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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008
Those Dancing Days - "Hitten"

Is this an Irish Spring commercial? When I first heard “Hitten”, I assumed that the singer was someone older for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s relatively stripped of symbolic artifice, something that seems odd for people so young.  It’s very straightforwardly about love, life, indecision, not even packed under the camoflauge of a narrative. I remember college writing workshops where writing something that required deciphering was far more important than writing something meaningful. “Hitten” sounds middle-aged and angsty especially in its complicated understandings that sometimes independence, self-control and freedom come with their own soul crushing unintended consequences. Maybe it just sounds middle aged because I relate to it, which could make this just another day in criticism as persuading other people that your projections are their projections. I am, you are, he is,  we are Sasha Frere Jones as they say.


But the video is practically the essence of youthful nevercare flair, albeit in a far more refreshing non-American context. Can anyone imagine their U.S. equivalent-in-age sporting such a lack of “style”. There is no sexualized persona, no tween tigress angel-whore dichotomy, just some young women in loose, fitting comfortable clothes and little make up jumping around in front of the camera. Of course this au natural nudity is itself something can be meticulously postured, but shot-for-shot, it seems like a fairly unstaged celebration of a certain kind of innocent play, too young for cynicism, too old not to be partially tongue-in-cheek “playing” the kid with hopscotch, jump ropes and silly dancing. This is almost wholesome, like an indie-cred ready Hannah Montana before Annie Liebowitz turned her into Southern Gothic object of incest and ephebophilia.  It certainly cracks a can of sunchine through my initial impression of the song, rendering its desolation obsolete in giddy brightness.


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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008

When you read the New York Times Styles Section, you get what’s coming to you. I learned this lesson yet again when I encountered this gem of a story. The headline sums it up well: “It’s Not So Easy Being Less Rich.” It’s about how the supermegawealthy are concerned about becoming merely megawealthy, and it is worth remembering when someone wants to discount Veblenesque approaches to understanding social behavior.


Is the conspicuous consumption and invidious comparison animating this article supposed to make us feel better or worse about being among the anonymous middle? And is it endemic to that strata discussed or simply manufactured through selective anecdote for the purposes of the article, which has other ideological fish to fry. After all, promulgating the notion that conspicuous consumption is a pervasive preoccupation makes good business sense for the fashion pages.

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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008

It’s Thursday, and that means someone, somewhere, in the great big world of film criticism, is sitting on pins and deadline-breaking needles. It’s the one word that strikes fear into the heart of any respectable journalist. Deadline! In the old days, beat pounders would drum up sources, track down leads, build their clever and sometimes incendiary copy, and manage that last minute factual additions/subtractions, all before the boss bellowed for the presses. In the realm of film criticism, this meant that a newspaper or magazine scribe sat in a screening, developed his or her opinion, and put it down in black and white for cultural posterity to enjoy (or ignore).


Nowadays, thanks to a little thing we like to the call the Internet, deadlines no longer really matter. Granted, there are websites who pride themselves on a sense of editorial ethos and strive to keep fresh content available in a judicious and dependable manner. But in the blogsphere, a domain undaunted by the needs of standard publishing, information is metered out in a constant stream. There is no longer a need to offer up traditional availability. Whenever you think of something, or have an event/effort worth discussing, all that’s required is the time to post and a way to do so. And in the overly protective realm of movie marketing, studios are well aware of this.


At first, it was easy to handle the online community. It was more or less a case of “out of sight, out of consideration.” With print media making up the vast majority of those needing access to upcoming films, a wise representative simply didn’t invite the web writer to their press opportunities. Sure, the industrious ‘net critic would figure out how to attend a public showing or “word of mouth” advance, grabbing a free ticket and enjoying the experience as part of the rabble. But for the most part, if they weren’t a card-carrying member of the so-called ‘legitimate’ leg of the Fourth Estate, they were ignored.


Of course, money changes everything, and with financial considerations always key in any corporate dynamic, big businesses looking to cut costs did as many school districts do - they kept sports and other high end profit margins and slashed the arts. At present, a day doesn’t go by where a major newspaper or periodical doesn’t announce “buyouts” and layoffs. And many in the accountant’s sites are part of the film/TV/theater arena. Some will argue that it’s simply a matter of dollars and sense/cents. Others will point to the marginalized status of the critic (a discussion for another day) and simply sit back and count their savings.


Naturally, as a direct result of such belt-tightening, the online scribe has stepped up in import. Smart studios, recognizing completely free publicity when they see it, have started catering to the blogger and the webmaster. But without the principles that print sought so hard to protect, the inevitable backlash has begun. You see, most of us writing online do so for places that stress a sense of publishing ‘morals’. From checking facts to sustaining “style guides”, we mimic those who came before. But there are others more interested in scoops than scope, and so the long established rules get bent for the benefit of one, not all. And the studios have started to strike back.


Originally, a Thursday Night Screening was indicative of one thing - a piece of crap. A movie a company had little or no faith in would be offered up the day before it opened as a courtesy to the critic, but there were no expectations. Studios didn’t anticipate a review - at least not during the film’s first week run - and they understood that any take on their acknowledged bomb would be bad. It was a wink and a nod between professionals, a way of keeping the media happy while colluding to maintain the easily persuaded public’s gullibility to pay for junk. Sure, there were times when a proposed stinker actually became a sleeper, but for the most part, waiting until Thursday was just as bad as not screening a film at all.


All that changed, however, with the new ‘meta media’. With websters able to attend those last minute showings, the conspiratorial kibosh was countermanded. Remember, most studio previews today are open, public presentations in connection with radio station promotions, newsprint ad campaigns, and other pre-buzz marketing ploys. Embargoes mean nothing to someone not purposefully invited to follow them (meaning, not forced to comply with the old ways of the traditional media) and soon, Thursday evening reviews were available, whether Hollywood liked them or not. Extrapolate that backward, and we have the current system in place with sites like Ain’t It Cool News and Dark Horizons offering “first looks” at films that may not be opening for months.


Tinsel Town was, understandably, in a tizzy. The online community was already considered a pariah, with even the legitimate web critic cobbled together with the blogger and the news-groupies. Secretly, A-lists and B-lists were drawn up, and in a very sneaky manner, print personnel found themselves invited to clandestine screenings while the Internet was lied to, or just ignored. No matter their status as a member of a professional organization like the OFCS, they were kept out of the loop. Of course, that led to an even bigger counterattack by those on the ‘Net. Spies purposely tried to crash these confabs, defying bans and other restrictions to get the word out to their so-called readers.


Today, a kind of truce has been brokered. Studios understand the power of online publishing - and with it, the advertising possibilities - and with the death of print, they see no way of avoiding us former undesirables. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve given up. Not at all. Most marketers assume that human endurance guarantees a Thursday night screening will not equal a Thursday night review. So they continue to keep their marginal movies in such a state. Yet, oddly enough, some even drag out their big time blockbusters in such an unmanageable manner.


Take Disney, for example. Over the last few months, every one of their major releases - from The Game Plan and National Treasure 2 to this Summer’s Prince Caspian and the upcoming Wall*E - have been, or will be, screened on Thursday ONLY. That means that everyone from yours truly to the longstanding scribe for the Creative Loafing either sees the movie the night before, or not at all. Now, in the case of the first three films mentioned, such a strategy may seem like standard operating procedure. Those flailing fluffballs aren’t going to be around come awards time. But in the case of Pixar’s latest, early word has it pegged as a potential masterpiece.


Remember, none of this applies to the major markets. Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, etc. will all have Wall*E press days, with the House of Mouse courting favor with the long established critics. A few newbies will fall into the mix, but for the most part, it will be Uncle Walt’s way, and not the information superhighway. Smaller media outlets - like Tampa - will be treated to a ‘like it or lump it’ public sneak, and that’s it. The reps have even warned us; get there early or there may not be a seat. One could argue that Disney is just responding to the notion that audiences no longer listen to critics, that their supposedly learned opinion is passé and unimportant. But to avoid potentially GOOD publicity for your film (just look at Ratatouille) seems counterproductive.


And you know there are writers who take every opportunity to strike back at such strategies. Locally, one of our more important papers ran a piece about Disney’s embargo on reviews of last year’s Oscar winning rat restaurateur. It wasn’t a review, just a mention that as much as he liked/disliked the movie, he couldn’t write about it until after his deadline. ZAP - he has now been blackballed. It’s been a year, and he has yet to receive another screening invite from the studio…and he’s a print journalist, someone the studios still cater to.


Of course, the movie makes the argument. No one is decrying the ‘night before’ acknowledgement of Rob Zombie’s Halloween, or James Wan’s Death Sentence, and some, like those involved in the Saw franchise, simply avoid a screening all together, knowing they can’t win against a community prejudiced against horror. But as the online realm slowly consumes the long standing traditions of its fish-wrap predecessors, studios seem set on making everyone’s life as untenable as possible.


This means that, in a couple of weeks, I will be anxiously awaiting my chance to see the latest CGI epic about an amiable automaton interacting with a similarly styled alien species - and then come home and try to come up with something salient to say as quickly as possible. No matter how good, or groan-inducing it turns out to be, readers do turn to sites like PopMatters to gauge their interest in what, at this time of year, is a weekly onslaught of popcorn product. As long as they feel it maintains some manner of commercial control, studios seem willing to wait until the night before to unleash their latest offering. It threatens to become more and more common. Unfortunately, it seems antithetical to what either side is trying to accomplish.


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Wednesday, Jun 4, 2008

For book-addicts looking for a quick-fix or a lazy day-long bender, NPR is pretty much the corner on which to hang out. There always something there to feed the need—author interviews, reading lists and reviews, cool writers telling us we “must read this!” I love it for the diversity of books and writers covered, and because it’s so free of agenda and snark. Now’s the best time to head over there—Summer is back (on certain continents, anyway) and that means NPR is in a bookish frenzy. The site’s Summer of Books is up again with all new articles and essays, including critic’s lists, the best in cook books, author tours, excerpts, and a “You Must Read This” area all its own.


My favourite section this year is the brand new “Three Books”, where authors of the moment recommend three titles with a common theme. Sloane Crosley’s theme is “sand and sun”, Diana Abu-Jaber picks books with “blood… and brains”, and Emily Wylie selects books about “cowboys and Indians”. 


The writers introduce their themes and proceed to inform us why we should pick up their choices this Summer. Sloane Crosley begins:


Everyone knows you’re not supposed to read War and Peace while sipping a pina colada under a beach umbrella. So it stands to reason that the best time to read it would be in the dead of winter, while sipping tea under a single bulb hanging from a leaky ceiling ...


So, as it’s Winter on my side of the world, and I’m reading article by a heater, with a beany on, perhaps I might give Tolstoy a go. Or I can just pretend I’m in boardies and thongs while reading The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis, which Sloane tells us is so Summer-y in its descriptions of California life that that if you take it to the beach it won’t “silently judge you for smoking cigarettes and tanning at the same time”.


Diana Abu-Jaber offers some compelling choices for her theme. Smart thrillers? I’m there, and her choices are especially interesting to me because I own each of them yet have read only one. I’ve already moved them to the bedside table. And Emily Wylie’s final selection is the perfect Summer read—Lonesome Dove. You need a Summer to get through it, and the sun above you as the perfect setting. Here’s what Emily says about it: 


The reality of the American West was of course horribly, tragically antagonistic, but in these books my favorite characters look a lot alike — they speak little, respect the land, love open space and freedom, and are intensely moral and loyal to the end. That and bacon grease? That’s the milieu for me!


“Three Books” is edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.


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Wednesday, Jun 4, 2008

Each week, Rob Walker writes the Consumed column in the New York Times Magazine, which is sort of a thinking person’s trendspotting report. Unlike most writers who cover consumerism, he’s not interested in clarifying a marketing strategy worth mimicking (or browbeating readers into feeling ashamed about shopping) so much as tracing the ways consumer needs are identified, assuaged, manufactured, and dignified—exploring the different ways commercial and personal values influence each other. The basic premise behind the column is essentially the same as the one behind this blog, that how and why we consume is closely bound up with how we view ourselves and want to present ourselves, and that brands and goods permit us (or force us) to speak a social language about identity. He is extremely adept at finding subjects to cover that reveal some subtle wrinkle of consumerism, and he lets the reader draw conclusions from his reporting. Sometimes the reticence frustrates me—I want the implicit idea expanded into a more general theory about consumer behavior. Thankfully, his excellent new book Buying In, which frequently draws on material originally deployed in his columns and occasional NYT Magazine features, does just that.


The book’s subtitle—“the secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are”—is a bit misleading, because this dialogue is not entirely secret. Often, it’s rather explicit that we are consuming something to evoke a lifestyle and not for the product’s inherent utility (which, if you believe Baudrillard, doesn’t even exist anyway). We occasionally attempt to disavow this, and marketers certainly want us to overconfidently assume we are immune to advertising, as this makes us all the more vulnerable to it. And marketers generally search for ways to insinuate their messages so that we pre-endorse them before contemplating the ulterior motives behind such communication. If we find the marketing messages useful enough to our identity-construction project, the goods involved that mediate these messages won’t be examined too carefully for their own actual usefulness. We buy into the socially constructed concepts, and the goods themselves are artifacts, souvenirs of this. We consume marketing, but console ourselves with the fiction that we are consuming some specific product. This helps us feel that we are still steering our own ship, that we haven’t sold out, that we aren’t rubes, that we are somehow generating our identity from the depths of our soul and not within the narrow confines of what the zeitgeist and the available tools permit.


The interplay between consumers, marketers and goods is less secret than it is contradictory—as Walker explains in the introduction, consumerism is a means to resolve what he calls the fundamental tension of modern life: “the eternal dilemma of wanting to feel like individuals and to feel as though we are part of something bigger than ourselves.” Another way to regard this is as the problem of securing social recognition in a competitive consumer culture, where one can easily be drawn into quests to be the first to own some desirable product or to be the first to devise some crafty use of a standard commodity, and so on. We want to be recognized for our individuality, which is itself a socially constructed ideal, the terms of which are not defined by individuals. The ideal is disseminated through brands and products (which are, as Walker points out, engineered to have maximum “projectability”—meaning that they can represent different things for different consumers without dissolving into meaninglessness), which encapsulate the meanings we rely on to flesh out what we want our own lives to mean to others and, via that route, ourselves. Walker argues convincingly that we use goods to tell stories about ourselves to ourselves (and not merely to communicate status, as it can often seem), but they are only capable of convincing ourselves because we know they have social currency. Goods must become a language, with a common grammar and vocabulary, and marketing (for better of worse) is the means by which the language is fabricated and supported. As Walker recognizes, this is a matter of allowing brands to be flexible in their signification.


Saussure’s distinction between the langue, the language system, and the parole, a specific instance of signification, is relevant here: Ads are generally incoherent at the parole level, but that helps establish the hegemony of the langue—reinforcing the rules by which we can make and convey meaning out of brands and branded goods. A good example is how nonsensical TV commercials dissolve logic in the particular instance so that an illogical form of persuasion can reign in all of them. An individual ad that makes no sense is dismissable, but the climate of irrationality serves all of them well, leading us not to question the absence of causality in the ads and to use the free associational techniques promulgated therein in our own efforts to persuade others and ultimately ourselves. Only within the system is the idea that brands connote lifestyles not utterly absurd, and because the shorthand is so useful, we all become complicit in supporting it. We need the tools for making social meaning. “We are thirsty for meaning, for connection, for individuality, for ways to tell stories about ourselves that make sense,” Walker writes. “Meanwhile, what brand makers generally have to sell is a pretty good product that is hardly equipped to fulfill those needs.” So commercial persuasion is deployed to bridge that gap and conceal the inadequacies of consumerism as a means to quench that thirst.


“Secret dialogue” is a slightly-off way of getting at Walker’s main preoccupation: what he calls “murketing”—murky marketing. (It must be noted that Walker has a slight overfondness for coining phrases and capitalizing them; perhaps this is symptomatic of aiming to attract readership in the business community—you are forced to manufacture buzzwords. It’s especially weird to read a book that’s in part about such techniques also employing them itself. I guess you can’t spend as much time around marketers as Walker has without being infected with their disease.) And the book chronicles the many different ways marketers have come up with to create new means for getting their messages across, incorporating branding and advertisements into various unlikely corners of everyday life and making it the driving force behind all sorts of spectacles. Walker argues that our growing ability to click off ads and such (through TiVo, etc.) forces marketing to become murketing, but ads and entertainment were already in the process of merging, especially if you accept Frankfurt school arguments about the culture industry. Consumerism is a totalizing system, entertainment products reinforce the needs they purport to sate. They are ads for entertainment while being entertainment, just as ads are entertainment in their own right that people enjoy consuming as a means for being able to launch into vicarious fantasizing. Walker’s point (I think) is that the more we are able to shut out advertising foisted on us involuntarily (“the power of the click” in his terminology), the more we invite advertising into our lives voluntarily on what we believe are our own terms. The power of the click doesn’t decrease the amount of ads we consume; it just makes us believe we direct and control the flow. brands and marketing have no less force in shaping the public discourse. Paradoxically the technology for blocking ads only makes ads have a more powerful hold over us, as we take it upon ourselves to seek out the ads we want and grant them more currency in shaping our identities. We remain dependent on marketing discourse to make shopping meaningful in the way we have come to expect, in the way a consumer society (by suppressing or commercializing all other public discourses) forces us to respect. We are shifting from a consumer society to a promotional society.


Given that dependency, it’s no surprise that consumers cooperate with marketers, as it affords us an opportunity to participate more directly in what is self-evidently one of the most pervasive public discourses in our society. When we collaborate with advertisers, helping spread their messages, we capture that elusive sense of being a part of something bigger, and we get to feel like we are behind the curtain, with our hands on the controls, rather than being the target. (It’s like being on reality TV rather than watching it.) People want to participate in branding and marketing because the viable alternatives for shared sociality, social participation, have been disappearing, in no small part because of the marketing culture itself—anywhere an alternative arises (say, aspects of the lost culture of clubs and organizations chronicled by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, or an authentic grassroots lifestyle or organically developed subculture—Walker highlights the skateboarding culture of Southern California detailed in Dogtown and Z Boys) marketing agents swoop in to co-opt it.


This is what murketing is all about, finding these alternatives, or any attempts to subvert the mainstream meaning of objects, and reassimilating them to consumerism. It is the ongoing way in which marketing preserves itself as the culture, as the space in which popular culture exists. As Walker notes, “the idea that shared consumer tastes add up to something like a community is a pervasive one.”  And the end of marketing, as it has evolved, seems to be to assure that shared consumer tastes is the only community possible, particular as old ties within communities dissolve under the pressure of globalization and virtualization and the delocalization of culture. In this atmosphere, the cooptation and the collaboration are mutually reinforcing, as both seem to enhance the significance of the original activity (because marketing is like a megaphone—it seems to operate on the same scale as the mass culture we consume) even as they are cannibalizing its significance as an alternative.


His most provocative chapter, about the ad firm BzzAgent and its army of volunteer shills who spend their social lives spreading word-of-mouth advertising for companies, explores this in depth. That people are eager to volunteer to spread product gossip suggests the nature of the promotional society, in which the most respected public discourse (the sort that we spend money on and consume the most of) is marketing. To speak in that voice is to be speaking with the dominant voice of the culture. Its pervasiveness has detached it from its function; the climate of commerciality (which has become a proxy for a kind of popularity) overwhelms the specific promotion of any product, so the BzzAgents don’t care what they are promoting as long as they are promoting, which gives them something to say that will be socially recognized as significant, relevant to everyone’s lives as consumers in consumer society. Walker details a few BzzAgents overcoming their shyness through having some marketing pitch to dispense and a means to keep score of how social they are being (making social life into a competitive game). So ordinary conversation between individuals gets assimilated to marketing. “Even in the small orbit of your own social circle,” Walker writes, “knowing about something first—telling a friend about a new CD or discovering a restaurant before anyone else in the office—is satisfying. Maybe it’s altruism, maybe it’s a power trip, but influencing other people feels good.” So we get involved with trends for their own sake, for the sake of influencing itself, not because we have faith in the substance of what we are convincing people of. Marketing becomes the medium for social life, becomes the substance of public space. Promotion as an activity has supplanted promotion as a means. We have become a society of sophists.


Perhaps in the future, all people will learn to socialize primarily through having something to promote, since it supplies a reason for social interaction when technology is otherwise working to eliminate it in the name of convenience.


Even as our social activities get co-opted, we get to co-opt the methods of marketing to market ourselves. Hence in effective murketing, we become the subject of ads rather than the target. We invest ourselves in nebulously defined brands, which seem to be unlocking our creative self-fashioning potential, while at the same time we are basically enhancing a company’s brand equity. It’s not clear whether this is a fair exchange. It’s hard not to see the shallowness and potential for corporate manipulation in commercial-made selfhood. The problem with all this identity-and-social-recognition consumption is that it negates the space for public action—or rather it reduces all public action to a number of shopping choices. We don’t build a public self through what we do so much as through what we buy and display.


With that point in mind, Walker explores the idea of people starting their own brands or conceiving of themselves as brands—thoroughly depressing. But he avoids celebrating them, and doesn’t make the reactionary mistake of regarding consumerism as a form of liberating production for consumers simply because people can derive their own meanings from the goods and marketing practices supplied. In that way, his book is a step beyond the futile debate over whether hyperconsumerism is good or bad and whether consumers are victims or not. (It’s reminiscent of anthropologists Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood’s The World of Goods, another book about consumption as a meaning-making practice, that way.) It eschews such evaluations and concentrates on elucidating what consumer society is becoming, the various ways it is adapting, how it twists technology to suit its values. He insists repeatedly that we collaborate in making brands powerful, but he is equally insistent in arguing that consumers aren’t “in control” as a consequence, striking an important balance.


Walker tries to end on an optimistic note, evoking the ultimate privacy of the meanings we make of our belongings and how we “pull the wool over our own eyes” with regard to consumer goods to satisfy ourselves that way. And though he posits some alternatives to the dominant consumer culture in the craft movement and unconsumption, the overriding conclusion is that we have no choice but to fashion our sense of self “out there in the marketplace, acting in our own self-interest”—constrained by the tenets of capitalism made universal.


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