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Saturday, Dec 8, 2007


They represent the last word in physical comedy, their surefire slapstick a crazy cut above everyone who would eventually try and imitate their art. While the formidable silent film approach to humor had long been abandoned for more sophisticated laughs (i.e. the majestic Marx Brothers), the so-called Stooges still believed in its visceral, unequivocal effectiveness. Working both live and on film, they perfected their timing and false fury in a way that would forever change the format. In fact, when people think of the appropriately named comedy style, the Stooges come up more often than other, more mercurial examples.


It’s safe to say that they now own the genre – and this without the complex, narrative inspired gags that one time illustrated its cinematic language. No, aside from an occasional clay/pie/cream puff fight, Rube Goldberg inspired tumble, or interaction with a collection of well-placed props, the trio touted as The Three Stooges were the most hands on of the body-oriented buffoons. From the moment their shorts aired as part of a trip to the movies, the eye gouge, the cheek smack, and the stomach poke were never quite the same. 


Fulfilling the wishes of longtime fans, Columbia has finally wised up, dropped the three short per package DVD format, and delivered The Three Stooges in a logistically sound chronological breakdown. Covering the first three years the performers pitched their vaudeville shtick to motion pictures (1934, ‘35, and ‘36) the 19 mini-masterworks presented all contain the classic line-up that most devotees prefer: mean leader Moe, absent minded minion Larry, and unbelievably brilliant bundle of butter, Curly. There is no Shemp, no Joe Besser, and definitely no Curly Joe DeRita to muck things up. While there is nothing wrong with any of these later stage substitutes, nothing beats the magic of the original Stooges. Looking over the titles offered, there is not a bad apple in the bunch.

Still, if you don’t get the genius that is The Three Stooges, don’t fret. Not everyone embraces the masterful at first. What you need is some manner of perspective, a compare and contrast if you will between the boys’ unquestionable wizardry and all the other warmed over wannabes. Think the trio is too low brow? Look at their contemporaries Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They practically lived along the bottom rungs of subterranean common denominators. Find their actions too brutal and abusive? Watch modern mirthmakers attempt the same physical shtick. It’s all unnecessary violence with none of the boys’ panache.


No, the Three Stooges remain viable cinematic icons nearly 75 years after their motion picture debut because, in an era which still embraced slapstick as viable everyman entertainment, they understood the rules, rewrote the syntax, and defined the genre for all who would come after. In fact, you could argue that the Stooges both showcased and strangled the artform. Before them (BTS), individual anarchy was an approachable element for any film. But once they came along (ATS), their flawless bravado couldn’t be matched. Instead, most bowed to the masters and moved along.


It’s not hard to see the immediate impact of the trio. Looking at the four films from their first year at Columbia (they had some previous success as part of the MGM family with straight man Ted Healy), their impeccable style and skill with comic timing is more than evident. Granted, “Woman Haters” does the dumbest thing possible with the boys – it turns them into shuffle bum singers in an all rhyme (and no reason) variety review. The premise has possibilities, but outside the standard slapstick, the rest of the short stumbles.


“Punch Drunks” was the perfect comeback. It gave Curly his first great goofball roll (a fighter who goes nutzoid the moment he hears the song “Pop Goes the Weasel”), and sets up the trio’s working dynamic – Moe as the cantankerous leader, Larry as the sullen sidekick, and Curly as constant source of frustrated bemusement. By “Men in Black”, the hospital/doctor setting could barely contain them. The Oscar nominated effort is so overloaded with sight gags, physical flailing, and memorable lines (“Jeez, the joint is haunted”) that it accurately reflects the growing confidence between the studio and its stars. It would all be taken to dizzying new heights with the football themed funny business of “Pigskins”.


By 1935, the Stooges were established. After a couple of minor period piece stumbles (both “Horses’ Collars” and “Restless Knights” have their non-narrative moments), the threesome hit a string of inspiration that would forever illustrate their power. Unlike the costumed craziness of an era specific outing, the timeless aspects of the gang worked best when butted up against the current social morays. It’s just more fun to see Curly court and dress down a snooty dowager than a Wild West cowgirl. They were better as social commentators, the downtrodden taking on the haughty rabble, than as members of a specific historic sect.


That’s why the art school spectacle of “Pop Goes the Easel” soars, its last act clay fight a delicious combination of comeuppance and cruelty. It’s why the whiskey crazed swells of “Pardon My Scotch” and the cockeyed Confederate gentility of “Uncivil Warriors” make the perfect backdrop for the boys’ unbridled mayhem. Even the insular short “Hoi Polloi” figured this out. It actually made taking down the privileged part of the plotline. It’s obvious that the Stooges work better as the storm amidst the calm, not visa versa. The minute they step on the elitist golf course to challenge the links in “Three Little Beers”, their presence perks up (and perplexes) all around them.


Still, those behind the camera didn’t quite grasp this comedic compartmentalizing – at least, not yet. They still believed the boys could work well within every filmic format. Proof of how wrong they were arrives toward the end of 1936. The first six shorts the trio made that year featured present-day circumstances (exterminators, performers, war veterans, trial witnesses, starving hoofers, and firemen) and used modern slang and jargon to complement the physical hijinx. Then it’s back to Dodge City as the guys give the frontier another try. True, the Stooges were fantastic as part of a Civil War setting, but “Warriors” would be the exception that confirms the overall rule.


“Whoops! I’m an Indian” is not bad, it’s just not a stunner. It takes too long to payoff, and along the way, the boys are seemingly forced to be funny. That’s not how the Stooges are supposed to work. When matched with the effortless laughs of “Slippery Silks” (the furniture gowns remain one of the shorts’ best sight gags), or the public domain delights of “Disorder in the Court” (who HASN’T seen this legal lampoon), it simply stands out as something underwhelming. And since this incarnation of the act would go on to make another 78 shorts (97 in all), it would remain a prickly premise the studio would insist on. After all, how many different settings could the storied group’s havoc fully function in?


It’s important to note that there was more to the Three Stooges than location, location, location. Many believe the boys to be inept in the arena of scripted jokes, but buried throughout the first three years of their Columbia existence are consistent examples of verbal wit. From a classic witness box exchange invoking the spirit of ’76 to a dessert as feather bed reference, the trio used lots of imaginative wordplay as part of their performance. Even the titles created were typically spoofs of current popular films (“Men in Black” for Clark Gables Men in White) or parodies of well known songs or sayings (Pardon My ‘Scotch’ subbing for ‘French’).


In fact, those who would marginalize the trio as being nothing more than jocular juvenilia, the pre-post-modern equivalent of fart jokes and toilet humor, have probably never really studied the Stooges. They are much more than boxers battling within a craven comedic context or arrested adolescents using fists instead of quips to earn their keep. They are artisans working in the almost impossible arena of physical wit. That they continue to delight a quarter century later is both a testament to their timelessness and their unequivocal quality control. Sadly this first Volume only whets our long dormant appetite for the rest of their amazing output. 


Back in the mid-80s, it was argued that The Three Stooges were the male equivalent of a chick flick – that is, the kind of entertainment that hit men in the merriment harder than it did the ladies. Of course, there are numerous ways to argue out of such a broad overgeneralization, but for the most part, the comment has a small amount of truth. Sold as a baser experience, as the artistic equivalent of a knee to the groin, the short films made by these amazing performers can be considered gut level laugh getters. But does this mean women are above the experience, or simply that, searching for a way to describe the decades old appeal of the act, scholars slipped into stereotyping?


Whatever the case, it’s clear that there are more than gents holding up the Stooges’ lasting legacy. Constantly bringing new generations into their farcical fold, as long as there are viewers, there will be fans for the threesome’s fantastic follies. Bellyache all you want over the lack of packaging or added features, but The Three Stooges Collection Volume 1: 1934 – 1936 is performing one invaluable service – it’s protecting the boys’ mythos for future aficionados to enjoy. And when it comes to skilled slapstick, a true obsessive will take preservation over puffery any day of the week.


 


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Friday, Dec 7, 2007

I’m not sure I can even write about this subject without seeming glib, and I in no way want to make light of the tragedy of random people being murdered as they go about their ordinary lives. But when I was watching the coverage of the Omaha mall shooting yesterday (I was waiting to catch a plane and CNN was inescapable—why must they do this to public spaces, try to sedate people waiting with TV? Have people become this impatient? On a related note, I flew cross-country on Northwest, and it wasn’t until after the flight was over that I realized why it was such a refreshing experience—no force-fed in-flight entertainment) I kept wondering if the shooting could in anyway be interpreted as an act of protest against malls, and what they might represent to people. This subject never came up in Anderson Cooper’s inane questioning of the various psychologists and local witnesses on the program; instead the focus was on the killer and what sort of mental illness he must have had to prompt such a deranged act, and then he was dutifully compared to other sensationalized killers, glorifying him in precisely the way the psychologists had said he had yearned for—his desperate need for recognition and notoriety.


But I was wondering, why the mall? Was this just a natural choice, the place to go to see strangers, the quintessence of public space in America? When planning this horrible crime, did the killer ever once think, this will make people think twice about the emptiness of shopping? This might discourage aimless or rote consumerism? Probably not, but such an angle was not even hinted at in the exhaustive coverage I was subjected to, even when they went through a rundown of other recent mall massacres. The mall was just a null variable; no one mentioned any characteristic about malls that might relate them to the spate of shootings occurring there. Perhaps in all these cases, the mall was an incidental choice. But something about shopping seems to make people especially vulnerable—people enter malls in order to let their guard down, to open themselves to the pleasing enticements of goods, the fantasies they promise but rarely deliver on. As the staging ground for fantasies of the transformational powers of property, the mall be the place where consumerism is most satisfying, where it works best and makes the most sense, where the dreams have full play and the action we are being continually prompted for by our dominant public discourse, advertising, can actually be consummated. When you get the goods home, they often aren’t half as exciting. Is their something about the heightened sense of reality at malls in consumer society that attracts the deranged lunatics desperate to leave their mark on that society?


Maybe this refusal to rationalize crime as having a poltical reason emphaszies the horror of the crime for those consuming it as news—if they provide no political motivation for it—if it is presented to be as random as possible—it perhaps provides the greatest vicarious thrill, the greatest amount of the knotted-stomach feeling from witnessing something awful. To offer potential political rationales for murder, no matter how disapproving, would still be in effect justifying the idea that violence can serve political ends, a belief that the state must monopolize. Individuals can’t be permitted to conceive of action that way—politicized violence committed by anyone other than a state agent is uniformly labeled terrorism.


So instead of trying to rationalize this kind of awful crime with any kind of purpose, society seems to prefer the idea that killing is random, senseless, and motivated wholly by psychological defects in the murderer.


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Friday, Dec 7, 2007

The business of content scraping and referral spam

Photo: Marilyn K. Yee / The New York Times

Photo: Marilyn K. Yee / The New York Times


Richard Prince. The Art of the Copy.


Since the late 1970s, when Richard Prince became known as a pioneer of appropriation art — photographing other photographs, usually from magazine ads, then enlarging and exhibiting them in galleries — the question has always hovered just outside the frames: What do the photographers who took the original pictures think of these pictures of their pictures, apotheosized into art but without their names anywhere in sight?


Randy Kennedy. The New York Times. December 6, 2007.


In a New York Times article this week about the Richard Prince retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, Randy Kennedy talked to Jim Krantz, whose image for a Marlboro Man ad had been appropriated by Prince into an artwork and is featured on the Guggenheim’s poster. “When I left, I didn’t know if I should be proud, or if I looked like an idiot,” Krantz said. Prince told Randy Kennedy that he was trying for an effect he couldn’t achieve by creating his own images. “He once compared the effect to the funny way that ‘certain records sound better when someone on the radio station plays them, than when we’re home alone and play the same records ourselves,’ ” wrote Kennedy.


With Prince’s artworks selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, the issue of authorship of the images has become thorny. “Mr. Krantz said he considered his ad work distinctive, not simply the kind of anonymous commercial imagery that he feels Mr. Prince considers it to be,” wrote Kennedy. “People hire me to do big American brands to help elevate their images to these kinds of iconic images,” Krantz told him. And Krantz asked, rhetorically, if he italicized Moby Dick, would it become his own artwork?


I’ve quoted and paraphrased almost all of Randy Kennedy’s article. There’s more to it, though. It’s worth clicking the link through to the story itself and to view more images that The New York Times ran with the story. As a media reviewer I quote extensively, rather than paraphrasing, to allow the writer’s own voices to speak, and to retain the context of the pieces. But fair use, homage, copyright, and art statements are thorny issues on the Internet. I use many images from Flickr, always attributed to the photographer, and mostly only if they have a “creative commons” tag, which allows their use if it isn’t for commercial gain. When a photographer sends the mixed message of having an “all rights reserved” tag and a “blog this” button on the image itself, I may e-mail them to ask permission to run the photograph.


The Creative Commons


Michael Almereyda set Hamlet in New York at the turn of the twenty-first century. Hamlet’s father had been CEO of the Denmark Corporation and Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet searched for his identity amid advertising images—Sam Shepard as Hamlet’s father’s ghost materializes out of a soda vending machine, for instance. Almereyda was criticised for the movie being larded with product placements but he paid the companies to display their products.


There’s still a class system in the world and in America, people who have things and people who don’t, and people who have things tend to make sure they keep having them and controlling them, and that’s aligned with corporate power, which is such an overarching power that you can’t even attack it without becoming part of it. It simply absorbs any kind of criticism. I don’t know that that’s the most profound aspect of the film but it seemed like a natural way of talking about contemporary power, and it’s aligned with consumer culture, people telling us that the more we buy, or if we buy the right things or wear the right things, we’ll be happy. I don’t think that’s completely divorced from what Shakespeare was talking about, because he was drawing lines between private experience and public experience, and authentic being and inauthentic being, all still a problem, if you’re awake and alive. So, Hamlet sparks a lot of these questions, and we’re just kind of scribbling in the margins sometimes, but I hope the film does also directly address some of those themes, and ideas that are spoken about in the soliloquies.


Michael Almereyda, interviewed by Pop Matters.



Hamlet anticipated the current prevalence of urban surveillance technologies—blogs and web cams as well as security cameras—and the way that they’ve made our lives open to being observed by the world. “A lot of the play is about people spying on each other and being watched and playing parts and being aware of themselves playing parts,” Almereyda told Pop Matters. “And that corresponds to contemporary reality where cameras are on the present and images within images are on the present, at least in the city. So that seemed like a natural way of mirroring things that were going on in Shakespeare’s text.”


These are the issues that Lawrence Lessig has been thinking about too, which drove him to create the Creative Commons licence. He’s commented on how difficult it is for young filmmakers to work in New York, where advertising images and iconic buildings and displays are considered copyright, and filmmakers must pay to use them in their works. Where should the product end and the city begin? he’s wondered. His system is a code of ethics for bloggers and independent artists to refer to and quote each other’s work. His 2004 book Free Culture is avalailable as a PDF download.


All creative works—books, movies, records, software, and so on—are a compromise between what can be imagined and what is possible—technologically and legally.  For more than two hundred years, laws in America have sought a balance between rewarding creativity and allowing the borrowing from which new creativity springs.  The original term of copyright set by the First Congress in 1790 was 14 years, renewable once. Now it is closer to two hundred. Thomas Jefferson considered protecting the public against overly long monopolies on creative works an essential government role.  What did he know that we’ve forgotten?


Lawrence Lessig shows us that while new technologies always lead to new laws, never before have the big cultural monopolists used the fear created by new technologies, specifically the Internet, to shrink the public domain of ideas, even as the same corporations use the same technologies to control more and more what we can and can’t do with culture. As more and more culture becomes digitized, more and more becomes controllable, even as laws are being toughened at the behest of the big media groups. What’s at stake is our freedom—freedom to create, freedom to build, and ultimately, freedom to imagine.


Jacket Copy from the

Uploaded by 2dognite on Flickr. Image is All Rights Reserved but has a

Uploaded by 2dognite on Flickr. Image is All Rights Reserved but has a “Blog This” button


My Blogs are Mangy Old Fleabag Mutts


Almost as soon as I made my first posts on my blogs hosted for free on Wordpress, their content was “scraped” by what seemed to be an offshore, perhaps Spanish based, company that used my content to wrap Google word-assocation ads around. I feel like my blogs are mangy old mutts that every passing parasite hitches a ride from. The media focuses on individuals re-mixing magazine articles, advertising and movie images and music in their blogs, or the piracy of whole artworks, but there’s a whole black market based on shadowy companies creating crafty ways to steal content from individuals that appears on their blogs. It’s entirely mechanical based around algorithms, keyword searches and re-directing the flow of RSS feeds.


There is a growing and real concern that site and blog feeds are being used to totally replace any original content. Some crafty website owners are using multiple feeds to pull information from other sites into their own, making it look like the site has an interesting and original collection of content, when it is actually stolen without permission from other sites.


In general, the rise in the use of feeds on websites and blogs seems to be permissible, if only headlines or excerpts are used and not the full post or article content. The issue of content theft arises when this is done without your knowledge or permission using the full content.


from the blog Lorelle.wordpress.com


The Spanish company in question is named Bitacle The blog Plagiarism Today explained in September of last year how Bitacle’s service operated.


When you first visit the Bitacle home page, it appears to be nothing more than another personal home page, much along the same lines as Netvibes and Pageflakes.


Much like those sites, it contains a built in search engine for sorting through blogs, Web sites and more. One of the tabs on the search feature points to a search feature called “Aggregates”. A search there pulls results from blog entries, much like the regular blog search, but the results don’t lead to the original site, but to cached copies on the Bitacle server.


It’s those cached copies that have generated the bulk of the controversy. Originally, the cached copies offered the content under a Creative Commons License that permitted commercial use, offered no clear attribution to the author, no permanent link back to the original piece and were surrounded by ads. Though the ads remain and no clear attribution has been offered, the CC license has been removed and a link to the original work has been added. There is even a comment form on each piece to let the reader discuss the entry without visiting the original site.


Plagiarism Today


Plagiarism Today pressured Google on how its adsense program was being abused, and an update on Plagiarism Today a month after the post I’ve quoted attributed the disappearance of ads from the Bitacle site as proof that the pressure was successful. I haven’t kept up with the permutations of content scraping, comment spam, the gaming of links and referrals to artificially boost the popularity of sites, or copyright infringements. I consider my blogs as portfolio’s and I believe that Wordpress itself tries hard to screen out content spam and how difficult it is for them to keep several technological steps ahead of the pirates. I consider perhaps only as little as 2% of the traffic driven to my sites are genuine readers or seekers. The rest are probably scavengers and parasites.


Raiders of The Lost Ark

Raiders of The Lost Ark


Reference or Robbery? Google’s Searchable Database of Books


This image was used by Geoff Manaugh on the post The Future Warehouse of Unwanted Books on his Bldgblog. He quotes from a Guardian article about the construction of a book warehouse.


“The warehouse is extraordinary,” the Guardian writes, “because, unlike all those monstrous Tesco and Amazon depositories that litter the fringes of the motorways of the Midlands, it is being meticulously constructed to house things that no one wants.” Those “fringes” are outside London.
“When it is complete next year, this warehouse will be state-of-the-art, containing 262 linear kilometres of high-density, fully automated storage in a low-oxygen environment. It will house books, journals and magazines that many of us have forgotten about or have never heard of in the first place.”


Bldgblog.


This warehouse is necessary because the copyright laws in England demand the office to keep copies of everything that’s been granted copyright for a certain amount of years. These books have been deemed “low use”. Few readers, if any, want to refer to or read them, but the law demands that they must be kept.


I’m tempted to say that we need an injection of Buddhism – or, at least, the doctrine of non-attachment – into the field of library science. But I’m not a Buddhist, so I’m not going to say that. (Interesting, though, that religious beliefs could affect both the shape and the very existence of libraries).
In any case, last month Anthony Grafton took a long look at the future of the library, gazing upon the history of textual accumulation from the Library at Alexandria to Google’s new book-scanning project.


BldgBlog.


This reminded me that there have been objections to the Google plan to digitize entire works from entire libraries and make them freely available online because it may allow the content to be scraped and misdirected for commercial gain in the way that content scraping has bitten into blogs.


Google Print, an enterprise in which Google is scanning books from five major research libraries, along with submissions of publishers, to create a searchable database of the written word. In September, the Author’s Guild, a trade group representing writers, sued Google, claiming “massive copyright infringement.” The Association of American Publishers has also sued Google over its project, which just resumed after being suspended for a few months while the company re-examined the issues. Last month, a competitive group, the Open Content Alliance (which includes Yahoo and Microsoft), announced plans to scan collections of other libraries, while trying to accommodate the objections made to Google.


Edward Rothstein. November 14, 2005. The New York Times.






 





Tagged as: google, media, wordpress
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Friday, Dec 7, 2007

Talk about your long dormant Holy Grails. Ever since DVD became the format of choice, devotees of director Ridley Scott’s speculative noir have been waiting for a definitive digital version. This, apparently, is it: a multidisc offering encased in a slick silver briefcase. It contains a staggering FOUR different cuts of the film (a new director’s, the original theatrical, an international configuration, and Scott’s 1992 revamp) as well as a workprint, dozens of documentaries, and lots of insightful featurettes. The old cliché would have some arguing that such an aesthetic overview would be worth the wait—and they’d be right.


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Friday, Dec 7, 2007

Each year, hundreds of Christmas albums are released. Very few rise to the top of that pile, and even fewer transcend it. But that’s exactly what The 25th Day of December does. It’s a classic album that just happens to be about Christmas. Years before their Stax heyday and a full decade before signature hit “I’ll Take You There”, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, son Pervis, and daughters Mavis and Yvonne were signed to jazz label Riverside. Only their fifth album overall, The 25th Day of December nonetheless feels wise and assured. The dozen tracks, many traditional spirituals, are rendered seriously and sincerely. Even standards like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Silent Night” are stripped down and laid bare. The unadorned backing, consisting of Roebuck’s bluesy guitar along with organ and drums, puts the focus where it should be, on the soulful harmonies and reverent message. The 25th Day of December is not only a great way to put the Christmas season and its music back into perspective, it’s also one of the year’s most essential reissues in any genre.


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