Latest Blog Posts

by Rob Horning

31 Aug 2009

Harper’s editor Bill Wasik, the inventor of the purposely pointless internet-driven media event known as a flash mob, has expanded on what that experiment taught him in a book, And Then There’s This. Fittingly enough, I finished reading it while I was down the shore, in the land that the internet seems to have forgot. (When they hear wi-fi, many in Wildwood would probably think you are talking about WIFI 92, the top 40 station in Philly circa 1978.) The book is primarily about how the internet encourages the acceleration of our cultural consumption by prompting us—now no longer passive consumers but media operatives ourselves, fascinated by our own impact and keen to play at being an insider—to refashion news as “nanostories,” microstories whose popularity (measured by internet metrics) peaks quickly and then rapidly dissipates. Whatever real underlying fundamental trends there might be get lost in the noise. Culture accelerates, becomes quicker in its payouts, and becomes more compulsive and addictive. This, as Wasik notes, makes the internet just like a slot machine, whose quick-hitting but apparently random rewards are engineered to make players addicted: “games of chance seem to be more addictive in direct proportion to the rapidity and continuity of their ‘action’—how quickly, that is, a gambler is able to learn the outcome of his wager and then make another.” Online, the action is the tracing of trends and our own statistically determined significance. Twittering, and then seeing what sort of response it provokes, etc. We are never at a loss for an opportunity to try to garner attention, and these efforts are archived, deepening our potential self, even if it is all noise. The internet’s archiving capacity means there is an excess of the narratives from which we shape our sense of self. “With the Long Tail of Truth, telling ourselves new stories about ourselves has never been easier: abundant, cheap distribution of facts means an abundant, cheap and unlimited variety of narratives, on demand, all the time.”

But the internet is not only a machine for generating memes, but also for manufacturing spurious hermeneutics. Wasik contends that we have all become conscious analysts of how media narratives operate (we have the “media mind,” as he puts it); the presence of so many independent operators in the media space compresses those narratives, turns them over quickly as we all experiment to see which framing techniques attract the most attention. (Popularity tends to snowball, since popularity is factored in to what choices are given prominence.) The internet has given us means to sell ourselves the way products have long been sold to us, and we’ve embraced them, adopting advertising measuring tools (the data on popularity the internet makes available to use for our personal pages) as markers of moral value. The potential scope of our reach invalidates previous mores:

When your words or actions or art are available not only to your friends but to potentially thousands or even millions of strangers, it changes what you say, how you act, how you see yourself. You become aware of yourself as a character on a stage, as a public figure with a meaning.

As a result, we manage our public meaning like a brand manager, and perfect the art of culture monitoring—meta consumption of media. We begin to consume the buzz about buzz, or pure buzz, with no concern with what it’s about, only whether we can exploit it for self-promotion.

What’s lost in the focus on the meta-story of something’s popularity and usefulness for our own carefully monitored identity is obviously the thing itself, which becomes difficult to recognize and consume in traditional ways. Artists are seen as the “instantiation of a trend,” and their work is assessed in that regard—the mythical organic reading is even harder to achieve or even simulate. “Call it the age of the model” Wasik writes. “Our metaanalyses of culture (tipping points, long tails,  crossing chasms, ideaviruses) have come to seem mroe relevant and vital than the content of culture itself…. The real vigorish is in learning not about what is cool than learning about how cool works.” When all that resonates about a meme or idea is its viral potential, all ideas are ideas about marketing.

This concern with only the momentary impact of any story and its metasignificance decontextualizes them, allows ideas to function as commodities: “The meme vision of culture—where ideas compete for brain space, unburdened by history or context—really resembles nothing so much as an economist’s dream of the free market. We are asked to admire the marvelous theoretical efficiencies (no barriers to entry, unfettered competition, persistence of the fittest) but to ignore the factual inequalities.” In other words, nanostories, not suprisingly, preserve the status quo, reinforcing our own vanity and self-centeredness along with the market as timeless, unquestionable norm.

Wasik takes a look at the decisive role of boredom. We are not inherently disposed to be bored—Wasik cites research that suggests boredom is a defense mechanism that we invoke when we are confronted with too many choices. But those choices are what capitalism offers us as proof of our purchasing power as consumers. So we experience boredom as proof of our centrality in the consumerist cosmos, and this boredom is a deliberate achievement of the existing social order—it fixates us on novelty as a value, and drives us to consume habitually, for ideological rather than material fulfillment. It’s pretty self-evident, I guess—boredom is a product of awareness of choice, and the advertising infrastructure does nothing but make us aware of choices. Wasik argues that the ubiquitous boredom helps drives the acceleration of media consumption by fostering backlashes on schedule; I would only add that the boredom is market-driven—the oversupply of ideas and goods are stimulating the demand adequate to them, changing the attitudes and self-concepts of consumers in the process.

So the market imposes the possibility of novelty on everyday life, which engenders boredom, the feeling of being hopelessly overwhelmed by choice and the drift into aimless lassitude. In this state we are unwilling to commit to anything deeply—it might grow boring—so we invest our time and effort on into shallow things that are quickly disposed of, or the most convenient experiences, things which are by their nature not very satisfying. So we become temperamentally insatiable.

In the final chapter, Wasik suggests strategies for fighting the acceleration and compression of cultural consumption: one is rationing our information supply and adopting a renunciative attitude toward the internet. Just say no. Another is time-shifting—“delaying one’s experience of a cultural product long enough that any hype or buzz surrounding it has dissipated.” That is something I wholeheartedly endorse and practice: I am currently watching the second season of Dallas—and loving it. I don’t know that it helps anything though. I needed there to be buzz before to even think of watching it now. Ultimately Wasik has no answers—we must strike a balance, he suggests in Aristotalian fashion, but gives no sense of what that might be. We must choose “judiciously” what information we consume, but offers no criteria for this. He advocates “sustainable approaches to information” but little sense of what that would entail. Like Žižek argues, it is easier to imagine the end of the world—the destuction of the internet by some super virus or something—than to imagine a way to consume it temperately.

by PopMatters Staff

31 Aug 2009

Releasing: 14 September (US)

01 Thin Ice
02 Hateful
03 On the Job
04 Take Me Baby (feat. Jimi Tenor)
05 Bremen Cowboy
06 Add This Song

by Ian Chant

31 Aug 2009

What does Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Comics mean for the storied superhero publishing house?

Something, certainly, but it’s hard to say what at this point. The fanboy screeds showing up this morning warning of a world in which Donald Duck battles evil alongside Captain America are ill considered and baseless, as fanboy screeds of course tend to be. The people who run Disney aren’t stupid, and there’s no reason to think they’ll muck around with something that’s been working as well as Marvel has over the last few years as fat checks have continued to roll in courtesy of blockbuster movies.

And since Marvels deals for those movies—like Spider-Man, which will stay at Sony, and Iron Man, which Paramount holds onto for the foreseeable future—remain intact, essentially putting Disney in business with it’s own competitors for the coming years, it’s a fair bet that Disney is in this deal for the long haul. And for anyone worried about their favorite spandex clad titans being Disney-fied by the merger, that’s a good sign that Disney understands what it’s bought and isn’t eager to jump in ad start gumming up the works.

And as for the argument that Marvel will ‘pull a Vertigo’ and start publishing edgy, grown up books that can garner critical acclaim without raking in huge sales figures… we’ll see. Marvel has always been pretty much a superhero imprint, and even it’s more adult themed lines—like Marvel Knights and MAX—have been home to what amounts to superhero books that amp up the blood and swearing.

The only real surprise here - that Marvel, a company that seemed to many to be on it’s way to becoming a media giant in it’s own right, would let itself be bought out. Also kind of surprising? The price of the acquisition. Considering that the acquisition apparently gives Disney the licensing rights for properties like Spiderman and Wolverine, $4 billion seems like kind of a low price tag. The House of Mouse will make $4 billion back in a couple of years from paper plates and birthday party hats alone, so why did Marvel, which seemed like it was a company with nowhere to go but up, sell itself so seemingly short?

by Bill Gibron

31 Aug 2009

When Rob Zombie is good, he is very, very good. No one understands the obsessive geek nature of horror cinema better than this true fright fan. Long before he became a Beavis and Butthead punchline, or the most easily ridiculed filmmaker on the planet, he was memorizing macabre, indulging in any and all types of terror tales - the good, the bad, and the sublimely schlocky. It was this dedication and devotion that gave Universal the original idea of putting him behind the lens. And it is this psychotronic encyclopedia like knowledge that made movies like The Devil’s Rejects and Halloween such career defining delights.

But when Zombie is bad, he’s baffling. Not irredeemable or unwatchable, just completely unsound in his motives or intentions. Take his first film, House of 1000 Corpses. It’s like a blueprint for every b-movie ever made dragged through an adolescent’s pot-smoke soiled imagination. By the time we get to the anticlimactic reveal of Dr. Satan, we’ve been put through the unrealized ambitions ringer. No wonder then that he tossed the whole monster mythology to turn Rejects into a sequel in sadism only. By highlighting the Firefly family and their endearing exploitation ways, Zombie salvaged his already sinking credibility…

…only to turn around and tarnish it once again by announcing his decision to remake the John Carpenter classic from the late ‘70s. Seen by many as one of the greatest horror films of all time, Halloween didn’t appear ripe for reinvention. Indeed, the straightforward story - killer escapes from an asylum 20 years after a horrific crime to seek revenge on the town (and family) he left behind - and Hitchcockian precision in which Carpenter realized his dread seemed almost untouchable. If Zombie wanted to set himself up to fail, he couldn’t have picked a better project. Still, with Hollywood flush with horror reimagination fever, Michael Myers joined Leatherface as the latest Me Decade icon to get the post-millennial make-over.

And in this critic’s opinion, it worked. While others can complain about screwing with the original, Zombie got the basic idea of Halloween down pat. While Carpenter could only hint at how evil his ‘Shape’ really was, this new film turned him into an authentic and quite realistic human nightmare. In Zombie’s mind, Michael is nothing more than an unstoppable murder machine, a shark with a brutal appetite for suburban blood and destruction. There is no cat and mouse, no “now you see him, now you don’t” games with the audience. Zombie’s Halloween may have a hackneyed set-up (the trailer town FBI profile is a tad sketchy), but once our demon puts on his mask, no one will be left alive.

Said aggressive nastiness is also present in Halloween II, but it’s now buffered by what the ad campaign is calling the completion of Zombie’s “vision”. For the layman, or those too wary to plunk down $10 bucks to uncover the filmic facts, what that means is that this surreal sequel is going to play by its own oddball rules, and if you don’t like it, the man behind the camera could give a crap. This time around, it’s all about style. For every act of horrific violence, for every moment of mind-numbing gore, Zombie is going to counteract the carnage with sequences of outright insanity. Not craziness from a character stand-point, but stream of consciousness creativity that, as one reviewer put it, melds the “grindhouse with the arthouse.” 

Halloween II is indeed a strange, frequently flabbergasting trip. Beginning with a description of the symbolism inherent in the white horse (suggesting power, focus, and an end-of-times destructiveness), our filmmaker follows his own muses, mixing moments of brilliantly effective terror (whenever Michael raises his knife, the results are truth repugnant) with elements lifted directly out of David Lynch (Lost Highway, Twin Peaks) and Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killer, U-Turn). Indeed, while watching the events unfold onscreen, on gets the distinct impressive of experience JFK through the eyes of Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer - and that’s after his brain has been drilled for pencil end fodder.

This makes the movie hard to get a handle on, and that’s a death sentence in today’s “hurry up and hurt someone” ADD addled demographic. A lifetime of VCR vicariousness, fast forward button bringing the gruesome good stuff in perfect Pavlovian waves, has altered the perspective of the contemporary fright fan. They need simplicity in order to stoke their fires of their video game fried imaginations. They demand ample arterial spray when a few well placed deaths would do twice as much ambient damage. Even worse, they get antsy when someone suggests they view their favorite genre in a different or difficult manner. They’re not really interested in horror handled personal panache. They want Hostel, and if they can’t have that, it’s time to hit their prized collection of Faces of Death DVDs.

Naturally, this is a gross overgeneralization, as insensitive as any case of cinematic bigotry can be on both sides. But it’s also an attempt to get a handle on the K-2 sized slamming that Zombie is facing right now. Granted, Halloween II is not an outright masterpiece (it may indeed be one of the more original scary movies ever made, however), but it’s definitely not the worst movie ever made. Heck, if considered in that camp, it’s barely even the worst film of 2009. It has the guts that Michael Bay and his bravado belch known as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen only pretend to own, and it’s miles ahead of such tired hackwork as The Ugly Truth or Land of the Lost. Indeed, to consider Halloween II the bottom of the barrel, one needs to quantify said container. And in most cases, the view is just as biased.

Indeed, the reason for most of the anger aimed at Zombie is that he is free to do what he wants with what many considered to be a sacred serial killing cow. Michael Myers lives in the rarified realm of Jason Voorhees, Pinhead, the aforementioned Chainsaw champion, and various other members of the post-modern macabre clique. Sure, Stephen Sommers can crap all over the Universal classics with his nauseating Van Helsing, but more people are pissed as Zombie for “ruining” big Mike than ever came to Frankenstein or Dracula’s defense. It’s not like he’s destroying Carpenter’s original version. He’s just taking the material and riffing on it, reinterpreting it and ad-libbing like a jaded jazzman - or a know it all televangelist.

Maybe that’s what angering so many - Zombie’s ease at adapting Halloween to his own ideas of terror. His is definitely a design honed by endless hours sucking in all manner of filmmaking forms and approache. If one can wipe away the ire from their eyes, they could relish some incredibly powerful shots (the Brackett home, solemn in the sparseness of a Midwestern Fall backdrop) and a lot of visceral fear. There are times when actresses Scout Taylor-Compton and Danielle Harris do such a great job of selling the fear that it becomes almost uncomfortable to watch. Purists also love to point out how useless Dr. Loomis has become, how the once heroic psychiatrist has turned into a money-grubbing media whore. Exactly. In Zombie’s world, no one who spent their life looking after Michael Myers wouldn’t try to capitalize on such a sensationalized status. This is the age of the tell-all and the tabloid.

Even the frequent visions work to remind us of what is (supposedly) going on in Michael’s head. There’s even a nod to some of the latter sequels when Laurie shows signs of “psychically linking” with her murderous brother. In fact, Halloween II shares a lot with the other great controversial title in the franchise - Part 3: Season of the Witch. If one remembers correctly, Carpenter never really expected the Shape to be the focus of each film. Instead, he hoped other filmmakers would take the name and the ideas forwarded in the films to invent their own take on the material. Seems like Zombie is doing just that - whether the vocal majority like it or not.

In the end, it all comes down to a sense of adventure. If you honestly went in to Halloween II with an open mind, uncluttered from the always fervent online arguments and self-aggrandized suppositions, free of the feelings you had from the first film and Zombie as a creative force in general, and still came out a miffed, at least your conclusion is sincere. It’s not based on the current zeitgeist or formed out of a desire to dump of your favorite dread dork whipping boy. But if Halloween II merely confirmed you already lagging impressions of this exceedingly unique filmmaker, if it offered up the same sense of dissatisfaction and disgust for what he previously did to Carpenter’s classic, you’re not alone. But that doesn’t make you right, either.

With the Weinsteins just announcing that the next Halloween would be in 3D and not feature a certain heavy metal musician in the director’s chair, the creepshow cosmic chaos can finally fall back in alignment. Whatever comes next, it won’t have his Something Weird Video sense of spectacle behind it. Rob Zombie is almost a genius. He’s also a bit of a joke. And in the current state of safe, sanitized shivers, such confusing complexity is more than welcome. One thing’s for certain - while perhaps not appreciated, his Halloween II will be remembered.

by Tyler Gould

31 Aug 2009

What We All Come to Need
(Southern Lord)
Releasing: 27 October

Chicago instrumental metal outfit Pelican’s fourth full-length, What We All Come to Need is nigh upon us, recorded by Chris Common of These Arms Are Snakes, and featuring guest spots from Greg Anderson of Sunn O))) and Aaron Turner of Isis. The free-to-download track “Strung Up from the Sky” is a persistent, chugging number, stubborn in its course and rhythm, turning momentarily to take on new riffs and melodies but never wandering far.

01 Glimmer
02 The Creeper
03 Ephemeral
04 Specks of Light
05 Strung Up from the Sky
06 An Inch Above Sand
07 What We All Come to Need
08 Final Breath

“Strung Up from the Sky” [MP3]

//Mixed media

'The Chamber' Keeps the Drama and Suspense Going

// Short Ends and Leader

"The Chamber is the filmic equivalent of a fairground ride, the stimulation of emotion over ideas.

READ the article