Latest Blog Posts

by Jason Gross

25 Sep 2008

In a touching and instructive announcement, Justin Ouelette explains why he couldn’t sustain the popular Muxtape site on its homepage.  He details the problem he had with trying to make Muxtape legit and major label approved.  Before he got shut down, many folks (including me) uploaded their favorite music into a virtual mixtape.

by Rob Horning

24 Sep 2008

Matt Yglesias linked to this NYT article about the disappearing Mediterranean diet, and he makes a point that reminded me of what I was trying to get at yesterday about the to-go mentality. Yglesias writes

As an American, I suppose it’s somewhat comforting to learn that our bad habits seem to have a quasi-universal gravitational pull and we’re not just a uniquely cursed nation. Conversely, the news that the state of public health in the developed world is likely to deteriorate is pretty disturbing.

It seems to me that what spreads is not our taste for specific sorts of food, but our attitude toward eating itself, whereby we treat meals with a kind of disrespect and choose options that allow us to eat with as little time and thought wasted as possible. Globalization and the aggressive spread of consumerism may be making this kind of time pressure universal, seducing people with the idea that their time is better spent consuming more stuff than lingering over a well-prepared meal.

That sounds a little conspiratorial, but it is the planned achievement of the advertising campaigns of multinational convenience-food manufacturers. The NYT article reports:

Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Athens Medical School, said the problem had grown acute with the spread of supermarkets and, especially, convenience foods.
“In the last five years it’s become really bad,” she said. “The children are all quite heavy. The market is pushing a lot, and parents and schools seem unable to resist.”
Advertising geared toward children has invaded Greece full force, stretching into the countryside. On television there are commercials for chips; at supermarkets there are stands of candy. Last year, Coca-Cola sponsored a play about healthful eating.
But facing both aggressive convenience food marketing and obesity for the first time, many rural residents here have little resistance to or knowledge of the dangers.

The question is whether resistance is even possible at this point. Americans, at least, haven’t figured it out yet. An “elitist” froufrou commitment to diet and exercise and healthy ingredients may help, but the ability to pursue such a course remains class bound. And even among those who can afford to eat healthily, the compulsion to consume more—the deeply felt symbol of having become successful in a consumer culture—is very hard to escape. Resisting the allure of convenience is linked to breaking the quantitative logic that suggests consuming more in the same amount of time means one’s quality of life has improved, a logic that is facilitated by the technological developments that make measuring and processing culture as data easier. But is it possible to reverse that logic once it has taken hold, or is it a form of path dependency?

by Bill Gibron

23 Sep 2008

You’d figure such an announcement would stir geek nation to its very core. After all, the battle for respectable treatment for all superheroes has been trailblazed since a certain Caped Crusader “boffed” and “zipped” his way through a ‘60s pop art landscape. Granted, the Green Hornet had less commercial cache than Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, but the character still suffered from a similarly styled disrespect during the Peace Decade - Bruce Lee or no Bruce Lee. Ever since his less than successful media cross over, the emerald icon has been sitting in that most sullied of cinematic spaces - development Hell. Everyone from Kevin Smith to Michel Gondry has been attached to a big screen adaptation, with leads ranging from Jake Gyllenhaal and George Clooney to Jason Scott Lee and Jet Li.

But when Seth Rogen was announced as the new creative force behind the franchise, the fanbase became a tad apoplectic. After all, with Batman Begins revitalizing the genre with its combination of scope and psychological serious, someone best known for his superb slacker comedy inspired little confidence. Even with The Pineapple Express showing some action scene scripting panache, Rogen remains a question mark. Oddly enough, when his co-star and director was announced last week, the arguments all but faded away. Yet it would seem that Stephen Chow should inspire even more unease. Though he truly is a Hong Kong legend, his output as a filmmaker suggests a return to the more jokey, cartoonish qualities of the past.

Most American fans know the 46 year old superstar as the genius behind Shaolin Soccer and the universally beloved Kung Fu Hustle. While his last effort, the ET-inspired family comedy CJ7 failed to resonate outside his native land, DVD has allowed the icon’s better known films (God of Cookery, King of Comedy) to finally get some exposure. Still, Chow is not some manner of guarantee. He’s been part of China’s cinema since the late ‘80s, and it took him nearly 20 years to develop into an international name. And the scariest part is, he’s done it through a devotion to all things slapstick and hyper-stylized. While Soccer and Hustle were wonderful, some fear there will be too much Looney Tunes in his Hornet

Of course, many are completely unaware of the character’s true origins. He wasn’t born out of pen and ink, but wireless waves and Saturday matinees. Clearly inspired by Bob Kane’s celebrated crimefighter, George W. Trendle and Fran Striker created the concept for ‘30s radio. During the ‘40s, celluloid stepped in and serialized the man. Soon, comic books and other marketing moves kept the story of newspaper publisher turned masked vigilante Britt Reid and his Asian manservant Kato in the public eye. Yet after the aborted ‘60s series featuring Van Williams and Bruce Lee, the Hornet fell out of the cultural conversation. While linked properties including the Lone Ranger (who is actually a blood relative) saw a cinematic send up, Reid and his butt kicking butler remained in entertainment exile.

The Green Hornet does seem to have a limited appeal. He’s not a man of inordinate powers or otherworldly abilities. He is very much cut from the ‘playboy as punisher’ dynamic. Though he’s considered quite skilled at hand to hand combat, Kato tended to take up most of the martial artistry. This was especially true of the TV series, which saw Lee extending his influence over the genre by turning the sidekick into the center of action attention. There was never a hint of humor in the Hornet’s story, no satiric slant or sense of inferred irony. Instead, we have Batman minus the winged obsession, most of the heroic heavy lifting done by a technologically advanced vehicle known as The Black Beauty.

As in the case of most movies, initial casting should cause concern - or at the very least, send out warning signs. Rogen is great at slovenly self deprecation, but can he manage a more mature role? Even playing the cop in Superbad, his proposed authority was countermanded by a mutton-chopped mimicry. His ability to fill Reid’s shoes seems questionable, especially when you consider his well honed persona is based solely on the silly. The biggest hurdle The Green Hornet faces however will be finding a proper balance between competing cinematic types. On the one hand, fans aren’t anxious to see their established stars swaying too far from what’s familiar. Rare is the instance where someone known for humor - say a Michael Keaton - manages to make the transition to champion of choice.

Chow is another story all together. His limited exposure as part of mainstream moviemaking suggests someone with an equal number of potential strikes. For all the brilliance he brought to Kung Fu Hustle, CJ7 suggested a man equally adept at feigned emotions and abject manipulation. He owes as much to the Golden Age of Hollywood as he does his Hong Kong brethren, with the biggest debt claimed by such classic silent comedians as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Again, this fails to inspire much Christopher Nolan like knowledge of the superhero’s story needs. Chow may be able to concoct a great fight scene, or bring his unbridled imagination to the entire core concept, but he’s not a warranty against failure.

Sure, the same could be said for Mr. Dark Knight, or the man first pegged to put a new spin on the growing graphic novel influence - one Tim Burton. But Chow has less of a track record, at least when it comes to handing Hollywood a pure popcorn experience. And remember, we are now looking at the genre through a necessary new wave wariness. Iron Man proved that acting is just as important as F/X in selling such outsized ideas and yet even someone as skilled as Edward Norton couldn’t completely salvage The Incredible Hulk. In fact, it seems Rogen and Chow are facing odds so monumental that if they succeed, it will certainly say something about both men’s ability and talent. But what if it tanks, or merely underperforms?

We’ve got a couple of years to wait, since The Green Hornet is not scheduled to appear at your local Cineplex until 2010. By then, we will have seen the way Watchmen redefines everything, while Marvel will be offering their takes on Thor as well as another journey into Tony Stark territory. A few years ago, a substandard superhero film like Daredevil or Ghost Rider could find a supportive audience. But thanks to the Summer of 2008, the entire paradigm has shifted. While one has to hope that Rogen and Chow know what they’re up against, the suits who supported their signing typically inspire little faith. For the time being geek nation is settled and sympathetic. If they stay that way, everything should be fine. If not…

by Patrick Schabe

23 Sep 2008

In case you haven’t already encountered it, here’s the deal with Achewood: If you come across the comic strip online right now, in it’s seventh year of publication, you’ll probably feel like you have no clue what’s going on.  Something about cats, and bears, and robots, and a naïve otter.  Heck, you probably won’t get it when you read the first strip. But if you spend the time to go back through the archives, read from the beginning, and take the time to learn about the characters and their history, you’ll quickly become engrossed in one of the most savagely funny evolutions in comics today.

Writer/artist Chris Onstad has developed a small universe inside a pathologically erudite world called Achewood.  It’s a place where your toys and your pets live human-esque adult lives right alongside us.  Our hedonistic habits, shopping centers, television shows, celebrity chefs, and fashion labels are theirs.  And in Achewood, Onstad has created a cast of characters that have effectively satirized contemporary life through their own distinct personalities.  It’s rude, it’s frequently crude, and some of the smartest work being done in webcomics.  Not only do you have the semi-regularly updated online strip, but Onstad has created blogs for each of his major characters, displaying a range of voice and a breadth of cultural savvy.  There’s even a series of Achewood cookbooks.

Which makes it both a triumph and a challenge that Onstad’s The Great Outdoor Fight has finally been collected in hardcover book form and is now available through Dark Horse Comics.  The “Great Outdoor Fight” story-arc is one of the most sustained sequences of the strip’s history, and is a mixed-sentiment fan favorite (explanation to follow).  It ran over a number of months online, and the amount of backstory and characterization make it a perfect stand-alone collection—if you already know Achewood

This isn’t an easy one for new readers to pick up.  It’s just not possible to understand the absurd humor if you haven’t come to know Ray and Roast Beef—essentially the two main characters of the strip, and the central focus of this storyline.  Knowing something about Ray being the luckiest semi-idiotic egomaniac with a heart of gold in the world is important to getting the joke of his being invited to the event that gives the book its title.  Knowing that Roast Beef is a chronically depressed hypochondriac with the world’s worst self-image is important to understanding the transformative moment of Beef taking charge in an event that is entirely about machismo.

For the Great Outdoor Fight is the most aggro of competitions.  Three Days, Three Acres, Three Thousand Men.  An all-out, nothing-barred, bloody fight until the last man standing is declared the victor.  It’s hyper-violent, completely over the top, and a hilarious commentary on the historical urge for bloodsport.  And yet, because Ray is the son of a former champion, the entire fight becomes an observation.  There are graphic moments, but those are less important and less visible than the people involved and their reactions, from the Achewood gang at home following along online (through a blogger using a Blackberry from inside the fight itself) to the strategy discussions of Ray and Roast Beef.  The hows and whys and spectacle of the event are more important than the action.  When this initially ran, it actually drew a mixed reaction from the fans, who only received small chunks in daily updates.  This made it hard to sustain the momentum, and the lack of visual violence and the almost necessarily pat conclusion left some feeling underwhelmed.  But when it’s placed in full context in this book, you can see the complete picture and not stall out waiting for updates.  And sure, you can get this experience by reading it online in the strip’s archives, but something about the book form makes it feel more unified.  If you’re already hip to the language manipulation of Achewood’s style, it flows much more smoothly in this form.  Plus, you get a few neat little extras, characteristic of Onstad: a text intro and history, some fight-related recipes, and some new art.

But if you’re someone who’s had Achewood recommended to them, or is curious about Onstad’s recent ascendancy to New Yorker blog subject and GQ comic strip appearance, do what everyone is told to do: go start from the beginning and read the strip online.  Then read the character blogs.  And then you might fully understand why the release of The Great Outdoor Fight in a mass-market form is a great thing. 

by Rob Horning

23 Sep 2008

One of the things that immediately struck me as odd in Ljubljana was the sight of cafes advertising that they had “take-away coffee.” It hadn’t occurred to me that this would be anything other than a standard feature designed to meet a universal expectation, but it quickly became apparent that the need to be carrying food and beverages around to be consumed on the go does not afflict everyone.

I certainly find it more convenient not to have to sit down and sip an espresso every time I want to have coffee, but the side of me that rails against convenience as the essence of consumerism’s many ills made me yearn to embrace the cafe culture, an impulse much easier to accommodate when on vacation. When there is no “to go” available, the entire infrastructure of everyday life changes, and time must be allocated in a completely different way, one that privileges the sanctity of civilized rituals of shared meals and conversation over the brute capacity to consume more simultaneously and the errant belief that life can be improved through a sheer quantitative increase of stuff consumed. As I’ve been arguing over and over in recent posts, the capacity to consume more becomes a kind of relentless pressure to squeeze more in, and quantity-consumption occludes the possibility of quality experience. A culture that spurns take-away cups and such works to release that pressure, or rather it helps prevent it from building up. It mandates coffee breaks and other inefficiencies that may serve to make life tolerable.

But over the week we spent in Slovenia, we never quite got used to it, and we found ourselves doing such quintessentially American things like eating bags of chips and impromptu pršut sandwiches in our rental car (which even had an automatic transmission, for good measure). It makes me afraid that it just might be too late for me to save myself from the evils of which I complain.

//Mixed media
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A Chat with José González at Newport Folk Festival

// Notes from the Road

"José González's sets during Newport Folk Festival weren't on his birthday (that is today) but each looked to be a special intimate performance.

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