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by Allison Taich

28 Sep 2009

In 1984, the Talking Heads’ release of Stop Making Sense floored critics and fans alike, securing a place in music history as one of the greatest documentaries and performances captured on film. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker described it as “a dose of happiness from beginning to end.” Now, 25 years later, the film is being re-released on Blu-ray by Palm Pictures, on October 13th.

The film was directed by Jonathan Demme, and filmed over a period of three separate performances at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, in December of 1983. As the concert progresses, the complexity of the music and presentation grows. There are few cutaways and no interviews; the audience doesn’t even appear until the end. The film is focused around the music and the eccentric talents that created it.

Its 1999 DVD release included an audio commentary with Demme and all four band members, David Byrne’s storyboards and notes, bonus songs, Byrne’s self-interview video, text notes and the film’s trailer. The Blu-ray features the same extras as the DVD, plus a never-before-seen, hour-long press conference with the full band, filmed in 1999 at the film’s theatrical re-release.

With an enhanced visual and audio experience, Stop Making Sense is sure to inspire you to throw on an over-sized suit and frantically dance about.

by Tyler Gould

28 Sep 2009

This post is about a video game, but I implore even the non-gamers among us to pay attention, because The Shivah, though it first came out in 2006, is still in a class of its own. You can see right on the cover art that it’s a “rabbinical adventure of mourning and mystery”, which you generally won’t find at your local game dealer. The Shivah is normally a scant $4.99, and is of such a high caliber that it almost feels wrong to take it for free, but Lincolns can be hard to come by these days, and the man (developer Dave Gilbert) is just giving it away.  Go here before midnight tonight and use the coupon code “FreeShivah” to obtain one of the more notable indie games of the past few years.

by PopMatters Staff

28 Sep 2009

Apricot Rail
Apricot Rail
(Hidden Shoal Recordings)
Releasing: out now

Most instrumental rock suggests the apocalypse is coming. If it is, Apricot Rail are too busy crafting beautiful lilting melodies to care. This Australian quintet have the charm, humour and songwriting nous—and a killer live show—to re-ignite anyone’s belief in music’s subtle, giddy powers.

“The album’s (and arguably the band’s) crowning achievement has to be ‘The Parachute Failure’—it’s spine-tinglingly anthemic and really leaps out at the listener. It so beautifully epitomises the band’s key strengths, as evidenced throughout this remarkable debut—powerful and emotive melodies that engage through the push and pull of delicate restraint and blissful abandon In a word: lovely.” –- Drum Media (CD of the Week).

01 A Public Space
02 If You Can’t Join Them, Beat Them
03 Trout Fishing In Australia
04 Pouring Milk Out the Window (Single)
05 Car Crash
06 Wadnama
07 Rain Falls on Your Nose, It’s Red From the Cold
08 The Parachute Failure
09 On the Trolley
10 Halfway House

Apricot Rail
“The Parachute Failure” [MP3]

Photo: Tom Cramond

Photo: Tom Cramond

by Nikki Tranter

28 Sep 2009

Grant felt himself exposed in no man’s land. There was no avenue of retreat and the enemy was invisible and unassailable. His supports had been dissipated, his arms were lost. He could not even burrow into the ground to hide.

It’s perhaps a rite of passage for any Australian reader to endure Wake in Fright, the 1961 condemnation by Kenneth Cook of the outback and its inhabitants. It’s harsh, unsettling, a new (at the time) insight into the coastal vs. inland cultural disparities inherent in the so-called Australian way of life.

In the novel, John Grant, a Sydney-sider unhappily teaching primary schoolers in an outback town 1200 miles inland and consisting of little more than a pub and a railway station, is excited to be heading back to the coast for a six-week holiday. His journey home involves a stop-over in Bundanyabba, a small town in the middle of nowhere, yet with pubs, hotels, people, enough to get by. Happy to check out the local scene for his one night in town, Grant hits the pubs – confident, content, ready for his break to begin. And then, on a gambling whim, Grant loses everything. He finds himself trapped in this outback wasteland the locals call the ‘Yabba.

Grant, we learn early on, deplores the outback lifestyle, and the people that, by choice, populate and thrive within it. Soon, though, reliance on those people becomes his only means of survival. But at what cost? Grant’s ‘Yabba stay becomes a trek into his own personal hell – educated and well-to-do, Grant soon finds himself shooting ‘roos, drinking endless slabs of beer, skinning his own wildlife catches for food, and contemplating what to do with the last remaining bullet in his rifle – the gun a gift of the locals.

It’s a wonderful set up – stranger in a strange land goes to extremes to get by, discovers his weaknesses, battles his demons while flailing in hell. And Cook puts Grant through the wringer. It’d be giving too much away to describe exactly what fun amounts to for the local ‘Yabba yobbos who befriend Grant on his second night in town. Grant’s most horrific experiences, though, occur in the company of Doc Tydon, an educated man rather like Grant himself, an incongruity central to the book’s themes of class and culture, freedom and choice. Tydon is aware of Grant’s outback prejudice, and stirs up the snobbery in him whenever he can, cleverly using it to draw Grant into some seriously awful undertakings.  Grant endures it all; ultimate desperation, you know, can make us do crazy things.

The book is a rite of passage because it’s a view into a different part of Aussie life, the other, other side of the Sun, Sand, and Surf mystique. Or even the croc-hunter, man on the land ideal. It’s key, though, the distinction Cook makes between those lifestyles, and how so many of us don’t experience those other sides, at least not fully enough to grasp the customs of each. As a rural dweller most of my life, I can’t claim to know the first thing about the surf culture in Sydney or the fun park paradise of coastal Queensland. I’m as lost as Grant in such places. On the other side, too, I’ve smiled to myself at the awkwardness of the city dweller in the sticks.

These distinctions aren’t specific to Australia; everywhere has its Otherness – north and south, east and west, city and country. Cook’s observations of these differences in this country give his book authenticity. He gleaned much as a journo in rural Broken Hill, the town on which Bundanyabba is said to be based. Grant, for instance, is consistently surprised when men offer to buy him beers – this is the ultimate favour in outback Oz, and Grant feels he owes these men who give and give for no reason other than to quench another man’s thirst (one of his first mistakes).

And when Grant, drunk or tired or just plain full refuses the offer, his refusal is met with disdain. Country folks, apparently, take a refusal to be bought a beer as the ultimate dismissal. I laughed at this notion because it’s so, so true. But while the book aptly describes the isolation and inwardness of such communities, it is still a dramatization in the extreme. As a rural Australian, it’s difficult not to want to defend the tight-knit-ness of such a community, and the informal approach to, well, everything, as a sign, perhaps, of a freer existence, not a stupid one that knows no better. Or perhaps, I just don’t want to know if the outback indeed has such power to utterly destroy a man and his sensibilities. Everyone’s version of hell is their own, I guess.

Still, the book managed to scare me – I finished it the day before a scheduled flight across that mighty expanse from southern Melbourne up to Darwin, at its tippy-top. With no idea what to expect from that rural city smack bang in its own middle of nowhere, I wondered what I might do if my friends didn’t collect me from the airport, if somehow I left my bag on a bar counter as I once did with my Passport in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. What would I do? Where would I go? I’d figure it out, no doubt, after a beer or two… Someone’d get the tab, that I know for sure.

Wake in Fright was originally published in 1961, and was reissued in June by Text Publishing to coincide with the re-release of the 1971 film version directed by Ted Kotcheff.

by Rob Horning

28 Sep 2009

Steve Waldman has a great post about the Consumer Finance Protection Act, which has just had what’s known as the “vanilla” provisions taken out of it—these are the no-frills straightforward financial products (think 30-year fixed-rate mortgages and low-interest, low-fee credit cards) that banks would have been required to provide alongside of the complicated hidden-option-laden mortgages and the teaser rate cards and all that other junk for suckers who can’t understand financial trickery, i.e. just about everyone. As Waldman explains, the market for financial products is rife with information problems. Consumers don’t understand the market but are compelled to enter into anyway if they want to live “the American dream” of owning a house, just like the hegemonic ideology insists we should.

Consumers know they are at a disadvantage when transacting with banks, and do not believe that reputational constraints or internal controls offer sufficient guarantee of fair-dealing. Status quo financial services should be a classic “lemons” problem, a no-trade equilibrium. Unfortunately, those models of no-trade equilibria don’t take into account that people sometimes really need the products they cannot intelligently buy, and so tolerate large rent extractions if they must in order to transact.
The price of assuring that one is not taken advantage of by financial service providers is not participating in the modern economy. You cannot have a job, because payments are by check or direct deposit. You cannot buy a home or a car, because for the vast majority, those purchases require financing. Try travelling with only cash for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals. People will “voluntarily” participate in markets rigged against them for the privilege of being normal. And we do, every day.

This is a lot like the health care market, in which consumers are procuring a service about which they must defer to the expert they are procuring it from, trusting that their ethics are sound.

With a vanilla option in place, consumers would able to take some solace that they weren’t being exploited, that instead they would pay a fair, explicit cost for a loan rather than being taken advantage of. Waldman:

Instead of tolerating rent-extraction as a cost of participation, consumers put up with one-size-fits-all products in exchange for peace of mind. Most consumers benefit very little from exotic product features, and I suspect that many are made deeply nervous by the complex contracts they can neither negotiate nor understand, but nevertheless must sign. Vanilla financial products would be extensively vetted and and their characteristics would soon become widely known. Inevitable malfunctions would be loudly discussed in the halls of Congress, rather than hushed-up in rigged private arbitrations. Vanilla products would face discipline both from private markets (no one is suggesting we forbid other flavors) and from a very public political process. Politics and markets are both deeply flawed, but they are flawed in different ways, and we should take advantage of that.

The rationale for a public option in health care is similar—a simple insurance plan that sets a base line that assures that individuals are reasonably covered and won’t be denied coverage when they need it on a technicality. If you want more elaborate coverage, you can do the research and get it. But if you want what has been deemed the basic acceptable standard (with the government protecting you from exploitation) without wading into the intricacies of the insurance market, you can do that too. Of course, if you think government is always the villain and has some incentive in exploiting you, you might be wary of this. But you still have the ability to go the for-profit route if you believe that will guarantee better service.

As Waldman says about the vanilla financial products, “Rather than being anti-market, vanilla financial products would help correct very clear market failures that arise from imperfect information and high search costs. It is the status quo that is anti-market.” The status quo protects the information asymmetries that allow banks and insurance companies to extract rents—that is, earn money simply by being pitiless gate-keepers or by locking people into non-optimal contracts with hidden fees and options that can be exercised against them. With a vanilla option (or public option), as Waldman explains, there is a “commoditized” offering that forces more overt competition from providers (or more unmistakable collusion otherwise). It forces a market for “ostentatious simplicity” as Waldman calls it—forces banks to compete on providing the simplest product for customers craving simplicity. Currently banks have no incentive to do this; it’s more lucrative to take advantage of customers’ confusion. (The same is true of health insurance, and cell-phone service to some degree as well.)

Some might complain that vanilla options incentivize ignorance, or at least remove the penalties for it. It may remove advantages that savvy consumers might be able to take advantage of at the expense of their fellow citizens. But is that the kind of society we want? Personally, I don’t. I don’t want to save a few bucks on my check-ups while other people die of swine flu.

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