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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…

by Matt Mazur

10 Sep 2008

A few really big exceptions aside, this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is fairly tame. The big guns are shelved for now, and the programmers have instead turned their spotlight onto some more intimately-scaled little pictures that need distribution, films that will be out in theaters within the next month and international releases you and I will not likely see in our local cineplexes. Where oh where are the big Oscar movies of years past? They’re definitely not here.

Sugar (dir. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2007, USA)

I stumbled, quite by accident, wanting to kill time, into Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s surprising Sugar. Boden and Fleck co- wrote and directed the modest breakout hit Half Nelson, which netted star Ryan Gosling his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and here they couldn’t be more far removed from Nelson’s inner-city, drug-dealing turmoil, but those two elements do play a small role in Sugar.

When the projector began cranking, and the film opened with a shot of men playing baseball, in the Dominican Republic, I wanted to get up and leave immediately. A sports movie, in another language, about men, is really not my usual cup of tea. So, I sort of forced myself through the first few standard minutes, and am glad I did: Sugar is not a baseball movie, nor is it a simple “coming to America” story—it possesses a life and vitality that is singular.

All of the players in the Dominican Republic desire the same outcome: they want to play ball in America so they can send money back to their deprived families who spend their days working in t-shirt factories. For these young me, particularly the lead character “Sugar” (the excellent Algenis Perez Soto), it is more than just a dream of providing and chasing some American ideal—it’s a way to break the poverty cycle in their home country and to not live idle lives. “Life gives you many opportunities,” says Sugar’s uncle, himself a former player in the states, now a cell phone salesman. “Baseball only gives you one.”

The film is a rich exploration of the exploitation faced by Latin American men who are sent out to play here, and it’s a world I had no idea even existed. Sugar is an unusual story that’s definitely never been told before, which is a credit to these two fledgling directors, who seem to have found a particularly alchemic cinematic grace in working with one another, rather than alone. As writers seeking out completely original subject matter, they should be applauded for versatility.

Once “Sugar” lands in the States, he is caught up in a whirlwind frenzy of pre-season training and practice. In these scenes, rather than over-loading the film with the traditional montages that plague the sports film genre, Boden and Fleck instead go for introspection as their lead character, and those who have accompanied him from the Dominican league, begin to see just how isolated one can be when placed in unfamiliar surroundings, where they don’t speak more than ten words of the language. This feeling of not being able to fully communicate makes “Sugar” try even harder to learn, and makes him even more focused on the game.

And rather than staging the scenes in Iowa with overt racism or hatred (though there is a little implicit racism in the script), the directors wisely turn away from the “bad American” clichés, and show scenes of good people genuinely helping “Sugar”. Particularly effective are the scenes where the guys head out to the only diner they know, to order the only food they know how (“French toast!” they all yell in unison). They have to, like many people who are new to the country and to the language, work harder, practice more, and be better than everyone. Not to mention, they have to rely an awful lot on the kindness of strangers. As macho ballplayers, that can be a humbling experience, and those detail peppered throughout are very moving without being coy.

This film is packed with detail, the directors have a meticulous eye for it: in one scene, for a brief second (and without being preachy whatsoever) we notice “Sugar” looking at t-shirts in a discount department store, when he reads the label, it says “made in the Dominican Republic” and his face just collapses. Also a great detail is the exploration of baseball and sports fan subculture and the hierarchies of the sport, focusing on the enthusiasts who go to every high school game, every college game, and every minor league game. They have their fingers in every baseball pie, so to speak. When “Sugar” is dropped off in the corn fields of Iowa with a religious, elderly couple who speak no Spanish, he learns about, it is a funny fish-out-of-water moment, but also a learning experience for him and for the audience.

The film hinges on the performance of Perez Soto, and the audience’s empathy for him as he goes from Dominican dreamer, to Iowan farm teammate, to New Yorker on the lam. Boden and Fleck show, again, that working with an untrained young actor, as they did with the glorious newcomer Shareeka Epps in Nelson is one of their fortes. Perez Soto, for his part, does a nice job of showing the immigrant’s point of view, and highlights for the audience what is good, bad, and implausible about the American Dream.

All of the odds are against them, and so are most of the American players. The Dominican players, if they even hint at a loss of skill level, are sent home, while the Americans get chance after chance. “Sugar” is lucky he is more talented than most players on the team, but eventually, his arrogance gets the better of him. He has only that one shot that his uncle told him about and his entire life is riding on it.

His journey takes him far away from home, to unexpected little corners of the country, and makes for one cool little movie about how people from other cultures find their way on their own. It’s definitely not about baseball, in the broadest sense. For someone like me, who know positively zilch about sports in general, it’s an easy lesson and a informative primer on the fanaticism that surrounds the sport, even on the minute level, and it’s all told on a relatable, approachable point of view, with an entry point that is universal. Anyone who has ever felt alone, anyone who has ever experienced being taken out of their comfort zone, and who has been dropped into a situation where they had to fight for something the want more than anything, will be able to get on board with this lovely movie.

Che (dir. Stephen Soderbergh, 2008, USA/Spain/France)

Buckle up! Che, the newest offering from director Stephen Soderbergh that details the life of Che Guevara, is a whopping four and a half hours long.

I was among a group who was able to see the entire epic, split up only by a fifteen minute intermission, yesterday morning, the way the director has announced he intends everyone to see it; a “road-show” full cut of the film will be screened around the country (in approximately 20 markets) to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and the eightieth anniversary of his birth. Then, as planned, the vast Che, which features a gorgeously interior performance by Benecio Del Toro as the now-iconic revolutionary, will be split into two parts, The Argentinean and Guerilla.

When it first played at Cannes in May, all signs pointed to Che as being a hard sell. The length alone was its most daunting feature, not to mention it is essentially a four and a half hour Latin American history lesson, mostly told in Spanish. So, the chances of its success competing in the United States market, where you’re only considered a hit if you make over 100 million anymore, were rather bleak.

I’m happy to report, though, that as a far-reaching artistic endeavor and a more meditative alternative to the usual bio-pic fare, Che is a mild success, but more importantly, it’s a major turning point for Soderbergh as a director. This is his most ambitious film to date: a mainly Spanish-language mega epic of a revolutionary who has become appropriated by the entire world as a symbol of freedom and rebellion. I’m sure you’ve seen the t-shirts.

He opens chapter one like a book, with a golden-hued map of Cuba, all set to a pulsing score. We are given a cursory lesson in Cuban geography (probably much-needed for most viewers). This is a necessary feature to orient the viewers into the world of the Marxist guerillas’ plans. Immediately, we are plunged into New York, 1964, where Che is being interviewed in a black and white, grainy sequence that shows only his eyes furiously moving; these black and white bits are interspersed into the main attraction: the saturated world of color in Mexico City of 1955, where the story really begins after two seeming starts. Stylistically, Soderbergh goes for a scaled-back, less-is-more approach and lets the natural features take over the story’s art direction, rightfully. This may not be as flashy as the director’s other films, but the vistas are stunning.

The film cuts back and forth between the two formats. At the United Nations in 1964 NYC, Che, an Argentine who became a Cuban citizen, is greeted by shouts of “murderer” and “assassin”. He is Fidel Castro’s highest ranking lieutenant, the Marxist brains of the entire Cuban operation and a master at combat and warfare. We then are transported back to Mexico to begin the journey with Che to Cuba for the first time. It is a little bit confusing at the beginning, to get one’s bearings, but once Soderbergh gets a feeling for the complicated rhythms, so do the viewers. Once it hits its stride, it’s hard to stop watching.

Part one is well-shot, if fairly standard bio-flick material that charts the man’s journey from being a doctor to fighting in the jungles to becoming a sort of pseudo-celebrity asking to be powdered before an American television appearance. Del Toro’s versatile, stately performance covers a lot of ground, spans Che’s entire life, and proves a task the actor is more than up to. Che’s ability to be an orator, a fighter and an all around charismatic force of nature jumps to life thanks to Del Toro’s gift of being able to tap into his powerful, specific instrument. He is likely the only possible recognizable, working actor that could have pulled this off, exuding a dangerous charm, gravitas and presence every second he is onscreen.

He loves his soldiers (men and women) and knows all of their names. His idea of successful warfare is smart warfare and he only takes soldiers who can read or write; the ones who can’t, he makes sure to teach. He sees what he is doing as enriching the lives of these peasants who have long been taken advantage of. He wants to save each Latin American country, person by person.

Part one ends with the rebels winning the war, and according to Che, this is where the real revolution begins.

The first image of part two is another bit of Soderberghian cartography, only this time, we get our lesson in South American geography (and I was hugely embarrassed that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about the continent). The action will take place in Bolivia, where, funded by Castro (even after he renounced his Cuban citizenship), Che has sworn to bring the revolution to all of Latin America, much to the consternation of the country’s leaders.

One year later, Che is disguised as an old man with glasses, sneaking into Bolivia to train a new army of rebels in secret. By now, he has become a worldwide legend and has left his wife Aledia (Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno) behind. Obviously, “Che” is going to dominate a story called Che, but Moreno is barely there, and the same goes for Lou Diamond Phillips, Franka Potente, Julia Ormond and countless others—a cheeky trademark of the director’s that has become slightly irksome. His affinity for stunt casting known faces in cameos speaks to his directorial sway and the love for the project, but it is as distracting here as it is in Traffic or the Ocean movies.
But fortunately, the main character’s commitment, body and soul, to his cause, is mirrored in Del Toro’s physical commitment to playing him—in part two, it is as though he is playing two men wildly different than his character in part one.

Both parts of the film highlight that the best way to bring about change is with your own two hands, hard work, and, as Che says, with “love” for whatever it is you’re doing. For the director, this is an obvious labor of love, but at points watching lingering scenes of nature at a very deliberate pace can get tedious. As bloated as it is brave, I can see why Soderbergh thought it would be advantageous and respectful to do it in this style, but this will be slightly too much for most to handle in one sitting. In shorter chapters, it could have worked in a way that something like HBO’s recent John Adams mini-series did and turn a history lesson into something a bit more gripping. Yet, there is still something stolidly fascinating about this lesson in cinematic endurance that seems as equally influenced by Marxism and pop culture as it is by Terrence Malick in the many scenes featuring a cool and meditative showcasing of the geography as the story.

The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2008, USA)

Practically everyone in Toronto was buzzing about Darren Aronofsky’s newest offering The Wrestler. Following up the love it or hate it mess of The Fountain, The Wrestler was shown to a capacity press and industry only crowd in a completely packed theater of nearly 600—there were no empty seats. This is the first time I had seen that happen. In the same theater, for Che’s screening immediately before, roughly a third of those seats were filled.

Riding high on mega-buzz, the film, which just days ago won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, announced to the world that star Mickey Rourke is, and I am not being cheeky, a top possibility for a Best Actor nomination come early 2009; if not the win. That the director had the foresight to cast the downtrodden, eccentric actor who most people expected to go the way of Gary Busey, in the role of washed up former professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a right miracle and one of those rare instances where a performer can take every element of his past and his physical being, and use them to their fullest potential. Possessed of a weathered face that has been changed by cosmetic surgery to a very extensive degree, Rourke is able to even use that to his advantage in creating this once in a lifetime character.

When the film opens to the strains of Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head” (Ram’s theme song), we don’t see him right away, we just see press clippings, posters, and other tchotchkes and assorted ephemera from his past. It is all we need to get a sense of what he has become and that only takes Aronofsky seconds. The Ram is way past his prime, living in a filthy, pad-locked trailer in Jersey (he didn’t pay his rent again), and wounded beyond belief. When the camera finally settles onto Rourke’s face, it is jarring to meet him head on.

Broken, and taped-up within an inch of his life, The Ram ekes out a miserable existence working the most low-level amateur circuits he can find to make a buck, where the mats are sprayed with blood and not cleaned up in between battles. He also works doing stock at a grocery store. He is strung out on pills, drinks a lot, and is reeling from a life spent being beaten and abused, of his own choosing. A far cry from his former glories. Within these first few minutes, it is clear that Rourke was the only person who could play this part, much as Del Toro was the only actor who could play Che

The Ram frequents a dive of a strip club (he hooks the doorman up with pills), where Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) is also eking out a meager existence. Tomei has always been a hard actress to cast, but when she’s good, she’s on fire—her scene where she talks about The Passion of the Christ is her most brilliantly funny moment since winning the Oscar for My Cousin Vinny. Cassidy is The Ram’s only “friend”, a relationship for which she is paid by the shimmy, but not a responsibility she takes lightly: when The Ram needs sound advice about his estranged daughter Stephanie (an excellent Evan Rachel Wood), Cassidy is the go-to girl for him.

It’s only fair, if one is to discuss the sheer physicality of Rourke’s performance as a wrestler, to then also discuss the sensual physicality employed by Tomei in her free scenes of seductive dancing and stripping. Last year in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, she was frequently, shockingly, naked. And she looked amazing. Last year, in her mid-40s, she fearlessly took it all off to reinvent herself, and it seems that that work could be viewed as a primer for the even more brave physical and emotional nakedness she brings to her career-best character here: a single mother busting her ass to feed her kid and move into a condo, thus leaving her lap-dancing days, and clients like The Ram, behind.

In between juicing and working out, The Ram spends his days prepping for his big battles, getting his hair perfectly highlighted at the salon, and going tanning. It is implied that the preparation for The Ram probably isn’t much different from what Cassidy does to get ready for work—they’re both putting on a show, after all, and shows require a certain image. The big difference, though, is that The Ram, when performing, beats opponents with barbed wire clubs, artificial limbs and gets stapled by a staple-gun wielding maniac; all in the name of show and money. He is mutilated in various extreme ways to please a bloodthirsty, raging crowd that chants at him while he’s down: “you still suck!”

These intense scenes are, well, crazy, but also wickedly funny and incisive. Aronofsky is able to show the kind of damage these athlete/performers endure to make a living. Rourke is beyond brilliant in these wrestling scenes, and shows a heretofore unknown comedic diligence in the funny moments (“do your push-ups brother,” he barks at a neighbor kid). Yet nothing will prepare you for the unexpected fragility in the poignant moments of sharply-drawn drama as his life begins to fall apart and his years of self-abuse begin to catch up to him. It’s absolutely thrilling to watch him.

After a heart attack and a bypass, The Ram tries to make a go of it in the real world. He goes to Stephanie to patch up their broken, distant relationship. He tells Cassidy that “she doesn’t really like me very much”, and that’s putting it mildly. He was not present for her as a child and in trying to reconnect; he hits many obstacles tougher than a metal folding chair to the face.

He tries to make a break from this world, even going so far as to work the deli counter at his supermarket to earn more money (one of the film’s absolute delights), but ultimately, he’s alone, and needs the adoration and the energy of the fans to buoy him, to keep him alive. This is Aronofsky’s most accomplished film thus far, devoid of the gimmicky camera angles and fish-eye lenses that permeate his other films, Pi, and Requiem for a Dream. It is a more straight-forward narrative, with a more straight-forward, audience-friendly structure. While The Wrestler does have moments of sentimentality, it is never out of place, never obnoxious. The ending is a brilliant culmination of suspense, fury, great story-telling and acting, and it will leave audiences high on their own adrenaline.

by Bill Gibron

9 Sep 2008

It’s a safe bet that on any given day in Hollywood, the studios are awash in litigation. No major business can function without frequenting the court system now and again. Sure, we always hear about the stars that find themselves knee deep in no good, a tabloid mandated trip into rehab preventing the swift hammer of justice from marking them with that professionally inconvenient criminal record. Heck, Harvey Levin wouldn’t have a lifestyle without them (in either of his so called careers). No, the rarity is the blazing of big guns, company vs. company, usually complaining about money, who made it, and how it was managed. Since most of Hollywood is run by bean counters, business school graduates, and their JD partners in pilfering, actual lawsuits tend to be few and far between.

But within the last month, Tinsel Town has been rocked by three rather high profile civil hissy fits - which, again, isn’t all that unusual. The intricacy of any international commerce basically demands it. But in all three cases, the issue under contention seems like one the parties should have worked out long before a visit to the clerk of the court. It’s hard to imagine that these people get paid what they do and yet fail to cross such “T"s and dot such dollar intensive “I"s. Of course, no one can predict every facet of a major deal. Sometimes, unseen aftershocks can result from such seismic financial matters. But in the case of The Watchmen, Tommy Lee Jones, and Disturbia proceedings, bad things do occasionally happen to powerbrokers. 

Looking at the most recent pleading first, it was only a matter of time before the Shia LeBouf hit was called out for the Rear Window rip it appears to be. After all, substitute Jimmy Stewart for the aforementioned rising young star, Raymond Burr for David Morse, and a proto-Pinkberry suburb for a metropolitan apartment building courtyard, and you’ve seen either effort. So when the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust, owner of the rights to the 1942 short story “Murder From A Fixed Viewpoint” by Cornell Woolrich tagged Dreamworks, Viacom, Paramount, NBC, Universal, producer Stephen Spielberg, and anyone else with blockbuster-imbued deep pockets, it was less of a matter of “WHAT?” and more of “what took you so long?”

There’s no denying the similarities between the properties. While Disturbia could never be taken for Hitchcock’s classic suspense thriller, that’s really not the issue. Mining the same subject matter or source is SOP for the studios. No, what the lawyers for the late Abend contend is that Universal (specifically) has a long established pattern of ignoring their ownership of the property. Hitchcock and company did gain the proper permissions, but the planned DVD release from a few years back was delayed when the Trust had to, once again, thrust themselves into the process to protect their rights. While it may seem like nitpicking, the difference is very clear. Those representing Abend aren’t angry that Disturbia resembles “Murder from a Fixed Viewpoint” - they are pissed that no one told them that the work would again become the basis of a new film.

Of course, this is why the case winds up in court. Someone suggests that a film follows the pattern of a source they own. Another says it was an original effort. Disturbia‘s reliance on the plot contrivances of “Murder” make for a strong case of copycatting. But is it fair to fault someone for merely being inspired by another work. Movies have long “borrowed” content, from directorial homages to outright steals. But the case the Trust will have to make is that Disturbia is SO similar to Murder that it might as well be the same thing. Without the story available to base an opinion on, one has to imagine that the big wigs will take this matter all the way to the bar - unless, of course, a few mill will make it all go away.

That seems to be the case with Tommy Lee Jones, who recently filed suit against the producer of No Country for Old Men for breach of contract and close to $10 million dollars in allegedly owed back end money. According to published reports, the Oscar winner took legal action when his claim for his agreed upon bonus was negated by those in power. They argued that a renegotiation and a misunderstanding over document language prevents the payment. Seems somewhere in the morass of legalese and micromanaged mumbo jumbo that comes with hiring and firing talent, the studio suggests Jones waived his right to said cash. Of course, if the original contract and the new one under contention are both signed, sealed, and delivered, the plaintiffs are going to have to prove fraud. Stop laughing - it’s not necessarily a given in La-La land.

It’s obvious that both of these cases hinged on box office success and the availability of certain amounts of money. No one would be suing the Disturbia gang if it had made Bangkok Dangerous dollars over its theatrical run. But when it comes to the most highly contested lawsuit to hit the wires, we are dealing with potential, not pat results. For decades, fans have been wondering if Alan Moore’s award winning graphic novel, Watchmen, would ever make it to the silver screen. Crammed with a clever combination of social satire, old school comics characterization, and the British author’s cutthroat commentary, it long stood as the Holy Grail of potential cinematic skyrockets. Over the years, several filmmakers have famously failed to realize their goal of giving this project life. As recently as two years ago, it looked like it would never get the greenlight.

Then Zack Snyder went and turned Frank Miller’s Spartan spectacle 300 into one of the most buzzed about films of the last five years, and in combination with his success circa the Dawn of the Dead remake, he had enough commercial carte blanche to make whatever movie he wanted. Watchmen was it. As geek nation looked on with suspicion and overbearing scrutiny, Snyder went about his business. Last month, he unveiled a trailer and some clips at Comic-Con to much fanfare, and uber-nerd Kevin Smith even got a sneak peek of the entire project. His verdict - it more than lives up to the source material. Along with his love of the new JJ Abrams Star Trek take, the Clerks commander has already confirmed that Watchmen is great.

Naturally, Warner Brothers was ecstatic. Having coughed up the cash to make this risky title, they were happy to hear that early talk was so outwardly positive. Then Fox stepped in and spoiled their giddy good time. Suggesting that they had first right to any Watchmen work, they marched out a supposed standing agreement with producer Larry Gordon, arguing that for the last 17 years, they owned the ability to make the movie. While it would be nice to claim that Fox was merely coat tailing the Comic-Con success, the studio actually filed their lawsuit seven months ago. It simply took until this amount of time for the judge to rule on a Motion to Dismiss by Warners (he denied it). 

Still, the case raises interesting questions about timing, talent, and how both are mismanaged and manipulated by individuals desperate to keep their careers intact. If Fox is right, and Gordon agreed to make his Watchmen with them involved, then Warners wasted a whole lot of cash on a movie that will garner them very little. In the end, they will have taken the risk while another reaps part or all of the rewards. On the other hand, if Fox is flawed in its understanding, if they really don’t have the rock solid stance reports suggest, then they are clearly blackmailing Warners for being themselves too weak kneed to make their own version. While it’s always about money (and Watchmen appears poised to make oodles), this could be a clear case of what lawyers like to call “legal nuisance”. Both sides might be willing to work out a financial settlement to make it all go away.

But again, it seems strange that a finished film with almost seven months to go before hitting theaters (Watchmen bows in March 2009) would be worth such a snit. Imagine what will happen if Smith is wrong, and Snyder delivers a bomb instead of a box office hit. Will Fox be foaming then? Similarly, had No Country for Old Men been a typical Coen Brothers effort - critically lauded but commercially inert - would Jones be jockeying for his so-called cut? At least the Disturbia case turns on something more solid than cash - though financial payback is the only means of addressing a violated copyright. If anything, all three cases show that Hollywood occasionally trips over its own ambitions in pursuit of payment. Apparently, cash is the only cure for the ‘Sue Me, Sue You’ blues. 

by Chris Catania

9 Sep 2008

A lesson learned from kids that know how to rock to Andrew Bird.

The rush of kids toward the stage was fantastic!

It came near the end of Andrew Bird’s Chicago show. And as I watched the youngsters sprint from all areas of the venue and down the aisles toward the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion, I was reacquainted with a sense of innocence that I’ve either been missing, avoiding or choosing to forget about when enjoying a live show.

Those kids did what is often harder to do as you get older, which is not suppress that freely unashamed and spontaneous expression of joy when something is so exciting and you’re being yanked by your heart and mind to move outside of the normal mold of what’s “okay” to do in public, especially at a concert where there are more seats than open standing space near the stage. 

And for some reason I don’t fully understand yet, we push this spontaneous urge down, bottle it up and sometimes even thrown it away as we get older, deeming it immature or unacceptable.

But it was so fun to watch those kids run down the aisles and jump around up like miniature pogo sticks to Bird’s operatically rocking “Fake Palindromes”. 

I saw a few older folks shaking a leg, and yes, after the second chorus came around the whole crowd was on its feet, but it was those kids that started all the blissful ruckus.

So who were these kids? 

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing they were probably related to the fundraiser for the night as a block of tickets for a Meet and Greet were being auctioned off benefitting local non-profit Rock for Kids.

I’ll end with this.

Bird has written in his New York Times blog that “writing songs and performing live have with time become almost the same process for me. The improvisation and conversation with the audience from show to show keep the songs fluid and alive. On the other hand, making a record is like a show that gets drawn out over a year or more, but with no cathartic resolution.”

Well, the show was definitely alive and fluid and I think those kids (and the adults, too) let loose enough cathartic resolution and had a wonderful time communicating with tracks from Bird’s Armchair Apocrapha (2007) or Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005) and some new tracks, to make recording a live album seem a lot less drawn out and arduous than a normal studio version.

We couldn’t get the camera out fast enough to capture the kids, but Colleen did shoot what built up the urge and caused the kids to bum-rush the stage.

by Rob Horning

9 Sep 2008

A few ideas derived from the Ewen’s Channels of Desire, a look at the history of using images to stoke consumerism.

1. The core thesis: “The mass media and the industries of fashion and design, through the production and distribution of imagery, have reconciled widespread vernacular demands for a better life with the general priorities of corporate capitalism.” In other words, consumerism becomes the solution to the political threats that might have otherwise arisen from inequality; consumerism deals primarily with images, the goods end up being somewhat secondary to what they are purported to represent—i.e. the good life.

2. Images can be disseminated widely and cheaply, and technology assures that they are never scarce. Access to such images comes to stand in for actual lived experience of the life represented in the images. Digitization of culture allows more of the world to function as images; in fact, “image” in the Ewens’ usage may be reinterpreted to mean “digital culture,” which has become as cheap and ubiquitous as images were in earlier decades. We can all possess the symbolic representations of things that prompt satisfying fantasies of the good life, of a richer self with a greater range of reference points through which to express itself. Tallying and cataloguing the images/digital cultural goods we possess becomes a shorthand way of conducting our life. We gather ersatz experiences, and then we struggle to defend these experiences as authentic. The consequence of this may be that we see the presentation of self as image as the essence of life—life is a project in which we attempt to perfect our user profile.

3. The book hints at the role of consumerism in healing the wounds of hegemonic rationality—the disenchantment of the world by scientism and industrialism and the cash nexus. The gist is that capitalism tends to make money the measure of all things, eroding the sentimental value of things and traditions. But consumerism works to reenchant the social realm in a manner suitable to capitalism—reviving magical thinking in a commercial context. (The recent series of posts at 3 Quarks Daily about philosopher Akeel Bilgrami’s “Occidentalism, the Very Idea: An Essay on the Enlightenment and Enchantment” explores the fate of enchantment in Western culture at great length.) To reduce the argument to a platitude, shopping functions as secular religion. What we end up with after our shopping pilgrimages are just souvenirs of our spiritual quest, with little inherent usefulness in and of themselves. Of course, these goods have objective, practical functions, but those functions—usually a matter of helping us get on with everyday life, or enabling us to have some type of experience through their use—are being degraded or occluded by the spiritual, identity-fashioning aim. So the depth and breadth of our everyday life and lived experience is suppressed in the very acquisition of the goods meant to facilitate it.

4. The Ewens cite soapmaker Benjamin Babbitt as an innovator in the creation of branding. Babbitt figured out that you sell the soap wrapper, and the soap itself is ultimately incidental. “Babbitt—and other innovators like him—wrought massive changes in the daily life of Americans. Taking a staple of home production and turning it into an attractive marketable commodity, he established a basic principle of American marketing—masking the ordinary in a dazzle of magic.” This tends to be the thrust of the Ewens’ critique throughout, which seems to unduly champion the drudgery of home production and the dignity of what’s “ordinary.” They acknowledge that Americans may have embraced brands to escape ordinariness, to spend less time making things at home that bear little stamp of individual creativity. Consumerism thrived on the promise of beauty and ease—the “substance of style.” The trouble is that the pendulum swung too far, or worse, the pendulum metaphor doesn’t apply, and we have shifted permanently into a world where passive consumption and perpetual self-branding through goods are the default life experiences for most Westerners.

5. A few 1890s-era quotes from Simon Patton, whom the Ewens describe as an “apostle of industrial consumerism,” captures the logic behind why consumerism is basically an addiction to images, not things in themselves:

So cheap are many kinds of pictures that they are largely distributed as means of advertisement. Everywhere the homes of the poorest people are full of beautiful objects, many of which have no cost; and when their taste is improved by contact with these objects, others more suited to the new condition can be obtained at a slight increase in cost.

Consumerism hinges on this question: Is it possible to enjoy the implications of the images without their being activated by acquiring the objects advertised? One of the promises of the internet is to keep our supply of images teeming without our being subjected to the slight increases in cost. If the functions of objects are made irrelevant by the enhanced accessibility and functionality of images, will we be able to do away with material possessions altogether? That probably makes no sense, but I’m thinking of how I no longer have a physical music collection; chances are I won’t have a book collection once they are digitized and portable electronic-book readers become more prevalent. At that point, the space I inhabit will have about 90% less objects in it. Will there be a counter-trend that emerges to preserve our physical habitat? Will my apartment come to resemble a museum of self even more, when the objects seem to have even less practical necessity? If I got rid of things I don’t really use (but only fantasize about being the sort of person who uses), how much would be left?

The other Patton quote: “The standard of life is determined not so much by what a man has to enjoy, as by the rapidity with which he tires of the pleasure. To have a high standard means to enjoy a pleasure intensely and to tire of it quickly.” An odd definition of standard of living, in that it’s based on opportunities to shop rather than the usefulness of what is owned. If you can consume something faster, it’s better, because then you can move on to the next thing. Something that must be understood slowly is less “intense”, and bogs consumers down. This sets up the justification of convenience as a virtue—convenience increases consumption throughput, which allows for more shopping, which is where the real pleasure lies. But isn’t increasing consumption throughput a defensive measure—a desperate and futile attempt to keep up with new things that is then reconceived as pleasurable? Increased throughput only serves the positive interests of manufacturers. The quote also speaks to the consumerist ideology of novelty as a virtue in its own right, and the pressure that places us under to refuse to return to familiar things. The assertion that novel pleasures are “more intense” seems purely ideological. It seems just as valid to argue that familiar pleasures are deeper because our past experience with them enriches the possibilities in them. Novelty and boredom are the key concepts of consumerism; any effort to beat back consumerism must invalidate boredom and repudiate novelty for its own sake. The arbitrary fashion cycle would have to be a fundamental target. We follow the fashion cycle to keep up with what people around us seem to know; we don’t want to fall behind and into irrelevance. But what pleasure is to be had in the cycle itself? It just imputes boredom to a populace and then offers its arbitrary variations as the cure. But people aren’t bored; they are worried boring others by being conversant in what’s happening now.

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