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by Rob Horning

7 Oct 2008

With the federal government announcing that it will intervene in the commercial-paper market—the realm of short-term financing for businesses to maintain operations—Justin Fox links to NYT’s Floyd Norris fretting about all this rampant socialism. He makes a few logical leaps forward and concludes:

So we may soon have the government deciding which companies deserve short-term loans, and at what interest rates. Does this remind anyone else of central planning systems?

This would seem a legitimate fear, except that the government plays favorites with business sectors all the time. That’s how the housing crisis became so acute in the first place, because of the federal support for widespread homeownership that created a fertile field for financial shenanigans.

Central planning isn’t a matter of the commissars in the Politboro issuing five-year plans; it’s a matter of regulatory capture, of skewing the playing field with tax and trade policies and creating a system of crony capitalism. Dean Baker details some of the many recent ways conservatives advanced crony capitalism here; Jamie Galbraith’s The Predator State also looks at how free-market dogma masks the way plutocrats use government to loot the economy. Thomas Frank’s new book explores the theme as well.

But the government’s move to buy commercial paper remains problematic. The ultimate purpose seems to be to prevent credit from drying up for businesses that are otherwise creditworthy but can’t get funds from banks whose capital is tied up in cleaning up its other messes. It used to be that money markets would buy the paper, get a better yield than Treasurys, and pass along the better rate to mutual fund investors. But the chaos in the markets have made this too risky, particularly since the “buck was broken” by a prominent money-market fund last week—investors lost prinicpal in a money market fund. (Money market accounts seem like bank accounts, but they are not; when the buck is broke, in effect it’s as though someone else is withdrawing funds from your savings account.)

The banks themselves can’t get funding, because investors are frightened by the losses creditors suffered in the big-time failures we’ve already witnessed.  Justin Fox explains:

What’s been causing the various bank scares and failures of recent weeks has been an increasing unwillingness of anybody to extend these kinds of loans to banks. An at least partially rational unwillingness, given that senior unsecured creditors took big hits in both the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the seizure of Washington Mutual by the FDIC. Now you might argue that this is a healthy capitalistic development, one that will make providers of such credit more discerning in the future. But there’s no way that a creditor could have discerned by looking at the balance sheets of the respective institutions that his money was in dramatically more danger at Lehman and Wamu than at Bear Stearns and Wachovia, where the government acted to protect creditors. It was purely a question of guessing what regulators would do, not weighing the risks of the financial institution.

That’s the problem caused by haphazard bailouts, but America has too many banks to for the government to secure them all, so the sense that lending to American banks in a guessing game will apparently continue, despite the $700 billion Treasury plan to suck up loser mortgage-related assets.

The NYT article about the Fed’s move notes the inevitable conflicts of interest—the Fed basically becomes an investor in markets rather than a market referee dictating the rules of the game. But without moves such as this, the Fed and the Treasury Department seem to fear there would be no game at all.

by Jason Gross

7 Oct 2008

Radiohead, Iron Maiden, Billy Bragg and Kate Nash wouldn’t seem to have much in common except their Brit connection but they’re banding together with Bryan Ferry, David Gilmore, the Verve and others to form Featured Artists’ Coalition, a collective that claims that it’ll empower musicians more by letting them keep control of their music- see this BBC article for more details.  In theory, it’s a great idea and the labels have to play nice (or appear to) and there is the idea that there’s strength in numbers.  But it’s another thing to put it into practice.  How much are all of these artists really going to band together (so to speak)?  They have different outlooks, interests, motivations and schedules so it’s hard to imagine that other than symbolically, they’d all stay on the same page.  I wish ‘em luck and hope that more artists join and maybe they could even come up with their own bill of rights for musicians.

But one guy who puts his modem (or high-speed) where his mouth is happens to be a novelty artist.  That’s the reason that some people might not take Weird Al seriously, especially when he jokes around all the time but he does take his career seriously.  That’s why he’s said in his MySpace blog that he’s putting out music whenever he feels like instead of holding back a bunch of tracks for an album.  Even he admits that his humor’s timely, tied to recent hits, so it only makes sense for him to just pop out songs when he things they’re ready- the most recent one is a bite on T.I.‘s hit “Whatever You Like.”

He’s hardly unique in doing this- garage/punk screamer Jay Reatrard did it recently himself as did Nine Inch Nails when they surprised everyone with two back-to-back albums recently too.  But few artists have made a point of doing it in the Net age that would and should ideally open up the idea of thinking of new, creative ways to put out music, including doing it more frequently, in different lengthed formats (singles, albums, EPs).  No doubt you’ll be seeing more of it and not just from a funny man like Al.

by Rob Horning

6 Oct 2008

For a long time it has seemed that our improving standards of living were somehow bound up with intensifed marketing and the expansion of consumerist practices—as if frivolous consumption alone assured the growth that made us all more well off. The only way to grow our economy, it seemed, was to convince ourselves that we needed to consume (both products and media) to express our identities, and that alternative sorts of identities were peculiar, if not dangerous (think of the contempt we have for people who brag about being above fashion or watching TV or eating sugar or whatever). To this end, every consumer good was stylized and branded, and design-driven goods were hailed as an increase in the collective good, since we all now had affordable access to pretty things that might make us feel special, and we could all define ourselves in society’s eyes with nicer things. If you wanted to reject the design revolution, you were some sort of spoil-sport elitist who detested the democratization of fashion. 

But hitching our collective identities to the vagaries of affordable luxury is not looking so good right now. Many are proclaiming “the end of capitalism” now that Wall Street has collapsed and the government has made strides toward nationalizing the financial industry. Stocks are in free-fall along with house prices, and everyone feels a lot poorer and a great deal more insecure. But with capitalism, will consumerism also go? At the same time the WSJ reports that vacancies at strip malls are increasing, the NYT reports that consumers are cutting spending, citing this among many anecdotes:

Daniel Kimble, 31, was putting Mr. Driscoll’s theory into practice on Friday. An independent trucker from Oklahoma, he stopped his rig outside a Wal-Mart in Cleveland on his way to a nearby factory.
Mr. Kimble ticked off a long list of his money-saving steps, from driving his pickup truck less to using less laundry detergent to buying fewer clothes. And he has stopped eating at restaurants on the road, which is why he was parked at Wal-Mart.
“I’m going in to buy some lunch meat and some bread, whatever’s cheap,” he said. “I’ve got to save money, you know?”

Ever since the housing crisis began and it became clear that consumer spending, long fueled by easy credit, was inevitably going to grind to a halt in the U.S., I have been wondering if the tumult offered an opportunity to reverse some of what consumerism has wrought or was simply a coming catastrophe. In other words, could consumerism be thwarted without at the same time harming consumption levels, the standard of living to which we have become accustomed? Or to put this even more plainly, could we stop being brand obsessed without at the same time being forced to eat dog food to survive?

In Iceland, they may already be facing this question. Felix Salmon quotes an email to Tom Braithwaite: “The main supermarket can’t get imported goods because they have no currency. The shops are half empty. One of the store managers has advised people to start hoarding. We’re running out of oil. And winter came last night - about a month early.” Kevin Drum linked to this Guardian article, which notes that “people were buying up supplies of olive oil and pasta after a supermarket spokesman announced on Friday night that they had no means of paying the foreign currency advances needed to import more foodstuffs.”

We can only hope that we don’t find ourselves in the same predicament in America, but nevertheless, the financial crisis will most likely force us to discover if there is a difference between consumerism and consumption for us—that is whether we can find satisfaction in buying less, or moving more slowly, or reusing what we already own, or joining a voluntarily-simplicity movement, etc. We may be forced to limit consumption and therefore concentrate our self-fashioning energies in areas of our lives other than shopping. This may prove a difficult psychic adjustment, considering most of us won’t be making it voluntarily.

At Murketing, Rob Walker seems to be thinking about the same thing:

So lately what I’ve been wondering is whether — on an individual level, at least — there is a perverse sort of opportunity in the current ecomomic gloom, which is that it will force us to think about our consumption differently. I don’t know, really, how bad things will get, or really how much of the present gloom is actually overdone and exaggerated. But I would suggest that either way it gives us a reason to reconsider what really matters, and what really doesn’t, in our material lives — in a way that a mere book cannot.
What I’m trying to do here, in other words, is find some rationale for optimism, in a very pessimistic moment.

It seems as though nothing was going to make us give up consumerism voluntarily—not global warming, not the recognition of the hedonic treadmill, not the tech crash, not the blight of hipsterism, not the forced nostalgia, not the hypermediation of every aspect of life, not anything. Now that we may have no choice but to abandon consumerism, it feels as though it’s too late—that there is no redemption in a forced choice, only misery.

by L.B. Jeffries

6 Oct 2008

Fumito Ueda’s Ico is hailed as one of the first mainstream games to really inspire emotion and potent characters. Sometimes to appreciate a video game it’s best to frame it not only using a simple method but also looking at it from a critical angle. In this specific instance, Ico raises a really interesting question because it crosses the disingenuity barrier that Jonathon Blow describes in many games. Specifically, he refers to how a game where I’m waiting for a character to unlock a barrier while I defend them creates a disingenuous relationship. I’m hanging out with them because of circumstances, not because I care. I’m keeping them alive to open the door and keep the plot moving, not because I’m worried about their safety. How does Ico follow a similar game design and yet surpass this issue?

 

Ueda’s two games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, both contain interesting elements of animation that really enhance a sense of fragility in the avatar. Both of the protagonists from his games have gawky, awkward running and walking animations. Contrast this to a game like God of War or Ninja Gaiden, where the characters move like Olympic athletes and are the epitome of physical perfection. This is also highlighted by the fact that a stick is your main weapon for much of the game. When you do make the transition to a sword in Ico, it’s heavy and you can tell it drags down Ico’s arm. This awkwardness of presentation carries over into Yorda as well. When she climbs up stairs or a ladder, she carefully steps on the same leg to get up. When Ico is pulling her across a room at full run, her arms flail and you can tell she isn’t used to moving at this pace. Contrast this to the agile and liquid fast shadows that hunt both of you while you move through the castle. A real sense of fragility, of being inferior to the monsters that hunt you is communicated through the animation. The game begins to bridge the disingenuity gap by animating the characters as fragile and thus getting the player worried about them. Contrast this to a game where you play some ultimate badass who is then handicapped with someone much weaker and you see the dilemma. If the game is making me feel like I’m a scruffy but weak kid, a different set of emotional expectations develop as opposed to being Super Death Guy.

 

The game design takes the relationship established by the animation and further enhances it.

by Bill Gibron

6 Oct 2008

It arrived during the final phases of classic ‘70s horror, an era that had seen The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Halloween reestablish the genre’s credibility as a cinematic art form. John Carpenter’s slasher suspense story specifically reinvigorated a flagging industry interest in scary stuff, and the marketplace was preparing for a flood of finely tuned copycats. But standing out there all alone in the macabre wilderness was independent filmmaker Don Coscarelli. Having had some minor success with more family-oriented fare, the young director noticed that an inconsequential moment of fear during one of his more genial movies really gave audiences a start. Wanting to capitalize on such a crowd reaction, he parlayed a dream he once had, along with a collection of ideas and icons he had collected from years as a drive-in B-movie buff, into an experiment in terror. Labeling his final product Phantasm, he sent his monster movie out into the commercial landscape to see what would happen. The results were unexpected.

Something strange is happening over at the Morningside Cemetery and Funeral Home. People have been disappearing and interned bodies have gone missing. The enigmatic director of the parlor, a strange figure only known as The Tall Man, appears to stalk the small suburban California town, and this makes Jody Pearson, his little brother Michael, and their pal Reggie very uneasy. When a mutual friend is found dead in the local graveyard, all eyes shift to Morningside. A late-night visit inside the mausoleum reveals some stunning supernatural surprises. The paranormal follows the Pearson boys as they try to make sense of what’s going on. It’s not long before young Mike is seeing the Tall Man everywhere he goes. With his older sibling firmly in the madman’s demonic sights, Mike knows something sinister is definitely afoot.

Phantasm was the Scream of its era, an ironic nod and wink to the formulas and familiarities of the creature feature deconstructed by a man who really understood the genre he was jeering. Since the slasher film was still a glowing glimmer in Tinseltown’s tainted eye, director Don Coscarelli relied on the previous two decades of drive-in horror, a catalog of films filled with monsters, graveyards, psychotic killers, and even a smattering of science fiction, to foster his vision. They became the bricks for his new form of fear, the building blocks for a surreal narrative that sacrificed sense in order to keep the shivers alive and electrifying. While some didn’t mind that the plot seemed pointless, a creative clothesline upon which various shock set pieces could be fashioned, others saw beneath the scattered surface to recognize what Coscarelli was really after.

Between the tender familial drama, the clever character turns, and one glorious moment of gore, at its core, Phantasm was and remains a movie about the nature of dread. It’s an experiment in what makes us afraid. It uses any and all terror tenets—suspense, bloodletting, the unknown, the unstoppable—as gears in an ever-churning macabre machine. Perhaps the clearest indication of Coscarelli’s success remains the enigmatic villain he created, the iconic Tall Man. It’s rare when a movie can leave behind such a lasting impression. For Phantasm, this lumbering ghoul remains its legitimate legacy.


But there is more here than just Angus Scrimm in a badly fitting suit. For anyone who grew up with old-school horror, Phantasm felt like and continues to play like a primer. Coscarelli obviously knew what fans expected and what the average person believes to be scary or unsettling, and went with a clear kitchen sink creepy approach. From the opening which mixes sex and slaughter to the sequence where a severed finger turns into a ravenous beastie, there are no set rules in the Phantasm universe, no logic to the way terror becomes part of the real world’s temporal plane. Coscarelli has often said that he was influenced by surrealism, recognizing the inherent power in particular imagery juxtaposed together.

Phantasm is full of such moments: Mike’s vision of the Tall Man in an antique photo; the Lady in Lavender’s subtle shape shifts; the fog encased vision of Reggie’s ice cream truck overturned and motionless; the menacing marble mortuary with its floating metallic “caretaker.” Though they seem to have no link to each other (and let’s not get started on the whole Jawa/space slave issue, okay?), and individually would appear more singular than substantive, Coscarelli manages to make them seem wholly organic to the strange circumstances we are stuck in. As a result, their inherent power to unsettle stays with us long after the final false ending has arrived.

The key to making this all work starts with solid performances from a completely complementary cast. Your performers have to play with, not against you, adding to the overall effectiveness of the terror. In this case, Coscarelli found a good friend (the excellent Reggie Bannister), a well-meaning musician (Bill Thornbury), and a precocious kid he had worked with before (A. Michael Baldwin), and forged a unique and totally authentic bond. Some may wonder about the front porch jam, Reggie and Billy banging away on some self-penned blues stomp, but the truth is, nothing establishes communion better than the sharing of something as personal as music. We immediately understand the connection and recognize the attachment both have for each other.

Similarly, Billy and Michael play siblings with a love of cars (in this case, a completely bad-ass Barracuda) and tinkering, and it’s a mutual experience that helps fuse them together as a family. With other standard ‘70s touches like dead parents, issues of abandonment, and the usual adolescent concerns of growing up and taking responsibility, Coscarelli creates a character dynamic we truly believe and support. Since we accept the relationship of the trio, we have a much easier time of falling into the fear.

Still, Phantasm remains a director’s film, a highlight reel that also manages to be an effective fright flick. Coscarelli, who had made a couple of midlevel mainstream movies before diving into dread, obviously knows his way around a camera. His placement throughout this film is fascinating. He uses low angles and obscure framings to keep things uncomfortable, and applies handheld and other POV techniques to keep the audience directly involved in the action. This is particularly true of a late-night car chase between the Pearson boys and the Tall Man’s driverless hearse. As Jody climbs out of the Cuda’s sunroof to level a shotgun at the vile vehicle, Coscarelli’s lens is right there, standing directly between the trigger and the target.

There’s also a sense of Hardy Boys-like adventure here, a concept of personal ingenuity and everyday invention that keeps viewers curious and connected. When Michael is locked in his room and looking for a way out, his MacGyver-like creativity results in one of the movie’s most memorable stunts. Similarly, when faced with having to outsmart the villainous maniac mortician, the boys rely more on their brains than their brawn to find a shorthanded solution. It’s all part of the queer contrasts at play here. Phantasm has a narrative locked in its own perplexing universe, yet its director constantly strives for some manner of realism and authenticity.

There will be some who complain about the special effects (though the movie’s most memorable bit of brain-draining is still as shocking as it was three decades ago) and the often ambiguous explanation for just what is going on at the Morningside Funeral Parlor. Yet Phantasm remains a viable entity some 28 years after its release because it represents something unique in the post-modern world of horror. By mixing up all the hocus pocus possibilities of the genre into a single supernatural stew, Coscarelli both reinvigorated and set the death knell for the next two decades.  But Phantasm remains his best known effort, a four-film (and growing) franchise that has its basis in one fabulously fascinating movie. At the time, it literally shook the scare fanbase. Today, it’s a testament to one man’s amazing ability.

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