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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

By coincidence, I spent Memorial Day in the town where the holiday was born: Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, which is in Centre County a few miles from State College. The town naturally tries to milk this designation for all its worth and holds a day-long festival with Civil War reenactments, a maypole dance, local school kids reading patriotic essays, folk music (we heard “Roll Out the Barrel,” a Pennsyl-tucky favorite), and a parade that culminates at the cemetery where Memorial Day first occurred. (The festival also coincided with the Boalsburg Firehouse Carnival, where I played 25-cent Bingo and ate funnel cake. I steered clear of the deep-fried dill pickle.)


Along with the festivities were booths lining the town’s two main streets from which people (local artisans mostly) sold a variety of tchotchkes. Much of this was what you’d expect—quilts, soaps, candles, Penn State toilet-seat covers, homemade scrubbies, salad-dressing kits, wrought-iron garden ornaments, caricature drawings, hand-lettered wooden plaques with such slogans as “What happens in the Hot Tub stays in the Hot Tub” and “It’s hard to be pretentious in flip-flops,” bird feeders, wooden jewelry and whatnot. A lot of it was reminiscent of faintly discreditable stuff you’d see advertised on late-night TV or home-shopping channels, products that seem novel for a moment, before you realize how unnecessary or how unlikely to deliver on their promises they are. I end up feeling skeptical, thinking that the stuff would be sold in “real stores” if it were any good—you see how the retailers have me right where they want me. (The aura of authenticity that retail stores cast over their merchandise is of course a carefully calibrated accomplishment akin to the brand equity produced for products through advertising.)


Craft fairs don’t rely on bargain pricing, an approach the TV hucksters sometimes try. With the merchandise at craft fairs, room for bartering is typically built into the prices of the doodads on offer, but they also include what might be considered an anti-tariff, a fee meant to remind buyers that these are artisan-made goods, built by craftspeople and local artists and not Chinese factory workers (even when the goods are in fact Chinese imports, as was the case at a few booths). The extra expense (which in theory would drive consumers to choose cheaper foreign-made alternatives) serves as a kind of guarantee of that, it reinforces the feeling one gets in shopping at craft fairs in the first place: “I’m supporting local people, real people.” Buying local goods is environmentally beneficial (saves on transport costs), but ethnocentrism seems to be the main feature of craft fairs, even when some particular kind of folk art is not specified by the occasion. Ethnocentrism and a chance to indulge pious nostalgia for hardy craftsmanship may even be considered the primary goods for sale at such events. More important than the good is the connection established with a particular artisan, the good becomes a souvenir for that good feeling of providing patronage.


What struck me most about my Boalsburg experience, though, was one particular booth that had some moody lithographs and spare, unsentimental prints—a silhouette of birds congregated on a telephone pole, set at an ominous angle with the frame, for example. Nothing wildly original, but clearly an entirely different aesthetic sensibility than that embodied by the bedazzled teddy bears to be seen elsewhere. The booth’s proprietor was not a middle-aged flea-market veteran, as with most of the others, but a woman in her mid-20s, probably a recent art-school graduate who made the most likely difficult choice to give an honest go at trying to sell her work to a paying crowd. In the past, I might have found her to be sad, sort of pathetic, and quite possibly would have considered her to be some sort of sellout. But I see that impulse now as a defense mechanism, because I know I lack the bravery to do something like that. I wouldn’t be able to handle the rejection or the ego bruising that comes with general indifference to one’s precious creativity when it’s put on display.


The woman at the fair seemed to me more sincere about her work than, say, artists in established artists’ neighborhoods in hipster districts, amid an audience of friends and fellow “artists” who won’t bother to challenge their conceptions of what artists should do—which seem to be to elect one another to an elite class of art appreciators and applaud one another’s originality and distinct vision. They make art as part of a lifestyle, and teh lifestyle draws a circle around itself and wards away the outside world. The woman in Boalsburg confronted that outside world directly. It seemed to me that she wasn’t out to be recognized as an artist so much as she was trying to send her work out into the world where it might do something other than serve as a testimony to her sense of self. There’s a good chance that she probably didn’t sell a thing all day, but for me, anyway, she was the jar on the hill in the Wallace Stevens poem.


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Tuesday, May 27, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

The Lodger


“Second album from this Leeds pop group that stands tall with classics from the likes of The Go-Betweens, Aztec Camera and Orange Juice.”—Slumberland Records


The Good Old Days [MP3]
     


The Conversation [MP3]
     


A Year Since Last Summer [MP3]
     


Booka Shade
The Sun and the Neon Light [MP3]
     


Ratatat
Mirando [MP3]
     


Tricky
Council Estate [Video]


Vetiver
Blue Driver [MP3]
     


Buy at Rhapsody


Black Taj
Fresh Air Traverse [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


Presto


“Organic, soulful and refreshingly contemporary, Presto has spent the last decade perfecting a production style that infuses hard-hitting hip hop beats with an ethereal touch of jazz.”—Concrete Grooves


Conquer Mentally (feat. Sadat X, O.C., & Large Professor) [MP3]
     


Pour Another Glass (feat. Blu) [MP3]
     


On (feat. LOWD) [MP3]
     


More On This Album


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Monday, May 26, 2008


He got his start like most pre post-modern moviemakers, via the still struggle medium of ‘50s/‘60s television. There, his approach was allowed to take root and flourish. He had actually begun his career as an actor, appearing in productions for such stalwart shows as Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Before that, he had studied his craft with the famous teacher Sanford Meisner. Not bad for an Indiana boy born of troubled first generation Russian immigrant parents. His father was a boxer turned druggist, his mother was an alcoholic who died when Sydney was 16. Now, with his own passing from stomach cancer at age 73, Hollywood has lost one of its solid cinematic artists.


Pollack first came to prominence after a stint onstage, when he co-stared with future lifelong friend Robert Redford in the film War Hunt. The two formed an instant bond and would go on to work together for nearly 45 years, Pollack directing his pal in the films This Property is Condemned, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, Out of Africa, and Havana. In fact, over the course of his career, Pollack featured Redford in nearly a third of the 20 movies he made. He also worked regularly with such old school stars as Burt Lancaster (The Scalphunters, Castle Keep) and Robert Mitchum (The Yakuza), and later made two films with contemporary macho man Harrison Ford (Random Hearts and the Sabrina redux).


Like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, Pollack brought the dramatic intensity of his days in the theater and TV to the fledgling revolution occurring in film. His style could best be summed up by the brilliant social commentary They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Set within a Depression era dance-a-thon, and featuring fiery performances by Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, and Oscar Winner Gig Young, Pollack uncovered the simmering unease of the era, perfectly reflecting the film’s contemporary 1969 mirror message. His movies were like that - quiet and subtle, selling their conceits in perfectly modulated performances and expertly helmed scenes. And like his fellow filmmakers of the era, Pollack wasn’t afraid to try.


He did so with the old fashioned romance The Way We Were, though that movie also tackled subjects like racism and political unrest. Jeremiah Johnson was a pure post-modern Western, an anti-establishment look at one man defying nature to live at personal peace. Three Days of the Condor took the Watergate hangover and cast it as part of an international intelligence Cold War malaise, while The Electric Horseman argued against fame and for those who would sidestep the spotlight to live freely, and happily. Many of the heroes in Pollack’s films defy the odds to be their own person, be it the US ex-pat caught up in Castro’s Cuban revolution, or a young associate taking on a crew of crooked lawyers.


As an actor, Pollack frequently blurred the line between good and evil. In what is perhaps his most memorable turn, he was the confused agent in Tootsie who can’t understand Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey, and frankly, doesn’t want to. Conned into playing the part by the superstar himself, the director gives an amazingly unhinged turn. In Woody Allen’s searing Husbands and Wives, Pollack is the midlife crisis middle ager who tears his bimbette girlfriend down every chance he gets. He’s horrific and abusive. When Harvey Keitel couldn’t continue on with Stanley Kubrick’s arduous shooting schedule, Pollack stepped in and essayed the role of Victor Ziegler in Eyes Wide Shut, and most recently, he was George Clooney’s image conscious boss in the thriller Michael Clayton.


Oddly enough, his peak probably came in the early ‘80s when Out of Africa took home seven Academy Awards, including one for Pollack as Best Director. He had been nominated before - and definitely deserved the statues - for Tootsie and They Shoot Horses, but the epic Meryl Streep/Robert Redford weeper was the kind of effort that Oscar is naturally drawn to. After that success, his follow-up Havana flopped, and while The Firm was a hit (thanks to Tom Cruise and the John Grisham pedigree), Sabrina and Random Hearts also tanked.


The Interpreter, a 2005 suspense piece starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, was the director’s last fiction film, and first foray behind the lens in nearly six years. During his absence, which was more or less self imposed, Pollack had played producer, adding titles like The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Quiet American, and Cold Mountain to his resume. The recent death of collaborator and friend Anthony Minghella hit Pollack hard. It wasn’t the first time tragedy had hit so close to home. In the early ‘90s, Steven, Pollack’s only son with wife Claire Griswold (they met at the Neighborhood Theater in New York, and were married for nearly 50 years) died in a light plane crash.


Today, the director is survived by his spouse, two daughters, and six grandchildren. Oddly enough, Pollack himself was an avid pilot, flying his own private aircraft. It was a trait he shared with co-star John Travolta when the two appeared in A Civil Action together. In 2006, the director offered up what would be his last film - the unlikely documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry. When asked to describe the allure of the subject matter, the filmmaker was deceptively honest. Apparently, Pollack was so intrigued by his first glimpse of the famed Guggenheim Museum that he became psychologically obsessed with the architect and his body of work.


It’s safe to say that, like this love letter to an unsung builder and dreamer, most of Sydney Pollack’s films were missives to men and women marginalized and unsung - and usually undeservingly so. He championed the underdog and understood the human foibles inside the heroic. As a filmmaker, he was approachable and affable, eager to teach and pass on what he knew. While no one is suggesting his films changed the course of cinema, they did establish a kind of abject professionalism that many of his compatriots from the ‘60s and ‘70s couldn’t command. He didn’t set out to deconstruct the medium or revise it into his own aesthetic likeness. Instead, Sydney Pollack made solid, substantive films. His is an onscreen voice and a behind the scenes presence that the artform will sorely miss. 


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Monday, May 26, 2008
L.B. Jeffries offers an analysis of the various constituencies of gamers, and how the attitudes of those groups can reflect the Zarathustran Analytics approach.


I once attended an art lecture that took on the very unpopular topic of criticizing a well-liked work of art. The pieces consisted of a series of photographs, all taken from a medical journal depicting slaves that had just arrived in America. Lines of poetry were inscribed in each photo as the artist decried the anonymity and inhuman appearance depicted by the journal’s photography. The criticism that the lecturer was offering was that historically the poetry was all utter fiction. The journal hadn’t made these people anonymous at all. Their names, tribes, and even the history of those tribes were listed and often seriously conflicted with the poems themselves. Needless to say, people tended to get pretty pissed at this lecture. Why criticize a work of art because of history? It’s beautiful and evocative, why criticize it for something like accuracy? What was the point of looking at art with a historical mindset?

That kind of discussion is relevant these days in video games because people are becoming very conscious of the demographics and factions within the medium. The casual audience, hardcore gamers, and ex-core players are all becoming distinct opinions that get thrown around video game forums. Yet not everyone is happy about these labels. Jim Sterling at Destructoid posted an interesting column that bemoaned the artificial labels of ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’. He points out that people certainly play both kinds of games and it does a huge disservice to label a game as meant for one particular audience or another. And he’s right, it’s dumb to call these things audience labels because they aren’t. We all play a huge variety of games and those games often borrow liberally from countless others. What the terms casual or hardcore really signify isn’t an identity, they’re a philosophy. They are ways of thinking about the purpose of video games and what we expect from them.


How, then, do we define these philosophies if not by their consumers?


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Monday, May 26, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-05-26...

Ahh yes, quite a choice we have this week.


I must admit, there are a couple of releases this week that I’m tempted to highlight simply based on name value alone.  The Nintendo DS has a couple of them: LOL, perhaps not the first game to be named after instant message parlance (remember WTF for the PSP?), but it is the first to use that parlance in a way that would seem to be related to its origins; it’s an entirely social product with no one-player mode, which could be interesting at least.  Super Dodgeball Brawlers sounds like one of those things that’s pure awesome in theory, and utter bunk in practice.  Needless to say, I don’t know a damn thing about it.


There’s also something called Stronghold Crusader Extreme, which must be good of course, because it has the word Extreme in the title.  When you say it, actually, I’m sure you’re supposed to add a few exclamation points to the word Extreme.  You know, like Extreme!!!, or EXTREME!!!!!.  Yeah, that’s probably it, caps lock and five exclamation points.


Ditch the shovelware parade headed to the Wii, and what are we left with?


The sole release this week for the Xbox 360 and the PS3 is a little something called Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, which is finally making its way to the console scene after having eaten PC gamers’ lives since last October.  Assuming that Activision hasn’t toned down the brutal difficulty nor the map intricacy of the PC version, console gamers are in for a treat as they embark on one of the most immersive team-based FPS experiences out there.  It’s difficult to quantify, exactly, what makes Enemy Territory: Quake Wars a fantastic game, as it’s certainly not the most imaginative team-based experience out there, and the graphics fall in that all-too-familiar mix of brown, gray, and brownish-gray, but something about it is simply addicting, and you just can’t help but keep coming back until you are the team MVP (or, in my case, anything except “least accurate”).


Xbox and PS3 owners tired of Team Fortress 2 might just want to give it a look.  The full release list (and a trailer for Quake Wars) is after the jump.


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