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Tuesday, Feb 5, 2008


It’s time to stop hatin’ on Disney - not that they don’t still deserve a little manufactured wholesomeness dissing. Critics clamor over the retread sequelizing of classic titles, the cookie cutter entertainment options, and the long dead aesthetic of the corporate namesake, and still the House of Mouse thrives. Hot on the heels of the smash hit concert tour, Hannah Montana - aka Achy Breaky offspring Miley Cyrus, has broken box office records with the 3-D version of her syrup-strapped stage show, and everyone’s favorite organized opportunist couldn’t be happier. As a matter of fact, Disney has announced an extended theatrical run for the film, hoping to milk that cacophonous cash cow for all its pre-adolescent worth.


Now granted, there is nothing inherently wrong with what Montana/Cyrus represents. It’s yet another in a long line of tide pooling cultural waves, generational substrata that see certain heretofore unknown quantities leap up and grasp the pre-tween constituency. It represents the untenable trending, the post-Popcorn Report’s inability to gauge the ga-ga factor in the Double-O demo. Certainly, if someone could forecast which underage family fodder becomes the next Tickle Me Elmo, Drake Bell and Josh Peck would be on their fifth franchise effort. Kids are fickle, however, and they tend to run with the herd. Tell them that a brain addled bumpkin with limited life skills is the second coming of pop artistry, and it’s Britney/Hilary all over again.


So, naturally, we cast aspersion on the younger generation, wondering how cultural phenoms could go from the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys in 30 short years. Social fashions are gauged, the talent temperature is taken, and predictions are prepared. Then, seemingly out of the ether, an unfamiliar quantity grasps the short attention span of kid nation and a new fad is formed. Companies rush to capitalize, entertainment show tongues wag, and in the end, no one knows nothing, William Goldman style. Like any good social surfer, the entity rides the crest, establishes their potential staying power (or lack thereof) and then goes the way of the Big Kahuna, leaving room for the next mainstream mindboggler.


There’s another element here that’s equally aggressive, a facet that longs to see this latest bandwagon dismantled, burnt, and buried in salted earth so that it never has reason to reinvent or revive its fortunes. The aesthetic watchdogs, the so called connoisseurs who believe that opinion is fact and individual taste is a matter of group determination wince at the very suggestion that something like Hannah Montana is worthy of such acclaim. To them, it’s a creative Rapture, a moment when art is usurped by artifice to raise the routine and the redolent from the genre grave. It doesn’t matter if the no-frill filler makes millions of underdeveloped music lovers ecstatic - scholarship demands its intellectual pound of flesh, and there’s lots of pubescent baby fat to go around. 


But why blame the audience for the blanding of the medium when the true culprit is so bloody obvious - and remember, Disney is just responding to some already present fiscal wind. No, the true adversaries in this nightmare of nonthreatening-ness are parents - specifically the generation of guardians who grew up in the ‘70s. For them, Uncle Walt and his old world pen and ink iconography represented the purest panacea to a disco and drugged-out decade overflowing with bad vibes and even worse entertainment options. Thanks to the rerelease boycotts on all their famous films, the full length animated features the company counted on to continue their legacy became the pot of gold at the end of the lineage leprechaun’s rainbow. Now, three decades later, they command that their own progeny bathe in the warm, overworked glow of the new creative order that’s learned to capitalize on - and cannibalize - its past.


You see, Disney actually lives by the motto forwarded in the classic I’m No Fool shorts series. As little Jiminy Cricket crooned, “they play safe for you and me.” The basic formula is this - if it made money before, it will make money again. The amount is usually determined less by the quality and the peeked sense of proprietary nostalgia. When home video came along, the House of Mouse protected it’s product like a mother badger sensing a coyote. This made Moms and Dads dismiss the Ten Commandments and covet the Hell out of the rapidly OOP videotapes (and later, DVDs). They needed them for two very important reasons. One, they represented the high end of kid vid oriented amusement. Unlike the infomercial-esque Saturday morning fare, which tended to hide its charms in mechanical cartooning and lax production value, Mickey had a patina of quality.


The second element was even more important - it held the wee ones in rapt attention. Compared to the crap pouring out of the boob tube, the gorgeous drawings and backdrops that Disney excelled at gave children their first taste of true eye candy - and their sugar addicted brains drank it up. As more and more titles became available, the suits suggested extended the more popular series. While recent policy changes have put the kibosh on such direct-to-video revamps, the company learned a valuable lesson: the more you give the world weary adult and their biological responsibilities, the greater the returns…and the need…and the vicious cycle.


Now, there’s the Disney Channel. Instead of having to put in a disc or fire up some aging technology, you can hit the remote and soak your soul in 24/7 House of Mouse fodder. It’s all there - the old cartoons, the new revisions, the original programs, and the trends in progress. Hannah Montana’s rise to record returns is a subject left for another time, another place. After all, little girls like to think in lockstep with one another, and too many careers can be chalked up to such a mob mentality. But the true culprit remains the parent, the people who can’t say “NO”, the individuals who substitute prescriptions for discipline and wish fulfillment for actual interpersonal connections.


After all, one misguided mom let her daughter submit a series of lies in essay form (including the death of a fictional father in Iraq) just to win tickets to Ms. Cyrus’ group hug. When confronted, she claimed innocence, then argued that her choice was not really fraud - it was a creative chance at making her demanding daughter happy. Better minds can dissect the ethics of said decision, but it points to the real problem. If adults were not willing to part with hundreds of their hard earned dollars to feed the need of kids who’ve achieved said want out of endless, unsupervised hours in front of the TV, there’d be no demand. Without demand, no mania. Without mania, no phenomenon. And without the phenomenon, no windfall.


Like the stereotypical miser rubbing his wrinkled hands together at the thought of another possible penny, Disney must love every controversial, craze-fueling second. Even the recent disclosure of a Hannah/Miley double (used to facilitate a costume change) did very little damage to the ever increasing cult. It’s no surprise then that the concert film cleaned up at the box office. Parents have been preparing their kids to be such consumers since the minute they flicked on the flat screen. Without a buffer for what the House of Mouse is putting across (there are dozens of ads each day for the movie, including song-long clips to get the toes - and wallets - tapping), without some manner of matured wisdom to wipe the panic away from the apparent peer pressure of being outside the Cyrus loop, the benevolent brainwashing will continue - unabated and undeterred.


So don’t be surprised if Hannah Montana and her safe as sugared sunshine music make a second big weekend splash at the box office. Even with the ‘had to be their first’ crowd over and done with it, the buzz is still loud enough to draw in the fringe and the merely curious. Nothing stimulates sales like a high profile, and it doesn’t look like the media mushroom cloud is going to die down anytime soon. But there has to be a constituency for every hard sell shilling, and Mothers and Fathers around the country have created the perfect, unfiltered sponge to absorb it all. Call it tradition or trickery, but Disney is more than happy to play along. They may have started it all, but someone else keeps the coffers overflowing. After all, very few children have that kind of disposable income. Too bad their parents don’t have as much disposable time.


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Tuesday, Feb 5, 2008

Brad DeLong linked to this dead-on condemnation of the NYT books section by Timothy Burke, in which he makes this excellent point:


What we won’t be paying for (at least not much) in thirty years is literary and cultural reviews and op-ed pieces. Not just because better can be had already online, in many cases, but because the old media ill-serves educated readers in those areas and has always ill-served them. This brings us back to the ethics and aesthetics of the closed world of editorial elite and the literati that used to exist unchallenged. Now we have choices, and our choices will proliferate still further as time goes on. We don’t have to settle for the choices that come out of small incestuous circle-jerk of New York editors, from their dispensing of favors through their immediate social networks.


Reporting stories is hard work: it involves long hours tracking people down and patiently asking them questions, it involves awkward confrontations with people who don’t want to make news, it involves transcribing recordings and filing lifeless copy because one’s ego is not meant to interfere with the information. There’s a reason these people are paid and why their work is paid for. Having opinions on the other hand just requires curiosity, concentration, and a talent for expressing oneself in a clear and/or lively fashion. Many people have these abilities, which are highly enjoyable to exercise. Hence opinion will proliferate on the internet, to our collective benefit.


And having opinions, moreover, will hopefully cease once and for all to be a means of fantasizing that one belongs to the Algonquin Round Table, as it may have seemed when there weren’t media in which ordinary people could express their opinions widely and publicly, or for us to search for them or run into them, say, on Amazon. Back then, being aggressively opinionated seemed a bit more tinged with pretension, with fantasies of self-aggrandizement. Now there’s no need to pretend or posture; you can just broadcast your opinions and see if anyone cares. Now, one can’t even imagine that it is possible to bluster one’s way into some elite literati with nothing but opinions. And the mechanisms of that particular fantasy—of preserving a critical elite—need no longer hold the public forum for the discussion of art hostage anymore.


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Tuesday, Feb 5, 2008

Mad Magazine Presidential Cartoons.

Mad Magazine cartoon

Mad Magazine cartoon


The New York Times reports today that Mad Magazine’s next issue will feature a series of lampoons by newspaper cartoonists.


“Why George W. Bush Is in Favor of Global Warming,” a two-page spread that the magazine calls an exposé, has been illustrated by 10 Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonists. They try to offer reasons why environmental apocalypse might be a good thing for President Bush, with observations like, “His worries about how future generations will remember his presidency won’t matter if there are no future generations.” Other potential upsides are that Iraq could literally be melted off the earth, and rising oceans could submerge lefty strongholds like New York, Boston and San Francisco. The artists include Mike Peters, who won the Pulitzer in 1981 for his work in The Dayton Daily News in Ohio, and Matt Davies, who won in 2004 for The Journal News of White Plains.



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Monday, Feb 4, 2008


By Wednesday, it will probably all be over. The pundits will be hoarse and the electorate sore and scarred. Eight whole months before the rest of the so-called democracy can actually have their say in who becomes President, Super Tuesday will set a stage that few faltering campaigns can recover from. In a contest that’s seen both fields narrowed down to two questionable contenders, the votes cast this day will determine everything - momentum, money, endorsements, delegates, and perhaps most importantly, public perception. If you’re Mitt Romney, alleged Conservative savior, and you loose to many of those Red State reactionaries, no amount of flip flopping will revive your reverse Reaganism. And for Hillary Clinton, it’s time to put that frontrunner fallacy to the test. If Obama can keep in lockstep, their showdown may have to be solved on the convention floor. It’s all part of the process. It’s all part of politics. 


Ahh… politics. That creator of strange bedfellows. That seducer of the honest and the well intentioned. That corrupt bastion of bad policies, faulty execution, and spin doctored excuses for both. Every couple of years it seems the representative form of our government gets the grand idea that people actually believe that their voice counts, and so they set about pandering—sorry, CAMPAIGNING—to bring the citizenry to the issues that the lobbyists find most important. Outrage is amplified over insignificant social dicta while truth is tempered by ideological based perspective. It’s all in service of a sinister cabal in which power cannibalizes and feeds itself, a non-stop frenzy of false pride and implied dominance. In the end, the result is a malfeasant machine that manufactures its own magnitude and perpetually pleases only those who can provide its omnivorous fetid fuel.


But wait, you don’t believe that one man/one vote is a lost cause? You think that a sincere and straightforward candidate can rise up out of the glad-handing quagmire that is this onerous organism and avoid the behind the scenes manipulation of his or her party’s protectorate to actually serve their constituency? Well, Mr. and Mrs. America, you need a quick lesson in the realities of the Republic, and there’s no better place to start than with the many movies made on the subject. Indeed, film has, over the decades, found many ways to highlight the hypocrisy and expose the evil boiling just below the surface of the scandal-plagued political process. No sour subject has avoided the cinematic vox populi, from nation altering atrocities like Watergate and the JFK assassination to the standard stratagem of dirty tricks and the always scandalizing subject of sex.


Perhaps the best example of such an anti-politico polemic is 1972’s Year of the Yahoo. What? What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of this film? Perhaps you were expecting All the President’s Men? Primary Colors? The Manchurian Candidate? Well, if you took a smattering of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, mixed in a smidgen of standard exploitation, and sprinkled the entire enterprise with a heaping helping of hominy and hambone, you’d have Herschell Gordon Lewis’ long lost masterpiece of down home despotism and the media’s unpardonable ability to influence events. With a narrative fresh out of today’s headlines and a tone as cynical as a grad student’s weblog, Lewis lifts the lid off the muckraking ridiculousness that is our political process, and even provides a few toe-tapping musical PSAs along the way.


Our story begins when the incredibly liberal and virtually unbeatable Senator Burwell comes up for re-election. Angry over his left-leaning ideals, the sitting President of the United States wants Burwell defeated. He even handpicks his own rube for the job: strumming and grinning goober Hank Jackson, famous in both fields of music: country and western. Sending a triumvirate of trained pollsters and media men into the bumpkin’s backwoods locale, the Corruptor in Chief hopes to help the honky-tonk hick win more than his fair share of the illiterate Appalachian vote. But the glad-handing Governor and his backside smooching sidekick think this corn pone crooner ain’t got a chance in Chattanooga of success. They fail to take his candidacy seriously, and spend most of their days giggling over the lopsided poll numbers.


It’s not long, however, before a sleazy, slick ad campaign and a constant playlist of public pandering, philosophically fascist songs has Hank labeled a wholesome homeboy by the neo-conservative race baiters within his constituency. His TV appearances, complete with some finger snappin’, demographically accurate musical numbers, increase his image of earnestness and elect-ability. Indeed, it looks like Jackson will win the gerrymander, even when a rent strike divides his bluegrass bandwagon and unsettles his perfectly polished coalition. As Hank continues to tow the prejudiced party line, his hen pecker of a girlfriend sides with the agitators. It takes dozens of underhanded shenanigans, a sexual assault and a clear case of conscience—not to mention a lonesome ballad or two—to help Hank regain his integrity and to determine, once and for all, if it’s really The Year of the Yahoo.


Indeed, Yahoo is a real rarity amongst supposed skin and sin exploitation films, especially the one’s made by Mr. Blood Feast himself. Instead of some sleazy exposé in which naughtiness and nudity are the only salient selling points, what we have here is a really great movie with an incredibly well written script, a narrative that navigates the truths about government in a way most mainstream efforts would likely avoid. Existing outside the confines of an oppressive studio system, capable of saying anything and everything he wants, screenwriter Allen Kahn creates an astute, perceptive dissection of the entire cynical candidacy process. It’s a plot that demonstrates how gaining elected office in the United States is not a matter of ethics or integrity but merely showmanship and selfless pandering to the public. Measuring up favorably against directorial heavyweights like Mike Nichols and Elia Kazan, Lewis’ political potboiler about a podunk country singer candidate being mass marketed to his population of peons feels as new and astute now as when it was made.


Unfortunately, a hundred image consultants doing soundbite surgery at a suicidal rate would have a hard time getting the registered voter hyped about Claude King. Yes, he can carry a tune, but he can’t carry a movie. His “wish I was George Jones” persona filled with ‘golly-gees’ and hair cream just can’t seem to slink beyond the initial line reading level. He’s like any other non-actor trying to put on the performance. His halting, half-baked believability leeches every available drop of drama out of his dilemma.  Still, his “h-yuck yuck” yokelism works wonderfully within the movie. He comes across as a complete innocent made a meaningful man of the people. Actually, about the worst thing you can say about this production is that its low budget, non-professional cast aspects tend to show through more than usual. Funny how good writing will do that. Still, if you never thought that you’d experience high-class social consciousness and shrewd political satire in a surreal pseudo-grindhouse goof, then step right up and cast your ballot for The Year of the Yahoo. It’s no more ridiculous than the arrogant stumping that’s passing itself off as self-determination this Super Tuesday cycle.



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Monday, Feb 4, 2008

The bookmarking site de.licio.us as a search tool.

Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson trains his always sharp eye on the possible acquisition of Yahoo! by Microsoft. The question marks that are zinging through my mind are attached to two companies Yahoo! acquired, the photo sharing site Flickr and the bookmarking site De.licio.us. It might not be too outlandish to claim that de.licio.us is becoming the central nervous system of the internet. As blogs are co-valent bonds held together with permalinks to media stories, de.licio.us is the “glue” that holds archives together. I’m enormously inspired and stimulated by the blogs Detritus by Dana Bateman and Bldgblog by Geoff Manaugh. But I’m equally inspired by what they’re reading as well as writing and I’ve subscribed to their lists on de.licio.us.


I hadn’t really thought about de.licio.us as a search tool until I read Fred Wilson’s observations,


Before delicious was sold to Yahoo!, I really wanted to see if we could make the delicious search service a major player in the search business. It seemed to me that the best way to keep delicious free to use and free of advertising was to use the data everyone was providing to offer a “people powered” search engine.


Fred Wilson describes de.licio.us on this archive post from his blog.


 


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