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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

According to the logic by which the fiscal stimulus package was passed in February, Americans are supposed to go out and immediately spend the $600 or so we are due to receive over the next few weeks. That way we’ll be stimulating demand for American-made goods and services, helping keep the country out of recession. Do your part and shop!


I, for one, will be doing no such thing personally; faulty withholding left me owing that money (and then some) in taxes. And judging by this Bloomberg article (via Yves Smith), I won’t be the only one defying the logic.


Consumers are being hit by a triple whammy: rising prices, increasing unemployment and shrinking wealth. Companies have cut payrolls for five straight months, by a total of 326,000 workers.
House prices in 20 metropolitan areas fell 12.7 percent in February from a year earlier, the biggest drop since S&P/Case- Shiller began tracking the data seven years ago.
``We’ve had a very significant deterioration in the financial position of households in the past year,’’ Sinai says. ``Consumers can’t tap their housing equity any more.’‘
Household debt has risen more than 85 percent since the middle of 2001—the last time the government handed out tax rebates in a bid to spur the economy. That has prompted some on Wall Street, including David Rosenberg, Merrill Lynch’s North American economist in New York, to conclude that consumers will spend less this time, paying down debt instead.


That makes you wonder if this money wouldn’t have been better spent on programs meant to reduce mortgage debt; that $125 billion or so could have been used as money to take the sting off government-mandated cramdowns.  That way, foreclosures might be forestalled, and the housing market—the source of much of the economy’s problems—would have a chance to find its bottom. Instead, perhaps out of some notion of fairness, everyone is getting the free money. The ones likely to spend it on consumption are probably those who least need the cash or the items they will buy. That doesn’t particularly seem any more fair when you think about it. People like me shouldn’t be given flat-screen TVs by the government.


As the article notes, retailers are trying hard to get their piece of the checks: It cites a Sears incentive of offering a 10 percent premium on checks converted entirely into Sears gift cards, and an unspecified plan of Wal-Mart’s to lure shoppers. By the logic of the stimulus package, they are doing their patriotic part, trying to encourage citizens to do what they are supposed to with the checks instead of saving them, which would be horribly detrimental to the purpose of the checks. (Maybe the government should have purchased goods and services directly—start building roads and such, WPA style. Then we could really get deep into the Depression-era nostalgia.)


It all seems insane. When you remove the macroeconomic blinders, it’s hard to see the problem with the U.S. economy as being that people don’t spend enough. Nonetheless, in order to get debt-ridden consumers to spend even more, the government has handed out money to these overspent people, which has had the effect of ramping up the marketing schemes of some of the largest retailers to get them to continue to ignore underlying economic realities. Wasn’t the problem that people spent more than they had, and they went into debt they had no hope of repaying to be able to spend even more? If anything, aren’t Americans virtually addicted to shopping, and unable to conceive of any other course of actions to satisfy their needs, which are all supposed to be solved with the act of buying some product? Are we trying to protect the economy or the ideological superstructure of the consumer society, that enshrines such spending as the most essential civic and self-fashioning act? Is the stimulus package an admission that we can’t even pretend to separate the economy from the consumerist value system any longer?
 


 


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Tuesday, May 6, 2008
If Jack Tripper was running for president, which candidate would you rather have a beer with at The Regal Beagle?

The last thing I want to be accused of is venerating the same sitcom that, it seemed, virtually everyone who was not a teenager in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s felt certain signaled the end of the world as we knew it. But we felt fine. Hey, I lived through those dangerous days and survived. I watched Three’s Company and not only enjoyed it, then, I certainly don’t regret it, now. I regard that show kind of like I view my Catholic upbringing: it was probably not necessary and it’s likely that those hours (in church, in front of the TV) could have been better spent. But, for better or worse, they helped make me what I am, so I’ll make no tardy attempts to excommunicate Cardinal O’Connor or Jack Tripper from my memory bank. In this much-maligned shows defense, and unlike the Catholic church, it never pretended to be something it was not: an enterprise that puts profit above product and always answerable to a higher authority.


Not sure, in hindsight, if Father So-and-So’s sermons gave me more nightmares than Joyce DeWitt’s curious allure, or who was the worse actor—my divorced CCD teacher or Suzanne Somers (I’m pretty sure Somers wins purely on aesthetic points). We can point to Don Knotts’s (R.I.P.) floral crimes against fashion, but at least he was a product of the times, unlike the enduring sartorial styles still in vogue at the Vatican. And let’s get real: if Jack Tripper (R.I.P.!!) were, well, real, and he was running for president, which candidate would you rather have a beer with at The Regal Beagle?


But special props must be set aside for the immortal (yes, I said immortal) Norman Fell (R.I.P.!!!). If there was ever a “sixth man” award for TV shows, Mr. Roper would be a lock. In fact, it should henceforth be known as “The Norman Fell Factor” when a minor—but indispensable—character is given props by fans in the know. His sardonic asides to the camera were revolutionary in their own understated way; breaking the fourth wall to make inside jokes with the audience, edging toward something approximating postmodern long before, say, movies like Ferris Bueller or subsequent TV shows like Moonlighting made it an almost obligatory—and far less subtle—device. Of course, this strategy already existed on TV, dating as far back as stories have been told to audiences, and are recurrent in Cervantes, Shakespeare and Sterne, not to mention Melville (call him Ishmael) and the late, great Kurt Vonnegut. In other words, Fell was neither the first nor the most effective practitioner of this tactic—he was simply one of the funniest. In his relatively quick moments on screen, he could throw the audience, and himself, a bone each week—his antics would not have been nearly as amusing if his role were larger.


Maybe it’s a guy thing. Check that: did any women ever watch Three’s Company? Stanley Roper’s self-satisfied mugging was a highlight of each episode, and while the mere name Ralph Furley prompts a chuckle, by the time that bug-eyed, pants suit wearing rascal came on the scene, the shows best days were behind it (bet: that is the first time the words “the shows best days” have ever appeared in any appraisal of Three’s Company). And don’t kid yourself: I’m not about to forget our favorite used car salesman, Larry Dallas. Larry was more than just Eddie Haskell grown up and acid-tested; in many ways he anticipated both George Costanza and Cosmo Kramer (in other words, he was the original poor man’s Larry David). Okay, that’s stretching it, but one thing is for certain: while the Ropers got their chance to grasp the brass ring, the biggest crime Three’s Company ever committed was not spinning off Larry’s character for his own series. Just kidding. Sort of.


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Tuesday, May 6, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Nate and I met these boys upstairs at the bottom of the hill in San Francisco (think SF’s version of the Troubadour). When we walked in to their “dressing room” (see: room at top of creaking stairs), they were fist deep into their venue supplied vegetarian dinners and cold veggie platter. As we waited for them to finish, Nate and I scouted potential locations around the venue. We happily stumbled upon a well lit but endearingly dingy concrete and chicken wire walkway that looked like the venue’s top secret exit for bands being chased by swarms of hysterical fans. It was here that the trio set up their battery operated casio keyboard, acoustic guitar and tambourine for this inspired rendition of “Badonkadonkey” from their new album Red Yellow and Blue.
Will Abramson (imeem)



Tagged as: born ruffians, video
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Monday, May 5, 2008


Had they only made three movies - Bound, The Matrix, and the upcoming Speed Racer, the writing/ directing team of brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski would be considered cinematic gods. They’d hold a place right next to Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher as outright geek gladiators who took mainstream cinema by the throat and throttled it until it cried “uncle”. Through their unique visual style, overripe expression of film’s formative language, and pure joy in the art of the image, they’ve been both incredibly blessed and unduly cursed. They have made some remarkable movies. Yet it appears that the two intriguing sequels to their virtual reality hit were more harmful to their reputation than once thought. The spectacular Speed Racer probably won’t change that, and it’s a shame. It should.


Like eye candy forged out of Olympus’ own ambrosia, their adaptation of the classic ‘60s cartoon series (itself an Americanized recasting of the Japanese anime) is breathtaking in what it accomplishes, as well as what it avoids. While clichés abound, the brothers have managed to literally reinvent them, bringing back the sense of wholesome fun and larger than life feats symbolic of the animation genre. And they do it in live action. There will be critics who cast this aside as nothing more than candy floss fluff, flummoxed to find a purpose or a passion, but that would be a doomed voice of post-modern irony-laced cynicism speaking. If you don’t like this movie (it opens this Friday, 9 May - full review then), you’re clearly locked in a downward spiral of self-important aesthetic impotence.


The brothers have often been accused of having an imagination on Viagra, and their last few films have born this out. The Matrix Trilogy in particular is an unfairly marginalized masterwork that requires a lot of Tabula Rosa perspective to really work. The Wachowskis were doomed by two things going into their sequels - anticipation and expectations. The first film, while a semi-success at the box office, made DVD the format that it is today (something Racer may do to Blu-ray come time of home theater release), and revitalized an already flat-lining sci-fi genre. With their inventive F/X and philosophically deep narrative, The Matrix made many into believers of the brothers - perhaps, too many. By the time The Animatrix had explored the prequel dynamic, the converts needed the new films to be brilliant.


Instead, they were dense and disturbing, offering questions while unconcerned with providing answers, utilizing themes that harkened back to the days of amphitheaters and emperors. In this critic’s opinion, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are amazing achievements, stories of sacrifice and struggle that may provide a wrong turn here or there (who greenlit the PC populated cave rave, huh?) but still play completely within the rules the Wachowskis set up. Still, it’s easy to see why audiences dismissed them. The main heroes die. Zion is not the vast wonderland Morpheus made it out to be. There is a great deal of hubris and heartache involved in the last chapters, and everyone tends to get swept up in waves of CGI inspired stunt work. While remaining highly influential, it will be a good decade or two before these films are finally treated with the reverence and respect they deserve.


As a result, it seems like the Wachowskis have been unfairly dismissed along with their movies. It’s as if Reloaded and Revolutions literally wiped up everything else they’ve done. Even now, a few days before Racer opens, early reviews are taking the duo to task with column space devoted to how crappy the Matrix movies were. It’s like arguing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (a nominal commercial hit 40 years ago that took eons to gain its revered status) made every film the director created afterwards a lesser experience (and that would include A Clockwork Orange and The Shining). Racer will eventually find those willing to forgive the guys, but it seems strange that so much contempt could be created out of, what are essentially, the myths of the superman.


Neo - for all intents and purporses - is a Messianic figure offered three clear temptations by the unseen powers behind his computerized world. The first is power. The second is import. The third is love. In each case, he conquers and then is corrupted by said enticements. When flying around like a superhero, he is stripped of his grace as a program infiltrator. When blind and battling an onslaught of machine sentries before making it to their city, he’s the last hope of mankind cast as a reluctant warrior. His final fight with Agent Smith isn’t about superiority or skill - it’s about pride, the very sin that cast him out of the first film’s garden and into a series of iniquitous dens. And then it all turns back on the villains themselves.


Defending the Matrix movies is not easy - especially since online consensus seems to rule all serious discussions - and the brothers have made matters worse by playing the elusive auteur game. They don’t like to “discuss” their work, instead letting the product speak for itself. Of course, this doesn’t stop the fanbase from foaming, or keep the rumor mills from recycling stories about Larry’s supposed sex-change (denied outright, and eventually proven false). Nor does it delight those who see Racer (or V for Vendetta, which they only produced) as another attempt by the pair to substitute pretty pictures for characterization or sophistication. And let’s not even discuss how Bound gets blown apart in these arraignments, reduced to a “good little thriller” since it doesn’t comport to the optical wow of their recent efforts.


It’s a lot like the grief Peter Jackson received for making King Kong after the stellar Lord of the Rings. Given a chance to do anything he wanted, the New Zealand genius went back to his roots to reinvent the classic giant monkey movie. He took a drubbing as a result, though that film was equally adept and quite stellar. And naturally everyone forgot about his first few films, wonderfully gory delights like Bad Taste and Dead Alive, and small storied dramas like Heavenly Creatures. It seems that, once you deliver an over the top, overly hyped homage to everything the blockbuster stands for, you get your reputation handed back to you - along with your ass.


One assumes the Wachowskis can whether the storm. Only George Lucas has suffered such a post-movie backlash, and while his horrid Star Wars prequels definitely deserved the attack, too many dedicated fans of the franchise have kept the flames from fanning too high. There is no similar amount of communal love for the Matrix movies. The first remains solidly supported. None but a few fly a flag for the follow-ups. It’s a shame that Speed Racer may end up consumed in the wake of such out of place hate. If allowed, it will find that audience antsy for something new and wholly original, production design and execution pushed to the very limits of the medium. If it does succeed, there is still one thing that’s guaranteed - The Wachowskis will still be locked in the critical crosshairs. It’s about time they stopped being a target. Their amazing movies speak for themselves.


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Monday, May 5, 2008
L.B. Jeffries continues the Zarathustran Analytics series, putting together his pillars of game design and calling for sense in classification.


The establishment of a critical language eventually calls for laying out a couple of basic terms for describing experiences in games. At the moment, people mostly define a game by what kind of game design it is. ‘real-time strategy’, ‘first-person shooter’, or ‘role playing game’ dominate the lexicon of video games. The first problem is that these game designs have all borrowed from each other so much that now all games contain elements of them. Mass Effect has strategy and first-person shooting elements, the FPS gimmick of silent protagonists who never talk clearly flirts with role-play, etc. Second, they’re discussed as if they were exclusive activities. All aspects of a game involve strategy, a player operating in the first person (in varying ways), and the game’s camera changing location all the time. Finally, it tends to be reductive of the games themselves to group them by one feature alone should they excel in other ways. As video games start moving away from these initial identities the question arises…how do we start identifying the experience of a game?

Eric Wolpaw (the writer of Portal) has described a game as consisting of a delta of player input, plot, and game design that comes together to form the game experience. It’s a good analogy because just as when a triangle that has one large side forces the other two to conform, so too do games twist their attributes in response to one another. So in order to divide these different definitions, it’s best to just identify which part of the delta of narrative, player, or game is the foundation while the other two rest upon it. As far as the terminology goes, rather than re-invent the wheel it’s best to just rip it off something else: books. Out of all cultural forms of art, the act of imagining what people look, sound, and act like while reading somewhat resembles player input in video games. Besides, the narrative terms for how a book engages you (first-person, third, etc.) are already used in video games to describe their own methods of engagement anyways. FPS, remember?


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