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Wednesday, Dec 26, 2007

Just a quick note that my list of best music journalism of ‘07 will appear in PopMatters in a few weeks- I’m makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice, etc..  As for New Year’s resolutions… I want to try to keep concentrating on my writing and editing so that hopefully I’ll become better at each (which means my reissue project work is still on hiatus).  Also, I’ll try to make a better effort not to be too disgusted and snobby about mainstream artists with abhorrent personalities- after all, I do like Amy Winehouse but I draw the line at Britney.  Hopefully, I can also report here about some positive things happening in the biz and some good role models instead of just ranting about the evils of the RIAA or FCC (which should both go to hell and burn).  Have a good holiday and I’ll see you online in ‘08.


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Wednesday, Dec 26, 2007

This item from BusinessWeek about Southwest Airlines’ recent adjustments highlights a dilemma between treating people fairly and treating them equally:


When Southwest Airlines (LUV) rolled out its new business fares and boarding procedures in early November, the carrier’s blog quickly became crowded with comments. Nearly 500 impassioned remarks have been posted recently about the changes, which shook up Southwest’s longstanding first-come, first-served boarding policy. The old method often meant long waits in line at the gate. The new way assigns passengers a specific place in line and gives priority to frequent travelers and people who pay extra for “business select” fares. Families with small children who don’t check in early now wait longer to board.


To me, these sound like sensible changes. Who wants long waits at the gate? Isn’t waiting in the insane security line with your shoes off and your pants falling down indignity enough? First-come, first-serve makes sense on the Greyhound (though watch out for the ex-cons), but when you pay hundreds of dollars to travel somewhere, you should be able to book a seat. It makes much more sense to fill the seats in the order that they are purchased, or (most economists would likely argue) to use variable pricing to induce customers to pay extra for the privilege of securing advantageous seats. What is most fair, in terms of being most economically efficient, is to let each seat fetch whatever airlines can get for them. But when you sit beside someone on the same flight, enjoying a comparable square foot of personal space, and find out they paid hundreds of dollars less than you for the opportunity, this doesn’t seem so fair. It seems like some kind of discrimination has taken place and that you’ve been had. At that point, a customer is likely to think, What, is he better than me? Why should he pay less than me for the same thing? Same goods, same price: It seems the democratic way.


Hence Southwest customers don’t like that some customers can buy or travel their way into preferential treatment. Part of what travelers had paid for in flying Southwest, apparently, is the leveling experience of having to scramble for seats at departure time. It was a way to purchase an ersatz egalitarianism, since it stood in stark contrast to the first-class, second-class, etc., seating systems at other airlines. Getting that first row seat on a Southwest flight because you camped out at the gate and earned it was a way of erasing extraneous advantages, of getting a perk that is ordinarily unreachable to those who can’t afford to spend a fortune. What Southwest offered was an escape from money-based meritocracy, an escape from having what you are willing to spend serve as a proxy for your worthiness. Of course, most of these same consumers want precisely the opposite from their employers—they want to be rewarded specially for their merit and for their special talents. Perhaps this inconsistency is a way that consumerism helps capitalist democracies smooth over the perpetual conflict between justice and equality, or to put it another way, between equal opportunity and equal outcomes. As part of the production cycle, we want meritocracy, we want disparate outcomes to reflect our different abilities, ambitions, and efforts. But in the consumption cycle that occurs simultaneously, we want the illusion of egalitarianism, of an equal outcome regardless of effort or ability—we want the shortcuts and the conveniences to the feeling that no one else’s money is better than our own.


But that doesn’t take into account positional goods, which people consume to specifically destroy the spirit of egalitarianism. Positional goods allow us to express the class prerogatives and inherited advantages that distort our opportunities in general in the realm of consumption, where the market would seem to afford the same opportunities to all. The illusion of the democratic marketplace is useful to a point—to keep a class-riven society complacent through the magic of purchasing power—but beyond that point it is far more lucrative to exploit class insecurities, to manufacture scarcity and sell the thrill of exclusivity while fattening profit margins.


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Monday, Dec 24, 2007


For 25 December, here are the films in focus:


The Great Debaters [rating: 7]


As a movie, The Great Debaters misses too many possibilities, and harps on too many ancillary issues, to be stellar. It’s solid, but that’s all.

Sometimes, a movie can be too ambitious. It strives to take on so many heavyweight issues and important causes that it ends up underselling each and every one. The story of all black Wiley College and its historic win over the University of Southern California in a 1935 university debate challenge sounds like the stuff of a surefire inspirational spectacle. There’s human interest, compelling characters, hot button historical context, and an attractive “overcoming adversity” angle. Toss in the always dramatic issue of race, and you’ve paved your way to awards season glory with nothing but the best intentions. read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep [rating: 6]


When one thinks of wholesome family entertainment, the concept of merging ET with a World War II adventure seems slightly surreal. Yet that’s exactly what British author Dick King-Smith did when he created The Water Horse. Using the myth of the Loch Ness monster as a starting point, and borrowing liberally from Spielberg circa little aliens and Empire of the Sun, this slightly convoluted kid’s tale wants to be all cute and cuddly as well as realistic to the trials and tribulations facing England during the Nazi Blitz. Director Jay Russell, who worked some kind of middling magic on his previous directorial efforts - My Dog Skip, Tuck Everlasting - seems thrown by the competing plotlines. The tone shifts wildly from “aw shucks” corniness to downright danger as little Angus MacMorrow (an annoying Alex Etel) tries to help Baby Nessie avoid mean military men and ever present capture. Standing along the sidelines, looking concerned, are Ben Chaplin (as a handyman with a past) and Emily Watson (as Mom, the harried housekeeper). The wee ones will probably enjoy the opening acts, but once the creature (nicknamed Crusoe) grows up, the finale filled with depth charges and menace will be way too much.


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Monday, Dec 24, 2007

The Great Debaters [dir. Denzel Washington]


Sometimes, a movie can be too ambitious. It strives to take on so many heavyweight issues and important causes that it ends up underselling each and every one. The story of all black Wiley College and its historic win over the University of Southern California in a 1935 university debate challenge sounds like the stuff of a surefire inspirational spectacle. There’s human interest, compelling characters, hot button historical context, and an attractive “overcoming adversity” angle. Toss in the always dramatic issue of race, and you’ve paved your way to awards season glory with nothing but the best intentions.


So why does Denzel Washington’s most recent turn both before and behind the camera, the crudely labeled The Great Debaters, seem so shallow? Why does a story that should soar plays as stodgy, grounded, and lacking in the basics of insight? It could be the star’s limited experience behind the lens. After all, he’s only directed one other film - 2002’s Antwone Fisher - and the lack of expertise means he’s more journeyman than genius. There is very little visual or artistic flair here as he barely skims the surface of the subjects being explored. Of course, it’s not all his fault. Screenwriter Robert Eisele substitutes grandstanding for guts, going for the cheap shot vs. the choice moment. The result is a message movie that unnecessarily stacks the deck in favor of feelings that no one would ever challenge.


Young James Farmer Jr. (a revelatory turn by young Denzel Whitaker) is desperate to be on the Wiley College debate team. At 14, he’s the youngest student at the school, where his father (Forrest Whitaker, no real life relation) is President. Into his life comes three compelling figures. One is teacher Mel Tolson (an oddly disheveled Washington), the inspirational head of the forensics squad. In his spare time, the Professor champions the rights of sharecroppers and supports Communism. The others are fellow students Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and the sultry Samantha (Jurnee Smollett). He’s a womanizing drunkard, spending far too much time at out of the way juke joints. She’s a big city gal with even bigger personal dreams.


Together, they form the basis of a team that succeeds beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Of course, there is trouble and intolerance all around. Yet even in the dangerous Jim Crowe South, they manage to make a name for themselves - so much so that Harvard comes calling, issuing a challenge: be the first ever black university to take on the prestigious Boston college. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up - even if events conspire to make the journey more difficult than it should be. 


Right away, the gratuitous manipulation is noticeable. Wiley did not debate the 317 year old institution back in the ‘30s, and the team’s triumph over USC was undermined by charges that the competition fell outside the parameters of the proper governing bodies. Both facts find no purchase in this overly earnest exercise. The filmmakers argue that the modifications keep the ‘spirit’ of the story intact. Truthfully, it only makes things maudlin and melodramatic. Since we’ll instantly care about these kids no matter what (bigotry has that kind of sway over an audience) there is no need to make the triumph any bigger, the stakes any higher. Yet that’s exactly what The Great Debaters does.


Similarly, Washington is far more interested in showing Texas as a raging hotbed of horrifying injustice than dealing with the intricacies of debate. There’s a diabolical drawling sheriff (John Heard) who has “failure to communicate” written all over his puffy red face (never mind the neck) and a typical Southern citizenry who use gentility to mask outright personal disgust. We even get the mandatory moment when the educated, erudite black man - in this case, the direct and dignified university president - gets demeaned by a couple of card carrying bumpkins, the better to establish the obvious social dynamic at play.


Let’s face it - racism is a repugnant part of our nation’s notoriety, and no story like this can avoid the subject. But you’d figure with individuals behind the scenes like Washington, Whitaker, and producer Oprah Winfrey, there’d be more thought behind how it’s portrayed. Instead of a constant, the prejudice around Wiley appears like an occasional inconvenience. The only time the fear factor works is during a late night drive when the team comes upon a particularly disturbing lynching. The mob mentality is pure evil incarnate.


In addition, you’d figure a film about the power of words would have something more solid to say on the subject. But aside from a midpoint putdown of a student’s desire to know more about Tolson, and the last act oration, the speeches are constantly compromised. Washington wants to have it all - the great performances, the stellar cultural commentary, the obvious underdog vs. the establishment take down, the smaller interpersonal moments that make a movie sing. And while his cast is quite capable and willing to work with him, (young Whitaker is especially good, encompassing great wisdom while still lost in an adolescent’s torn psyche), he shutters their performances. In its place are questions left unanswered and inferences all but unexplored.


Still, what’s on the screen is engaging and interesting, almost from rote. We know where the movie is going from the minute the team is announced, and the dynamic between the students is as clear cut as broken glass. There will be petty jealously, personal doubts, and the last act decision to rise above both. The debate scenes feel truncated and underdeveloped, as if the creative team figured no one would sit through an actual exchange of ideas. It’s a mainstream, middle of the road approach that keeps this film from finding the inspiration inside the situation.


And yet we cheer. We want Wiley to win, to take down the decent (if slightly stuffy) Harvard men and show them that color creates no boundaries, just plausible positivity. We enjoy the acting and delight in seeing fresh new faces tear into the established stars. There are moments of great joy, great sorrow, great interest, and great contrivance here. Oddly enough, only the debaters themselves wind up being similarly grand. As a movie, The Great Debaters misses too many possibilities, and harps on too many ancillary issues, to be stellar. It’s solid, but that’s all.


 



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Monday, Dec 24, 2007

In time for the holidays, BusinessWeek wrote about a service called Catalog Choice that will try to get your name off catalog mailing lists. It turns out that is not as straightforward a task as it seems.


when an activist Web site called Catalog Choice contacted the likes of L.L. Bean, Williams-Sonoma (WSM), and Harry & David and asked them to take thousands of people off their mailing lists, the retailers knew they had a public-relations problem.
How did they respond? Some—mostly outdoorsy brands like L.L. Bean and Lands’ End (SHLD)—made soothing noises. Others blew off the Web site (and subsequently, the people declining their catalogs), and have done nothing with the names.


You think you wouldn’t need an “activist” service for this, that expressing a wish not to be pestered by mail wasn’t a form of activism. It would seem as though you could simply request that the company stop wasting time, postage, and paper by refraining from sending you a catalog you don’t wish to receive. But catalog merchants, as persistent as debt collectors in pursuing their aims, apparently know better than their prospective customers what those customers really want.


L.L. Bean says it has removed some of the names on Catalog Choice’s list, but is still evaluating it for accuracy. The company wouldn’t say how many names it had removed or how long the evaluation would take. Williams-Sonoma, which also distributes the Pottery Barn (WSM) catalog, says it “is still figuring out the right thing to do for our customers” and has only analyzed samples of Catalog Choice’s list.



The right thing to do? What is there to “figure out” about a person saying, “Please stop sending me catalogs”? But retailers know that people say one thing—“I want to save,” “I care about the environment”—and do another when they, in the privacy of their own homes, are confronted with pretty pictures and insinuating fantasies. Knowing this, nothing short of a restraining order would stop the retailers from sending the catalogs. Like all direct mail operators, they don’t care what the recipients say. They only abide by the mathematics of the proposition. If the profit from sales closed through the mailings outweighs the costs of sending out the catalogs, they will continue to do it. And with the microtargeting available, the math can be more precise, they can likely track the sales returns on catalogs send to a specific zip code, maybe an address. Hence, if people don’t want catalogs, they probably need to stop shopping.


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