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by Rob Horning

24 Jun 2009

Here’s something suited to Nicholas Carr’s Realtime Chronicles, from a chapter near the end of New Grub Street. Failed author and up-and-coming literary agent Whelpdale presents his idea for a new journal to his friend, the cynical hack journalist Milvain and his sister.

‘I want to find a capitalist,’ he said, ‘who will get possession of that paper Chat, and transform it according to an idea I have in my head. The thing is doing very indifferently, but I am convinced it might be made splendid property, with a few changes in the way of conducting it.’

‘The paper is rubbish,’ remarked Jasper, ‘and the kind of rubbish—oddly enough—which doesn’t attract people.’

‘Precisely, but the rubbish is capable of being made a very valuable article, if it were only handled properly. I have talked to the people about it again and again, but I can’t get them to believe what I say. Now just listen to my notion. In the first place, I should slightly alter the name; only slightly, but that little alteration would in itself have an enormous effect. Instead of Chat I should call it Chit-Chat!’

Jasper exploded with mirth.

‘That’s brilliant!’ he cried. ‘A stroke of genius!’

‘Are you serious? Or are you making fun of me? I believe it is a stroke of genius. Chat doesn’t attract anyone, but Chit-Chat would sell like hot cakes, as they say in America. I know I am right; laugh as you will.’

‘On the same principle,’ cried Jasper, ‘if The Tatler were changed to Tittle-Tattle, its circulation would be trebled.’

Whelpdale smote his knee in delight.

‘An admirable idea! Many a true word uttered in joke, and this is an instance! Tittle- Tattle—a magnificent title; the very thing to catch the multitude.’

Dora was joining in the merriment, and for a minute or two nothing but bursts of laughter could be heard.

‘Now do let me go on,’ implored the man of projects, when the noise subsided. ‘That’s only one change, though a most important one. What I next propose is this:—I know you will laugh again, but I will demonstrate to you that I am right. No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs.’

‘Superb!’

‘But you are joking, Mr Whelpdale!’ exclaimed Dora.

‘No, I am perfectly serious. Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on ‘buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information—bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.’

Jasper had begun to listen seriously.

‘There’s something in this, Whelpdale,’ he remarked.

‘Ha! I have caught you?’ cried the other delightedly. ‘Of course there’s something in it?’

‘But——’ began Dora, and checked herself.

‘You were going to say——’ Whelpdale bent towards her with deference.

‘Surely these poor, silly people oughtn’t to be encouraged in their weakness.’

Whelpdale’s countenance fell. He looked ashamed of himself. But Jasper came speedily to the rescue.

‘That’s twaddle, Dora. Fools will be fools to the world’s end. Answer a fool according to his folly; supply a simpleton with the reading he craves, if it will put money in your pocket. You have discouraged poor Whelpdale in one of the most notable projects of modern times.’

‘I shall think no more of it,’ said Whelpdale, gravely. ‘You are right, Miss Dora.’

Again Jasper burst into merriment. His sister reddened, and looked uncomfortable. She began to speak timidly:

‘You said this was for reading in trains and ‘buses?’

Whelpdale caught at hope.

‘Yes. And really, you know, it may be better at such times to read chit-chat than to be altogether vacant, or to talk unprofitably. I am not sure; I bow to your opinion unreservedly.’

‘So long as they only read the paper at such times,’ said Dora, still hesitating. ‘One knows by experience that one really can’t fix one’s attention in travelling; even an article in a newspaper is often too long.’

‘Exactly! And if you find it so, what must be the case with the mass of untaught people, the quarter-educated? It might encourage in some of them a taste for reading—don’t you think?’

‘It might,’ assented Dora, musingly. ‘And in that case you would be doing good!’

‘Distinct good!’

They smiled joyfully at each other. Then Whelpdale turned to Jasper:

‘You are convinced that there is something in this?’

‘Seriously, I think there is. It would all depend on the skill of the fellows who put the thing together every week. There ought always to be one strongly sensational item—we won’t call it article. For instance, you might display on a placard: “What the Queen eats!” or “How Gladstone’s collars are made!”—things of that kind.’

‘To be sure, to be sure. And then, you know,’ added Whelpdale, glancing anxiously at Dora, ‘when people had been attracted by these devices, they would find a few things that were really profitable. We would give nicely written little accounts of exemplary careers, of heroic deeds, and so on. Of course nothing whatever that could be really demoralising—cela va sans dire.’


So Gissing was onto the idea for USA Today, the free Metro papers, and Twitter all at once, and anticipated the attention-span critique of modern reading habits.Technophiles would point to this probably and argue that it shows that critiques have ever complained thus, and have always been irrelevant alarmists. But I think it shows the inherent tendency of technology toward co-opting our ability to think, which after all can be such an enormous burden to us.

by Robert W. Butler / McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

24 Jun 2009

By now you’ve probably yawned through Bride Wars and Paul Blart and wondered if there’s hope for your DVD player. It’s time to look beyond the blockbusters to find cool movies for hot summer nights. Yes, some of these recommendations are heavy dramas; some even have subtitles. So expand your horizons already.

MILK
Who’s in it: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco

Why rent it: Oscar-winner Penn gives one of his greatest performances as the late gay rights leader Harvey Milk. The story tackles a big panorama and finds personal stories that touch, inform and inspire.

by Bill Gibron

23 Jun 2009

At this point in his career, Michael Bay has one of two options. He can toss aside all his wannabe Spielberg shtick, lower the gig-normous size of his budgets, and deliver a small, carefully constructed comedy/drama about authentic characters in real world situations. He can tone down the bravado and actually dig deep into the psyche of another human being for once, without all the fireworks and falderal. Or he can just keep blowing shit up. Looking at his recent example of trumped up testosterone as talent, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, he may not have a future in superficial pyrotechnics after all. Sloppy, incomprehensible, and louder than a dozen megaton bombs, this senseless shoot ‘em up is all bark and only negligible entertainment bite. When it comes to retro-nuclear bombast, we expect more from Bay. This time, however, he goes way too far.

It’s been two years since Sam Witwicky uncovered the existence of alien robots on planet Earth, and while the Autobots have agreed to help the US military with their containment and clean-up crusade, the dwindling Decepticons have been plotting ways to resurrect their beloved leader Megatron from a watery ocean grave. Help comes in the metal persona of The Fallen, an ancient being whose been looking to destroy the planet for centuries. Locked in his extraterrestrial orbit, he needs a piece of the All Spark to start his sun-killing conquest. While he tries to attend college, Sam becomes an unwitting cerebral storage unit for the cube’s considerable knowledge. This also makes he, and his cross-country gal pal Mikaela prime targets for the evil entities from another world. Hoping to avoid the Decepticons, Sam relies on Optimus Prime and the government to keep him safe. When they both fail him, it’s off to find former Sector 7 Agent Simmons. With his help, he might be able to find the long lost Matrix, resurrect his hero, and save mankind once again.

If you ever wondered what a movie would look like geared toward the underdeveloped brain of a gestating zygote, if you think elements like plot, characterization, and logic just get in the way of your mandatory (over)dose of eye candy, then Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is the insipid illustration you’ve been waiting for. This is junk as justification, the mandatory sequel that feels less like a follow-up and more like a purposeful attempt to wipe the previous film off the face of the Earth. Within its incessantly long running time (as another critic pointed out, just 10 minutes under 2001) and overreliance on special effects is a philosophy so wrongheaded, so antithetical to what we believe is decent popcorn entertainment, that it practically asks to be smacked around. While it’s doubtful, here’s hoping the general public wises up to this waste of time and opens up a can of flopsweat whoop-ass on this atrocious turd. 

There are so many things wrong with this movie that to discuss them at length would be pointless. Instead, a Hall of Shame checklist is probably more effective. In no particular order, we get: humping dogs; crying robots; pot brownies; robot slobber; tired tech geeks; female Terminator-lite; American Chopper, Megan Fox style; machine scrotums; John Turturro as a tortured mama’s boy; Prime gods; yet another ineffectual DC bureaucrat; Borscht Belt level jokes; indistinguishable desert mayhem; wussed out BMOC; and the most racially insensitive sidekick characters ever in the history of cinematic spectacle (take that, Jar-Jar George). That’s right, someone decided to invite Leroy and Skillet to the 2009 PC party, and these despicable little examples of big budget bigotry make the famed Dolemite comedy team look like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by comparison. It’s not just the jive-talk and cultural clichés (gold teeth? On a machine?). Buried within the ebonics is a litany of inflammatory ethnic fallacies that do nothing but denigrate and defile.

Even the action scenes, Bay’s purported strong point, are (rare) hit and miss. The movie starts out strapping, a city crushing cruise through Shanghai establishing the entire Autobots/Army connection. But things go rapidly downhill as we spend way too much time with Shia LaBeouf’s sitcom slapstick family. They make Jerry Lewis look subtle. Another stellar sequence set in a surrounding forest pays off in some edge of the seat thrills. But toward the middle, when Bay and his scriptwriting rejects have to basically tie in twenty differing narrative threads, the life is literally sucked out of the film. It’s at this point where the director starts channeling his previous canon, lifting moments from Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and Bad Boys, as if dealing with giant battling robots was just not enough. Indeed, what Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen needs is more Robot Jox like stand-offs. We come to a film like this to actually SEE the machine on machine spectacle, not try and interpret it from inside a blur of editing and extreme close-up conniptions.

This is not to say that this seemingly unnecessary sequel won’t placate the faithful. Anyone with an actual jones for bigger and badder Transformer travails will feel their wavering attention spans rewarded. This is all polish and presentation, plasticized cheese painted in the grandest of studio supported patinas. It’s all go, Go, GO!!! There is never a moment to catch one’s breath, to drink in the proposed grandeur of man and massive shapeshifting alien machine co-existing and artfully interacting. There is no sense of scope, no awe-inspiring concept of the epic or the magical. Instead, we are stuck inside Bay’s adolescent fantasies, a place where all women are willing, all guys are dork champions, and all evil is vanquished by that most simplistic of moves - the convoluted script rewrite. Nothing makes sense here, but that’s not important for true fans of this material. They just want Bay to blow shit up - and blow it he does.

For some, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen remains critic proof. It’s the kind of hotwired celluloid crack that keeps the mainstream mesmerized by its pre-natal tendencies for colorful shapes and shiny objects. It’s like a rotten carrot covered in glitter being dangled in front of a dead mule - somehow, it makes sense, but on closer inspection, it’s kind of cruel…and definitely insane. With the amount of money waiting overseas for an easy to translate slice of hackwork Americana, we will most likely be seeing another alien gearhead grudge match a few summers from now. If the Go-Bots are indeed the K-Mart of Transformers, then this film translation of the toy is its Dollar Store sales pitch. Michael Bay may never make that minor character study, but one thing is clear. In the history of half-baked blockbusters, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is raw and runny.

by PopMatters Staff

23 Jun 2009

Wheat
White Ink, Black Ink
(The Rebel Group)
Releasing: 21 July 2009 (US/UK)

SONG LIST
01 Half of the Time
02 Changes Is
03 My Warning Song
04 El Sincero
05 Living to Die
06 If Everything Falls
07 Music Is Drugs
08 Coke and Tanqueray
09 Two Mountains
10 I Want Less
11 Baby in My Way

Wheat
“Half of the Time” [MP3]
     

by Rob Horning

23 Jun 2009

More on conspiracy mongering. Coming up with conspiracy theories is a pathological way of dealing with too much information (which threatens to bury us, confront us with our utter insignificance), with often strikingly inventive and ingenious results. But perhaps more often, the results are pernicious and hateful, prompting deranged people to commit crimes in the name of their disturbed theories. If the hypothesis that conspiracies derive from stunted creative energy with no socially sanctioned outlet holds, would creating these theories provide an outlet for such people’s unstable pent-up energy, their alienation and feelings of powerlessness? Does it help them let off steam, defusing the danger they otherwise represent? Or do the theories necessarily harden them in their madness, providing justification to go further, to act, to murder a bunch of celebrities on Cielo Drive, or a guard at the Holocaust Museum. 

This article by Mark Oppenheimer, the first of a series, (via the Atlantic’s Ideas blog) promises to investigate what drives Holocaust deniers to reject history in favor of nebulous and despised conspiracy theories. The first installment contains this remarkable exchange between the author and Bradley Smith, a 79-year-old Holocaust denier.

Once we were both seated at the coffee shop, I tried to ask Smith about possible flaws in the works of great Holocaust historians.
“You’ve read all the standard accounts,” I asked, “like Lucy Dawidowicz and Raul Hilberg?”
“Yeah,” Smith said, “that’s what I started with, I read Hilberg. I didn’t read them very closely. Because I’m not really interested in the history of the period.”
I was a little shocked. “I mean, you read Lucy Dawidowicz’s book on the period? You read David Wyman?”
“Not thoroughly,” Smith said. “Wyman, I didn’t read. He came a bit too late.”
I was astounded. “But that’s kind of amazing, right? Because here are these classic works of Holocaust literature that purport to show it all and you say you haven’t read them closely. So you have read Arthur Butz, who’s a nobody in the field, closely, but you haven’t read the great titans in the field closely?” 
“You know what? I’m not interested in the story,” he replied. “Revisionists have written very detailed documents about the holes—”
“So what are you interested in?”
“In a free exchange of ideas.”
“But you aren’t interested in trying to find out which ideas are right?”
“Not particularly. You know what I’m really interested in? Every generation has its taboo, and I happen to be here with this taboo. I happen to be here with this one. And I can see how it’s exploited, and who benefits from the exploitation.”

Smith wants to reason backward to some crazy version of the “truth” by starting with the bad incentives of supposed “exploiters” of history, all while regarding history itself as insignificant. But if history doesn’t matter, what is even at stake? As he says, the “free exchange of ideas,” but what that really means is his freedom to be recognized as different in a culture that seems to encourage sameness and at times projects images of a homogeneous people all believing the same things. (“The Nazis were evil.” “Everybody loves the Beatles.”) It’s a grandiose way of signaling resistance to the normative culture of our time (to borrow a phrase Amitai Etzioni uses in this TNR article). What is at stake for him in his Holocaust denial is not history at all or even his urge to disseminate anti-Semitic propaganda. Rather, it’s nothing other than his own reputation as a stalwart nonconformist. Holocaust denial ends up seeming like the extreme version of hating Coldplay because they are popular.

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