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Tuesday, Feb 12, 2008


You want proof that there’s no God. Want incontrovertible evidence that 99.9% of Hollywood executives have their heads so far up their rectums that they could read Variety through their urethra? Word has just come down that William Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer is being made into a movie. No, that’s not the incriminating facet. It seems a certain talent free actor has been tapped to play the iconic role of Henry Dorsett Case. It’s a performer so pathetic he makes Keanu Reeves’ turns in the downright rip off Johnny Mnemonic look like the work of Sir Laurence Olivier. That’s right, everyone’s least favorite waste of Star Wars space, Hayden “One Broken Note” Christensen is rumored to be the front runner for the part. Apparently, it all depends on how his upcoming sci-fi spectacle does at the box office. Oh if only it were that easy.


In the realm of ridiculous action stardom, where for every Bruce Willis we have a dozen Nicolas Cages, sulking Skywaker is the absolute worst choice no matter the role. He’s dead eyed and uninvolving, like a trip to the zoo the day after the animals committed suicide. Since Tinsel Town usually thinks with its wallet first, crotch second, and aesthetics dead last, it’s no surprise that this Canadian klutz keeps getting hired. George Lucas’ lamentable prequels made a mint, and the last time anyone checked, Christensen is still riding that rail all the way to the next casting call. Who cares if he was laughably bad as a kind-of Bob Dylan in Factory Girl? It doesn’t matter that Awaken took a dirt nap at the turnstiles. With only a few warm notices for his work in Shattered Glass, he’s a hack of happenstance, someone with more luck than the entire Hilton clan put together.


So he’s perfect to fill the steroid stretched shoes of past punch and jurists. There is definitely a more brain addled Schwarzenegger element to his work, a thinking as his second language aspect that makes him incredibly blah onscreen. Even better, Christensen loves to accent that plainness by tossing out random drawls. Sometimes, he’s from Texas. At other moments, he’s a native New Yorker. And then there are times when his stilted speaking style suggests a medieval knight dropped on his head one too many times. Placing him in a period piece - and what else is the Wars universe except one big backlot recreation of reality where the digital replaces dysentery - allows the so called actor to prove his patheticness. He indeed suffers from one of those telling talent atrophies - the “m’lady” syndrome.


By its very nature, Old English is supposed to suggest history. Contemporize any of this dialogue and you destroy the illusion almost instantly. Certain known names have struggled with m’lady’s speechifying malady - Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel…basically any Method icon of the last 30 years. But no one is as uncomfortable as Christensen. All throughout the prequels, whenever called upon to address his paramour Padme, his painful approach to titles of recognition made him sound like a stroke victim relearning words all over again. It was even worse in Factory Girl, when his faux Zimmerman poet was seemingly reduced to a junior high nerd phonetically stumbling over multi-syllable vocabulary words.


But all occupational therapy aside, Christensen’s biggest flaw is his abject lack of magnetism. Actually, he does own some performance polarization. The minute the lens hits him, the lack of ability automatically repels the camera. This is crystal clear from his work in Doug Liman’s lamentable Jumper. With a premise that promises more than its horribly hackneyed cast can provide, this sloppy sci-fi stinker weeps at the throne of previous speculative spectacles. It’s not just that the Bourne Identity/Mr. and Mrs. Smith director decimates a concept with a great deal of potential, but somehow, he let Christensen on the set to add insult to stupidity.


Jumper is by far the worst work in the actor’s already dismal canon. We are supposed to believe that a shy, geeky like dork who pines for a girl he’ll never impress discovers his secret ability to teleport, leaves his abusive home, robs a bank, and becomes a jet setting playboy who eventually gets said gal. Right. The internal logic links that fail along the way from plot point A to B are enough to undermine the entire structural integrity of cinema. Even worse, Christensen’s character is fashioned into a pouty anti-hero, the kind of smug, “do anything” dude who can threaten the lives of hundreds, commit all manner of thought and actual crime, and yet feel absolutely ambivalent about the risk and/or ethics. 


The rest of the narrative is a knotty combination of unexplained context (as a ‘jumper’, Christensen’s David Rice is born with an inherent enemy, the fierce fundamentalist ‘paladins’ led by Samuel L. “Mail Me That Script” Jackson) and misfired stunt sequences. It’s clear from the work behind the scenes that Liman is a little light in the white knuckle, edge of the seat kinetic loafers. A chase through various locations around the globe - including several vertical and horizontal shifts - should be more exciting .Instead, it often plays like a gerbil having a seizure on the editing button. Besides, Liman approved Christensen (as well as his biological alter ego, the OC awful Rachel Bilson) for his lead. Clearly, the man has limited intellectual or aesthetic capacity.


The main facet of the film’s premise is something called a bi-location scar. It’s like a black hole in temporal space that sucks in the ‘jumper’, instantly transporting him or her to a designated place in their mind. Christensen’s deficient daring-do functions in the same way. The minute he appears in a scene, entertainment and all sense of believability are leeched out of the material, replaced by a void of uninspired dullness. You can literally see the CGI skipping pixels and dying a digital death. From his Terminator as turd crewcut to the dark circles around his Satanically slack eyeballs, Christensen commands a certain surreal kind of respect. It’s not based on what he does as a celebrity. Instead, we marvel at how completely insidious and vile true evil can really be.


Now some may believe that this is too much hating on a half-shaped hunk who really didn’t ask to be George Lucas’ whelp of a whipping boy. They will point out decent things he’d done (look for the list to be about one item long) and suggest that more time in front of the Panaflex is needed. Eventually, they say, he will produce some interesting work. Frankly, that’s a lot like the whole monkey and typewriter analogy, except that the chimps have more of a chance at channeling Shakespeare than Christensen does. This is why his hiring (make that ‘proposed’ hiring) to play Case seems so senseless. It’s a reach far beyond his already proven paltriness. Besides, it dooms Neuromancer before it even begins, leading those already familiar with Gibson’s pioneering novel to fear the worst (the ‘who’s who’ for Molly Millions is enough to give purists nightmares now).


And that’s because Christensen, for all the snark, has yet to prove himself anything other than an incredibly lucky bastard. Had an irradiated lemur been cast as Anakin Skywalker, the prosimian would have his choice of starring roles. Money and cultural meaning can do that to any actor. Sadly, it’s the audiences who will have to suffer with such cinematic strategizing. Jumper will not add to the actors’ legitimacy, except when it comes to putting pesos in the suits’ pockets. Few will recognize it’s the premise doing the profiteering. Instead, Christensen will get all the decidedly incorrect credit. And our long national acting night terror will continue.


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Monday, Feb 11, 2008


If we are to believe the whispered scuttlebutt (since confirmed by major media outlets), the four month old strike by the Writers Guild of America against motion picture producers and studios is about to be settled. No major fanfare. No glorious announcements of victory or statements of solidarity. As public interest waned (actually, it peaked about two days after the walkout was announced) and individual sweetheart deals were brokered, the erosion of purpose finally signaled a surrender. It was never a question of who blinked first. Instead, it became a battle of wits between two entities undeniably bereft of same. The corporate conglomerates wanted to sit on their never-ending pile of profits. The writers wanted to up their residual ante, if only a skoosh. In the end, it looks like both sides got what they wanted - sort of. Since there is more than enough money to go around, who cares about a few percentage points, right?


There were some indirect repercussions, however, reflections and indicators that exposed the transparency of motives on both sides. All deadlocks between management and underlings usually revolve around dollar signs - either in amounts paid out or paid toward other benefits. Squabbles over working conditions and the like are usually reserved for the manufacturing sector, or overly ambitious novels by historically hewed authors. Only sports figures finagle over agency, allegiance, and aftercare. The WGA demands - and the recent Director’s Guild deal and upcoming Screen Actors action - were all about revenue streams: where they are, how much there could be, and the potential payout once the ephemeral wildcatting had begun. Yet after all the accounting, after audits and attributions are made, there are some leftover lessons to be learned. While not inclusive of everything the Writer’s strike showed us, they may be the most lasting impacts.


Nobody Cares About the Golden Globes Anymore
When the completely out of touch Grammys usurp you as a primary, palpitating concern amongst overprivileged superstars, it’s perhaps time to hang up your self-congratulatory backslapping once and for all. The fake front Hollywood Foreign Press Association saw the WGA give them the picket line kibosh, and the resulting press conference crudeness proved how totally irrelevant the award now is. With neither Best Picture winner geared toward an Oscar duplication (Sweeney Todd wasn’t even NOMINATED by the Academy, mind you), it was the pointlessness of the entire concept that caught everyone’s eye. Without the fancy dress dinner and star powered ambience, without the awkward banter between presenters and equally uncomfortable speeches, without its typical place as the premiere indicator of future trophy triumphs, the Globes looked decidedly low rent. No wonder the other shows cancelled or caved at the bargaining table. The last thing these other Emperors need is another example of their underwhelming and irrefutable nakedness. 


The Art of Negotiation is in Fact Fingerpainting
Back in the days when management hired plank carrying goons to break the spirit (and the heads) of striking workers, backdoor deals in the dead of night were how compromise was accomplished. But in the months since the writers took up the placard, most of the wheeling and dealing has been done in very open, very inappropriate forums. From newspaper columnists with “exclusive” rights and insight into the process to YouTube videos and other viral elements meant to explain positions, very little actual talking took place. Anyone who wonders why the strike lasted so long can view this peculiar parley’s scattered approach and realize this ain’t no Pirates of the Caribbean. Captain Jack Sparrow and his buccaneer brood aren’t arriving anytime soon to smile and wink their way through the bargaining. Serious negotiations call for serious attitudes and approaches. Apparently, the new business model is to whine and walk away. Then you can do both in public, over and over again.


The Digital Age = The Death of Unions?
Harlan Ellison used to warn that, once a writer started undervaluing his or her efforts, there was no stopping the exploitation of the work by publishers and producers. This has been the cornerstone of the WGA’s position - the new online entertainment domain, with its multiple permutations for delivering content, has the potential to rob the creative element of their rightful ownership, copyright, and residuals. But there’s a catch many don’t realize, a blowback that offers little comfort - the medium they are marching over is inundated with unpaid “professionals”. From bloggers to recently ‘retired’ print critics, the Internet survives on, and for the most part thrives on, the use of genuine ‘free’-lancers. So how do highly paid scribes, already sitting on ever-fattening paychecks for their initial efforts, convince a compromised audience that their point is valid? In essence, they don’t. As long as their coffers are covered, few outside the fold care. It’s like the ritzy Lexus owner pulling into Wal-Mart. They’re happy to support the cheap and easy access to what they need. But they’ll be damned if they’ll take up the cause of the underpaid employee delivering it.


TV Will Still Love It Some Reality
Even as many “popular” shows close shop, waiting for the day they can bring back their double digit script squads and pay them outrageous fees to come up with feeble sitcom fodder, couch potatoes are proving that they prefer the tangy taint of non-fiction foolishness. Shows like The Moment of Truth and Bad Girls Club have been far more buzz worthy in recent weeks, while the return of a surefire stalwart like Lost felt like an anticlimactic afterthought. When push comes to weekly drama shove, audiences will turn over to see whores (both male and female) acting inappropriate time and time again. This month alone offers another Survivor, more American Idol, a pre-summer return of Big Brother, another Flavor of Love (a show now intentionally mocking itself), more balding Brett Michaels, and enough variations of all the above to keep your typical TV addicted Nielsen family in faux reality hog heaven for the next few weeks. By then, the writers will be back doing what they do best - not that anyone will notice.


Film Writing Will Still Suck
Let’s face it - none of this is about quality. Writers are not worried about delivering coherent characterization or inventive narrative concepts to your next Cineplex jaunt. Instead, we’re back to square one in the aesthetic battle - money - and the last time anyone checked, the size of the payout had very little to do with the quality of the script. Studios don’t buy screenplays based on how wonderful they are artistically. Nor are they purchasing product they feel will appeal to a limited segment of the often marginalized movie-going population. Filmmaking is a gamble, and only high rollers get the massive box office returns. So studios love to hurl large quantities of cash at the most mediocre of ideas (or worse, journeymen who’ve managed to luck into a leftfield hit or soft market moneymaker) and nothing the WGA is doing will change that. Instead, this is just about that cold hard cash coming out of your wallets - which by the way is the only say we have in this upper crust pissing match.


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Monday, Feb 11, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Son Lux
Break [MP3] (from At War with Walls and Mazes releasing 28 February)
     


Son Lux - Break


Cheb i Sabbah
Qalanderi [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


Panther
Puerto Rican Jukebox [MP3] (from 14kt God releasing 22 February)
     


Basia Bulat
In the Night [MP3]
     


Evangelicals
Skeleton Man [MP3]
     



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Monday, Feb 11, 2008

I found these charts, courtesy of economist Aaron Schiff, interesting. They chart the growth in traffic at the social networking duopoly:


MySpace:


Facebook:


Schiff’s conclusion: “Social network traffic grows exponentially for about two years, and then follows a random walk.” For me, that confirms my sense that social-network users are perpetually migrating to new sites that they feel are more exclusive, and then when the ordinary folks catch on they move elsewhere. It’s sort of a small-scale model of Veblen’s theory of emulative consumer behavior. And it also points to the fact that advertisers shouldn’t get their hopes up about the potential locked-in quarry of users that the social networks promise, as this BusinessWeek article details.


Social networking was supposed to be the Next Big Thing on the Internet. MySpace, Facebook, and other sites have been attracting millions of new users, building sprawling sites that companies are banking on to trigger an online advertising boom. Trouble is, the boom isn’t booming anymore. Like Heritage, many people are spending less time on social networking sites or signing off altogether.
The MySpace generation may be getting annoyed with ads and a bit bored with profile pages. The average amount of time each user spends on social networking sites has fallen by 14% over the last four months, according to market researcher ComScore. MySpace, the largest social network, has slipped from a peak of 72 million users in October to 68.9 million in December, ComScore says.


The article searches for evidence of its thesis that suers are mainly turned off by the ads, collecting mainly some anecdotal evidence in the form of quotes from random users. It’s not hard to imagine, though, that people don’t want their friendships sponsored by corporations. It seems entirely possible that people will be able to build ad hoc social-network like tools for keeping in touch with friends that aren’t under the auspices of big corporate brand. At that point, Facebook and MySpace will more clearly be seen as the beefed-up versions of Classmates.com that they really are, useful as places to search for people you once knew on a whim. But for other functions, they will seem like the second-coming of AOL, weirdly gated versions of the internet at large. Eventually even the late adopters and the technophobes will be comfortable enough to cut out such middlemen, when they see the value added isn’t worth wasting time and effort with evading the ads.


Update: This article from Spiked Online details the privacy issues with Facebook, all the more reason to eschew it for direct internet access. Facebook really is digital sharecropping:


read the terms and conditions for sign-up. These clearly state that Facebook owns all the data users add to the site: ‘By posting Member Content to any part of the website, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license to use, copy, perform, display, reformat, translate, excerpt and distribute such information and content and to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such information and content, and to grant and authorise sublicenses of the foregoing…’



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Monday, Feb 11, 2008

Zadie Smith is the headline grabber of the day, with her comments on the Willesden Herald web forum slamming literary prizes. Smith is quoted in the Times:


Most literary prizes are only nominally about literature. They are really about brand consolidation for beer companies, phone companies, coffee companies and even frozen food companies.


Her clear dismissal of the Whitbread, Orange, Costa, and Booker prizes comes following her inability to select a winner of the Willesden Herald short story competition. According to Smith, of the 850 entries, not a single one enticed her enough to give away the 5,000 pound prize.


Further comments on the forum suggest entrants pandering to Smith. The Times quotes her again:


To be very clear: just because this prize has the words Willesden and Zadie hovering over it, it does not mean that I or the other judges want to read hundreds of jolly stories about multicultural life on the streets of north London.


The post concludes (not quoted in The Times):


Nor are we exclusively interested in cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires.


Of course, not everyone appreciates this sort of to-the-point honesty. Ion Trewin, organizer of the Booker Prize, criticizes Smith for lambasting literary awards while accepting their financial benefits (Smith is a former winner of both the Whitbread and the Orange Prize). Author Joanna Trollope says Smith is utterly incorrect in her evaluations, noting that such prizes often dig better books out of potential obscurity, which makes it all worth it.


Good points, both. But Smith has a point, too. I can’t help but appreciate her honesty. Responders to her post are shocked and appalled that not even a shortlist could be culled from the Willesden entrants, and Smith has been chided that she’s simply incapable of being impressed. Read her comments a little more closely and what starts out as a bit of a catty backslap to the entire literary community becomes an impassioned plea for wannabe writers to immerse themselves a little more in research. To read better in order to write better. More from the Willesden post:


For let us be honest again: it is sometimes too easy, and too tempting, to blame everything that we hate in contemporary writing on the bookstores, on the corporate publishers, on incompetent editors and corrupt PR departments—and God knows, they all have their part to play. But we also have our part to play. We also have to work out how to write better and read better. We have to really scour this Internet to find the writing we love, and then we have to be able to recognize its quality. We cannot love something solely because it has been ignored. It must also be worthy of our attention… We got into this with a commitment to honour the best that’s out there, and we feel sure there is better out there somewhere.


We must do better. I don’t think this is a bad thing to say. I don’t think it’s particularly rude. If the entries weren’t up to scratch, try again. It shocks me that we all talk about finding truth in literature, in the moments, in the thoughts, and sensations, but when, in “real life”, someone decided to speak their personal “real life” truth, all hell breaks loose.


I only hope her frustration pays off, and those who submitted to her competition do try again, and do get better, rather than turning away in some kind of hoity disgust. We writers are sensitive folks, you know.


 


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