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Tuesday, Jan 8, 2008
by Edward Wasserman

By Edward Wasserman


McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)



Penelope Trunk delivered career advice on Yahoo Finance until two weeks ago, when Yahoo dropped her Brazen Careerist column. Trunk says Yahoo decided the column didn’t draw enough traffic to warrant the premium rates advertisers pay to be in its financial news package. So out she went.


Now, I have sympathy for a career columnist with career problems, but my concern here isn’t with whether she was handled fairly but with what her experience suggests about the direction that online journalism is heading.


That direction seems to be toward handing over tighter and much more precise influence over editorial content to the outside people who write the checks. If she’s right about the reasons for her dismissal, Trunk has become an early casualty of the new order of online news—calibrated journalism.


Under the new rules, the commercial value of specific editorial offerings is estimated with precision, rewards and punishments doled out accordingly, and coverage cut to fit.


Of course, we’re used to seeing well-loved offerings on commercial media dumped if they don’t pull enough people—or enough of the right people—to keep advertisers satisfied. That’s how network TV works.


Still, although network executives re-jigger their Tuesday prime time lineup to please advertisers, editors aren’t supposed to redraw their Tuesday front page for the same reason. The journalism business has been different. Although news and commentary offer a setting both for public discourse and sales pitches, traditional ad-supported journalism has worked despite that disharmony, as long as editorial content is passably free of corruption.


But now? Suppose certain coverage pays—that is, pays in a direct way: It racks up the page-views, attracting audiences through search engines and enabling publishers to charge advertisers more.


Jack D. Lail, multimedia chief for The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel, writes: “Print media writers look askance at how ratings affect TV news, but in the digital economy, they face the prospect of eventually being tied to their advertising generating power, the almighty CPM, or advertising cost per thousand impressions.”


So if a reporter or commentator produces work that is read, linked to and passed along by lots of people—to the benefit of advertisers—why shouldn’t he or she benefit?


Already, Gawker Media, with a network of 15 online publications, has created a bonus plan for its bloggers based on page-views.


News organizations benefit too, the logic goes. “This data should be shared, widely, throughout the newsroom,” Yoni Greenbaum writes on his Editor on the Verge Web site. “I think it’s important for desk editors and reporters to understand the habits of their online readers. Desk editors should know what stories play best online; this is not to say that you don’t report some stories, but editors should understand what plays best and where.”


Isn’t that all for the better? Why not direct journalists toward coverage people find interesting? That’s a point Michael Hirschorn, a magazine industry veteran (and ex-colleague) who’s head of original programming at VH1, examines in an Atlantic magazine column. Taking a week’s worth of three top newspapers, Hirschorn compares their most e-mailed articles with the ones that ran on their front pages—the stories readers liked most versus the stories editors liked most.


The two realms overlapped less than one-quarter of the time, he found. He admonishes editors, “Stop being important and start being interesting.”


Who could disagree? But chasing what’s interesting has always been a lot easier, and a lot more bankable, than pursuing what’s important. Big-city tabloids have done it for generations. So has local TV news: fast-paced, personality-driven, human-scale—and hollow to the core, a civic blight.


The problem with online Popularity Pay is it that it mistakes journalism for a consumer product, and conflates value with sales volume. Journalists don’t peddle goods, they offer a professional service, a relationship. The news audience renews that relationship to get information and insight on matters it trusts journalists to alert it to, even though the news may be disquieting or hard to grasp.


What’s more, the public routinely benefits mightily from stories that few people bother reading. Such is the power of exposure.


News can indeed be recast successfully as a menu of competing distractions. The question is whether we can afford the price of such success.


___


ABOUT THE WRITER
Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.


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Monday, Jan 7, 2008



As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This time out: It’s a Mondo, Mondo, Mondo, Mondo, World



When they first hit video stores in the early 1980s, people were aghast and intrigued. Could it be? Did these films really live up to their legend? Was it possible that we’d actually get to see human atrocities like autopsies and actual murders in our very own living rooms? Indeed, that was the promise offered by Faces of Death, a soon-to-be series of on-the-cheap video collections that promised vile vignettes of burn victims, police surveillance footage and occasionally “staged” sagas of people being mauled by animals or killed in accidents. Incredibly popular amongst teens who used the tapes as weekend sleepover double dare fodder, Faces spawned a set of sequels and imitators that created a cash filled coffer of bad publicity.


Sadly, all Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi could do was sit back and watch as their artistic statements about the diversity of the world were lumped together with bad dub copies of psychopaths committing suicide and catastrophe victims missing various limbs. These two Italian innovators were definitely responsible for the foundational films that started and popularized the whole “shock cinema” or “Mondo” genre, and compared to what came directly after it, Mondo Cane stands as a monumental cinematic statement. But with any success comes speculation, and no one was better at ripping off revenue streams than the exploitationers. Names like Harry Novak instantly saw the mock doc writing on the wall, and dreamed up their own globe trotting gratuity. The results were instant crap-ssics like Mondo Bizzaro, Mondo Freudo, Mondo Mod, and The Hippie Revolt.


Viewed today as both tawdry time capsules and copycat capitalization, the Mondo movies are indeed a compelling, complicated experience. Most rely on nudity to shill their swill, while others can get rather nasty (animal lovers beware - there are no ASPCA warnings here). For the most part, however, these films traded on the pre-satellite insularity of the world, exposing ‘60s citizens to things we post-millennial mooks see Anthony Bourdain do every week on No Reservations. In some ways, the Mondo movies were the first foray into understanding other parts of the world - the rites and rituals, the odd customs and even stranger traditions. They may seem silly today, but forty years ago this was eye opening stuff.


Take the first film under consideration. A great many things make up the wacky world circa 1966. Like Japanese massage parlors where, for 2000 yen, topless Geisha babes will scramble eggs on your sunken, pallid chest (gasp!). Or how about the fickle fashion fiascos of Fredrick’s of Hollywood, the only lingerie shop in America that treats the female breast like a cast iron torpedo, requiring a flamboyant metal framed clothing hanger to properly house it (eep!), Let’s not forget the odd exaltation of peeping on persons as they change clothes in an underwear store (shudder!). And who could forget the unbelievable enchantment and mystery of a bunch of suburban housewives painting nude canvas studies of a beefy black man (shock!).


Yes, all of these mischievous misdeeds and many more—like a man who collects oil paintings of naked women (the cad!), the freaked out art photographer who fancies himself a better go-go dancer than his nude model, or a scene from a play highlighting the Nazi’s interpersonal skills with a bullwhip - help to round out and explain the reckless reality of our pre-Nixon era global detente. Add to this the everyday details of a woodoo witch doctor doing the wicked watusi (ho hum), creepy kids on spring break (bad news—even in 1966 they were incoherent retards), and a real live illegal Arabian slave auction (zzzzz), and you have, as Topo Gigio would say, a true look at our way-out, wacky Mondo Bizarro, Mr. Eddie. [Bat creepy puppet eyes]


But wait - it gets better. The second feature finds old Sigmund getting his fifteen microns of post-mortem motion picture fame as we wander through a Freudian world of prolonged toplessness. We witness women bare-chested on the beaches of Malibu and nightclubs along the Sunset Strip (scandal!). Dentally challenged strippers and hookers drop shirt in merry, murky old England (bloody ‘ell!). Another round of Asian actresses unfurl their upper torso lotus leaves for a strange exotic dance/bondage show (um…), and balding, profusely sweaty businessmen eat cheese sandwiches and drink 7-Up (yum! yum!) in an “upper class restaurant” that features a revealing ladies’ linen show (hmm…). Even more foreign flesh is exposed in a sleazy Tijuana nightclub where men pay plenty pesos to sample the in-house taco.


And just to guarantee that we haven’t forgotten about the fiend factor in this trip around the unclothed universe we live in, there is a horribly blasphemous Black Mass featuring a practicing witch’s unbelievably possessed breasts (egad!) and a virgin sacrifice that is neither (huh?). Heck, they even throw in teenagers cruising the Sunset Strip ala American Graffiti (idgits!). But leave it, once again, to those international party people, the Germans, to show us a good time by having their frail fraulines slap each other like stormtroppers in a big thick pool of decidedly “blond” looking mud (yavol!). Yes, it is one crazy, prefabricated Mondo Freudo that we live in.


If those descriptions haven’t convinced you, here’s the dilemma with Mondo Bizarro, Mondo Freudo, and frankly, any of the Mondo style movies that have been made in the last 30 years. Your enjoyment of these faux photologues will be directly linked to the amount of acceptance you give them. You either buy the artifice, which means you will believe in the “behind the scenes,” “candid camera,” “people caught in the act of being perverted” approach offered, and spend several minutes in mild shock as “real” sexual sensationalism unfolds before your beleaguered eyes. Or, you could see through the setups and find the whole “actually happened” pretense hilarious, in which case you giggle along with the staged sin shows and slave auctions and wonder if the early ‘60s audience (mostly men in raincoats) took time from their personal “fiddling” to notice how boldly fake most all of these movies are.


Perhaps you will be like the majority, and find Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo exceptionally trashy and tasteless. Even without the usual standard animal mutilation and gore footage, the notion of spying on hapless women as they change clothes or poor Mexican girls (even if they are obviously off-market models) being sold into slavery looks more sleazy than spicy. As the forerunner to the far more reprehensible Faces of Death and Caught on Tape category of exploitation exposés, these innocent attempts at shirking indecency laws are like visual versions of a double dare. Here, fortunately, you only have to put up with distorted mammaries and the occasional unfortunate mouth of teeth.


Of the two, Mondo Bizarro is the better film if only because it broadens its focus to feature more “outrageous” incidents beyond women of many races exposing their tits. The aforementioned yoga master at least provides some philosophical bric-a-brac to support his sideshow geek demonstrations. And we do occasionally move beyond the boob to see a couple of male hustlers chasing tricks and critical deliberations on modern art. The overall tone of Bizarro is light and fluffy, not taking itself or its subjects too seriously. The film finally bogs down in the far too detailed description/depiction of the trials and tribulations the filmmakers experienced to capture, on camera, a supposed Middle Eastern slave auction. A close look will tell you the nearest many of these “Arabs” got to a “desert” was a sand trap at Pebble Beach. Most of these nomads are as Lebanese as Peter O’Toole.


Freudo, on the other hand, is determined to be a more serious, sensual escape behind the seemingly sanguine outer layer of society and into its reprobate nether regions. Candidly, this film is exactly like one of Uncle Siggy’s obsessive phases. It is totally taken with the teat. The female fleshbag in its many (mal) forms is showcased here so often and up close that you’d swear you were watching La Leche League: The Movie. Eventually, the film implodes under the burden of its repetitiveness, so that by the time we reach the end we feel like we’ve seen half the planet’s population in the altogether. Both Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo suffer from a strange sameness syndrome. Even vignettes proclaiming to be odd and unique have a familiar, formulaic feel to them.


Things weren’t much better for those fixated on the counterculture shock wave sweeping the US. Novak in particular decided that young people with their freedom and flowing locks needed reprimanding and pronto. So he dreamed up the one two sucker punch of Mondo Mod and The Hippie Revolt. You see, back when the moon was in the seventh house, before the Summer of Love melted into a winter of bitter discontent for the US, these two quasi-documentaries claimed to expose the fun, fads, and flaws inside the growing youth coup.


Mondo‘s various “groovy happenings” include surfing, drug use, a really terrible band called The Group and, what appears to be, the scandal of staying out late. The Hippie Revolt is told in the words of the “youth” themselves, and proves just how much brain damage hash brownies can cause. We witness love-ins, freak outs, and a visit to the Manson family’s understudies who smoke weed and blather on, philosophically, at a commune. Add some more nude body painting and a wild sex crazed hippie pot party (to make the target audience of all white middle aged Republican males happy) and you too will be waiting for Elton John and disco to hurry up and take over already.


Novak knows demographics, and both films reflect this pro-establishment, pro-skin favoritism. While the majority of the footage is exciting (and great to look at: future Academy Award winners Vilmos Zigmond and Lazlo Kovacs worked on Mod), the narrative tone is mocking, making surfing sound suicidal, karate insane, and declarations against war and racism anti-American. Nowhere is this more evident than in the several staged/real events that were supposedly being captured “as they happened.” The aforementioned orgiastic pot party is so phony it would make Holden Caulfield bleed internally.


The biker gang scenes achieve angles and actions that no “hidden” camera could ever capture. Besides, the riders look like your Uncle Gary playing dress-up with several of his more, shall we say, leather intensive friends. Oddly enough, for a film that wants to ridicule out of control young people, it’s the protest scenes in Revolt that strike the truest chord. Nothing, not the cheesy voice-overs or the incoherent drone of blissed-out bong suckers, can undermine the historical importance of these moments, no matter how hard Novak tries.


Unlike the brilliant docu-deconstructionism of Jacopetti and Prosperi, these films prove that Mondo eventually became a catch-all tag for something akin to gratuitous grindhouse anthologies. Find an unsigned rock act. Get some girls to take off their clothes. Break out the Dutch Boy and - VIOLA! - who have a filmable slice of scandalous life. Nowhere is there an attempt to contextualize the material, to argue why it’s important to understand an African tribes reliance on ancient ceremony or how sketchy sustenance like bugs and insects derived from need and endless suffering. No, Mondo meant a recognizable name, a quick buck, and the old school bait and switch. Then, there was some promise of witnessing the perversion inherent in our planet. Today, it’s nothing but smutty smoke and mirrors.


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Monday, Jan 7, 2008

I don’t what’s more earth-shaking…  First, we hear that the last of the major labels is SLOWLY (but not fully) starting to drop DRM and then there’s the revelation that the whole idea of high culture and low culture are just artificial divides as we’re all immersed in pop culture to some extent, like it or not.  Only a week in and it’s already shaping up to be an interesting year.


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Monday, Jan 7, 2008

This article from Scientific American suggests something that I’ve often suspected, that boredom is less a matter of dull circumstances than of unimaginative people.


a new generation of scientists is grappling with the psychological underpinnings of this most tedious of human emotions—and they have found that it is more complicated than is commonly known. Researchers say that boredom is not a unified concept but rather comes in several flavors. Level of attention, an aspect of conscious awareness, plays an important role in boredom, such that improving a person’s ability to focus may therefore decrease ennui. Emotional factors can also contribute to boredom. People who are inept at understanding their feelings and those who become sucked in and distracted by their moods are more easily bored, for example.


In the past, I’ve argued that consumerism as a system induces people to become more prone to boredom by encouraging them to feel entitled to convenience and hence exist in a state of perpetual impatience, which is quite like boredom. People come to regard their own experience as disposable, something to be hurried through. At the time, I didn’t know about the Boredom Proneness Scale, developed by two psychologists, or what its application has found in terms of whether people are getting more or less bored as society becomes more saturated with commodified culture. But the researchers who created the scale have identified two main characteristics of those easily bored that fit well with my theory: Boredom stems, in their account, from a need for novelty and an inability to generate their own stimulation: In other words, they have become passive consumers who wait to be entertained by some new external stimulus as rapidly as possible. These in turn derive from a short attention span. The question then is whether consuming culture designed for people with short attention spans can actually produce a short attention span. Or is A.D.D. not something our environment has inflicted on us.


This point of view gives a new cast to a meme that already sounds creepy and ominous—the onset of the “attention economy.” It feels as though we have less and less attention to give, as our surroundings become hypermediated, and worse, the scarcity of attention reinforces itself. Attention ceases to be a renewable resource.


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Sunday, Jan 6, 2008


I’m not sure if other film critics have it, but I know I do. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but then again, I can’t imagine that it’s completely my fault. I’ve met other people outside the journalistic community who definitely possess it, and for the most part, they have learned to live with. I too have discovered a way to balance its oppressive, off putting aspects with the rigors of what I do, but it can be a burden of unfathomable difficulty. You see, I suffer from what’s known as ‘The 10 Minute Curse’. What this means is that, in 99 cases out of 100, I can tell if a movie is going to excel or suck within the first 10 minutes of it unraveling on the screen (theatrical or TV). It almost never fails, and it really is a pain in the as…aesthetic.


From what I understand, it comes from a lifetime as a film fan coupled with a sudden burial in and barrage of the artform. For the last six years, I’ve spent my days mired in movies. Some weeks I’ve watched up to a dozen DVDs, and during awards season, it’s not unusual to attend seven or eight screenings in a scant five days. Conservatively, I’ve seen about 3000 films in a little less than 67 months. Doing the math, that’s just under 45 per month. Using the standard 4.5 week measure, that comes to about nine every seven days. Argh! And when you add in my college days, when going to the student union and catching a double feature was a daily doped up occurrence, along with the rest of my Cinephile status, I’m a perfect candidate for time tainting, as we sufferers sometimes call it.


You see, the brain is a baffling thing. It makes connections and sees similarities and synchronicity even when our conscious mind misses it. Over the course of a couple of decades, the mental chemistry gets shifted, creating a kind of celluloid dementia. It can happen with music too - I have an old friend who’s been part of the business for decades, and his curse is so refined now that he can today tell if a song is a hit or a miss in under 15 SECONDS. Because film contains facets that can temporarily circumvent your curse, 10 stands as most fatalities’ median mark. For some, it can take much longer. Those with times under have been known to freak out and find solace in a life spent in quiet contemplation - or in a sanitarium straight jacket.


In essence, the menacing motion picture mojo works like this: you sit down in your favorite recliner/assigned stadium seat, favorite beverage/overpriced theater snack close at hand. As the previews pass by and the anticipation draws near, the synapses in your head start switching over into preprogrammed predetermination mode. An actor’s name can trigger it, as can a specific genre (horror, CGI kid flick), or storyline (dysfunctional family attempts to reconcile). Soon, before the first image has been viewed, the mind’s eye is mirroring a hundred previous viewings and thousands of similar titles. As the opening unfolds, conclusions are being calculated, similarities are being sought out and shelved, and levels of predictability and possibility are ordered, defined, and prepped.


Then, right around 9:59, it strikes. It’s a sad, sinking feeling - even if the final formulation indicates that the movie is going to turn out good, or even great. Part of the magic of movies lies in the ability to be surprised and swept up in a world where you’re unsure of what’s going to happen next. But the 10 Minute Curse robs one of said discovery. It’s like a little voice in the back of your head whispering “I told you so” over and over again - and you don’t even know what the comments are referencing, at least not yet. Then, when the film finishes and ephemeral opinion proves correct, part of the pleasure simply dies inside you.


Let’s take a couple of recent examples. As I settled in my seat waiting for National Treasure: Book of Secrets to start, I recalled my minor appreciation of the original film. While Nicholas Cage has always been an odd action star choice, the historical hooey passing itself off as modern archeological swagger had some relatively enjoyable moments. But the sequel - silly, stagy, and slapped together in a manner that simply screams “created by committee” had me convinced it was going to underachieve from the moment Riley lost his beloved red Jaguar - and there was still over two hours to go. Imagine the distress of sitting in a theater, seats filled with entitlement minded freebie ticket holders, knowing that nothing you could do would improve the unspooling spectacle before you.


On the other hand, there’s been a lot of jawing about Juno, especially among critics who feel the film is all tween/You Tube pseudo Tarantino preening. Many of the arguments, while slightly overwrought, remain well reasoned and quite passionate. So approaching the studio provided Oscar screener with some trepidation, I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed it - and at the moment when a pro-Life protester convinced our heroine that fetuses have fingernails, I realized that the haters were hopelessly misguided. While not the major Oscar fodder championed by any far stretch of the imagination, Ellen Page’s excellent work and Jason Reitman’s whipsmart direction made the experience evocative and memorable. The only downside was that I knew this was going to be the case 80 minutes before the final verdict came in.


I feel lucky that this is a recent occurrence. Back when Miller’s Crossing first floored me, or I recognized 2001: A Space Odyssey as the greatest film of all time, it would have been horrible to have those epiphanies marred by the curse. Of course, it would have been nice to be so cosmically clued in when certified stink bombs like Battlefield Earth or Batman and Robin came calling. On the one hand, being bothered by such a stigma can be conceived as a blessing in disguise. In an environment where deadlines loom, workloads double, and demands battle expectations for continued career viability, knowing a turkey within a scant few scenes seems a critical godsend. Yet, in order to be completely fair, to make sure one’s not relying on the otherworldly guidance time and time again, a reviewer has to reject the curse and work twice as hard to combat it’s influence. A good critic, that is.


Take the case of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. This nauseating little cinematic turd, based (badly) on the real life case of tortured and murdered teen Sylvia Likens (killed by her certifiably psycho guardian Gertrude Baniszewski) tries to get away with an air of amiable nostalgia countered with hints at the horrors beneath the surface. It wants to be Blue Velvet with a sickening swatch of pedophilia soiling the storyline. Viewed on DVD, it tricked the curse for a while, keeping the final outcome in question for more than 80 complicated minutes. But then, when the final act proved nothing more than one adult’s uninspired mea culpa and callous cry for attention, the obvious heinousness heretofore hidden landed like a big steamy motion picture pile. It practically made you ashamed for previously drinking the celluloid Kool-Aid.


Then there’s Joshua. Your typical evil kid doing horrendous things that only the post-modern Bad Seed could possibly conceive of thriller, the slow pacing and deliberate plotting from co-writer/director George Ratliff and scribe David Gilbert threaten to invert and implode on viewer contact. As the movie meanders, dragging both logic and intelligence through the brazen brat genre run of the mill, we can’t imagine that anything good will result. The curse clamors for attention, already rendering its decision, and yet the film won’t finalize the assessment. Then the title character launches into a haunting little last minute ditty, complete with condemning lyrics and a montage loaded with exposed secrets, and the blithering blight disappears. Suddenly, the already acknowledged dullness transforms into a begrudging admiration, and a flop finds a way to save itself.


Still, it’s important to note that this really is not a benefit, nor is it ever used as an unearned shortcut to getting one’s ever present work done. It is truly a curse, a stinging little personal pain that permeates the pleasure of cinema and robs the sufferer of the medium’s majesty. It’s like never getting comfortable in your seat, or that constant car alarm that goes off while the neighbors are away. You hope it doesn’t happen, and yet it never really leaves. Sure, some films (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood) are so rock solid that it doesn’t feel the need to arrive, while others announce their awfulness (Norbit, Shrek the Third) so early that a hasty conclusion actually acts like an afterthought. So remember, the next time you’re grooving on your favorite film and the DVD counter clicks over onto 10:00, somewhere in the artform universe, there is a critic enjoying the very same title - and their fun has just fallen into formula. Consider yourself lucky.


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