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by PopMatters Staff

11 Sep 2008

PopMatters gave The Old Believers’ Eight Golden Greats an “8”. “The Old Believers have built a cozy, comfortable world—strange but at the same time utterly familiar—and it’s one where you want to spend more time,” writes Maura Walz.

Keeley Boyle and Nelson Kempf settle in to share some of their strange worlds with PopMatters 20 Questions.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Keeley Boyle Dr. Zhivago.
Nelson Kempf I’ve never cried in my life. Horton Hears a Who put me damn close, though.

2. The fictional character most like you?
KB Wendy from Peter Pan.  I’ve always been terrified of growing up.  I started an anti-adolescence club in 4th grade, and swore I wouldn’t go through it.  I also promised myself I’d be playing with my dolls until I was 40. 
NK No way, dudes. Questions like that scare me.

3. The greatest album, ever?
KB Flying Cowboys by Rickie Lee Jones.
NK Ummmm. Trout Mask Replica! and Blood on the Tracks and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Kings of the Wild Frontier and Sexy Back? And Imperial Bedroom.  And also, The Fugs First Album.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
KB Both.
NK Star Trek is great and all, but definitely, definitely Star Wars

5. Your ideal brain food?
KB National Geographic.
NK French New Wave movies at night, Tape Op magazine in the car, weird cheeses at lunch.  But mainly, that peace of mind that comes once a whole moon when life actually seems to be moving at the proper pace and everything seems to fit just perfectly and you know you’re exactly where you should be.  I can write songs like a motherfucker when I tap that shit.

by Jason Gross

11 Sep 2008

Admittedly, he has his own vested interest in the topic but MP3Tunes honcho Michael Robertson has an interesting perspective about why label-approved digital music services fail in this article from the Register.  The problem he sees is that the labels make such high financial demands that it’s almost impossible for any music service to recoup enough money to stay in service.  He’s got a good point there.  Even though iTunes is the number one music retailer out there (for the U.S.), Apple makes its money from selling iPods, not from the thin profits they get from selling songs (that’s part of the reason that they don’t want to unlock those little gadgets and give other players/manufacturers the chance to hone in on their biz).  Similarly, big box retailers like Best Buy can deep discount their CD’s and put them in the back of the store because they also are trying to get you to buy more expensive items once you walk into their store (i.e. stereos, TVs, fridges).

What Robertson misses as part of the argument is that the labels aren’t the only players in this game, as he should well know.  For a digi service to offer up music, they need also need the consent of the publishing companies and artists (assuming they have contracts to cover this).  After they all take their share, the services offering up music have even less money coming in from music sales.

Robertson goes on to say that the remedy for the problem of starting a legit digi music business is the courts- once they provide guidance and set precedent, everything will be peachy-creamy.  Obviously, that’s not gonna cut it.  It’ll take years for the courts to sort things out and it’s far from guaranteed that they’ll come up with anything final, much less come to a decision that’s totally beneficial to digi services.

Instead what has to happen is that digi services have to take initiative and negotiate contracts with labels/publishers/artists where all involved can survive financially.  And what would that include?  As they say, if I had the answer, I’d be a rich guy by now.  But… we can still guess at what needs to be done.  Most importantly, the digi biz would have to get a bigger piece of the pie (aka music sales) to survive.  Obviously, the other labels/publishers/artists (aka LPA) wouldn’t be thrilled with this.  They’d point out that they’re doing much better with other digi-biz’s so why should they take less money?  The brash new digi-biz would need to have a convincing answer for this.  If they can’t offer as much dough, maybe they could offer… stock options, some ad revenue?

Another way that this imaginary brash, bold digi-biz could rake in enough dough to survive would be to pick up ideas from other services as they attract consumers (and eventually money) other ways.  As with publications, ad money is important and the digi-biz would have to be creative about the packages that they’ve offer to be attractive.  Also, offering some music, video and interview exclusives would draw in users and with higher web traffic, the digi-biz can wave this in front of advertisers and try to turn that into revenue.

Mind you this is coming from a non-MBA but you get the point.  The digi-biz’s are gonna have to get creative and strike up deals that are more beneficial to them.  If anything I said does help our your biz and provide beneficial, don’t feel embarrassed to give me a gratis account to your wonderful new music service…

by Bill Gibron

10 Sep 2008

There is a fine line between illustration and exploitation. Put another way, there’s a clear delineation between drama and dreck. Dress it up any way you want, but penetration turns the standard soft stuff into hardcore pornography thanks to the flagrant full view factor. Once it’s shown onscreen, the bloom is off that particular motion picture rose, to turn a phrase. So how does one defend the sexualization of children, especially when the elements of such an approach are plastered on a canvas 35mm wide? That’s the question one must confront when examining Alan Ball’s fetid follow-up to American Beauty. And in either form - Towelhead or Nothing is Private - the answers are disturbing and unwelcome.

In all honesty, there is nothing new about this Arab-angled coming of age saga. When she is caught having her pubic hair shaved by her mother’s boyfriend, 13 year old Jasira is sent to live with her strict Lebanese father in Texas. Preferring the suburbs because they are safer, Rifat works for NASA, and while putting on airs of sophistication and patriotism, he burns with a chauvinistic and racist fire. While under his emotional and physically abusive care, Jasira learns about her period, about tampons, about dirty magazines, about masturbation, and about the predatory habits of two new male influences in her life. One is fellow middle schooler Thomas. The other is the family’s next door neighbor - a bigoted reservist with an unhealthy eye on Jasira’s budding sexuality. 

Ball clearly wants to redefine the maturation experience for kids circa the new millennium. He wants to break down barriers, tackle taboos, and in general toss out into the open the private topics and traumas that every young girl faces. It’s the kind of thematic universality that drives both the movie and the semi-autobiographical novel (by Alicia Erian) upon which it is based. There is no real discussion of religion (“we’re Christians, just like everyone in Texas” Jasira chides to a clueless kid) and for a film founded in the first Gulf War, there is precious little politics. No, Towelhead revolves exclusively around sex - menstruation, orgasms, molestation, virginity, blood, condoms, lies, seduction, underage nudity, and the adult manipulations and misunderstandings that occur because of same.

When Larry Clark does it, critics complain. Movies like Kids and Ken Park have been labeled pornographic and offensive, treating the teenage years of its characters like a visit to Caligula’s falling Rome. Towelhead is not that bad. In fact, it’s worse. Clark doesn’t dress up his portrayals in symbolist bullshit, nor does he try to apologize for his film’s hedonistic tone. In his mind, he is telling the world about the reality of youth culture - it’s emphasis on drugs, debauchery, and the decision to overindulge in both. Ball doesn’t dare bring this angle to Towelhead, perhaps because the book doesn’t lend itself to said approach. But when dealing with the horrific consequences of abuse - sexual or physical - it seems disingenuous to spin it within a slick suburban pseudo-satire.

Towelhead never tells us what to think. As we stare at a young girl sitting on the toilet, her period soaked panties filling the screen for all to see, we wonder what the point is. Can Ball really believe that such shock value adds to the effectiveness of his film? Is it merely menses for menses sake, a Clark like truth taken to Tinsel Town fantasy extremes? Something similar happens when the filmmaker focuses on Jasira’s discovery of masturbation. We see her scissor legs strategy in class, while babysitting, in the school cafeteria. It’s not really a question of inappropriateness. It’s an issue of purpose. 

As stated before, this is the kind of film that embraces its own sense of fearlessness, that focuses almost exclusively on how much it can get away with in the name of 2007 social malaise. When Jasira’s father smacks her square in the face, when he bruises her leg and spits on her, we never get the required retort. He’s just a mixed up MAN from the Middle East, that’s all. Similarly, our military pedophile, drooling over Jasira the minute he sees her, gets a last act slice of redemption that’s supposed to soften the blow of his battery. Yet Ball can’t manufacture the necessary outrage or criminal context. Even as Aaron Eckhart is faux fingering 18 year old actress Summer Bashil, it’s like the writer/director never saw There’s Something About Amelia.

Indeed, Towelhead‘s biggest crime remains the blasé belief that audiences want to see a 13 year old engage in well defined adult behaviors. Perhaps Ball thought that he was creating the ultimate adult nightmare, an experience in which everything you suspected about your barely tween son or daughter was disturbingly true. For a seminar of sociologists, maybe but not for a crowd just coming down from Summer’s popcorn swelter. It’s hard to imagine adolescents flocking to this film, especially given the sheepish, almost consensual way Jasira treats her ordeal. Dad beats her? She simply bows her head. Mom lays into her about any and every thing? She’s apologetic. Classmates call her all manner of racial epithets? She finally gets up the nerve to hit a neighbor in the arm. That’s courage.

Maybe they are counting on the carnal curiosity factor. After all, a review like this could easily spark the imagination of the more sleaze minded moviegoers in the demo. One can just see a certain kind of teen boy giggling in the back row, digital camera capturing the few brief glimpses of Bashil sans skivvies (she is never shown full on naked)…and let’s not even mention the adults who are titillated by this kind of content. Naturally, there will be apologists, people who can easily overlook elements like age, age, and age to suggest that Ball has tapped into the harsh realities of growing up. Right…and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is a mere lesson in making better guardianship arrangements.

It’s not just that Towelhead is tawdry and tasteless. It’s not the oppressive unrelenting focus on Jasira’s warp speed hormones. It’s not even the notion that someone without a clear frame of reference can proclaim to understand the teen girl experience from the inside out. No, what Ball does here is something similar to an old ‘60s parental caveat - i.e. some things shouldn’t be aired in public. In book form - and especially considering the potential for authenticity from an experienced author’s standpoint - this material may work. Most literature can manage this kind of material because the theater of the mind is so selective and personal. But when given a concrete depiction, the surrounding social/legal/public facets fill in gaps that some of us may not want to see.

In many ways, Towelhead is like Funny Games without the snooty Euro-centric sneer. Ball isn’t out to rub our nose into the notion of middle schoolers gone wild, and the appearance of a hippy dippy couple as cultural conscience toward the end seems to suggest a kind of metaphysical mea culpa. Indeed, the film takes us through some horrifically uncomfortable material only to attempt to make it all better in the end. As the movie moves along, you can literally feel the shift - Eckhart’s sex scene with Bashil is all suggestion, unlike the similarly styled moment between Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in Beauty. But that doesn’t excuse the underage aspect, or the clear come-on/tease element inferred. On some level, Ball appears to suggest Jasira deserves what happens to her. Open up the personal Pandora’s ‘box’ and…

It’s all a matter of taste, of course. Critics are allowed to like or loathe anything that falls into their professional lap. But as with the aforementioned affront by Michael Haneke, Towelhead is provocation for the sake of being sensational. We don’t feel any empathy or come to any clear conclusions. Instead, we spend nearly two hours in voyeuristic disgust as a young girl is ground up like grist for a lax media mill. There is no denying that there is honesty here. But it is buried in a sloppy cinematic strategy that can’t stop fixating on the physicality of its lead. Everything here - from the Busby Berkeley inspired Playboy centerfold photo shoot fantasies to Jasira’s asexual striptease - is meant as nothing more than confrontation. After a while, we simply grow tired of the assault. Too bad Ball and his characters don’t feel the same.

by Rob Horning

10 Sep 2008

Google’s apparent control over the information society in which we live (no, not that information society) has been a robust topic lately, with much fretting over whether search engines have permanently damaged the depth and persistence of our thinking. 3 Quarks Daily linked to this article by Geert Lovink about Google’s having moved us from the society of the spectacle described by DeBord to a “society of the query.” The essay seems to have been dubiously translated into English from another language; otherwise I don’t know how anyone familiar with the subject would report Google’s motto as “Don’t do evil.” Anyway, drawing on computer critic Joseph Weitzenbaum, Lovink notes that the advent of a huge information repository requires

the acquisition of a proper education in order to formulate the right query. It’s all about how one gets to pose the right question. For this one needs education and expertise. Higher standards of education are not attained by making it easier to publish. Weizenbaum: “The fact that anyone can put anything online does not mean a great deal. Randomly throwing something in achieves just as little as randomly fishing something out.” Communication alone will not lead to useful and sustainable knowledge.

But people aren’t “throwing” material online “randomly.” Such a conception betrays the off-hand elitism of much of this sort of criticism, which detests “amateur” contributions mingling with material made by professionals—held accountable by the need to make a living—or some other sort of official who is accountable to the state. In the past, those forms of accountability seemed sufficient to establish “truth”, but of course, that truth was merely a matter of convenience and no guarantee of the Truth. The truth conveyed therein simply aligned automatically with the version the state and other powerful institutions wanted to propagate. Now, in post-modernity, such guarantors of truth are distrusted in part because of all the other contesting voices able to publish their versions. This cacophony leaves some nostalgic for the the days when truth could be force-fed to us.

So naturally, “critical thinking” needs to be taught more effectively to teach us how to process all the information of varying levels of quality, and how to frame queries so the information returned to us is useful to us. Knowing how to search effectively is becoming an important component of our human capital, along with the other intangible aspects of the habitus that facilitate success. But in order for critical thinking to develop, there needs to be a space in which it can be exercised—something akin to a Habermasian public sphere where critical insights can be voiced and tested and, well, critiqued.

The capacity of capitalism to absorb its adversaries is such that, unless all private telephone conversations and Internet traffic became were to become publicly available, it is next to impossible to argue why we still need criticism – in this case of the Internet. Even then, critique would resemble “shareholder democracy” in action. The sensitive issue of privacy would indeed become the catalyst for a wider consciousness about corporate interests, but its participants would be carefully segregated: entry to the shareholding masses is restricted to the middle-classes and above. This only amplifies the need for a lively and diverse public domain in which neither state surveillance nor market interests have a vital say.

The internet is precisely not that. Though anonymous browsing is become more user-friendly, the default mode of internet presence—it many ways its raison d’etre—is to have everything we do logged and publicized. And our primary way of navigating is through shallow searching and sorting rather than through deliberate, exhaustive moves prompted by careful critical thought.

Why? Because of the time crunch brought on by so much accessible culture. Digitization, fomented “cynically” by Google’s various scanning programs, transforms culture into data, which reduces it to its instrumental value in generating profit. A consequence of the accessibility of all this digital stuff is to pressure us into valuing novelty and making efforts to speed up our consumption (which I try to argue here among other posts). Keeping up with culture becomes a matter of opportunity costs; marketers tout novelty to glamorize and boost consumerism and technology facilitates our quick flitting around from subject to subject, which makes us believe we derive more utility from the practice than from slow reading. It becomes easier and easier to spiral into dilettantism.

So the war against Google is war over time. As Lovink puts it:

What is necessary is a reappropriation of time. At the moment there is simply not enough of it to stroll around like a flaneur. All information, any object or experience has to be instantaneously at hand. Our techno-cultural default is one of temporal intolerance. Our machines register software redundancy with increasing impatience, demanding that we install the update. And we are all too willing to oblige, mobilized by the fear of slower performance. Usability experts measure the fractions of a second in which we decide whether the information on the screen is what we are looking for. If we’re dissatisfied, we click further. Serendipity requires a lot of time.

I wonder if that’s true though—sometimes serendipity happens in an instant, particularly when we don’t know what we are looking for and might view anything that’s kind of cool as destiny. But it does seem to me that reducing our temporal intolerance—ridding ourselves of data rage—is key, though it’s basically counter to every trend in our culture, all of which encourage convenience and rapid consumption.

Lovint argues that we should stop fighting the inevitable:

Rather than trying to defend ourselves against “information glut”, we can approach this situation creatively as the opportunity to invent new forms appropriate for our information-rich world.

But in this article, there are no hints as to what those new forms would be. The only thing that comes to mind is the intellectual equivalent of mashups—link-saturated blog posts like this one, I guess.

by Jason Gross

10 Sep 2008

After demanding standard pricing for their music and TV offerings, Apple finally blinked to bring NBC back to their fold.  As this CNET story reports, this might mean that music labels might make similar demands about flexible pricing, seeing that Apple is willing to bend if it means losing a huge chunk of high profit content.  In the case of NBC, they demanded that some of their TV shows not be sold at iTunes for standard $1.99 price.  Instead, some of their shows will be offered up for 99 cents.  Similarly, record labels have pushed for the option for raising or lowering prices- recent hits would be priced above the standard 99 cent charge for songs while some oldies would be discounted below that.  Apple’s believed that they found the sweet spot for digital sales by keeping the price uniform and point to the fact that they’ve passed Walmart as the biggest music retailer out there now.  It’s hard to argue with success but the reason that Apple’s on top now is that they have the goods, courtesy of the major labels who offer up their songs there.  Apple’s gamble has been that they can call the shots because they think that the labels won’t pull out their goods from iTunes and risk losing an increasing source of revenue in a biz that’s sinking otherwise.  The NBC decision might give the labels some leverage in this battle and get Apple to back down with them also.  The question now is how far entrenched each side is in this battle and how much they’re willing to give up. It’ll be an interesting confrontation to say the least…

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