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Sunday, Oct 14, 2007
by Frances Robles and Andres Viglucci

By Frances Robles and Andres Viglucci
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MIAMI—As the deputy managing editor of Colombia’s newspaper La Patria, Orlando Sierra used his reporting to slam crooked politicians in Colombia’s coffee region, until the January 2002 morning when a hit man shot and killed him on the front steps of his newsroom.


When gunman Luis Fernando Soto Zapasta was quickly caught and convicted, his 29-year prison sentence came to illustrate the first signs of a growing movement: No longer do killers of Latin American journalists go scot free, as they routinely did just a few years ago.


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Sunday, Oct 14, 2007
by Liz Sly

By Liz Sly
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CAIRO, Egypt—When rumors that President Hosni Mubarak was sick began circulating in Cairo in late August, editor Ibrahim Eissa weighed in with some of the biting commentaries that have earned his Al-Dustour newspaper a devoted readership.


“The president in Egypt is a god and the gods don’t get sick,” he wrote in a front-page editorial Aug. 30, questioning why no one in the government would address the 79-year-old president’s reported illness. “Mubarak’s state wants to present the President as someone who is sanctified, who makes no mistakes and who no one questions and no one competes against.”


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Sunday, Oct 14, 2007

I spent a lot of years studying literature, and though it frequently seemed like I was pursuing vanity degrees that would have no use in the “real world,” I tried to put a brave face on it, telling myself and anyone who would listen that the study of the functioning of narratives culturally is integral to understanding the course of that society; that manipulation of those narratives can dictate the course of history; that the values individuals subscribe to can often be traced to narratives that have cultural currency. So it’s gratifying to see an piece like this one in today’s NYT, by Robert Shiller, of Irrational Exuberance fame, that confirms my rationalizations.


Consumer confidence indexes have not yet fallen as they did at the onset of the last two recessions. But confidence is a delicate psychological state, not easily quantified. It is related to the stories that people are talking about at the moment, narratives that put emotional color into otherwise dry economic statistics….
It is clear that salient, emotion-arousing narratives — those that capture the popular imagination and damage public confidence — are central to the etiology of recessions. As these stories gain currency, they impel people to curtail their spending, both in business and their personal lives.


Narratives that render the economic data comprehensible at an emotional level are clearly significant, but Shiller might have been more specific than to attribute those narratives to what “people” are saying. The business press mainly exists to fashion those narratives, and many of them take that responsibility to heart and continually cheerlead for the economy, trying to implant confidence-building stories about the current situation in the general public. Unlike daily market roundups, whose main subterfuge is to confidently present explanations of why markets moved in this direction or that (see the epic account of day trading maestro Victor Niederhoffer in this week’s New Yorker for a look at how much more sophisticated this kind of interpretation can become), I’m thinking instead of BusinessWeek‘s “Business Outlook” section, the weekly roundup of the market’s performance and its interpretation of new data for various indicators. This column is perpetually optimistic, finding the bright side to any grim piece of economic news and promising recovery or further growth or bigger profits or higher stock prices around every corner. It’s a testament to how slippery data is, and how many different factors and figures can plausibly be evoked in providing a picture of the economy—the sunshine gang at BusinessWeek can simply keep digging around until they find some indicators or some time frames to contextualize numbers and spin them positively. In reality, the economy has far too many moving parts to accurately describe the interaction of all of them; this opens the window to ideological interpretations of carefully selected partial accounts of the total situation. At stake in these narratives usually is the eventual level of state intervention in the economy, though other messages are often embedded: hard work pays; only greedy speculators disrupt the operation of markets; growth is benevolent and leaves no one behind; containing labor costs (i.e. wages) ultimately benefits everyone; freedom is best understood as purchasing power and entrepreneurial opportunity, etc.


If the business press is there to cheerlead for market forces’ benevolence, and sustain investors’ confidence, how does the recession narrative get started and catch on? It may be a matter of data too discouraging to ignore, though just a look at how the National Association of Realtors’ economists spun away the problems in the housing market for so long is enough to make that premise seem questionable. They may not get started until after the fact, when they can be comfortably cast in the past tense, which may be why recessions are often not identified until well after the fact, as Shiller notes. And the business press ultimately has to represent conditions realistically in order that those who consume the information can profit. There’s still money to be made in a recession, after all.


Recessions, according to Shiller, hinge in part on consumer confidence, and a force more significant than the business press in sustaining consumer confidence is the advertising industry, which is always touting the benefits of consumption in increasingly intrusive ways. And these messages become self-reinforcing; once we accept their basic truth, we may at some level yearn to see them reiterated, which makes us more attentive to ads and the fantasies they enact. A study of the appeal of fiction—studying literature—can perhaps be useful in understanding how ads design their own fantasies and make them efficacious. The vicarious pleasures experienced in consuming experiences supplied by the media may translate into a faith in shopping to provide similar joys, reinforcing the identities people want to construct for themselves. And our sense of confidence then rests in how effectively we can make those identities from things we buy and consume rather than other sorts of prospects—that our identity stems primarily from being consumers makes sustaining consumer confidence something of a cinch.


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Saturday, Oct 13, 2007


No one thought it would be such a massive hit. After all, it was a goofy little splatter film directed by a relative genre newcomer. Besides, in a realm overrun by big name filmmakers using make-up and physical F/X to realize their most repugnant visions, how could an outsider to motion picture macabre make any kind of meaningful dent? Well, when Chicago theater director Stuart Gordon arrived on the horror scene with his unconventional Lovecraft adaptation, Re-Animator, legions of fans took notice. The zany zombie film with the over the top bloodletting became an instant cult classic, and as the years have rolled by, it’s become a beloved benchmark. Of course, once completed, Gordon faced a major obstacle – how to avoid the sophomore slump. After Empire Pictures’ Charles Band passed on several other ideas, another run at HP territory was devised. But this movie would be different than the first. It would move “beyond” anything the novice director had done before.


Indeed, From Beyond is more serious and less ‘spoofy’ than the tale of Herbert West and his day-glo decision to play God. It deals with more science fiction oriented elements, and delves deeper into the sleazoid sex only hinted at in Re-Animator. With a little more budget to work with, a cadre of accomplished craftsmen and technicians at his disposal, and a cast already in tune with what Stuart was hoping to achieve, the results are more compact and complete than that famous if frequently out of control first film. There is not a lot of complicated plot here – lab assistant Crawford Tillinghast is accused of killing Dr. Edward Pretorius after an experiment results in the death of the medico. Our hero claims innocence, offering instead an insane story about unseen entities that exist between the realms of reality and the ethereal. Psychiatric whiz kid Dr. Katherine McMichaels decides to take up his cause, and along with cop/protector Buford Brownlee, they return to the scene of the crime – and the pineal gland resonator that lies within.


From the very beginning of this film, you can tell Gordon is striving for something different. While his style is still the same - this is a filmmaker who loves to hide his horrors until he can give them the full majestic movie treatment they so richly deserve – the story kicks in with a different kind of urgency. On the commentary track from the new unrated edition of the film (now out on DVD from MGM), Gordon recognizes the limited scope of Lovecraft’s original tale. By the time the credits arrive, the short story has been exhausted. So coming up with another 90 minutes of filler is what gives From Beyond its novel, Italian horror like whodunit. Unlike his previous effort, which felt like a homage to every direct-to-video vomitorium released during the VCR’s heyday, this movie plays like a combination of Fulci, Argento, and Bava. There is just something about the combination of procedure and pus that recalls the very best of our Mediterranean macabre maestros.


Oddly enough, very little blood is spilled here. Indeed, the alternative narrative discussion finds Gordon arguing that he needed to replace the claret with slime. Seems the MPAA, angry that he released Re-Animator without a rating, decided to rake him over the coals come From Beyond’s consideration. They mandated cuts and edits that took most of the overt arterial spray out the set-pieces. For decades, this material was considered lost. After all, who would have thought that 20 plus years later there would be a need for gore removed from a horror movie? Luckily, a little archeology on the studio’s part turned up these trims, and tech geeks matched them to the movie. Today, we can see From Beyond the way the director intended – bile and body parts included. It’s not a more noxious experience, just one closer to how Gordon intended it to be.


It also doesn’t alter the original version’s viability. From Beyond stands as a stellar example of what ‘80s terror did best – expanding on old concepts while using any and all available resources to realize its ideas. There have been hundreds of mad scientist movies, each one offering its own unique take on the evil experiment gone radioactively wrong concept. But this movie makes a radical departure from such strategies in that it gives us competing crazed researchers – three if you count the evil quack back at the hospital that keeps putting Crawford in harms way. Pretorius may have started the dread, but McMichaels allows her inner lusts – for power, for personal glory, for physical love – to override her rationality. She becomes the far more threatening presence as the lure of the Resonator keeps her focused on pushing its limits.


While there is a John Carpenter’s The Thing like look to the main monster, Gordon again thwarts convention by making the “it” a thinking, feeling, being. When it gropes McMichaels out of sexual need, we feel the sleaze. When it tries to convince the others to join its biological make-up, it plays right into the standard human helplessness. This is thoughtful offal, organs and shredded muscle melted into a pool of psycho-sexual sluice. The effects really sell the premise, and the overall art design helps us believe in the machine’s menacing purpose. Once Crawford becomes brainwashed (literally), the motion picture meanders over into even more surreal splatter. After all, we are dealing with a creature who craves gray matter, and such mind bending tendencies really give From Beyond its excessive flavor. It matches well with what Gordon established in Re-Animator.


There are those who find that first film so much better that they tend to downplay Beyond’s solid scary film status. Granted, when the movie suddenly finds itself in S&M land, actress Barbara Crampton tricked out in full dominatrix mode to help McMichaels find her inner slut, it appears we’ve suddenly stumbled into Red Shoe Diaries territory. And a force of nature like Ken Fore shouldn’t be relegated to playing sidekick/clichéd first casualty. Still, for all its unexplainable tangents and Roma-esque madness, From Beyond is a brilliant film. Sadly, it represents the last time that Gordon would stand as a viable fear factor. As part of a contract with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, he would soon find himself lost in a swirl of failed projects and no budget miscues. For every practicable attempt (Robot Jox, Fortress), there’s a wildly ineffective misstep (Castle Freak, The Pit and the Pendulum).


Here’s hoping that this new DVD – which also contains a nice retrospective and some intriguing storyboard to scene comparisons – will revitalize From Beyond’s reputation. Its MIA status from the format has often been cited as the reason behind its lesser consideration. Of course, Re-Animator’s rabid loyalists will scoff at any suggestion that this HP Lovecrafting can compare to the original bodily fluid fable. Though it may be hearsay to say it, From Beyond may be better than its predecessor. It feels more like a film and less like a series of F/X pieces piled together. We enjoy the character interplay more, and realize that the conclusion means more to us than who lives or who dies. We want to see Pretorius get his comeuppance. Thankfully, Gordon gives us that…and a whole lot more.


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Saturday, Oct 13, 2007

Add the Hook, Mo Pitkins and possibly Club Midway to the ever-expanding graveyard of NYC music clubs.  Also note that places like the Blender’s Gramercy Theatre, Irving Plaza and United Theatre have sporadic bookings at best this year (GT doesn’t even have a website or their own presale box office).  And yet articles from the New York Times crow that despite other recent club closings (i.e. CBGB’s, Fez, Brownies, Bottom Line, Sin-E), Gotham still has a “healthy” club scene.  What kind of club scene it is remains to be seen.  With ever-high rents here, only establishments that overcharge for drinks, increase their ticket prices and have to book acts that they’re reasonably sure will pack in audiences mean that there’s less and less chance for up and coming acts here and out of town to play here, much less get recognized.  There are still places like Ace of Clubs, Arlene’s and Pianos that do cater to these bands but I’m worried that they’re going to become endangered species.  The scary thing is that there isn’t a lot of support to keep clubs like these going- art grants for music usually go to classical or jazz projects, assuming that rock/pop is a commercial venture that takes care of itself.  What’s going to keep places like this going are support from fans who vote with their feet and their wallets.  Otherwise…?


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