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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The most notable thing about the Australian book industry is just how small and isolated it is.  There are only a handful of major publishers (mostly Australian operations of larger UK and US houses) and the smaller publishers are very, very small. 


With only 20 million inhabitants and a serious reading population much smaller than that, there simply isn’t the critical mass that would allow independent and new talents to find a foothold. And “making it” in Australia doesn’t equal “making it” in practical terms—things like reaching a large audience and earning a living from writing.  The number of local authors with any substantial profile can be counted on a couple of fingers.


Australia does not have as well-developed systems for nurturing young authors as North America or Europe.  Our literary journals are small and generally conservative.  Our creative writing schools do not have high profiles, nor are their links with the global publishing industry very strong.


Even to achieve success and recognition from local critics, writers are often expected to gain overseas validation.  Our biggest cultural and literary icons are usually those who have found success in the wider world.  To be simply a local taste is to be perceived as a B-lister: maybe good for a trashy read, but not enough for real critical acclaim.  It’s probably unfair, but it’s hard not to see it as the difference between an Olympian and the winner of the Upper Bradfield Little Athletics U14 long-jump.


An interesting case study is young Australian writer Max Barry.  American readers are actually more likely to have heard of Barry or read one of his books than his fellow Australians.  Even though Barry is Australian born-and-bred and even lives in Melbourne, he is only belatedly receiving some attention in his homeland.


I came across Barry with his 2006 novel Company, an offbeat corporate satire inspired by Barry’s time with Hewlett Packard.  It was a funny, if imperfect, novel and it pointed to an exciting new talent.


Syrup by Max Barry Scribe Publications March 2008, 304 pages

Syrup
by Max Barry
Scribe Publications
March 2008, 304 pages


Except that it wasn’t so new—because Barry had already published two novels in the US, Syrup and Jennifer Government, both mostly unnoticed in Australia.  In fact, Scribe Publications has just re-issued Syrup for the Australian market, a mere 9 years after its first publication, in response to the success of Company.


Barry didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter.  As an aspiring writer with a populist bent, why would you bother “paying your dues” in Australia, where the most you could expect would be a short run with a niche publisher with your book stocked in three shops?


Yet he had an option that many local writers do not have—the advantage of writing American-themed books, rather than idiosyncratically Australian work.  Sadly, a lot of writers telling Australian stories are going to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Australia is not exotic enough for publishers to see escapist potential, but is too foreign to be an easy sell.


In that sense the Australian industry serves its purpose by keeping alive our national tales and experiences.  But there will always be the suspicion that those who don’t sell well offshore don’t quite have what it takes.


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Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Dear Fellow Writer:


The time is now. It’s our moment to put up or forever shut up. Print is dying, there’s no two ways about it, and those left rummaging for readership are turning to the old fashioned wire services for their rote, by the book copy. As a community, we’ve been waiting for an opportunity to shine, to show that we are just as legitimate as the men and women who dictated filmic fashion for the last 60 years. New technology may mean a new way of communication, but frankly, we’re doing a piss poor job of getting our point across - that is, when we can come up with a cogent and coherent argument to begin with. It’s time to cast off the amateurish aura given off by what many of us do and recognize the role we will play in the next decade.


As more and more fourth estaters are “bought out”, as the studios see the honest to goodness lack of interest audiences have in what the critic has to say, it’s time to reconfigure the cinematic aesthetic. It’s all well and good to be advocates for the unusual, to champion the disregarded and unfairly marginalized. But with said obsession comes a blindness. We can’t see the formative forest for our own particular (and often petty) trees. Perhaps it’s time to open up the lines of dialogue and come up with a consensus - not just on the magic of motion pictures, but on what constitutes the art of film writing in this new webbed day and age.


Let’s get a couple of caveats out of the way right up front. First, there is a big difference between film criticism and film reviewing. It’s the difference between a paragraph and a gesture. A reviewer offers a simplified shorthand, letting the reader (or listener) know quickly and without much mental strain whether a movie is worth their hard earned dosh. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a strategy. It gives the would-be ticket buyer a consumer advocate advantage. If they generally trust your guidance - meaning they agree with your up/down assessment more times than not - they will use your ‘review’ as a means of solidifying their sentiment. It’s how Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel transformed the craft. They went from skilled champions of letters to reliable men of fingers (or thumbs, actually).


Second, a blog is not a legitimate place to opine. Don’t take this the wrong way - the web log has come a long way in the last few years, respected by many in fields as diverse as sports, politics, and music. But since the art of filmmaking is founded in a solid sense of unified perspective, a million different judgments cannot create a viewpoint. Journalists are sworn to maintain some level of indifference, to weight both sides of an issue before putting out an assertion. In the blogsphere, such concrete contentions are all there is. Certainly, some put great thought into what they say, but as Harlan Ellison once accurately offered, everyone is not entitled to their own opinion, just their own learned one.


Of course, not everyone can find a place upon a paying site, nor is everyone associated with such a capital venture vindicated or valued. Money is not the object here, and real film criticism has little to do with number of hits, page views, or outside links. No, if we are ever going to change the studios idea of what the new Internet critic can and will be, we have to recognize the problems we’re constantly creating for ourselves, and strive to reevaluate what our position really stands for. In the last few decades, since the advent of home theater, cinema has become a diminished, almost disposable commodity. Perhaps if we set up some guidelines, or better yet, some personal and professional objectives, we can speed the problematic plow.


Initially, we have to recognize that marketers and advertising representatives live by some arcane, insider rules. Back when editors demanded deadlines and writers had to squeeze screenings in between duties as a desk jockey, it was easy to play by their parameters. But nowadays, thanks to instantaneous publishing and day/date turnaround, it’s easy to fudge with such strictures. If online critics suffer from one grand overgeneralization, it’s that we’re desperate for that scoop, hoping to hit the information superhighway with our take on an upcoming title as soon as we can upload our text. Naturally, by violating the embargo dates and other studio demands, we bite down hard on the very hand that feeds us.


Until the day when the notion of print media prerequisites goes the way of the dinosaur, we should vow to keep by these silly rules. Sure, we can’t stop the ‘anonymous’ audience member from rushing over to IGN or Ain’t It Cool News and posting their thoughts on a blockbuster several weeks before it premieres. Studios will never stop that unless they cease handing out free tickets to drum up word of mouth support. But if you are lucky enough to be invited to a press screening, you should play by whatever industry mandates exist. They will come around to our way of thinking eventually. Until then, pushing the issue will only force them to circle their wagons.


Next, act like a professional. That means treat everyone you come in contact with in a dignified and respectful manner. Some screening reps are merely part time help whose love of film has led them to counting heads and writing up reports. Pissing them off does very little, but it sure helps cement your status among the rest of the local community. Established writers have no problem blackballing you, taking time to write the actual suits about how rude, arrogant, unreliable, and amateurish you are. Remember, there is already a stigma attached to what we do. Acting like an asshole when a certain amount of decorum will do simply adds months to the eventual decision toward acceptance.


As part of said discussion, avoid being a shill. If you love a movie, let your analysis argue for it. Spouting off sentences in hopes that they will be picked up for theatrical poster/DVD cover art inclusion may seem like a great way to get your name recognized, but real writers recognize a suck up rather quickly. Pandering to the audience - or in most cases, the messageboard demographic - does a disservice as well. Outright vitriol has a place in criticism, but not simply to sell your fanboy credentials. You are entitled to your learned opinion remember, and the only way anyone can tell if your take is well thought out is by showing them - literally.


If you want to call yourself a writer - the first stage in any claim of critical expertise - you’ve got to fly outside your comfort zone once in a while. Don’t pride yourself on being the ‘horror expert’ or the ‘foreign film champion’. Specialization leads to isolation. Indeed, if you adore science fiction and only want to write about/fixate on same, you’ll hardly be heard when you need to talk about comedies or kiddie films. This doesn’t mean you can’t lean toward one genre or another, or develop a serious appetite for one cinematic style over another. But to defend your expertise in martial arts movies and then dump all over an animated cartoon infers a sloppiness - and arrogance - on your part.


Perhaps the most important facet of bringing the online critic in line with his or her print predecessor is the notion of analysis. Pauline Kael remains a wildly regarded writer because she measured her judgment with a great deal of understanding and perspective. She earned same from years in appreciation and study. Her name is now remembered as one of the artform’s greats, a pioneer who placed every movie she argued within a context of knowledge and perception. For now, it’s okay to have little or no frame of reference. You can get by without delving into Hollywood’s past, or Europe’s Neo-realism/New Wave phases. But sooner or later you’re going to need a proper film foundation. Avoiding it just makes you look foolish.


Marshall McLuhan used to argue that every new medium mandates its own unique set of standards. The old is frequently tossed completely aside, only to have its established elements creep back in over time. It’s not out of necessity. No, it’s more or less a question of respectability. The major sports keep stats as part of their history, using comparison and the conquering of same to track their legends and make them linear. Criticism requires the same subtext. Tossing aside what so many have done so well for decades smacks of stupidity. After all, in order to rewrite the rules, we first have to engage and embrace the laws that led us here. Sure, there will be growing pains. But it’s better to have the opportunity to progress than to be shut out of the situation all together.


Unless you’re happy with having every motion picture placed on a simplified ‘pro/con’ consideration, if you believe that letting unfettered freedom dictate how the movies we love are forever remembered, it’s time to stop whining and start writing. It will require a kind of toughness and an attention to discipline that the current post and pronounce ideal just won’t support. It always happens - once the rebels take over the town, they tend to revert back to the power poisoned policies that fostered the revolution in the first place. By recognizing a universal need to grow up (present company MORE than included), we can create the benchmark before others initiate it for us. True, it might mean that not everyone can play - at least on any semblance of a level field. But it’s better to lay the foundation now, before those without a clue do it for us. And we know which side they’re on. 


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Wednesday, May 14, 2008
by Darwin Hang
Darwin Hang takes on the PlayStation 2's latest Sonic the Hedgehog-based racing game...

An object’s velocity is equal to its displacement divided by the time of travel.  This means that an object which starts and ends its voyage at the same position has a velocity equal to zero.  Now, let’s say that that object A is Sonic the Hedgehog riding a hoverboard.  Object B is a robot chasing object A in the story mode of Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity.  Both objects start at position X and end at position X, giving both of them a velocity of zero miles per hour.  The story mode, like Sonic on his intergalactic hoverboard, goes nowhere.


Sonic’s distinguishing trait has always been his speed.  He was fast without any technological aid.  That was the point.  He was able to use his natural skills to defeat Mr. Robotnik, or Eggman, who was obsessed with technology.  This racing-obsessed version of Sonic does not appear to be made within the same continuity as the original Sega titles.  It fails in its inability to retain the spirit of the Sonic franchise.  Sonic doesn’t need a vehicle, he needs to run and jump and spin fast.  Eggman has become comic relief.  Because the story mode has to be played through to unlock features of the game, there should have been some course alterations so that the races would feel like a natural progression of the story.


When the game sticks to racing, it’s tolerable.  The courses play differently for different characters, and a slow motion “drift” function is well designed.  Sometimes gameplay is exciting.  The courses play differently for different characters as long as you stick to Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles.  The “Rogues” are feathered mirror images of the mammalian main characters.  The racing is fast and there are many gimmicks which work well and many gimmicks that don’t.  Because of the gimmickry, there is not an even playing field, meaning that this does not make for a good party game.  Once a course is played through with each character, it loses its charm.


Like its intended tween audience, the Sonic franchise is going through an identity crisis.  Does Sega keep churning out Sonic titles that no one cares about until people just start ignoring him and pretending he doesn’t exist?  Will Sonic someday have MTV Made help get his singing career started?  Too bad these questions could not have been addressed earlier, before Sonic reached his mid twenties.


As someone who grew up playing Sonic the Hedgehog (yes, I was that kid who had a Sega Genesis instead of a Super Nintendo), it was hard for me to play Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity.  I am going to keep typing that name, because it is part of the problem.  My generation grew up on side scrollers and 2D first person shooters.  Most of the time we had no idea what the plots of the Sonic games were or if they even existed.  Then, it didn’t matter.  Now it does.


Art builds upon its predecessors.  It doesn’t rely on nostalgia to retain an aging audience.  It connects generations while creating gaps between them.  Art causes friction.  Art makes us question our limits as a human race, our future, and our past.  With all the mediocre, thoughtless, effortless, useless titles I play, such as Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity, the more I wonder if I was wrong about stating that video games are art.  Maybe, like Van Gogh, this game won’t be appreciated until the Sonic franchise is finally dead.


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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Though both actions have been temporarily stalled, in New York and Chicago, various govt bureaucracies are trying to shut down music spaces, yet again.  For NYC, the notable Union Hall in Brooklyn (which hosts Bloodshot Records annual BBQ) is being threatened by a community board whose effort is spearheaded by another club owner with conflicting interests.  In Chicago, the city council was trying to over-regulate the clubs there and make it even harder to keep any music establishment operating until the club owners got the ear of an alderman- also see this fine Sun-Times article about the situation..  With live shows being one of the few parts of the music biz not hit badly by the online phenom, you’d think that the labels, unions and other parts of the biz with a vested interest would step up to the plate and help but it ain’t happening, as least yet.


Another trend that should shake anyone’s faith in the biz even further is that a pair of seemingly unstoppable forces are starting to wane.  Not only is American Idol losing it audience along with many other TV programs (though Idol obviously didn’t suffer directly from the recent writers’ strike) but now the vaunted social networking behemoths are losing ad money.  As the NY Post article notes, “while the weak economy is partly to blame, the bigger problem facing social networks is they’re still trying to figure out what kinds of advertising will work on their sites.” 


If Simon Cowell’s baby and Rupert Murdoch’s baby don’t keep breathing life into the music biz, what are they gonna rely on to keep them going otherwise?  I guess that blogs and underground trading communities are gonna have to take up the slack.  Fans have certainly carved out their own DIY niches for themselves so why needs the big guys to lead ‘em around by the nose?


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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On the internet, displaying our musical taste has become easy to the point of being virtually automatic. Social networking sites, with searchable lists of our preferences, seem expressly designed for the purpose. And if we so choose, we can let people eavesdrop on what we are listening to through our computer at any time, or broadcast it like we are our own personal radio station. But in the real world, our options are more limited. We can drive around with our car stereos blaring, wear conspicuous T-shirts, spend a lot of time in clubs. Or we can hang around in the right record stores.


I used to go to record stores a lot—nearly every day, in fact. But then slowly my visits tapered off, and finally I stopped going altogether. Internet distribution and home-digital-copying technology is part of the explanation for this, but it’s not what I think of. Instead, I remember the last time I was in a real record store: in 2001, a place called the Sound Garden in Baltimore. Surrounded by the posters for bands I hadn’t heard of, and struggling to concentrate while atonal music blared through the loudspeakers, I skulked in the aisles, hyperaware of the clerks’ scowling stares and frequently jostled by the much younger customers around me. Intermittently I would flip through rows of discs, but it was a rote gesture to make myself feel less conspicuous. I had no particular hope of finding anything, and beyond that, I felt like I wasn’t supposed to.


The extreme discomfort I was experiencing didn’t seem accidental. Rather, a nondescript guy in his thirties like me in the store probably jeopardized its appeal with the younger, more spendthrift demographic it was after, so it had concocted the perfect blend of sensory irritations to drive people like me out—like that device that emits a high-pitched squeal to repel teenagers, only in reverse. So in other words, like any luxury retailer, the record store was shopping for the right sort of customer and sought to discourage those who would compromise the image the store sought to convey—that it was place where young, cool people congregated, traded information, and escaped from the plastic mainstream represented by people who looked and felt like I did. On that day in Baltimore, it dawned on me that record stores don’t sell music, they sell a lifestyle.


Of course, the same is true not just of music retailers, but consumer capitalism as a whole. Virtually every company tries to associate its products with intangible desires and aspirations a consumer might have, as these are inexhaustible and are only temporarily sated by the act of shopping. No amount of Newport cigarettes will make you feel “Alive with pleasure” once and for all. You have to keep buying them in search of that elusive jouissance.


So regardless of what we buy, the process of buying itself may be where we derive the most satisfaction, the moment where we indulge most deeply in the fantasy of who the product will allow us to become. This makes where we buy crucially important, which is likely why we are often so sentimental about places like independent bookstores and record stores. Where we buy something supplies a lasting context for how we consume it. When I graduated from the Listening Booth at the local mall to Sounds, on St. Marks Place in New York City, I felt as though my tastes had matured and become more sophisticated overnight. Even though chances were good that I could have found that same XTC record at the mall, buying it downtown felt completely different, and it certainly changed how much I enjoyed it and even what it sounded like to me. (How else could I have found Oranges and Lemons to be edgy rather than derivative?)


What we were after in buying records at record stores was the lifestyle embodied in them; when they disappear, as they have begun to (as this New York Times article notes), it will be harder to recapture that feeling. But then, if that feeling was important enough in the first place, the stores wouldn’t be threatened now, I guess. But I think the confusion between the supposed integrity of the product—the alleged greatness of the music itself, stripped of context—and the ephemeral nature of trying to capture a piece of a trend-driven lifestyle by shopping led customers to believe that it was worthwhile, a bargain even, to get the music without the context by downloading it online. They were confused about why they were buying music in the first place.


Only when it’s too late for record stores will customers realize what they have lost—that they don’t want a mountain of music; they want recognition for being in a certain place vis a vis the zeitgeist.


Perhaps consumers have moved on already and are purchasing their lifestyle experience from some other outlet. Music-as-identity-indicator may have ceased to be relevant to them. Perhaps henceforth, subcultures will be formed along other lines.


Where does that leave “true music fans” who profess to want music as music? When record stores are gone and perhaps replaced with subscription services, will music itself be easier to appreciate in and of itself? Or stripped of its context, will it seem emptier than ever, each song seeming even more interchangeable with all the other songs out there waiting to be downloaded.


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