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by Rob Horning

31 Jul 2009

Brad DeLong linked to this blog post by “Mr. Awesome” that takes apart a recent Megan McArdle post about health care. I agree with Mr. Awesome on every point he raises regarding the health-care debate but was left more in fearful awe of the comprehensiveness of his ad hominem attack on McArdle.

She belongs to an exceptionally stupid set of youngish libertarian Economist-esque pseudo-thinkers. Her “columns” mix the very best shallow diarist introspection of yuppie navel-gazing with the arrogant dead thought theatrics of a fake intellectual who operates with no standards of proofreading or fact-finding. She is a small fish in the great pond of bullshit punditry, but she’s like a clownfish, really bright and attention-grabbing — because she’s just so damn terrible. She lives in a dense tangle of white privilege anemone, which will cause a nasty rash if you touch it. There is perhaps a moray eel of intellectual accountability staring at that shiny overgrowth all bug-eyed like, “What the fuck is that?”

Though I’m usually unpersuaded by McArdle’s posts, I keep her blog in my RSS feed because she is an interesting, lively writer and because she strikes me as oddly courageous in, for lack of a less grad-schoolish way of putting it, owning up to her subject position without a kabuki show of apologetics and disclaimers. So I struggle to understand why she inspires the kind of vituperation cited above, which would be better reserved for the Sarah Palins and Thomas L. Friedmans of the world. McArdle’s writing typically reflects an agile mind moving quickly and unguardedly, something that her enemies seem to regard as the blight of privilege, prompting a burning urge to make her face consequences for some of the opinions she holds and chooses to express with a confidence that they seem to think is unearned. But by what means can one earn or deserve to be confident? Why is her intellect “fake”? It’s tempting to attribute some of the scorn to her being a woman, because really, she is not so “terrible” and disingenuous a pundit as to deserve this kind of character assassination. Anyway, whatever the cause, the disproportionate hatred she inspires ends up having the perverse effect of shielding her ideas from the critique they often deserve. Or rather, it tends to discredit the otherwise compelling critique, as with Mr. Awesome’s post.

But then again, I may be inordinately sympathetic; when I am feeling discouraged about the writing I do here, the criticism I level at myself tends to echo this:

The McArdles of the world believ[e] their own sheltered lives are a viable facsimile for anyone’s troubles or experience. They are so smart that they don’t have to conduct research before reaching conclusions; they are so wise that they require no experience to understand other people’s lives. They are so damn great and important that the petty problems and limited movement of their tiny orbits around unaccountable safety are the total motion of the world. Theirs is a nation of 300 some million, the vast majority of whom are extras and objects in their boring, whitebread existence.

That was salt in the wound of my self-pity. Often when I am writing I venture dubiously into terrain about which I am underinformed and throw out speculative ideas without compiling data to back them up or even coming up with a plan for determining what such data that would be. Am I the “spoiled loafer in the garden of knowledge” that Nietzsche condemns?

If I had more academic training in the methods of social science, I’d perhaps know better then to write as I do, and would probably be even more wary and ashamed of “irresponsible” speculating, and stay quiet. But I keep blundering along anyway, partly out of the faith that there is something useful in the provocations of nonempirical speculation, in thoughts that would be otherwise lost if one hewed always to positivistic hypothesis testing. That’s to say that I think it’s worthwhile for writers to make impressionistic lunges at truth, as filtered through the consciousness of a particular, always pathetically limited person who is nonetheless trying to synthesize as much as possible that seems relevant at any given spontaneous moment of writing. It’s not merely frivolous when we try to see and point out constellations where there are only countless stars.

by Bill Gibron

31 Jul 2009

Secrets are like seashells strewn across the beachhead of a desolate, angry ocean. Every human shoreline has them and yet few want to venture out into the cold, unyielding emotional sand and gather them up. We’d prefer to have them as decoration, elements of a psychological landscape that make us more complex than we probably are, that suggest experience when mistakes and missteps are probably the better reason for their existence. In a small town in Italy, the body of a beloved young girl starts a cynical inspector on a journey to uncover the myriad of mysteries surrounding her death. And as with most voyages of discovery, the revelations often fail to lead to anything conclusive.

It all starts with a missing child. Marta’s mother is frantic when her grade school age daughter doesn’t come home one day. In his capacity as local lawman, Commissioner Sanzio comes in from the city to investigate. Marta is eventually found safely, but she has horrific news. Local adult oddball Mario took her down to the lake, and there they discovered Anna. The star player on the town’s hockey team, the young girl has apparently been drowned, though there are no signs of struggle.

At first, Sanzio suspects the boyfriend. He is stand-offish and brash, and is eventually caught hiding several important items that belonged to Anna. Then the dead teen’s obsessive dad becomes a target. His fascination with his own offspring’s beauty sends up criminal profile warning signs. Soon, all clues seem to point to Corrodo and Chiara Canali, a recently separated couple who employed the victim as a babysitter - and it’s the death of their own handicapped child that Sanzio can’t seem to shake.

The Girl by the Lake is a stellar whodunit, a passive police procedural wrapped in the kind of communal enigma that would make David Lynch jealous. It tells a simple story - a body is found - and then proceeds to open doors and peak into closets overflowing with scandal and skeletons. For first time feature filmmaker Andrea Molaioli, the slow peeling back of evidentiary layers becomes a test of dread deferred. We keep waiting for the epiphany, the moment when Sanzio discovers the missing piece of this often obtuse puzzle. We anticipate the standard cat and mouse, cops cornering killer in a typical Tinsel town stand-off. Instead, like most legitimate police work, the conclusion comes inexplicably, lucked into via an early evening walk and a half-remembered bit of computer journal narration.

So instead of the ends, it’s the means of getting there that’s most important here, and this is where The Girl by the Lake really shines. Thanks to a terrific performance from Toni Servillo, we learn that Sanzio is his own walking contradiction. He suffers with familial issues - an institutionalized wife slowly fading from what appears to be Alzheimer’s, a daughter belligerent that her parents are passing from her life - and he uses that pain to put himself in the position of the victim. From there, he imagines motive and methodology, knowing that many of his answers are nothing more than hunches. With his sad sack face and wise maturity, Servillo sets us up to revel in the truths he uncovers.

Similarly, his suspect pool provides several other nuanced turns. Franco Ravera turns menacing manchild Mario into a pleasant pussycat, while Heidi Caldart brings a telling amount of personal resolve to Anna’s sadly neglected step-sister. The real surprise though is Valeria Golino, back in her native land (where she’s been reinventing her career for the last decade and a half) and bringing her “A” game. As a grief stricken mother, still torn by the death of her sickly little boy, she’s all pain, and all possibilities. We could easily see her as a cold, calculated murderer. Yet she also comes across as a victim.

And in that regard, The Girl by the Lake is one of those rare law and order efforts that’s not afraid to cast false witness and come to incorrect conclusions. Several times during the story, our detectives descend upon a suspect, interrogating them with professional pleasure, only to have their tactics turn up nothing but aggravation. Even more compelling, Molaioli offers up some purposefully directorial slight of hand, focusing on facets of the case that end up playing no part in the conclusion. Sure, this can seem like a cheat (many will wonder about the implied pedophilia of the opening), but it definitely adds to the arcane atmosphere and uncertain status of everyone involved.

In essence, The Girl by the Lake is a character study, albeit one guided via the need to resolve a crime. Sanzio is seen as a grumpy old man who is actually far more thoughtful and vulnerable than we think. His daughter is painting in a rather selfish, bratty light only to become more soulful in the end. From a pregnant DA to a tired assistant, our cop is surrounded by slightly off balance individuals. Even the suspects, initially offered as regular red herrings, develop into multifaceted “persons of interest.” Guided by Molaioli’s expert hand, and some gorgeous cinematography (the Italian countryside is simply stunning), we get lost in this insular world, recognizing that the truth is the only real way out.

That Girl by the Lake draws its conclusion so offhandedly, that it seems to drift to its denouement instead of building a big head of steam or suspense, might be seen as a flaw. Indeed, decades of cop and killer cinema have demanded that no investigation ends with a whimper. But just like the people who populate this particular section of the country, this mystery is indicative of its locale. As Sanzio sees it, everyone has a motive, if only because everyone has a connection. No one is completely innocent even though many have iron tight alibis. Even the victim violates several rules of the innocent. She’s not Laura Palmer, but there’s even a reason for her complicity. In many ways, she is much more than a mere dead girl found by a lake. This memorable movie is equally complicated.

by Timothy Gabriele

31 Jul 2009

Speaking of steel drums, there’s a ton of them in this live rendition recorded in the middle of a parade/procession in Manchester as the cameraman races to chase them.

by PopMatters Staff

31 Jul 2009

Vic Chesnutt
At the Cut
Releasing: 22 September (US)

01 Coward
02 When the Bottom Fell Out
03 Chinaberry Tree
04 Chain
05 We Hovered With Short Wings
06 Philip Guston
07 Concord Country Jubilee
08 Flirted With You All My Life
09 It Is What It Is
10 Granny

Vic Chesnutt
“Chain” [MP3]

by Nick Dinicola

31 Jul 2009

The Sims 3, like all the Sim games and really anything by Will Wright, is a playground in which we can make our own stories. Sometimes we try to keep thing realistic, but the potential for insanity is never far away. The Sims has always been a great source for over-the-top melodrama befitting the worst daytime soap, but it’s also a source of far more serious stories.

One that stands out is the blog “Alice and Kev.” Alice and Kev are homeless Sims. Kev is described as “…mean-spirited, quick to anger, and inappropriate. He also dislikes children, and he’s insane. He’s basically the worst Dad in the world.” His daughter Alice “…has a kind heart, but suffers from clumsiness and low self-esteem.” Each blog post is a snapshot of their daily lives, and while some are humorous, there’s an undercurrent of sadness running through the entire blog. Reading about the hardships Alice faces while trying to go to school and dealing with a father who hates her is frighteningly realistic, and seeing the joy she gets out of simple things like a good meal and a bed are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Kev provides some comic relief with his haphazard attempts at love, but it’s also hard not to feel sorry for him when his attempts constantly fail, and the drama returns when he comes back “home” and takes his anger out on Alice. It’s a captivating story in its own right, but this premise has been done before with The Sims 2 and can be reproduced by anyone who has the game, what really makes “Alice and Kev” unique is its presentation.

Its blog reads like a documentary. Its creator, Robin Burkinshaw, takes himself out of the story as much as possible. He doesn’t mention himself in the writing unless he’s talking about a specific aspect of the game, such as personality traits or life goals. He doesn’t even exert much control over Alice and Kev, or at least that’s how it seems. Of course he must exert some control over them, and the fact that this story may be purposefully constructed is always in the back of the reader’s mind. At one point Kev starts walking and doesn’t stop, wandering the open land for a couple days before returning home. A commenter points out that Sims don’t normally do this, and it’s entirely possible that Robin made Kev go away so Alice could have a chance to bond with a neighbor. But exactly how much control Robin exerts over the Sims is irrelevant, it’s how much control he’s perceived to exert that matters. And since he doesn’t mention himself much in each post, his presence is easily forgotten.

By removing himself, the player, from the story, Robin has switched the focus to the characters. The blog becomes a story about the Sims, not of someone playing The Sims. This makes it more appealing because it seems as if this story doesn’t have an author. Even though it’s clearly a straight narrative, since the characters are the focus and the player is (almost) nowhere to be seen, events feel natural, spontaneous, and unpredictable. There’s an authenticity to their actions: Even though they may just be AI, the AI is making these decisions on its own. The possibilities of what these Sims might do, free from any player input, is just as fascinating as the actual story of their lives. 

The blog is on hiatus now, but there are more than enough posts already written to introduce new readers and make them care. No matter what comes next, “Alice and Kev” has proved itself to be a unique kind of story: Part game, part documentary, Robin has turned the open world of The Sims 3 into a directed social commentary. I don’t know when the posts will resume again, but I know I’ll be watching closely.

//Mixed media