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by Nikki Tranter

13 Aug 2008

Last Thursday, a fellow book addict and I embarked on a book buying adventure to rival all others. We’ve travelled far and wide to hit secondhand stores before, but this was the first time we’d gone with our tax rebate cheques in hand. It seemed like free money, and neither of us minded in the least haphazardly spending as much of it as necessary on any and all books that grabbed our attention. Who says the government can’t be kind and generous sometimes?

There’s really no greater thrill than entering a secondhand bookstore with near-unlimited funds. Everything’s priced at or below $8.00, so it’s just too easy to fill your arms and go back for more. I loaded myself up with a travel-handy Walt Whitman collection, Christopher Reeve’s last book, and a battered copy of Jewel’s poetry. I picked up books by Carrie Fisher and Delia Ephron, Larry McMurtry and Oliver Sacks, I found a book on JFK, Jr.’s life and death, and I finally nabbed a copy of Charlotte Gray – a book I always see at secondhand stores yet am normally never in the right mood to buy. I went slightly nutty, overwhelmed by the musty book-smell, and the excitement of the old folks behind each and every secondhand store counter ready to talk my ear off about how busy I’ll be doing so much reading.

My favourite experience on the trip, however, was at the Book Inn. It’s a little shop, crammed with books, overseen by ladies who sit behind their counter-like table and knit all day long. One of the ladies was telling the other one that she’d picked up a book on assassinations and had been held rapt by its stories, especially those on political figures and celebrities who “were assassinated and survived”, like Ronald Reagan and George Harrison. The book had only cost her $4.95 at the supermarket.

But that’s not the experience I’m talking about. While browsing the Book Inn, I stumbled across the rattiest, dustiest copy of P.D. James’ The Children of Men for just one dollar. I took one look, put it in my pile, and continued shopping. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized what I’d done. See, I already own Children of Men, which I bought brand new early last year. I rarely buy books new, especially paperbacks for $20.00, like this one. I had to, though, because every single secondhand shop I’d visited in the months prior did not carry a single copy of the book. I scoured them, too. The big secondhand stores, right down to the crazy little ones near the bowling alley that mostly sell clothes from the 1960s and copper pots.

No one had Children of Men, and I was getting desperate. I wanted to see the movie, but I couldn’t without reading the book first. My partner cracked and saw the movie without me. And then I cracked. I was in Melbourne with my mum, it was the last copy left on the shelf, marked down from $24.95, it was shiny, and I thought, bugger it, I’ve got no choice. It was right in front of me. It was then or never.

So, a year and half later, when I saw that elusive book exactly as I’d wanted it for the price I’d really wanted to pay, I had to grab it. On principle. I don’t need two copies of Children of Men, but I look at my new ratty edition and think only one thing: Mission accomplished.

by Christel Loar

13 Aug 2008

The ninth installment of Live from Abbey Road (Sundance Channel, Thursday, August 7th at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) is quite possibly the most dynamic yet. The Kills kick things off with “Getting Down” and “Last Day of Magic” from Midnight Boom. These are those fantastic, kinetic types of tunes that can only come from two people feeding off of each other and inspiring ever-escalating bursts of brilliance. It’s clear watching VV and Hotel facing off for these performances that they are locked into each other on every level, musically, and that’s what makes the songs so compelling.  Of course, good songwriting is important too, and the Kills have that locked in as well. “Goodnight Bad Morning”, also from Midnight Boom, is a languid, churning and obvious ode to the Velvet Underground, but it feels very in-the-moment, rather than sounding like a Lou Reed rip-off, which imparts an even greater sense of depth within the song. 

Sara Bareilles begins her segment by discussing—and then demonstrating—the depth of her relationship to music. She talks about not being taken seriously as a musician, because she’s a young girl playing “pop” music, but concludes that it ultimately doesn’t matter, because she knows who she is. Who is she? Well, to judge from these performances, she is a remarkably assured songwriter with an equally strong voice. If you’re unfamiliar with Bareilles’ piano-based songs and no-frills style, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised with this segment. She performs “Gravity” and her big hit, “Love Song”, from her debut disc, Little Voice, and then she pulls out all the stops for a stripped-down version of The Beatles’ “Oh Darling” in honor of the “sacred” atmosphere of the environs.

The Fratellis were one of my favorite finds of the past two years, and this set of songs doesn’t disappoint. Tales are told of coming up to St. John’s Wood for a weekend at 18, only to wander up and down Abbey Road all day (because you can’t just walk into the studios, you know!), and a bit of a warm up with some Pink Floyd is played to get the band ready for its set. First up is “Flathead” from the band’s incredible debut album, Costello Music, and in case you were wondering, yeah, neighbors will look at you funny if you funny if you’re dancing in front of the television and singing along to the chorus. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it anyway, this performance practically demands it.

“Milk and Money”, off the sophomore release Here We Stand starts as a piano ballad featuring, dare I say it, a Harrison-esque guitar sound and a sad and lovely refrain questioning what happens when the last song has been played. Then it erupts into a frantic, all out rocker before briefly returning to the mournful piano melody as it ends. Finally, “Mistress Mabel”, which had its lyrical genesis in Cream’s “Badge” (yet another George Harrison connection!), closes out the Fratellis segment, and does so with possibly more energy than all the songs in all the segments preceding it! 

So if last week’s episode was about being happy and letting it come through in the music, this week is all about relentless, high energy coupled with an anchoring, unshakable depth. And remembering to close the curtains when we dance!

Upcoming Line-ups:

Episode 10 - August 21
The Subways, Gnarls Barkley, Herbie Hancock w/ Sonya Kitchell

Episode 11 - August 28
Bryan Adams, Ben Harper, Justin Currie

Episode 12 - September 4
Teddy Thompson, Martha Wainwright, Brian Wilson

by Rob Horning

13 Aug 2008

Advertising blog AdFreak passes along this finding: “Jeremy Kees of Villanova University has published a study that suggests that seeing skinny women in ads makes women feel worse about their personal body image but better about the brands advertised.” The blog poster, Rebecca Cullers, asks of her ad-industry peers: “assuming you think the study’s findings are correct, would you use anorexics in your ads if testing showed it sold the product better?” I think anyone who has seen a fashion magazine knows the answer to that question.

The typo-ridden press release for the study details its method, which seems somewhat absurd, almost demeaning.

The controlled study of 194 women ages 18-24 on two college campuses, finds that after seeing an ad featuring a thin model, young women are twice as likely to decline to eat a cookie or chose a low fat alternative.

It reminds me of a scene in a fifth-season episode of The Larry Sanders Show where Todd Barry, as one of the writers, tries in a patronizing voice to force a swimsuit model to eat a cookie. “Come on, you want a cookie. Just one cookie.”

The account of this research can’t help but trivialize women:  “All women (high and low self monitors) were more likely to choose reduced fat Oreos or opt for no cookie. Compared with those who saw advertisements without models, the women exposed to the models were nearly 4 times as likely to decline a cookie and 42% more likely to choose reduced fat cookies.” It’s hard to imagine research revolving around Oreo consumption being conducted on men. But then our culture is much less likely to consider a man’s weight an index to his character or social relevance.

But the core finding here is pretty dismaying, as it suggests not only that destructive fantasies of what weight is appropriate for women have taken a firm hold, but also something that we should all probably take for granted, namely that marketing can often become more effective precisely by making us feel worse about ourselves. After seeing ads, we don’t necessarily have to feel good in order to feel good about the brand. The study’s findings also seem to suggest that brands take on the exclusionary “glamour” associated with emaciated models whose figures are impossible for the ad’s target audience to achieve.

This sort of phenomenon isn’t limited to fashion, though. One of the inegalitarian aspects of ads is that they elevate expectations of what is a “normal” standard of living across the board, projecting a fictional classless society in which everyone can indulge in luxury without pain of privation. We can all participate in this fantasy thanks to the media, but we don’t all experience the same amount of harsh cognitive dissonance upon realizing just how far we are from actually achieving those standards. Our exclusion from the reality doesn’t undermine the fantasy, though we probably would be better off hewing to a sour-grapes reaction to the unattainable things that marketing misleadingly promises. Instead we react to the exclusion by imagining what was promised was even better than we might have thought initially. And if we actually achieve what seemed impossible, acquire the goods that signify the better standard of living that once excluded us, of course we will be disappointed in it.

by Jason Gross

13 Aug 2008

I have to hand it to All Points West for not only having a puzzling name for an East coast music festival but for also running it pretty well.  Sure, they had the usual overpriced, unhealthy foods available (though some veggie alternatives were there too) and the port-a-potties weren’t exactly plentiful (three areas with one each for the non-VIP crowd) and the ferry service from NYC to the Jersey City cite was more than double the price of a regular West side Water Taxi but the acts did actually start on time, there were some interesting art exhibits around the area and except for Sunday, the other two days had a good line-up- I was there on Saturday to see Animal Collective, the Roots, Kings of Leon and Radiohead (all of whom put on really good shows).  Aside from that, it occurred to me that going to a day festival takes some skill and planning so here’s some helpful hints I picked up.

- Beforehand, go to the Festival’s website and check out their listing of things that are not allowed (maybe in their FAQ section).  It’s important because unless you drive there and can leave stuff in your car, you might have to trash all the things that you brought but can’t take instead.  Some examples are drinks and food (though occ. they let you take an empty water bottle), umbrellas (bring a poncho instead if it looks like rain), air rifles, etc..

- Taking extra sunblock is a good idea as it’s almost always allowed instead and if you didn’t know already, the white gooey stuff only lasts a few hours before it wears out.

- Unless you’re planning to get there early or push your way up front, binoculars are a good idea too though check the fest website to make sure it’s not a no-no.

- Don’t count on phone service- every there is trying to call everyone else so you probably won’t connect with your friends.  It’s better to plan a time and place to meet up beforehand.  Still, make sure your phone is fully charged before you go ‘cause the extended time it takes to make calls will drain the battery.

- A small blanket or towel is good to have.  If you’re standing around for hours and also walking around the grounds, your feet get tired so having a clean place to squat is always desirable.

- Allow extra time for getting there.  I found that out the hard way when I was met with a mile-long line for the ferry to NJ.  Similarly, figure on the same thing going back home.

- Bring enough money with you ‘cause the ATM’s they provide there always have hefty fees attached to them.

- Since the food choices there aren’t gonna be optimal, have a big breakfast or lunch before you go so that you’re not starved there and have to gulp down all that greasy food.

- Earplugs, earplugs, earplugs.  Can’t stress it enough.  Even if you’re pretty far from the speakers, the loud sound can still get ya.

- See if you can snag a fest guide when you come in so you know where the stages, food, facilities, etc.. all are.

- Though they don’t let you bring umbrellas to shade yourself, a good hat and a battery-powered hand-fan (which only cost a few bucks) can help you make it through the heat.

- An empty water bottle is a good thing to carry around since you can keep refilling it at fountains or water stations.  You wanna keep hydrated if you’re gonna be standing and bakin’ under the sun for hours.

- The eateries don’t always supply napkins so tissues and/or hand sanitizer are good to have with you.

- Good sight/vantage points can usually be found at the far side of the stage- most people are too lazy to walk over there so they crowd the near side and the middle instead.

- Don’t wear band T-shirts ‘cause that’s not hip anymore.  Actually, since it isn’t, maybe you should wear them just to stand out!

- Don’t yell out for “Free Bird.”  It’s just not funny anymore and you might encourage knuckleheads there to carry on this pathetic tradition.  It’s not even cool to do it at a Skynyrd concert because everyone knows that they’re gonna play it anyway.

- Don’t call everyone there “dude” unless you’re from Southern Cali.  Even then, don’t do it, OK?

- Don’t step on someone else’s blanket- that’s bad karma.

by Bill Gibron

12 Aug 2008

We hear it all the time, that comedy cop out meant to assuage the offender of all implied guilt:

“It’s just a joke.”

Be it a race under attack or a particular person getting the crude raspberry, it’s still the same:

“It’s just a joke.”

Sometimes, they easily get away with it. The supposed target takes control of the situation, granting the ersatz-satirist some sage dispensation. In other instances, like in the case of Rajan Zed and his Hindu followers, the insult takes on a life of its own. When Mike Myers’ horrendously awful The Love Guru appeared to belittle Indians and their religious heritage, the aforementioned leader went on a nearly year long mission. Zed called for preview screenings, then a boycott, and after the film’s dismal box office performance, an apology. Of course, he got none of his demands. Instead, all his well meaning whining did was up his profile among grassroots gamesters and fringe political organizations. While he claimed victory for the movie’s miserable receipts, the hollowness of the comedy was a much more solid reason for its failure.

And now it’s happening again, albeit on a much larger and less avoidable stage. With its release today, Ben Stiller’s new scathing industry spoof Tropic Thunder is facing harsh words and possible action from groups such as the Special Olympics and the American Association of People with Disabilities. The reason - a character named Simple Jack and the rampant use of the word ‘retard’. In the film, Stiller’s stunted superstar (action movie icon Tugg Speedman) is shown having attempted to woo Oscar gold by playing a mentally handicapped young man with a bad bowl haircut and a mouth full of fake teeth. Simple Jack was never a real person - just a part he played. The ruse didn’t work, and Speedman became even more of an industry ‘joke’ because of it.

As with any helping of humor, there are two sides to the story. For anyone who’s seen the film, Simple Jack is definitely the brunt of a few jokes. During the sequences where we see snippets of the film within the film, as well as when Speedman is forced to recreate the character for a bunch of drug smugglers, Stiller’s portrayal pushes the boundaries of insult. He stammers and stutters. He says ridiculously goofy things and twists up recognizable clichés meant to suggest sensitivity inside a drooling, unrefined dope. It’s not simpleton as savant so much as an easy laugh milked (perhaps) one too many times.

As if to emphasize the movie’s position, the far more scandalous character of Kirk Lazarus (an Australian arse who had himself surgically altered to look like an African American) gives Speedman some advice. “Never go full retard”, he says. Running down a litany of actors who have used the intellectually challenged and outright impaired for their run at Academy recognition - Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, etc. - Lazarus points out that only obviously fake performances garner critical praise. They seem ‘safer’ to the viewer. But in Speedman’s case, he went all the way into total impediment. Alas, the actor faced the same fate as Sean Penn when he went “full retard” in I Am Sam, according to Kirk.

To the aforementioned groups, none of this is remotely funny. They find the inference insensitive and the actuality downright indefensible. They have slowly started drumming up support for a protest, and by today’s opening, it’s obvious that there may be some picket lines in larger urban markets. For them, it’s not a matter of subtleties or free speech. They see one of their frequently marginalized and misunderstood membership turned into a borderline hate crime. In a classic case of PC powered apologizing, they purposely pick a high profile target and set their agenda on stun. No one thinks they will stop the release of the film (especially not them). Instead, this is publicity as chest puffing coattail riding. They get their message out, the movie plays, and everyone waits for the issue to die down until the inevitable DVD release.

It’s hard to say whether or not these groups have a point.  As someone who grew up in the pre-Willowbrook exposé days of America, the word “retard” just doesn’t hold much contemporary weight. It was used frequently by kids trying to circumvent actual socialization and often had a guilt-laden alternative meaning. This critic had a best friend whose sister was severely mentally handicapped. Over the 15 years of our friendship, I never once met her. For families in the ‘60s and ‘70s, institutionalization was the only option outside of hard work and home care, and before Geraldo Rivera’s heartbreaking takedown of the state-sponsored industry, it was easier to warehouse your ‘special child’ than actually try to care for them. So while my pal’s household technically had five members, I only ever saw four.

Later on, in high school, I dated a girl whose brother suffered from severe mental impairment. In his case, their mother and father decided against hospitalization. Instead, they treated him as normally as possible, even inviting him to sit in on our pre-prom photos. While he sometimes ‘embarrassed’ his sister with his uncontrollable behavior, he was never unloved or unwanted. Indeed, the entire family (and myself included) tried to make him feel as integral and important as any other aspect of our lives. Even now, some thirty years after we dated, I wonder about that young man, and hope he’s had a productive and problem-free life. 

For parents and siblings in similar situations, the word ‘retard’ has to sting. It has to remind them of how society sent them oblique (and sometimes outright direct) messages about their loved one’s proper place. Over the last forty years, organizations such as the Arc of the United States and the National Down Syndrome Congress have made major strides in gaining understanding and acceptance of these often misunderstood individuals. Honestly, only the most arrogant, heartless individual would set out to purposefully mock and ridicule such an innocent target. “This population remains the defenseless butt of jokes all throughout media,” said Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver, who has not yet seen the movie. “We think it’s time to end.”

The key phrase in that soundbite (courtesy of ABC News), is that most of the complaints center around an equally misguided mandate. Like Zed before, few who are arguing for the boycott have actually seen Stiller’s performance, heard the previously mentioned dialogue in context, and understand the overall purpose of the subplot. It goes beyond “It’s just a joke.” Granted, the rogue word is used dozens of times, but never in reference to an actual individual. No one calls Speedman a “retard”. No person with actual mental retardation is so readily dismissed. In fact, Tropic Thunder‘s use of the term is rather meta. It’s meant to suggest something bigger - the need for famous celebrities to put on false facades to win respect (and maybe a prize or two). It’s no coincidence that the character who calls out Stiller is the one who’s gone to the greatest extremes to hide behind overly obsessive sham personas.

Which leads to a much bigger point. Robert Downey Jr. offers what many might consider a minstrel show like turn as Lazarus. Remember, this is a Russell Crowe like superstar who had plastic surgery so he could play black. Indulging in every kind of stereotypical slam possible (including several sections of outright race baiting), it could easily be the movie’s most risky creative choice. Add in the exaggerated make-up, and there should be a massive minority backlash.

So why no clamor? The answer arrives in the form of rapper turned actor Alpa Chino (played by Brandon T. Jackson). While guilty of a few racially biased flaws himself, the hip hop impresario takes Lazarus to task every chance he gets. He knocks the character off his thespian high horse, everpresent to provide a rational counterpart to the egomaniac’s “I can do anything” ideals. Besides, Lazarus finally realizes the error of his ways during the last act. His mea culpa is short, sweet, and apparently good enough to avoid the weight of 400 years of onerous oppression.

And it’s not really a matter of free speech. Sadly, everyone considers it an absolute, and while there are Constitutional rights and duties, there is no such thing as a wide open ability to express oneself. We are not dealing with one of the recognized legal limits (yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater, etc.) however, we are involved in what’s called the elemental quid pro quo. Phrased another way - you do have the right to say whatever you want. However, there is an equal and reciprocal right to be held accountable for said speech. While no one is suggesting that Stiller and company are guilty of a crime, they do have to put up with said protest. But what these organizations have to remember is that such leeway is mutual. They can surely complain, but they can’t call for the outright removal of such ‘hateful’ words and images.

In some ways, there’s an uneasy, mutually beneficial conspiracy at play. Just like Zed did a few months back, tying oneself to a major media event (like the release of a film) drives interest to what are frequently forgotten about organizations. While it’s clear that their intentions are noble, those defending the mentally challenged must secretly recognize the publicity pluses. And Tropic Thunder doesn’t really mind the turmoil. They know that audiences will still turn out, and the added curiosity factor may actually drive a few more into the theater who may not have given the movie a second thought. Both sides will probably be disappointed, however. Simple Jack is a minor element of a film packed with potential provocations. One wonders if Jewish groups will complain about a certain famed Scientologist’s turn as a balding, hirsute financier with a major potty mouth and a bad case of “white boy can’t dance-itis”. 

In the end, “It’s just a joke” may be the best way to truly handle any and all problems caused here. It’s a succinct shorthand that minimizes the many loose ends while proposing a plausible out for both sides. Indeed, Tropic Thunder is so inside, so insanely insular in its laugh out loud shamelessness that, while it will definitely inspire a reinvigoration of the complained about word (as in Downey Jr.‘s comment about going “full retard”), many won’t make the connection to actual individuals. Those who do are probably already prone to marginalizing all minorities in the first place.

As in many of these circumstances, the sturm und drang will eventually die down, and in its place will be the same outstanding issues, the same personal and political battles to fight. In the end, “It’s just a joke” seems indicative of the eventual importance the situation suggests. It’s not an excuse so much as a reality. And like all concepts of cleverness, one’s reaction is indicative of who they are and where they stand. Some will get the joke. Others can’t and won’t. And that’s the way it should be.

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