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Tuesday, Aug 14, 2007

In its most recent issue, BusinessWeek has a package of articles on the future of work, and not surprisingly, these mostly adopt the viewpoint of management, regarding labor as a datastream of productivity and costs. This is a common euphemistic practice, to conceal the pain of workers behind dehumanizing terminology—empowered workers become “a tight labor market” that’s responsible not for a improved standard of living for workers (for that all credit must go to management’s brilliant efforts to extract more productivity from said labor market without increasing costs) but only inflationary pressure and macroeconomic danger. This damned tight labor market is keeping the Fed from cutting interest rates and giving the stock market a boost; if only more workers would be laid off and the reserve army of the unemployed were beefed up a little bit, then we’d have ripe conditions for the good kind of growth—get more of the fruits of economic growth in the hands of passive investors rather than the workers producing it.


It’s enough to make one want to dream of a world without a parasitic management stratum, and interestingly enough, the BusinessWeek package offers a hint of one form such a world might take. One article described Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, which seeks to match people with free time with simple jobs that can be done on computers but only with human guidance. The name Mechanical Turk is a reference to the famed hoax where a little chess genius hid inside a cabinet and pretended to be a machine. In other words, one got from the Mechanical Turk human expertise in the guise of a machine. So Amazon calls it artificial artificial intelligence—it allows corporations to use computer networks to harness uniquely human skill sets. But the crux of Amazon’s program is to liberate work from the managerial structures in which it is customarily contained—rather than show up at an appointed time and labor for a set number of hours for a by and large inflexible wage on the same tasks over and over again, the Mechanical Turk system portends relations of production in which workers would elect to work only as much as they chose to on tasks and for wages they basically select from a menu that takes into account their particular skills. This is how Amazon describes it (and I apologize in advance for the surfeit of business-ese in this excerpt):


Humans are much more effective than computers at solving some types of problems, like finding specific objects in pictures, evaluating beauty, or translating text. The Amazon Mechanical Turk web service gives developers a programmable interface to a network of humans to solve these kinds of problems and incorporate this human intelligence into their applications.
For businesses and entrepreneurs who want tasks completed, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service solves the problem of getting work done in a cost-effective manner by people who have the skill to do the work. The service provides access to a vast network of human intelligence with the efficiencies and cost-effectiveness of computers. Oftentimes, the cost of establishing a network of skilled people to do the work outweighs the value of completing it. By turning the fixed costs into variable costs that scale with business needs, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service eliminates this barrier and allows work to be completed that before was not economical.
For people who want to earn money in their spare time, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web site solves the problem of finding work that they can do wherever and whenever they want.


I bolded what seems to me the key notion here, that capital can thrive by getting rid of the overhead costs of committing to maintaining a workforce. That sounds like a bad thing unless you are enamored of the utopian possibility that this will mean much more flexibility for labor as well as producers. If you are sufficiently optimistic, you can see in work distributed over the internet an end to the sites of exploitation, the factories and offices where surplus value is extorted. And with surplus value remaining with the worker, we effortlessly move out of the era of capitalist relations into something new.


Needless to say, there is reason to be skeptical of this revolution-free path to more egalitarianism and better quality of life for workers. Turning the internet into a giant worldwide labor market is likely to cause massive amounts of “dislocation” Currently, a class divide exists between those who have access to a feel comfortable in the internet environment, and those who are afraid of breaking the entire computer by pressing the wrong button and erasing everything. The divide is in part generational but is also a matter of income and autonomy—the income to have access to the latest technological innovation, and the autonomy to teach oneself how to use it successfully. That autonomy may come from higher education, or it may be part of the apparatus that comes with a bourgeois upbringing. At any rate, the technological dispersal of work will only benefit those equipped to navigate the system, and the amount of work to be dispersed in this way will likely remain a scarce commodity, as a larger and larger bulk of jobs in the future will consist of face-to-face services—care for the elderly, processing food, nursing, etc.


Still, it’s pleasant to dream about being able to log on for a few hours to replenish your account doing whatever task that’s available that looks intriguing and then spending the rest of your time furthering your own projects, perhaps generating tasks you’d be willing to pay someone else for help with. We could all be middle managers, grunt workers and entrepreneurs all at once, depending on the time of day and the energy we’re inclined to invest.


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Monday, Aug 13, 2007


It’s a week of extremes at the old B&M. On the one hand you have the arrival of the latest opus by a man who makes more than just movies. Indeed, his latest work is as unruly and brilliant as ever. On the other side you have an obscure TV cartoon that made the transition to celluloid in a rather nefarious fashion. The city of Boston will never forget the fear generated by its viral marketing strategy, a plan that ended up being mistaken for a terrorist attack. In between, you’ve got an unfathomable box office hit, an unfairly dismissed thriller, an amazing documentary, and a collection of desirable double dips. Put them all together and the 14th day of August is looking like yet another retail burden on the old bundle. If you can only afford a since disc this week however, make sure you pick up our SE&L selection. It represents the best that the modern film movement has to offer:


David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE


It’s a shame that this director’s output is so infrequent that it becomes an event when he makes a new movie. What’s even more disturbing is that no one would allow the man the artistic freedom to produce and market the final results the way he wanted. David Lynch may be a lot of things – difficult, arcane, incomprehensible – but to deny his impact on cinema, and the amazing films he’s made in the process, seems downright foolish. In fact, many found this latest offering (a shot on digital experiment melding many divergent storylines and characters into a single thematic statement) to be his most daring and definitive to date. Leave it to the jaded genius to self distribute the work, carting it around to theaters all over the country for limited engagements. The DVD promises insights into the production, as well as providing a chance for those not lucky enough to live along the roadshow’s stops to witness its wonders themselves. Most will be flummoxed, while a few will be rewarded. All will have to appreciate a true creator at the top of his game.

Other Titles of Interest


Back to School (Extra Curricular Edition)


No one pegged professional comedian (in a good way) Rodney Dangerfield as a movie star. But after stealing Caddyshack from everyone else in it, he was headed for solo vehicles of his own. While Easy Money is much funnier, this oldster goes to college crack-up is definitely worth discovering. This was Rodney in his prime, banging on all six cylinders and never underestimating his growing fanbase. After this, it was all pretty much down hill.

51 Birch Street


Like Capturing the Friedmans without the horrible hot button issues, this oddly insightful documentary finds filmmaker Daniel Block discovering the truth about his parents’ 54 year long marriage. Within three months of the death of his mother, his father catches up with a past secretary, and the two marry almost immediately. Then Block discovers his mom’s diaries. What they reveal turns his adult life upside down, and argues for the notion that no one really knows their family.

Taxi Driver: Two Disc Collectors Edition


Travis Bickle is back, and ready to sweep the scum off of New York’s seedy sidewalks. One of Martin Scorsese’s undeniable masterpieces, this look at life on the fringes has been released on DVD a few times before. This presentation promises a bonus disc loaded with additional context. If you don’t already own it, what’s stopping you? This is classic cinema, period. For others, a double dip may be in order.

Wild Hogs


Every year, Hollywood has to publicly humiliate itself by offering some god-awful effort (usually a comedy) and cringe as critics cry foul. But a funny thing happened on the way to this junk pile’s journalistic drubbing – the audience ate it up. Trying to figure out how this slapdash crap became a hit will challenge every fiber of your cinematic being. It is not funny, poorly constructed, and relies almost exclusively on its dim star power to shine.


Vacancy


Amongst all the hype and hoopla surrounding the spring hit 300 and the imminent arrival of Spider-man, this decent little thriller failed to find room on the pop culture radar. Like Disturbia, which opened the week before and earned all the press, this throwback to the days of solid suspense was overrun by the tween take on the material. Here, Kontroll’s Nimrod Antal makes a spectacular Tinsel Town bow. Definitely should be rediscovered on DVD.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Film for Theaters for DVD


To call Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force (part of its Adult Swim nighttime lineup) a “cult” animated series would be an understatement. This show has flown so far under the channel’s routine radar that its elusiveness should be utilized in the creation of future Stealth technology. Still, for those devoted to its deranged surrealism (the show is about a talking trio consisting of a milk shake, some French fries, and a ball of beef), it’s one of the funniest ‘things’ on television. A movie seems like a creative stretch – the series itself only exists in short, 10 minute installments – and the characters do use their inherent abrasiveness to push the limits of their humor. Still, like The Simpsons Movie that finally arrived this Summer, ATHF more than managed the transition intact. Unfortunately, that meant it was still too weird for mainstream appreciation. The DVD promises to deliver even more unglued hilarity. 

 


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Monday, Aug 13, 2007

Reading Henry Treece’s The Green Man, which climaxes in a long spasm of apocalyptic violence—death by sword, buildings on fire, women eaten by pigs, that sort of thing—it’s startling to remember that the author lived out his professional life as a well-liked schoolteacher and after his retirement gave history lectures to children. “He was such a stimulating person to talk to,” commented one librarian less than a month before his death in 1966. Green Man is a mash-up of Hamlet and Beowulf, drunk, savage, breathless, even laughing at its own atrocities, a strange and little-known book.


Treece was a poet before he became a fiction writer. He authored the first lengthy critical assessment of Dylan Thomas (Dylan Thomas: Dog Among the Fairies—Thomas called it, “This stinking book”) and in the late 1930s co-founded an amorphous Romantic movement named the New Apocalyptics. “The New Apocalypse, in a sense, derives from Surrealism,” he wrote in the movement’s manifesto. It was his awareness of Surrealism—a writer’s movement as well as a painter’s, although that’s not how it has been popularly remembered—that lent his historical fiction its air of alien authenticity and strangeness.


It gave him a standpoint from which he could look with equanimity at ancient Europe’s faith in portents and signs. In Treece’s first published novel, The Dark Island, a Belgaic warrior sees his brother shot in the throat, and, unable to comprehend this sudden horror, he believes that a raven comes down from the sky, screaming, “Caradoc, he is calling for you! The blood is coming out of his mouth!” This combination of old imagery, modern shellshock, and Romantic Surreal dreamshock is a bridge Treece would often use to bring his contemporary readers into sympathy with ancient peoples whose mindset would otherwise seem inexplicable. They were human too, he suggests; they understood things differently but their ideas seemed as valid to them as ours seem valid to us.


He has empathy, even, with the dead. In The Great Captains, one corpse “stared up at the sky, pleasantly, as though trying to weight up what sort of day it was going to be. He seemed to have died thinking of the last barley crop ... Medrawt noticed the broken nails of his hand, a hard-working hand ...” and we go on to speculate on this man for half a page, not because he, personally, is a vital part of the story (he isn’t; we don’t even know his name) but because he is human, he is there, part of the world, and it could have been one of the named characters, the ones we like, staring up at the sky, seeming to think about barley crops or “a new milch cow he had bought in the market last week.” Medrawt wonders over him, looking at the marks scratched into his bracelet, considering the possible nationality of his wife (foreigner or native?), and we learn something about the composition of Britain at this point in its history. The idea of Treece as a history teacher, a pupil’s favourite, makes sense when you read passages like this.


His characters are everything a reader would want them to be: tough yet too intelligent not to be weak sometimes, loving or cruel, curious about magic and about the gods (Christian or pagan, which to choose—his Vikings pragmatically dole out a bit of worship to everyone, just in case). His prose voice holds to a backbone of slight bardic formality that seems appropriate to the books’ subject matter without ever descending into thees and thous and other bits of cod-Ye Olde slang. He was always a better author than a poet. His poetry is mannered and outdated for its time. He was fighting against the forces of T.S. Eliot and modernism and the fight hobbled him, leaving him unable to move either forward into the future, or backwards into the past. Prose was his native medium.


He is dead, however. His books are not often reprinted. One day he will be forgotten: at one with the dead Jutes, the lost Picts, and the barley crops of history.


Read Henry Treece’s essay, “Notes on Perception and Vision.”


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Monday, Aug 13, 2007

After a three year wait, the next installment in the Halo franchise is coming closer to its release. Halo 2 earned $125 million its first day and received many ratings above a 9/10 from major video game publications. With this extreme success, Halo 3, the last game of the Halo trilogy, has a bar set very high for itself, and Bungie Studios is quite aware. Halo 3 will be released September 25, 2007.


Multiplayer footage of Halo 3:



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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007


The hot rumor this week, blazing across the Internet at a slightly ironic warp speed, is the talk that none other than Tom Cruise will make a cameo appearance in writer/director J.J. Abrams 2008 Star Trek overhaul. Buzz has it that Scientology’s slightly askew spokesmodel and former A-list superstar will play Christopher Pike from the classic series in this new tween generation take on the material. For those unfamiliar with the original, and therefore best Trek, Pike succeeded Robert April and preceded James T. Kirk as Captain of the Starship Enterprise. Without getting into the mandatory mythology, this troubled character was crucial to setting up the dynamic that would guide the entire Star Trek series, an aesthetic that would focus more on the human element of the narrative than the extraterrestrial spectacle.


Of course, the rumor mill ran into a wall by Friday, the sizzle slowing to a simmer as denials and refutations flew. Yet the excitement that said announcement generated, both pro and con, should be a good sign for the fledgling filmmaker. With positive vibes still surrounding his viral marketing campaign for the giant monster movie codenamed Cloverfield, and the remaining juice generated by Lost, he appears poised to finally fulfill all his geek promise. Taking on Trek is just his latest smooth move. Generating interest in this dying product seems next to impossible, given the last two decades of sub-space overkill. Yet, floating around names like Cruise and Matt Damon (who has consistently denied interest in playing the young Kirk) has spiked some curiosity. And one should never underestimate the power in Trekker nation. They are a defiantly devoted lot.


Yet the entire situation seems shaky at best. Though adding performance power in the name of known actors seems like a sensible way to approach any revamp, the notion that pure celebrity power alone will save Star Trek seems shortsighted at best. Besides, whenever a new person steps in to ‘blow up’ a stagnant situation - film series, TV show – the desire to insert some new life into a franchise fading and losing its life support has its own unique perils. Granted, doing things the old way has resulted in the current situational stasis. More people would rather see George Lucas continue his overwrought Star Wars than experience another go round with Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Carefully considered change is one thing, but transformation merely for transformation’s sake can be just as deadly. So Abrams is either jumpstarting Trek for the next few years, or killing it off in one fell swoop. 


For many, Star Trek remains the gold standard of serious science fiction. With its noble intentions and scholarly scripts (at least, initially) the original series stands as a benchmark of broadcast excellence. Though it died a death too soon for some, the ‘60s celebration of all things futuristic and fair marked a moment when television understood the intelligence of its audience. Cancellation confirmed everyone’s worst fears, and it took nearly a decade before Hollywood recognized the show’s big screen potential. For the uninitiated, Trek was not a confirmed classic from the get go. It received rotten ratings, wandered around syndication, and even tried to revive its fortunes via a beloved Saturday morning cartoon attempt. When Star Wars splashed onto the public consciousness, a young nation hungry for more extraterrestrial adventures leapt onto the Enterprise express. By the time The Motion Picture arrived in theaters, colleges had revived the fantasists’ fortunes, an afternoon with Kirk, Spock and the crew as much a part of the university experience as getting drunk and using your laundry money to buy pizza.


Yet the first film in the eventual franchise proved Trek’s tentative cinematic status. With a general consensus at the time that the film fulfilled the TV show’s financially flummoxed ambitions, current members of Roddenberry nation now feel this first voyage across the landscape was weak at best. Aside from the whole ‘bald headed alien’ element and metal machine mind meld facets, the cast seemed tentative about restarting their space cadet careers almost a decade after being dropped. It explains Leonard Nimoy’s desire to have his character killed off in the mandatory sequel, Wrath of Khan. Of course, the massive moneymaker inspired the actor to return for the rest of the run, getting extra perks like directing opportunities and creative choices.  It was something the other big star – William Shatner – would demand as well. By the time the Next Generation crew were ready to take over, the original series seemed spent.


But that was the great thing about Trek. It could reinvent itself, and did, three more times, hoping that each new version of the standard sci-fi formula would yield a wealth of box office possibilities. But a funny thing happened on the way to this bankable idea – the public started backtracking. As Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise failed to become full blown phenomenon (while, granted, maintaining and in many cases expanding the franchise’s name recognition and fanbase) Captain Picard and his merry menagerie of intriguing characters became the only viable option. As their efforts became more and more meaningless (there really hasn’t been a good Trek flick since First Contact, way back in ’96), the keepers of the glorious dweeb flame appeared lost for inspiration. In fact, as the Internet burbled with self-created content and far more fascinating fan fiction, whatever new course the creators set for the show, it was hard to match the continuous fascination of the devoted.


So will Abrams do any better? Initial portent suggest ‘No’. According to Trek lore, his will be the 11th film made from the same source material. That spells doom, at least if you believe in the odd/even theory of series’ aesthetic appeal. You see, the second (Khan), fourth (Voyage Home), sixth (Undiscovered Country), and eighth (First Contact) offerings in the series are considered classics. The tenth film (Nemesis) is also cited as special since it represents the end of Next Generation’s tour of cinematic duty. On the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, we have the first (Motion Picture), the third (Search for Spock) the fifth (Final Frontier), the seventh (Generations) and the ninth (Insurrection) installments. All but Shanter’s subpar effort (#5) are embraced as flawed yet fascinating, but aficionados tend to agree that this collection of films is lacking the true Trek greatness. By coming in on an odd number, grumbles can already be heard. Abrams may be brilliant, but destiny seems ready to undermine his success. 


The other major strike he has working against him, aside from the obvious numerology, is the prequel concept. It’s near impossible to point to an example of this motion picture subgenre that actually works. From pointless looks at how Leatherface became a monster (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) to the horrid hack jobs that illustrated how Darth Vader went from retard to robot, going back in an established storyline to explain its origins is asking for trouble. It’s not that the concept is impossible to achieve – The Godfather Part II proved that Vito Corleone’s early years as an immigrant could be as effect as the modern material – but the pitfalls one needs to overcome are quite monumental. First, there is audience expectation. Having grown up with Captain Kirk and his able bodied crew for almost 40 years, individuals familiar with the Star Trek myth will be expecting certain things from this start up. The list of possible character issues and factual stepping stones is far too lengthy to recall here, but let’s just say that if Abrams screws them up, the backlash will be ballistic.


Then there’s the still shimmering cloud of celebrity. Star Trek made its original cast into cultural icons, individuals whose star rose above mere fame into something similar to supernova. If they never worked another day after the cult of personality built around them, our team of terrific actors would remain symbols of a sensational series, and emblems of man’s higher goals when it comes to the cosmos. Naturally, none of this has anything to do with the actual stories told, but when you’re looking for someone to match the mannered machismo of William Shatner, the calm cool of Leonard Nimoy, the irascible cragginess of Bones McCoy, or the velvet foxiness of Nichelle Nichols, there’s a whole pile of perception to deal with. Even if the eventual Kirk is everything a fan could hope for, if he doesn’t match the original in some unexplainable, ephemeral way, the disguise will be destroyed. Fans will crucify the choice, and the ultimate repercussions and criticisms will sink any chance this project has of achieving its rejuvenating goals. 


And then there is a bigger question – where does Trek go from here? If Abrams is successful at overcoming all the obstacles and expectations, creating a substantial hit, what does the franchise do then? So they keep making more of these prequel projects, expanding the backstory of the original series in ways the first shows could never have imagined? Will the new movie’s mainstream acceptance jumpstart another TV try, preparing yet another group of actors for the eventual leap to big screen fortunes? Will Abrams walk away, leaving future projects in the hands of others who, like the films before them, end up creating a “love ‘em/loathe ‘em” dichotomy? And will the cast, flush from bringing Trek back from the dead, demand the kind of money that could kill any forward motion picture momentum before its even been built? When viewed in terms of all these tentative variables, it is obvious there’s a lot riding on this revamp.


Interestingly enough, the inclusive of Cruise (real or not) seems to indicate such awareness. The crowds at the recent Comic-Con convention in San Diego were wowed by the Abrams panel, especially when Leonard Nimoy himself appeared to welcome the production’s choice for his character, Spock (Heroes homeboy Zachary Quinto). As the preparations continue and the gossip mill churns out more possible scoops, there will be more debates, more cheers and jeers, second guessing, and slam dunking. The legacy of Star Trek may be built on the backs of its past, but by confronting this reality with a revisionist prequel, the true mantle of the material will be challenged. One hopes it can take the imaginative strain. If not, Abrams will be carrying a rather unfortunate label – the man who finally ended the seemingly infinite voyages of the Enterprise once and for all.


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