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Sunday, Nov 25, 2007

How do you arrange your books?


Kate Holden’s piece in this Saturday’s Age asks the question: Can you fall in love with a man through the contents of his bookshelves? Following a visit to the Alexandre Yersin Museum in Vietnam and perusing the French-Swiss doctor’s stacks, she answers positively, and sets about dissecting her own shelves, and what they might say about her.


I want visitors to think I am smart. Or indeed, to prove that I am smart. Tasteful. Erudite and eclectic. All this manifested in the concrete evidence of the books I’ve read: the range of subjects; the impressive editions, the glorious colourful bindings. I had a moment of enthusiasm a few months ago when I was procrastinating from writing a, well, a newspaper column, and collected all my orange Penguins into a beautiful if ochreous slab of mid-20th century cleverness. It was not unknown, I went on to mutter, that I had deliberately placed certain books in more visible cases — or even on eye-level shelves — in order to best array the quality of my collection.


So, of course, this had me thinking – am I a conscientious shelver like Kate? Are my books arranged deliberately? What does it say about me that I, like Kate, hide my trade-size pop-thrillers in the darkest part of the shelf, while Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine takes pride of place in the living room alongside a large range of similarly-themed works?


The more I pondered, the more I realized that while there’s an element of the show-off in my arrangements, such conceit is really just for me. The smart books are at eye-level in the center of the living room to remind me what I’ve read, and what I’ve learned. Does it make me look smart to visitors? Possibly, but, to be honest, I find most visitors are more into my partner’s DVD collection than my books. He’s the coolest guy in the world because of his Fly special edition and his Star Wars prints; I’m hardly Mrs Awesome because I’ve dog-earned the works of David M. Rorvik.


More from Kate:


There had been times, I confessed sheepishly, when I’d had second thoughts and jumped up from the couch to adjust the display to even more advantageous effect. Some people gather their collections by subject; size of volume; author; Dewey decimal system; haphazardry; or have no books at all. I group mine by affection: most beautiful editions together, then the most beloved novels ...


I can’t say I’ve ever jumped off the couch to better arrange my books for prying eyes, but I get what Kate means. It’s as though we organize out books in such a way that makes the book the star, that makes the titles stand out. I wonder if I’m not subconsciously offering David M. Rorvik a comeback through his placement on my shelves. “Who’s that guy?” you want your visitor to ask. “Well,” you’ll say, “sit back, and let me tell you about the human robot…”


Or then there’s the chance your visitor might say, “Oh! David M. Rorvik – I love that crazy old guy!” and you have a coffee, a sleepover, and a friend for life. It hasn’t happened yet, but I don’t get that many visitors.


I might not be as calculated as Kate in my shelf-arranging, but I admit to desiring a similar amount of crazed control. I can tell when a volume is out of place in a single glance. I can stare at my shelves for hours wondering if this should go in travel lit, or if that should be over in anthropology, or even if I should finally put together a separate shelf for my collection of non-fic Pulitzer Prize winners. Is Sophie’s World correctly placed over there? Should The L-Shaped Room go back over here? Do I really need that Leonard Maltin movie guide from 1994? But, it’s an ever-evolving thing, the bookshelf. Never complete, never perfect.

So, as Kate suggests, it’s bookshelf as symbol of self. Our best airs go in front, no matter where we are, no matter who we interact with. Our dark sides hide in the shadows next to the James Patterson trade paperbacks, while the worldly, wonderful, and weird parts grab the spotlight, next to Rorvik on my shelf and Thucydides on Kate’s.


So, what was hiding in Yersin’s dark corners? Now there’s a question.


 


 


 


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Saturday, Nov 24, 2007


Film criticism is flawed in dozens of different ways. While there is no reliable aesthetic consensus among opinions, fans and scholars like to imply (or demand) one. And since each and every review comes down to a matter of taste, finding a harmony between all those varying personal perspectives is a fool’s paradise. Still, because greatness appears to be so easy to agree upon (even with the occasional naysayer, films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca still get almost universal kudos), readers insist that failure fulfill the same concrete criteria. Yet for every hopeless flop, there are objective arguments both pro and con. Take the Summer splat Who’s Your Caddy? An overview of the Rotten Tomatoes tracking indicates this supposed spoof earned an appalling 8% approval rating. That means, of the so-called professionals who decided to review it (and that number is also shockingly small), over 90% found it unacceptable. All of which begs the question – are they right? Oddly enough, no.


That doesn’t mean our story is something significant, mind you. When rap impresario Christopher “C-Note” Hawkins returns to his South Carolina hometown to join the snooty local country club, he butts heads with president and resident bigot Mr. Cummings. At first, his attempts at membership are rebuffed. But when C-Note buys a local mansion (and with it, property rights to the 17th hole), the club must make a deal. They decide to let the media mogul in, but on one condition. He must pass the probationary period without a single significant violation of the rules. In the meantime, Cummings hires some local hitmen, conspires with a haughty female attorney, and basically does everything in his money-based power to keep the ‘undesirable element’ out of his club. Naturally, C-Note’s genuineness, plus his secret familial agenda, helps him survive this ridiculous redneck hazing. Still, it all comes down to a head to head contest on the links. The winner stays. The loser goes.


Who’s Your Caddy? (new to DVD from Dimension Films and Genuis Products) is not the worst film of 2007, but it definitely is one of the most underdeveloped. What wants to be a sly urban Caddysack (though the constant comparisons to the marginal ‘80s entertainment is tenuous at best – more on this later) ends up being a collection of scattered scatology mixed with some decent interaction between the cast members. One of the best things director Don Michael Paul does is allow for and exploit a free flowing level of camaraderie between his actors. Outkast member Big Boi (aka Antwan Andre Patton) may not be the best musician turned movie star on the planet, but his casual mannerism with professional performers Faizon Love, Finesse Mitchell, and Chase Tatum has a real aura of fellowship and fun. Granted, we never do learn much about these purposely placed posse members. They are mere sidekicks, fleshed out by their frequently illustrated proclivities (horniness, weed loving, thug life living) without probing deeper into personality.


Even C-Note suffers from being a single element narrative device. Though Patton does manage to make him more than just a brother with an agenda, the script constantly reminds us that, no matter how winning or wise he may be, our hero is hankering for a little passive payback. The motive for this move – something to do with his late father, a record course score, and Cummings’ countermanding of its legitimacy – may have worked better within a dramatic setting. Here, the ‘doing it for dad’ element never carries the emotional payoff it promises. Even when Hawkins is delivering an inspirational, last act pep talk to fire up his troops, the premise is problematic. Seems there would be better ways for a multimillionaire media giant to take the air out of an old fashioned stuffed shirt other than beating him at 18 holes. Yet this is indicative of Who’s Your Caddy? ’s main flaw. We could care less about the reasons for C-Note’s vendetta. We just want more raunch and revelry.


Yet again, the movie fails to accommodate. There is a single scene where Love, Mitchell, and Tatum are standing butt naked (literally) in the clubhouse locker room. As his cohorts primp and preen, Jon Favreau’s favorite riffs on sexuality, body types, penis size, and clear cultural distinctions. Sure, it may all sound like a lackluster night on Evening at the Improv, but Love is so convincing, and the rest of the movie so wanting, that we’ll take what we can get. Indeed, there are moments of calculated crudity all throughout Who’s Your Caddy? that fail to make us smile. When Love lets out the world’s longest fart right before Cummings tees off, it’s so obvious as to be boring. Similarly, Mitchell is a pot loving loser who – thanks to PC thuggery – must have had much of his material trimmed. This means a brownie joke loses its luster, and a sequence where he feeds herb to a polo pony also misses the mark.


Some things do work, if only moderately. While it may have taken her a tenure on The View to learn that the world is actually round, Ms. Flat Earth Sherri Sheperd is actually quite winning as C-Note’s trash talking assistant. Her moments with the always interesting Terry Crews crackle with energy. Similarly, when Paul takes things down a notch to have C-Note visit his mother, the interaction between Patton and Jenifer Lewis has a nice amount of authenticity. Yet for every facet that finds its mark, Who’s Your Caddy? presents performers and personalities that simply lie there, DOA. This is a film that thinks dwarf gangsters are the height of originality - and hilarity – and anyone who still thinks Andy Milonakis is a misunderstood genius will realize his true limits after watching him here. He’s an unfunny void. Similarly, a well known name in urban comedy like Bruce Bruce is given nothing to do, and let’s not even question what skilled actors like Tamala Jones, James Avery, and Jim Piddock are doing here. Slumming for a paycheck, perhaps?


And then there’s Jeffrey Jones. The one time Tim Burton tent pole, able to lift any scene with a single shift of his rubbery face, has gone from winner to sinner in the eyes of the public. All the good work he did in the ‘80s and ‘90s was washed away amid scandal and alleged sex crimes. Now a bloated, bungling shadow of his former self, Jones is reduced to a Confederate cad here. Though he never uses epithets or racial vulgarities (it is up to Love to translate his comments into N-word nastiness), he’s pompous without a purpose, prejudiced as a matter of screenplay predestination. For those who love to toss the Caddyshack claim about, one need remember that Ted Knight’s jaundiced Judge Smails was more than just a superficial villain. He was dimensionalized to the point of perfection. Here, Jones is just the butt of several jibes – and most of them are unfunny at best.


And about that 1980 links lunacy? Who’s Your Caddy? is not some manner of ghetto update of that celebrated farce. In fact, it has much more in common with the crappy 1988 sequel starring Jackie Mason. Caddy actually betters that pointless update in many significant ways. If Paul had simply had more faith in his filmmaking, and allowed Patton and his costars room to improvise and gel, we’d have a much better movie. Even with the added content provided on the DVD (deleted scenes, minor making-of EPK, an intriguing audio commentary), we see a production constantly hemmed in by expectations and industry standards/mandates. What many thought would be an African American Airplane! ended up sinking in a sodden cinematic sand trap. There is the core for an interesting fish out of water tale here, a comedy of clashing cultures where new world hip-hop meets Southern conservative white repression, but Who’s You Caddy? is not it. It’s just a mindless amusement that should have been better.


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Saturday, Nov 24, 2007
New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as Boy Journalist Tintin. Cartoon by Bill Leak

New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as Boy Journalist Tintin. Cartoon by Bill Leak


Journalists as Candidates in the Australian Election


Australian Prime Minister John Howard was defeated in the federal election on Saturday and also seems set to lose his own seat of Bennelong, on Sydney’s North Shore, to former Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Maxine McKew. She was an articulate and respected print and television journalist, working with the television news analysis programs Lateline and the 7.30 Report. She also had a column for the news magazine, The Bulletin, called “Lunch With Maxine McKew”. “With her uncanny ability to prise secrets out of people, Maxine McKew is that rare person in Australian life: a public figure who can redraw the political map in a single lunch,” wrote Sydney Morning Herald Journalist, Margaret Simons in 2003.


In an interview with 7 News during the election McKew was asked who she admires, and why:


(Burmese Resistance Leader) Aung San Suu Kyi was spectacularly impressive. Because, I suppose, of the moral leadership she provides. And the extraordinary continuity of her stance against the Burmese tyranny. (Former US Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright. And closer to home, Susan Ryan. When she became Education Minister in the Hawke government in 1983 only one third of Australian teenagers had a Year 12 qualification. And under her stewardship, during the Hawke years, that figure more than doubled. Susan Ryan fought the good fight. The tragedy now is that that figure has been flat lining. And here we are in 2007 and we need to be the smart country and we still have one in five teenagers not finishing Year 12. Among the dead, Jessie Street has always been a great hero of mine. She was talking about equal pay for women in the 1930s. She put equal pay on the map.


Climate Change was the major issue in the Australian election. I live in the Sydney electorate of Wentworth, which has been retained by John Howard’s former Minister for the Environment, Malcolm Turnbull. John Howard refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. The candidate for Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party in Wentworth, George Newhouse, had his campaign team hand out postcards at the Kings Cross Farmers Market with a drawing of coal smokestacks belching out smoke, with two words written under it: Ratify Kyoto. This seems likely to be Kevin Rudd’s first act as Prime Minister. The Age today reports on a phone call Rudd received from British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.


British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has personally congratulated Kevin Rudd on Labor’s federal election victory and welcomed his plan to quickly ratify the Kyoto protocol.


Mr Brown telephoned Mr Rudd from the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where he is attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), shortly after outgoing prime minister John Howard conceded defeat on Saturday night.


“I have talked to Kevin Rudd ... and congratulated him on his election and talked to him about some of the issues, including climate change, that we are discussing here today,” Mr Brown told reporters.


“Kevin Rudd has told me he will immediately sign the Kyoto agreement and he is proposing these binding agreements in the post-Kyoto talks that start in Bali in a few days’ time.”


Former SBS television journalist Patrice Newell has operated a biodynamic farm in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales for the last twenty years and created a coalition of independent candidates around the issue of climate change. She and Australian Broadcasting Corporation science commentator Dr. Karl Kruzelnicki ran for the senate, unsuccessfully it seems. But the Greens Party gathered more votes. “Tonight we have seen Australians vote for a greener, more compassionate Australian Parliament,” Greens Senator Bob Brown told ABC News. “Right across the country, seats are changing hands from the [Liberal / National Party] Coalition to the Labor Party on Greens preferences. Welcome, Kevin Rudd, new prime minister of Australia. This is a remarkable vote by the Australian people for a new era for this country to tackle climate change, to tackle inequality.”


Still from Kundun, Martin Scorsese's movie of the childhood of the Dalai Lama

Still from Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s movie of the childhood of the Dalai Lama


The Dalai Lama Considers Changing How the his Successor Will Be Chosen


In an interview with the Japanese newspaper the Sankei Shimbun, the Dalai Lama said that he and his aides are considering replacing the tradition of searching for a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama among Tibetan boys born around the time of the previous Dalai Lama’s death.


“If the Tibetan people want to keep the Dalai Lama system, one of the possibilities I have been considering with my aides is to select the next Dalai Lama while I’m alive,” he told the Sankei Shimbun in an interview published November 21st. That could mean either some kind of democratic election among senior Buddhist monks or a personal selection by the current Dalai Lama himself, who is the 14th of the line. For 13 successive incarnations, monks have fanned out across Tibet with relics of the deceased Dalai Lama to try and find his next incarnation - a boy who recognized the objects and thus signaled that the Dalai’s soul had passed into a new earthly envelope. It is a ritual that both affirms and reflects the basic foundations of Tibetan Buddhism, reincarnation and the rule of a revered group of repeatedly reborn monks. That the protector of Tibetan culture would consider scrapping a core tenet of Tibetan tradition and possibly undermining his own legitimacy are sure signs that China is solidifying its dominant position in the decades-long standoff.


The boy the Dalai Lama recognised in 1995 as the reincarnation of the second highest lama, the Panchen Lama, mysteriously disappeared shortly after and the Chinese government named its own Panchen Lama.


To counter this, the Dalai Lama appears to have set on finding a suitable successor himself, one whose legitimacy is unsullied by unseemly squabbles over ritual with China and who has been handpicked to take up the advocacy work on behalf of his people once he dies. Making his succession an issue at this time may also be an attempt to tweak the Chinese - sensitive about their reputation in the walk-up to the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 - into taking a more accommodating position regarding the Tibet issue. Unlike more radical Tibetans, the Dalai Lama has always advocated autonomy, not independence, from China; and he has always said that he admired Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic. Beijing, however, has consistently lumped the Dalai Lama with the rest of what it calls the “splittists,” or those who would break up China.


Freedom of Expression in China


The New York Times today reviews the novel A Free Life by Chinese novelist Ha Jin, who left China for America after the Tiananmen Square uprising.


Nan and Pingping Wu, a husband and wife, are the sort of persevering newcomers, firmly set on a legal path to citizenship by way of unremitting thrift and toil, whom presidents like to point to from the podium during major addresses on the economy. Much as Jin himself did, the Wus came from China to study, not to stay, but they realized after the Tiananmen Square massacre (as Jin did too, he’s said in interviews) that they couldn’t go home again and be themselves, since both their selves and their native land had changed. “A Free Life” is the story of their family’s naturalization — bank deposit by bank deposit, dental appointment by dental appointment, appliance purchase by appliance purchase — and like most novels of what professors call “The American Immigrant Experience,” it’s chiefly a tale of trial and error. The trials provide the drama, the errors the comedy, and their overlap the pathos. It’s an orthodox format, hard to reinvent, mostly because reinvention is its theme.


Walter Kirn. The New York Times. November 25, 2007


In 2000, The New York Times published a long profile of Ha Jin, focusing on his powerful eye for the details of everyday life observed close up while other writers of his generation quote life refracted through the media.


If the lucidity and focus of ‘‘Waiting’’ puts you in mind of Russian masters like Gogol and Chekhov, that’s no accident. Jin reads and rereads these writers, he says, to remind him of what fiction is supposed to be. ‘‘You read so many novels these days by young writers and they feel so ephemeral,’’ he says. ‘‘They are full of references to TV shows and movies. What’s important is to get human feeling onto paper. That’s what is timeless, and that’s what you get from Tolstoy and from Gogol and from Chekhov.’’


In a funny way, says the Chinese-American novelist Gish Jen, the timeless quality of Jin’s writing may be among the few really new things happening in American fiction right now. ‘‘The whole idea of looking to masters instead of overturning something is very Chinese,’’ she says. ‘‘On some level, Ha Jin has chosen mastery over genius. It’s as if he said, ‘I am going to make something like that.’ This never happens with American writers. We are too beset with the anxiety of influence. What he’s doing is very challenging, and I am interested to see how the American literati pick it up and deal with it.’’


Dwight Garner. “Ha Jin’s Cultural Revolution.” The New York Times. February 6, 2000.


In 2006 Indian journalist Pankaj Mishra visited China. The liberal Chinese intellectual Zhu Xueqin told Mishra that he’d come to admire Gandhi after reading a book on him by Chester Bowles, who had been America’s ambassador to India in the 1950’s and 1960’s. “Gandhi and Nehru were greater men than Mao, Zhu had said, and I briefly wondered if this was meant as a gesture to me, his first Indian visitor,” wrote Mishra in the London Review of Books in November of 2006. “But such comparisons were once part of everyday conversation for many Chinese and Indians. In recent years, the two countries have increasingly starred in a triumphalist narrative: essentially, of Western capitalist modernity showing non-Western peoples the path to progress and development. Yet for many Indians and Chinese, their national experience and identity were shaped by the struggle for freedom from Western military and economic domination.”


Indian politicians and businessmen, and their supporters in the English-language media watched with envy the flow of capital into China – ten times the total foreign investment in India – and the rapid transformation of its coastal cities. These new Indian elites, impatient with Nehru’s vision of economic equality and social justice, pointed to Deng Xiaoping’s reforms as evidence that the creation of wealth must precede the eradication of poverty, disease and illiteracy. At the same time, many Chinese intellectuals had watched closely as India’s granting of universal suffrage at a stroke ensured a much greater degree of public accountability than exists in China. But many privileged Indians increasingly see representative politics as a nuisance – one of the reasons, they say, that India has not received as much foreign investment as China. For what China proves (though this is left unsaid) is that an authoritarian system helps rather than hinders economic growth on the neo-liberal model, by ensuring that labour laws, trade unions, the legislature, the judiciary and the fear of environmental destruction do not impede the privatisation of state assets, the appropriation of agricultural land, the provision of subsidies and tax cuts to businessmen, or the concentration of wealth in fewer hands.


Pankaj Mishra. London Review of Books. 30 November, 2006



Pankaj Mishra talked to novelists, film-makers and journalists who report on the lives of everyday Chinese people.


One of the best-known literary novelists, Yu Hua, told me that he had started out as a formally experimental writer in the 1980s, looking up to Borges, García Márquez and Robbe-Grillet in conscious reaction to the official norms of socialist realism. But as the 1980s wore on, he felt less and less need to challenge state propaganda, and instead chose to portray the experiences of ordinary rural and small-town people in such straightforward narratives as To Live (1992) and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995).


When I met Yu in Shanghai he appeared to be enjoying the success of his latest novel, Brothers (2006). It describes how two siblings, orphaned during the violence of the Cultural Revolution, fare in the aggressively materialistic China of the 1980s and 1990s. The younger brother sets up a beauty contest for virgins, while the elder has a breast implant in order to peddle a line of breast enlargement gels in the countryside. With its explicit, and often exaggerated, violence and sex, the novel must have tested the censors. But Yu insisted that he had only described a commonplace reality. ‘Things were bad during the Cultural Revolution,’ he said, ‘but what we are seeing now is total moral breakdown.’


Pankaj Mishra. London Review of Books.



 


 


 


Tagged as: media
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Friday, Nov 23, 2007


Seated alongside The Residents as long time bay area agent provocateurs, the San Francisco based avant-gardists Negativland consistently defy description. Sonic poets, defenders of free speech, and flaunters of the Fair Use Doctrine, the magnificent mash-up artists have been taking on corporate consumer speak and unrealistic copyright laws since their founding at the end of the ‘70s. Though the core of the collective has changed little since their first high school meeting (Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons have remained friends since), the actual band has always been a loose amalgamation of like minded artists, skilled filmmakers, animation activists and similarly styled pop culture rebels. And with targets as imposing as Disney, Coke, Pepsi, and those all powerful mainstream music icons U2, they’ve never been at a loss for material. Toss in a little swearing Casey Kasem, a phony axe killer connection, and various affronts to so-called conservative society, and you’ve got a series of lawsuits just waiting to happen.


To understand the DVD compilation Our Favorite Things, one has to comprehend the basic tenets of Negativland’s philosophy. Thematically, the band appears to follow the William Burroughs’ method of cut and paste creativity. The notorious beat author, responsible for the incomprehensibly brilliant Naked Lunch, used to write long passages, tear out the typed page, cut the sentences into soundbite snippets, and reconfigure the prose into new, unexpected phraseology. Much of the music Negativland makes is standard rock and electronica stomps. There’s even a peppering of pop and pleasant valley sundriness to it. But the lyrics, when there are any, follow a more free flowing, stream of subconsciousness pattern. And the inclusive of samples, sound oddments, various narratives, and other found material fall right into Burroughs’ beliefs. As a result, the group is more of an experience than a straight ahead act. On the plus side, this gives their overall message more room to blossom and grow.


Collected together by celebrated DVD outsiders Other Cinema, Our Favorite Things offers 18 mindbending examples of the band’s creative collage collaborations with experimental and no wave filmmakers. Multifaceted, layered, and brimming with solid subversion, it’s clear why the group has been seated at the center of controversy. Anyone who would challenge the House of Mouse by having Little Mermaid Arial voice the foul mouthed rant of a corporate scumbag attorney is asking for trouble. But Negativland’s targets are typically much bigger than the keepers of Walt Disney’s dying legacy. Hot button subjects like religion, marketing, greed, and government propagandizing make the issues of an angry animation company seem small. Yet the power in these shorts cannot be underestimated. In fact, most of Our Favorite Things plays like brainwashing purposefully created for the already converted. Indeed, by using similar subliminal techniques as those who are doing the preaching, it’s hoped that the faithful truly see the light.


It all begins with something called “Learning to Communicate”. A combination of anti-technology stances and pro-Luddite tweaks, it starts the disc off on a very surreal note. Once we get to “No Business”, the real purpose behind Negativland can be seen. Taking the classic number from Gypsy, the short examines the concept of stealing – in this case, not the extra bow, but music from the Internet. As classic downloading bars fill the screen, Ethel Merman’s bombastic voice extols the joys in robbing artists of their work. Without changing anything except the order of the sung lyrics, this amazing montage is a borderline masterpiece. So is “Gimme the Mermaid”. As a violent voice chides someone on copyright and ownership, a familiar Disney heroine provides the visualized façade. In a very simplistic, uncomplicated manner, this short makes the point regarding the unreasonable nature of indignant ownership.


Next up is the special edit radio mix of “U2: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. As the familiar strains of that alt-rock revivalism screed scurry along the background (in perfectly modulated Casio keyboard crappiness), we hear the familiar voice of Shaggy and America’s Top 40, one Casey Kasem, using language that would make the typical tweeny-bopper blush (with recognition, probably). It’s simply stunning. Then we have a weird exchange between another radio personality – a call-in talk show host – and a listener who doesn’t know the number of “Time Zones” there are in the old Soviet Union (the answer is 11). It’s good, but not as wonderful as the next track – the flawlessly executed “Freedom Waiting”. Initially, we think the scattered and stuttering narration is talking about our inherent right to liberty. Then we start to see all the TV commercials, and the soft shill pitch becomes painfully obvious. Similarly, “The Bottom Line” uses a home shopping style lampoon to sell America’s policy regarding prisoners and torture. Both movies are masterful.


At this point, Out Favorite Things wanders over a bit into the bleeding obvious. It doesn’t dissuade from the message or the manner in which it is being presented, but when an anti-gun feature (called “Guns”) mixes classic kiddie TV ads from the ‘60s with shots of Vietnam and Buddy Dwyer’s on-camera suicide, the level of approach seems rather simplistic. Much better is the No Nukes nonsense “Yellow, Black, and Rectangular” which uses the Civil Defense symbol as a means of illustrating public disinterest in the arms race. Finally, a small child sings “Over the Rainbow” as hiccups occasionally ruin her take. The stop motion animation features a somber stick figure rabbit that finally gives in to its fatalistic urges. It’s funny and effective, but just not as good as what has come before – and what is about to arrive.


One of the best deconstructions of how popular culture cannibalizes its symbols, the “Mashing of the Christ” takes clips from dozens of Hollywood Bible pics (Gibson’s Passion, numerous versions of The King of Kings, and The Greatest Story Ever Told) and cobbles them together in a perfect compare and contrast arrangement. In the background, an evangelist endlessly repeats a meaningless Marxist chide – “Christianity is stupid. Communism is good.” The combination of blood, belief, and bullshit is just superb. And the crackpot KPIX News story on the fake connection the band created between this anti-religious rant and a horrible family killing in the Midwest is nothing more than typical myopic media icing on an already melting communications cake. It proves one of Negativland’s most frequently voiced adages – people are too dumb to realize when a lie stares them square in the face. The next two films illustrate this flawlessly.


“Truth in Advertising” pits another talk show host against a caller who wants clarity between the salesmanship of commercials and the actual validity of a product’s purpose or content. The edited banter, in combination with the repetitive backdrop of noted advertisements, keeps the concerns – and the lack of clear cut answers – in focus. The next seven films take on one of the band’s favorite targets: the pointless soft drink wars between Coke and Pepsi, and the unnecessary onslaught of overhyped, celebrity driven, selling. “One World Advertising” proposes a solution, while “Why Is This Commercial?” and “The Greatest Taste Around” continue the pointed dissection. “Taste in Mind” and Humanitarian Effort” comments on the worldwide influence of such corporate carping, while “Drink It Up” and “Aluminum or Glass” offers two hilarious songs that mock both the health and habit forming flaws in the sodas. Throughout, clips from a ‘40s era Coke industrial film deifies the soft drink. The DVD ends with a glorious reconfiguration of the Sound of Music song that comprises the title of this release.


As an immersive example of pure performance art, Negativland: Our Favorite Things is practically pristine. It may occasionally employ a cinematic sledgehammer to make its points, but when the information and ideology is so evocative and meaningful, it’s okay to apply a bit of blunt force trauma. The animation/cartoon collage format is perfect for the band, since it instills the numerous meanings behind every track expertly, and the range of material and subjects is without equal. Sure, it may seem like the band is railing against the same five issues all the time, but there are hidden declarations and untold political positions buried in each and every poptone. The DVD is delicious, adding several additional shorts (the tainted travelogue “Visit Howland Island”, the hilarious home horror movie “The Monster of Frankenstein”, among others) and a wonderfully rich visual transfer to keep the pictures pretty. There’s also a bonus CD featuring the a capella versions of the band’s material by singing group 180 Gs. 


There will be those who find this leftist liberal leaning lunacy one giant act of unimportant no-name rock band hubris. Instead, Negativland: Our Favorite Things, is like listening to the skeleton of one of those horrid celebrity vanity project albums. This is Bruce Willis bellowing offkey as ‘Bruno’, it’s Phillip Michael Thomas endlessly living the book of his life. It’s Warhol, washed out and worm-ridden, MTV melted down to its business model whoring. Once witnessed, the mind instantly focuses on other noxious issues the collective could tackle. In a world where the current President has condemned the US to decades as the world’s laughing stock, a Negativland take on such an onerous official would be oh so super sweet. Until then, we have this amazing collection of short films to hold us over. Like the best that cinema has to offer, many here will stand the test of time – and so will their meaning.


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Friday, Nov 23, 2007

After years of people going into deeper debt to fund steady increases in consumption, it seems like consumer spending is finally going to give, just in time for Black Friday and the high retail season buckling under the strain of increased fuel prices, drops in housing prices, and suddenly tighter lending standards. Both the Economist and BusinessWeek ran cover stories about the possibility of a recession in America stemming from consumers inability to keep on consuming. The Economist story notes that “even if the economy technically avoids a recession, it will feel like one to most Americans—because it will be led by consumers. That will be a big change. Consumer spending has not fallen in a single quarter since 1991; it has not fallen on an annual basis since 1980. Consumers barely noticed America’s last recession—when low interest rates and high house prices kept them spending solidly.” In other words, easy credit has made consumers feel entitled, even obliged to spend. The loss of disposable income/loan funds to spend will force consumers to get more creative to stretch their dollars to provide the same amount of shopping excitement. If shopping action can be likened to gambling action, shoppers may have to drop down to cheaper tables and throw out fewer bets for the dealers.


For years, credit was easily available, at interest rates that almost made it imprudent not to borrow, especially considering that housing prices were perpetually increasing, supplying new collateral for further borrowing. Hence people would extract equity from their homes in the form of loans and spend it on consumer goods. The stereotype—one I admittedly have a weakness for—is that self-indulgent Americans were splurging on flat-screen TVs, luxury cars, electronic gadgets and whatnot, but it also includes things like college tuition, cell-phone services, child care, medical expenses, and things less glamorous and easy to condemn as wasteful. (Law professor Elizabeth Warren has a good paper on the “overconsumption myth.” She argues that “The Over-Consumption story dominates any discussion of the financial condition of America’s families, but when all the plusses and minuses of changes in family spending are added up, a very different picture emerges. Families are spending less on ordinary consumption and more on the basics of being middle class.” Whether the basics of being middle class are skewed, or subject to hedonic-treadmill style escalation into frivolous unnecessaries is a different question, but people feel obliged to spend what they must to hold on the status they achieved, regardless of whether what they spend it on is truly useful or necessary in the abstract).


Michael Mandel’s piece in BusinessWeek surveys the likelihood of a consumer pullback, balancing the optimists against the pessimists and ultimately making it seem as though consumer spending is divorced from underlying economic forces, and that consumers instead respond to vague impressions they get from the economic zeitgeist. Thus, Mandel comments that the Fed needs to use rate policy to encourage consumers to remain calm. “More rate cuts by the Fed can cushion the impact of the consumer cutbacks but not avert them altogether. It’s best to think of this as the end of a long-term spending and borrowing bubble, where the role of policy is to keep the inevitable adjustment from turning into panic.” If rates stabilize, perhaps people will continue to feel comfortable tapping the “about $4 trillion in unused borrowing capacity on their credit cards” that remains available to them in the aggregate. Because ours is such a consumerism-oriented culture, institutional forces to encourage shopping regardless of conditions are already entrenched—think of the expanse of the advertising infrastructure, or the way shopping today is a news story on every local news program across the country, or the flood of credit card solicitations that come to our mailboxes virtually daily.


I’m prone to mistaking a drop in consumer confidence as a pervasive and potential loss of faith in consumer values, even though the two have little to do with each other. Just because people report that they are worried about how much they can spend doesn’t mean they have suddenly made their peace with doing less shopping and finding alternative preoccupations. It’s not like they are losing confidence in the promised power of things to make them happy. If anything, advertisers likely redouble their efforts in down times and people rely more than ever on the fantasies ads evoke, in lieu of being able to actually get the things advertised. The fantasies can sustain them until purchasing power returns, and the objects of the fantasies probably become even more alluring.


But whenever consumer confidence dips, or consumer spending drops, or retailers report weaker earnings than expected, I tend to see this as good news, as proof that people are busy doing something else. That’s probably because I think of consumption mainly as frivolous consumerism, as a self-defeating preoccupation with acquiring things rather than making the best use of them. If economic conditions diverts people from consumerism, maybe then they will refocus on making the most of what they already have, better conserve what already exists and find alternatives to consumption for ways of spending time—to consume leisure rather than goods, to avail oneself of shared, cooperative public activities rather than retrench in private and partake in invidious comparison—figure out ways to gloat about how much higher on the ladder one is, or how one’s belongings prove how much better one’s taste is in things.


But of course, when consumer confidence drops, and consumption levels suffer, growth is restricted, investment falls off, and unemployment rises along with general anxiety. People are not likely to seize upon recessions and relative privation as great opportunities to get in touch with the “things that really matter in life,” as consumption measures do take those things into account. This is where the longstanding argument about whether levels of consumption correlate with levels of reported happiness come into play. On the face of things, the correlation seems weak; people don’t tend to be any happier as their incomes improve, since they adapt quickly to their new horizons, and the stress of keeping up with unfamiliar mores in new socioeconomic classes takes its toll. But some argue that self-reporting is no way of measuring happiness because people have no useful perspective on themselves, and that the clear improvements in standards of living measured in other terms—in productivity and leisure and in the richness and diversity and quality of goods—are, though taken for granted, extremely significant advances that no one would voluntarily surrender. These things clearly derive from economic growth driven by stimulating consumption.


 


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