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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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Wednesday, Oct 15, 2008

Robert Reich makes an important point in this post. Most Americans’ failure to save is not because of extravagance and impulsiveness and greed for material goods, as tempting as that logic is. And the housing collapse and the credit crisis is not the fault of overreaching consumers. (Schadenfreude is always tempting; it feels good to think that people are getting what they deserve rather than being puppets of forces beyond their control.) The current downturn is not some kind of cosmic payback for being too preoccupied with blandishments of consumer culture.


The “living beyond our means” argument, with its thinly-veiled suggestion of moral terpitude, is technically correct. Over the last fifteen years, average household debt has soared to record levels, and the typical American family has taken on more of debt than it can safely manage. That became crystal clear when the housing bubble burst and home prices fell, eliminating easy home equity loans and refinancings.
But this story leaves out one very important fact. Since the year 2000, median family income has been dropping, adjusted for inflation. One of the main reasons the typical family has taken on more debt has been to maintain its living standards in the face of these declining real incomes.
It’s not as if the typical family suddenly went on a spending binge—- buying yachts and fancy cars and taking ocean cruises. No, the typical family just tried to keep going as it had before. But with real incomes dropping, and the costs of necessities like gas, heating oil, food, health insurance, and even college tuitions all soaring, the only way to keep going as before was to borrow more. You might see this as a moral failure, but I think it’s more accurate to view it as an ongoing struggle to stay afloat when the boat’s sinking.


Stagnating wages—and they will probably continue to stagnate, as David Leonhardt details here, prompted consumers to take on debt; it can’t entirely be blamed on Americans adopting a standard of living that was beyond them. One of the struggles, I think, about complaining about consumer culture is figuring out a way to argue that a transformation in spending habits is not tantamount to taking a step backward in terms of living standards. The voluntary simplicity movement, when it is forged with a sense of righteous snobbery, seems the most viable option right now.


Of course, with rapidly declining consumer spending pitching us toward a nasty recession, there will be calls for stimulus packages to increase consumer spending. And giving the money to consumers to spend immediately, rather than save for the long-term and improve their overall economic position, will only exacerbate consumerist ideology—the marketing and the advertising and the belief that owning more things is the good life and so on. This doesn’t mean we should fall into the neo-Hooverite trap Matthew Yglesias warns of —it means that falling aggregate demand should perhaps be countered not by increased spending by individual consumers but by government investment in projects that provide better life opportunities for us all.


Added: Ezra Klein linked to this Demos study, which used a survey of credit-card debtors to conclude, “Quite simply, what distinguishes low- and middle-income households with relatively high levels of credit card debt from those with lower levels of debt is chance and misfortune.”


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Tuesday, Oct 14, 2008
This seems as good a place as any to put a Gears of War 2 chainsaw battle pic.

This seems as good a place as any to put a
Gears of War 2 chainsaw battle pic.


Perhaps it seems a bit ridiculous to lament the embarrassment of riches we have in the next two months as far as video game releases go.  Looking at the release schedule right now, there are a ridiculous amount of great games that have either been released recently or will be in October and November. Here’s the murderer’s row of releases: Guitar Hero: World Tour, Rock Band 2, Fable 2, Left 4 Dead, The Last Remnant, Dead Space, Gears of War 2, LittleBigPlanet, Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, Resistance 2, Prince of Persia and Wii Music. I’m sure there are others I missed, but the bottom line is that this is arguably the best season ever for gaming.


Still, there are two major problems with this.
First of all, with so many triple-A titles coming out in such a short period of time, there are bound to be great titles that slip between the cracks. Last fall’s deluge of games like Mass Effect, The Orange Box, Halo 3, Bioshock, Super Mario Galaxy, Assassin’s Creed, and Call of Duty 4 meant that titles like Conan and Kane and Lynch were overshadowed and underrated. I know personally that I didn’t even get around to playing some of these games until this spring. Sure, Hollywood has their big summer blockbuster season in which a lot of the big budget movies are sandwiched between May and August, but the difference is that you can pay $10 to watch a Batman movie and be done with it in two hours. With games, there’s much more of a time and money investment.


Could something like Mirror's Edge get left behind?

Could something like Mirror’s Edge get left behind?


The second issue is that the big game release season is coming at a time when the economy is looking a little scary. Though we don’t know all the ramifications right now of the whole mess, it’s possible that unnecessary entertainment purchases like video games will suffer (Of course, an argument could be made that escapist entertainment will actually increase in popularity because people are trying to not think about the economy). In that case, with so many titles to pick from this holiday season and less money to buy them with, we could see some big budget titles disappoint and others go by the wayside.


I predict, though, that Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Gears of War 2 and anything Wii-related will do fine. It’s some of the other, lesser known games I’d be worried about.


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