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Monday, Apr 23, 2007

Get ready for a little merchandising back and forth this week as studios and distributors strike at us with a combination of classics and crap. Inside the positive paradigm are one of 2006’s best films, a decent slice of speculation from a noted African American superstar, and a pair of pleasant box sets from two of foreign filmmaking’s greatest auteurs. The negatives of note include another clueless comedy, a crackpot kid flick and a very unnecessary CGI trip to a completely unentertaining museum. There’s also a lot of off title product hitting the marketplace as well, oddball offerings with names like China Doll (a Victor Mature war sudser) Von Richthofen and Brown (Roger Corman’s WWI flying epic) and Blood Orgy of the She Devils (trademark Ted V. Mikels miscreance). Unless you’re willing to experiment with your entertainment, your best bet is to stick with SE&L‘s rock solid pick, a film that makes the 24 April date worth noting:

The Queen

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Stephen Frears’ Oscar nominated nod to the days preceding the death of Princess Diana is how emotionally astute it is. The natural reaction to anyone outside of the Prime Minister of Britain and the title icon would be unbridled devastation. That’s in fact what the world expressed upon her passing. But Elizabeth II and Tony Blair needed to manage a nation, not just their own feelings, and such a weighty proposition gives this amazing movie much of its drive, and its daring. Though it doesn’t pretend to offer factual insights into how Her Majesty and the Man from Number Ten Downing Street actually responded, Peter Morgan’s amazing script does a genius job of guessing. No matter if it’s false or forced, the responses just feel right, and help us see the exhaustive burden of power that follows every leader. Of course Helen Mirren deserved her Academy Award. The movie – and the men who made it - deserved a couple of those little gold men as well.

Other Titles of Interest

Code Name: The Cleaner

Don Imus gets fired for a horribly insensitive racial slur, and yet no one in Hollywood suffers one lick for continuing this borderline racist funny business formula. Cedric the Entertainer is the sad recipient of the Mantan Moreland treatment, playing a janitor who loses his memory and believes he’s a government agent. Sigh. That anyone thought this was viable mainstream entertainment is one thing. But to constantly cast talented black performers as the butt of bumbling jokes is a real crime.

Deja Vu

For some reason, Denzel Washington and genre efforts just don’t mesh. With a tenuous track record that includes Virtuosity, Fallen and The Bone Collector, it would seem silly to keep placing this titanic talent in a scary/sci-fi settings. In this time travel tale, built around the title premise, Washington is an ATF allowed to go back into the past and prevent an act of flagrant terrorism. Thanks to his considerable acting chops, we almost believe it.

The Documentaries of Louis Malle: Eclipse Series 2

As part of their new line of DVDs, Criterion introduces film fans to the non-fiction works of one of the medium’s great artists. Offering six works spanning subject matters as diverse as his native France and post-colonial India, this unusual compendium proves that there was more to Malle than gut wrenching humanism and a deep understanding of the flawed individual. Indeed, he had a keen eye for the drama of everyday existence as well.

The Jean Renoir Collection

Three discs. Seven films. One of SE&L‘s all time favorite filmmakers. So why aren’t we more ecstatic? Well, for one thing, Lionsgate is handling this release, and one has to question their stance as practiced preservationists. Second, most of these movies predate his masterpiece phase, the period between The Lower Depths (1936) and Rules of the Game (1939). Still, it’s Renoir, so you can definitely count us interested, if not exactly in.

A Night at the Museum

Do you miss those halcyon days of big budget, high concept movies that basically got by on imagery and mass hysteria. Well, look no further than this faceless, unfunny excuse for special effects. Ben Stiller trades his comic irony for kid friendly fluff and gets a massive points paycheck in the process. Unless the film’s main conceit grabs you – the displays in a local museum come to life after dark – there’s no need to visit this arch artifact from a lesser period of motion picture production.

And Now for Something Completely Different
Harry and the Hendersons: Special Edition

Wow, were we GULLIBLE in the ‘80s. William Dear, a director responsible for helping invent the music video format with MTV mentor Michael Nesmith (the pair produced the mythic Elephant Parts VHS ‘album’), used Rick Baker’s eccentric makeup to tell a slightly silly tale of a man who befriends a Bigfoot. That’s right, John Lithgow is along to overact as the harried dad who brings the legendary beast back home after his family has a car to creature mishap. All kinds of skunk ape hijinx ensue. Even though the premise is basically ET in a monkey suit, and the supporting cast of Don Ameche, Lainie Kazan and Melinda Dillon are top notch, the film tends to float away on its own internal emptiness. Even with a wealth of added content (commentaries, deleted scenes) its hard to imagine that this new DVD release will resonate with modern wee ones.


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Monday, Apr 23, 2007

Via Julian Sanchez, a link to a New Statesman review of Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. The book apparently chronicles the long history of the music industry turning authenticity into a product, and various folk musicians into mediums for authenticity’s distribution. As reviewer Jeff Sharlit explains, this reification of authenticity promotes “what Barker and Taylor call an authenticity ‘trap’—the harder you try to ‘keep it real’, the more artificial you become.”

The thing about authenticity is that, much like spontaneity, it can’t be self-aware. It’s only something that others can recognize in you, and the more you are aware of your reputation for it, the more likely it is you will lose that reputation. Pop music, like pop culture generally, packages ready-made lifestyles with nothing authentic about them. Some people, however, like “authenticity” (the product) in their lifestyle mix, hence the efforts to sell certain musicians—blues men and Appalachians in past decades, gangsta rappers more recently—as epitomizing realness. I tend to fall into a corollary trap where, after recognizing that contrived authenticity is worthless, I revel in gleefully inauthentic music, like bubblegum, thinking in part that this proves my piercing insight. But this is obviously no better. The real desideratum is to enjoy pop culture without deriving part of your enjoyment from the self-image you it helps you project. Ideally, when you start down this road of critical thinking, you want to consume the music, not some version of yourself, not some vicarious fantasy. You long for a route to the thing itself, an experience in which the thing ceases to function as a sign and just is. But this too would merely cater to a vicarious fantasy: by apprehending the music, in itself, we would see through to how we too can exist for ourselves, without needing to worry about grooming our identity and how we come across. I listen to, say, Tony Burrows, and for a minute I can fool myself into thinking that I don’t care what anybody else thinks, I’m just enjoying this song for what it is and nothing more. But at best I’ve bought myself a moment of self-forgetting. If there’s a distinction to be made between pop culture and “high culture”, it may rest in the way pop culture encourages you to consume yourself consuming—to revel in the image of yourself it foments—while high culture presents a challenge, demanding you apply some knowledge you’d acquired previously in order to try to understand a thing, and in so doing to forget yourself, lose yourself in the effort.


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Monday, Apr 23, 2007

This is, in part, just a quick note to echo Nikki’s official welcome-to-the-blog post.  Like Nikki, I’m largely convinced sites like PopMatters can deliver on the “long tail” and to make possible new conversations about books (and other formats with interesting writing), and Re:Print is a part of that.

And while there are a lot of fine literary blogs already out there, let me just point quickly to two recent discussions that suggest now is an auspicious time for a new one:

  • In the wake of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s decision to drop the position of book review editor, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) has launched a Campaign to Save Book Reviews.  (You can read more about it at Critical Mass, the NBCC’s blog.) 
  • And over at TNR’s Open University blog, Jeffrey Herf recently issued a call for a new American review of books, noting that book reviews in the major papers are largely ignoring the intellectual work going on at university presses and other venues for serious nonfiction.

As a complement to PopMatters’s book review section, Re:Print can help do this work, for all the reasons Nikki outlined this morning.  This should be interesting!

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Monday, Apr 23, 2007

A call to arms by the people at No Depression over an unconscionable mailing rate hike went out.  This increase threatens the survival of not only No Depression but also many other print zines who rely on set postal rates to keep their publications around.  To read more about this and to sign a petition to make your voice heard on this matter, see Grant’s Rant.

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Monday, Apr 23, 2007

Economists aren’t always thought of as enivronmentalists, but both are concerned with scarce resources and how they are distributed. Environmentalists happen to be concerned with “public goods”—the sorts of things that often seem free to citizens, like clean air and a livable climate. It’s difficult to align self-interest to secure the provision of these goods, since many people basically take them for granted and want someone else to worry about them. Economists, along with scarce resources, study incentives and even the most conservative of them will suggest ideas for aligning them with sustainable resource distributions; one of those is a tax on carbon usage, another is to end farm subsidies.

Michael Pollan, not an economist but the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a series of case studies in the forces that shape how we eat, has a passionate essay in today’s NYT Magazine about U.S. farm legislation, which he argues is the reason junk food (Made of corn and soy and wheat and the livestock corn feeds) is cheaper than healthy food (other vegetables).

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives. And the subsidies are only part of the problem. The farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.

Later Pollan suggests that the farm bill regards American eaters as “food processors” who vacuum up “industrial raw materials” manufactured by agribusiness. He urges Americans to complain to legislators about the farm bill (which ought to be called the agribusiness bill) and argue for one that puts consumers’ rather than producers’ interests first. But because the U.S. Constitution protects the interest of small states in various ways (the Senate, the Electoral College), this is easier polemicized than done. The major presidential candidates are far more likely to call for more subsidies for corn (to boost the ethanol industry unnecessarily, since it’s cheaper and better for the environment—the whole reason to use ethanol in the first place—to make the fuel from Brazilian sugar) than to campaign for their withdrawal.

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