Latest Blog Posts

by Rob Horning

15 Oct 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.”

by Ryan Smith

14 Oct 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.

by Rob Horning

14 Oct 2008

This Economist article updates the music business’s evolving relationship with the subscription model, in which users could have all the music they wanted indiscriminately, as long as they paid a regular fee. For a while it has seemed to me that such a model was inevitable, given the ease of digital distribution and the fact that music can no longer be played without being, in a sense, copied. But reading this article I started to wonder how it’s possible for record companies to compete with each other if all their goods are available for one lump sum. I suppose the intermediaries who run the subscription service would track which songs were acquired and pay the companies accordingly, or one would need to subscribe to each record companies library individually, in which case it would be easier to go on pirating.

But overall, does the existence of all-you-can-eat subscription services eliminate the record companies’ incentive to pick and choose the best music to try and sell? Can’t they overwhelm us with quantity rather than work for quality, since we end up getting it all anyway? It seems like the fruits of A&R efforts accrue to the artists themselves, who can leverage their brand better, rather than the companies themselves. I wonder if the record companies, recognizing the hopelessness of their moribund business, will effectively give up, become a cabal that collects residuals on its past accomplishments—just collect the steady income that can be had leasing the use rights to recorded music, 1900 to 2008.

Of course, someone will have to take over the promotional duties for pop music, otherwise it will cease to perform its function of uniting people in the excitement of hype and giving fresh and relevant-seeming expression to common and quotidian feelings. Not sure if individual bands will be up to it, given their tradition of fueling their fires by complaining about commercialism, though they will learn if they want to make money. But maybe if we are lucky, the world will revert to a culture of amateurism with regard to music.

by Nikki Tranter

14 Oct 2008

His book is the best of the lot, and so is his smile. Just look at Aravind Adiga. He’s the second youngest Man Booker Prize winner, so states the Guardian, but can we make him the first cutest? A happy man with a bright future who’s entirely unafraid to show some teeth—it’s that face that makes me want to go out and grab his book. That and his passion for his subject ... of course.

Adiga, who’s just 33, won the prize for his first novel The White Tiger, about an Indian cab driver who winds up a swindling businessman. Over at Untitled Books, Adiga fires up about his home country and the issues and injustices that led him to write the novel. Here’s a sample:

What is important for Adiga is that the stories are told. Having the advantages of education and financial security is merely ‘an extra obligation to write about people without those benefits’. Repeatedly described as angry by the press, he counters ‘there is a lot to be angry about.’ He returns again and again to the big questions of education, healthcare (hospitals are ‘mind-bogglingly bad’) and legal protection, and he has been accused of betraying his country by focusing on India’s corruption and problems. ‘I can’t see what could be more patriotic than making a passionate plea for the better treatment of two thirds of my countrymen,’ he retorts. His anxiety to protect his country is palpable and his great fear is that crime and social unrest will explode to South African proportions unless reforms are carried out.

The Mail Online has a great and detailed story about Adiga and his work. There’s a wonderful interview with the author on Book Browse, in which he discusses his influences, his career in journalism, and India’s difficult future.

And a basic Google Image search will get you more pictures of that smile.

The White Tiger is published by Free Press.

by Bill Gibron

14 Oct 2008

Some horror movies can live solely on their carefully crafted hype. Others actually deliver the goods the studio staged ballyhoo promises. And then there is Pieces. Back in 1982, distributors desperate to continue the coattail ride started with Halloween and Friday the 13th took the Spanish splatter film Mil gritos tiene la noche (“The Night Has a Thousand Cries”, roughly), renamed it, and added the intriguing tagline “You Don’t Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre!” With a final carnival barker punchline - “It’s exactly what you think it is.” - the results were unleashed on an unwitting world.

Thanks to VHS and the thriving home video market, the sleazoid shocker became an instant cult classic. The question remains, however, does the movie match the marketing - or is this just another case of carefully chosen words speaking a heckuva lot louder than the action on the screen. The storyline is dead simple. We are introduced to a young boy, tormented mercilessly by his blousy whore of a mother. After a particularly gruesome showdown, we flash forward forty years. On a small college campus, young girls are being viciously vivisected by an unseen killer. Using a chainsaw to carve up the bodies, the police are baffled by the murders.

Detective Lt. Bracken (a nicely cheesy Christopher George) hopes to crack the case with a two fold approach. First, he will elicit the help of student Kendall James (Pod People‘s Ian Sera) to snoop among the student body. This BMOC knows all the angles - and the ladies. Secondly, seasoned cop and star tennis pro Mary Riggs (Lynda Day) will go undercover as one of the faculty. This will allow her greater access to suspects like groundskeeper Willard (Paul L. Smith, with Lawrence Tierney’s voice) and the slightly fey Professor Brown (Jack Taylor). As the body count rises, Bracken grows desperate. Apparently, the murdered is making some kind of trophy out of the ‘pieces’ of his victims…and he’s almost done.

Pieces is the kind of fright film that sneaks up on you. It is really nothing more than your standard slasher effort with a chainsaw doing all the slice and dice (well, there are a couple of knife kills thrown in for good massacre measure). Director Juan Piquer Simón digs deep into his fellow Europeans bag of terror tricks and comes up trumps more times than not. The opening is an obvious homage to Dario Argento’s classic Profundo Rosso, down to the deadly dynamic between parent and child. Once we move to modern times, Lucio Fulci’s full bore gore conceit comes into play. While most of the killings occur off camera, their nasty results get full view visits. Even the ending is unrelenting, delivering not one, or two, but THREE false jolts.

As with much of the Mediterranean macabre geared toward Western audiences, Christopher George gives his Cheshire Cat capped grin a good workout as Bracken. While not as active here as he is in such gems as City of the Living Dead, The Exterminator, and Mortuary, he provides the necessary despotic smugness that makes these movies work. Bracken has to be self assured and clueless, otherwise, the villain’s reveal gets shortchanged. Sure, we see who the bad man is almost immediately, but the cops have to fumble a bit before pulling out their pistols. Similarly, then wife Lynda Day is nothing more than eye candy, reduced at 38 to playing pseudo-paramour for the wispy lothario Sera. 

And speaking of Kendall, it is clear that Simón sees him as the calm within the monster movie maelstrom. Instantly cast off the isle of suspicion, he gets to hit on Day, act as an inspector substitute, emote over various F/X corpses, and show off his larger than average “assets” during a laughable love scene. For fans of the unflappable Mystery Science Theater 3000, seeing the musical prick Rick running around san shorts may explain his angry male animal arrogance. But as a romantic lead, he’s rather limited. According to IMDb Sera’s career was also rather short lived. What started in 1979 was soon over five years later. Google offers up a similar overview.

Even with the cast’s uneven facets, Pieces manages to work. It’s a shame that so much talent takes a backseat to naked babes being butchered. Smith, fresh from playing Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye, does little except smirk and speak like a certain Joe Cabot. Crusty Dean Edmund Purdom has to get by on clipped British courtesy and a nasty five o’clock shadow. Thanks to the dubbing - everyone’s voice is redone (even if it was their own in the end), as was the standard for most import productions - Pieces takes on an amplified exploitation feel. We sense this is a movie that will do almost anything, including substitute actor accents, to get its gruesome point across. Oh, and one thing about the gore. It is plentiful, but clearly culled from an early ‘80s limit of realism.

Indeed, very little of this fright flick plays like an authentic police procedural. A premise is devised, a killer walks among his potential prey, Greed decade fashion victims disrobe with alarming regularity, and soon - it’s power tool time! The Georges chew up the scenery and all is right in the domain of dread. Grindhouse Releasing, a company started by cinema schlock lover Sage Stallone, is promising a two disc “UNCUT” DVD release of Pieces come Halloween. As they have done with other splatter masterworks (Cannibal Holocaust), they assure us fans that we will experience this otherwise mistreated movie as it was originally intended. Some will scoff no matter the digital dressing. Pieces is that kind of perverse product. But don’t be surprised when, after it’s all over, you’re more than a little unnerved. It is that kind of movie - exactly.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Hozier + Death Cab for Cutie + Rock Radio 104.5's Birthday Show (Photo Gallery)

// Notes from the Road

"Radio 104.5's birthday show featured great bands and might have been the unofficial start of summer festival season in the Northeast.

READ the article