gone. Unlike other games when an MMO changes, it’s changed forever. My experience starting World of Warcraft now would be very different than if I had started it years ago. This past year has seen two MMOs shut down for good, Tabula Rasa and The Matrix Online. It’s strange to think that these games are now completely lost in the past, and it begs the question: how can games be preserved over time?

This issue isn’t unique to games. There were several VHS movies that never got transferred to DVD, and there are several DVD movies that will never get transferred to Blu-Ray. The blockbusters are always preserved, so it’s usually the niche gems that suffer. Re-releasing older games is a popular trend right now what with Games On Demand, PSN, and Virtual Console, but there are inherent flaws in that process. Every game can’t be re-released, so only the chosen few that are deemed important enough will be remembered as time passes. The end result is an incomplete and arbitrary archive. 

Even when an old game is re-released, the traditional console cycle moves so fast that even that update quickly becomes outdated. Square Enix re-released Final Fantasy VI as part of the Final Fantasy Anthology for the original PlayStation, which is now unplayable on PlayStation 3. The highly consumerist attitude within gamer culture only furthers this problem; today’s “day-one-purchase” is tomorrow’s used game sale. It seems painfully inevitable that many great games will be forgotten.

But I believe that the situation is not as doomy and gloomy as it first appears. Games usually become unplayable when a new console is released, and a new console is usually released when increased computing power enables better graphics (of course, there are other factors that go into the creation and launch of a new console, but better graphics are always the biggest selling point because the difference can be seen immediately). But the industry’s quest for better graphics has hit a wall with the latest generation of consoles: Graphics simply can’t get much better. No matter how powerful the PS4 will be, it won’t be able to make the same graphical leap that the PS3 did from the PS2.

Currently, characters in video games are a lot like characters in cartoons. They’re obviously not real, but we can look past their stylized reality and feel for them. Better graphics allow for more emotive characters, and more emotive characters are easier to get attached to. But we’re standing at the precipice of the “uncanny valley,” go any further and we’ll no longer feel empathetic towards these characters, since we’ll only notice how inhuman they are. The computing power and programmer effort required to jump the valley are not worth the investment. As a result, the push for a new console cycle has slowed. Without that push, this generation of games will last longer than previous ones and give any interested parties more time to re-release games for the current crop of consoles. It’s my hope that by now the industry has matured to a point where it doesn’t have to keep reinventing itself every five years.

Sony is actually doing a commendable job releasing original PlayStation games on PSN. I was surprised to see Intelligent Qube, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, and Ape Escape for sale along with games that are now sold as new for absurd prices considering their age like Xenogears, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy Tactics.

Of course this does nothing to save Tabula Rasa or The Matrix Online. MMOs and other multiplayer-centric games are unique in that once they lose their audience (or when their audience becomes too small to finance the upkeep of the game) the game is gone for good. A while ago, L.B. Jeffries posted a couple  MMO stories from EVE Online and Ultima Online. Reading about other people’s experiences in these worlds is fascinating, and I think recording these experiences for others is one way to keep these social games alive. Even when they’re gone, they won’t be forgotten.

by Ashley Cooper

2 Oct 2009

Well-known actress Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut with Whip It, the story of a Texas teenage girl Bliss (Ellen Page) who decides to rebel against her beauty pageant upbringing and trades in her chances for a crown in for a pair of roller skates to enter the world of roller derby. “You are my new hero,” Bliss tells one roller derby star who she watches pass out flyers for an upcoming event. The derby star tells her, “Well, grab a pair of skates and be your own hero.” Her mother (portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden) vehemently disapproves against her choice and makes her opinions known as her father secretly supports her efforts.

The movie is about relationships, focuses on female empowerment and the world of derby gives Bliss the opportunity to find out where she belongs, make some friends and find herself along the way.

by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2009

No one does detached British youth better than Sean Conway. He’s like an across-the-Atlantic Larry Clark without the dirty old man’s leer. Like most film school graduates, no matter the locale, he’s a combination of what he’s learned, what he’s loved, and what he longs to achieve. As much a writer as he is a director, Conway has expanded his media profile to include novels, poem collections, and several short stories. He’s also an accomplished screenwriter, selling his first script while still in college. In many ways, he’s the classic celluloid success saga - student film to much more accomplished work, minor recognition to national acknowledgement. In a series of short film steps, cobbles on the road to artistic reward, Conway has perfect his themes. He’s also found a way to cleverly combine prose with motion picture providence.

The results can definitely be seen in the following five mini-features, spanning the first three years of his output. Each one addresses a particular portion of Conway’s peculiar POV, including sex, drugs, crime, craziness, kink, cool, and above all, contemporary chaos. By focusing on individuals in his disenfranchised demo, by turning the standard coming of age into a true test of human will, he reinvents a genre we’ve seen dozens of times before. Even better, he does so from a decidedly British perspective, a look laced with tradition, techno, and a tendency toward underplaying emotion. This makes Conway’s work even more astonishing - even with said cultural setting, he still unearths the kind of rich psychological tapestry that a lot of more “obvious” films fail to deliver. Going over them one at a time, we can see his growth, as well as the common threads that bind his works together, starting with: 

Rocco Paris (2005)

Rocco is an art student who spends his days painting Xerox copies of Kurt Cobain photos, his nights navigating the dead end world of his aimless youth. His girlfriend Zazie brightens things up, but the truth remains that our hero seems as directionless as his muse.

As with most student films Rocco Paris feels like a wholly insular initiation into the world of Sean Conway. It’s clear from what we see visually that this English upstart understands the language of films. His scenes come together with a kind of celluloid magic, making sense even when the narrative gets lost in a lack of explanations. Similarly, he ‘gets’ the concept of creating character tension by using gesture and actions as indicators. There is a real sense of discovery and personal growth on the part of our lovers, a look at a life that seems truly believable and yet almost completely built out of Conway’s desire to impress. Indeed, that’s what one means when they argue inferred narrowness. As a fledgling filmmaker, our future auteur is still getting his bearings. We see where he’s going, but we’re not sure if he’s getting there in the best possible manner.

There are other elements here that will also scream self-indulgence: the constant switching between grainy black and white and cloudy snuff film style color; the voice over narration that often misleads the audience as to intent; the sudden shift, at the end, into French (with French subtitles to boot); the projector sound effects; the flimsy fixation on the late Nirvana shaman. None of these whims are fatal to the film - indeed sometimes, Conway uses them as a necessary wake-up call for a viewer lulled into a kind of visual complacency. Most importantly, Rocco Paris illustrates what its maker continues to do best - finding the fringe faction in his own part of the world and illustrating it in honest, open, and aesthetically exciting way.

Rabbit Stories (2006)

Fenton Fuller is a young man tormented by schizophrenia. While his family wants him institutionalized, our subjects shattered mind senses conspiracy in every action.

Really nothing more than an extended rant punctured by occasional bits of conversation exposition, Rabbit Stories argues for Conway’s ability as a writer. There are times in this fictional tale when you swear he found a real mental patient, an equally authentic set of adults, and filmed them au natural, without provocation and within a stylized documentary. With the camera snaking around and in between characters, an editorial approach that plays with our own sense of reality, and page after page of perfected psycho speak, we can’t help by feel confused - and confident in Conway’s ability to tell the truth. The lines here are so stinging, so concrete in their ability to illustrate Fenton’s condition, that even if we didn’t have the voiceover telling us of his bubbling bad brain, we’d catch on rather quickly. He’s a classic nutjob in an equally timeless tale.

It’s just too bad then that there’s not more backstory here. We are interested in the Fuller family dynamic - why Mom visits, why Dad criticizes. We are also intrigued by the doctors, driven to distraction by our lead’s constant lack of an internal monologue. Again, one of the hardest things to accomplish in fiction is a factual portrayal of mental illness. Even with available examples in real life, and some undeniably gifted actors, artistic pretense frequently gets in the way of authenticity. But since Conway is a wizard at the truth, capable of uncovering it in even the most ditzy or dire of circumstances, it’s no wonder Fenton’s surreal stream of consciousness works.  By avoiding the cliché and the stereotypical, Rabbit Stories reveals its knowing nature.

Alex and Her Arse Truck (2007)

Alex is planning on taking a bath, and her man plans on watching. Along the way we meet a geek burglar, a well-endowed swimmer, two larded drug dealing lesbians, and a pub filled with reprobate raffling off our heroine’s soiled knickers.

Like his American counterpart, trailer park Pasolini Giuseppe Andrews (the indie genius contributed two songs to the soundtrack here), Conway is interested in life the way it’s really lived - not the sugar coated, candy colored version of existence fed to us via television and advertising. There is a razor sharp authenticity here, an eccentricity meshed with the undeniable truth that easily takes one’s breath away. His actors really help sell the situation. As Baby Shoes, Danny Young is dynamic, looking like a slightly less smug Colin Farrell. He brings a real warmth to his jealousy-torn role, and his voice over narration is loaded with story enhancing emotion. Similarly, Gina Blondell’s Alex is the flawless personification of everything Conway wants to convey. She’s sexy, stupid, alluring, ambiguous, and ever so slightly out of reach. Even her walk screams something significant. In a setup that mandates a ying to a partner’s yan, Young and Blondell make a wonderful - and better yet, believable - pair.

There are other layers to Alex and her Arse Truck that help make this 15 minute masterwork feel far more fleshed out and realized. Race becomes a subversive sexual subject, as does overweight lesbian congress. We get surreal, enigmatic images of a swimming man covered in Band-Aids and a cheerleading group practicing in a darkened parking lot. The musical score does a great job of supplementing the circumstances, amplifying the out of control atmosphere and accenting the characters. As unheralded auteurs go, Sean Conway will definitely be a name to watch in the future. If there is any justice in an artform landscape littered with lame journeyman hacks, his will be a creative spark recognized and revered. Alex and her Arse Truck is all the proof anyone needs. 

Kings of London (2008)

Two black half-brothers, both named Aristotle, try to figure out their path in the cold hearted criminal streets of the UK. One fancies himself a poet. The other competes in the unusual sport of ghetto racing. Each one faces his own struggles, both at home and out among the gangs and cutthroats they run into on a daily basis.

While it’s an obvious sentiment, this is what Conway has been building up to over the last few shorts films. Longer than anything he’s attempted before (at 24 minutes, it’s almost twice the length of Alex) and built on a solid storyline, this is a compelling character study carved out of secret loss, obvious problems, and some slightly off center concepts. The entire notion of “troubled” Aristotle wearing a woman’s wig, riding a horse, and entering unusual offtrack races makes for an curious arc, but the vast majority of the movie is made up of the quiet interaction between our two main leads, each one delivering the kind of understated performance that brings out the best in Conway’s material. Indeed, this is the best written short of the lot. It’s lyrical, ephemeral, cruel, calculated, and all too real in its slice of life snapshots. And thanks to the men managing these lines, we become entranced in the all too certain sense of doom.

Conway also proves his mantle as a visual artist with this film. The shots he selects, the slow motion races that put the mute Aristotle up against all competing horsemen, really shine in a viable, cinematic way. Filmed in HD, with a real emphasis on naturalism and found locations, Kings of London provides a glimpse of the city that few ever see. This is a view of the backroads and alleyways of the sprawling meta-metropolis, a portrait painted in struggles and survival. This is a place where no one wins and everyone suffers in the end. The film even begins with a story of date rape, and wraps up on a beat so horrific and yet obvious that it comes out of the plot organically. There will be those who question Conway’s desire to turn everything into a monologue, a chance encounter becoming several pages of pain-filled dialogue, but that’s the beauty of Kings of London. It’s a near masterpiece of tone, approach, and storytelling.

Sloe Gin Nights (2008)

Two boys spend an aimless night smacking each other in the genitals while a narrator explains their alienated and disaffected feelings.

In some ways, the story of this two minute short’s making is far more interesting than anything which happens on screen. Film journalist Mike Plante (Cinemad), got it in his mind to invite filmmakers to lunch. In exchange, the artist would have to agree to make him a movie. The catch? It could only cost the amount spent on the meal. In the case of Conway’s $24 repast, the results are quite odd to say the least. Shot on what looks like a cellphone and featuring some uncompromising male nudity, what we wind up with is a lark, a romp relegated to what looks like a poorly made porno. The narration provides some compelling context, as well as addressing the obvious questions about who, what, when, where, why, and how. Beyond that, and the intriguing set-up, we can relish Conway’s wordplay, but that’s about it. The rest of Sloe Gin Nights seems missing from the otherwise engaging middle section.

With a feature film in his future and what seems like the full support of a community ready to aid in his arrival, Sean Conway should soon be a household name. Like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, he seems perfectly in tune with the United Kingdom of his life and times. Like Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie, however, he uses obvious stylistic choices and rich dialogue to enhance his day in the life dynamics. The combination is intoxicating, drawing one in while keeping enough distance to demand our empathy. With such a stellar foundation of filmmaking behind him, Conway is destined for greatness. That he’s already come close to achieving it here argues for such an inevitable aesthetic conclusion.


by Zach Schwartz

1 Oct 2009

When Sunny Day Real Estate, Cymbals Eat Guitars, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are all playing the same night in DC, and you can still sell out your show at (admittedly small) DC9, you’re probably doing something right.  The Antlers played a great set, to an excited crowd.  My fears that their melodic, sometimes soft, often swooping,  and always well produced songs wouldn’t translate well to a live show were completely put to rest.  They came hard at times, but went quiet too, and Peter Silberman’s voice is just as strong as it is on the album.

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