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Tuesday, Mar 4, 2008

Every now and then, usually in moments of aimless procrastination, I get drawn into Lifehacker, Gawker Media’s blog about how to be more productive. It’s full of tips and software downloads and to-do lists and it’s uniformly cheerful and perky, but I’m pretty sure it’s doing nothing to improve anyone’s efficiency. It makes productivity into a fun fantasy to indulge in: Wouldn’t it be great if I was one of those people who need to install a keyboard-command application launcher, because I’m so diligently and relentlessly multitasking that I can hardly dare to spare a few nanoseconds away from typing to move my mouse? Wouldn’t it be cool if I was the sort of person who learns 10 new foreign words a day courtesy of a daily podcast I have in my hyperorganized personal podcast-processing portal page? Wouldn’t I be a hero if I were the type to label all my emails and have them file themselves automatically so that I could spend more time tagging interesting sites on the Web and sharing them through one of the several hundred social networking platforms I’ve become affiliated with? And that’s not to mention all the pseudo-productive hobbies I get to daydream about by browsing around Lifehacker, like putting together a Linux machine that runs all open-source software and retagging all my iTunes files with release dates, album covers, lyrics, and genres.

It’s absurd—the site provides numerous solutions for the same problem, creating the new task (which it will offer a helpful solution to, I’m sure) of having to evaluate which time-saving strategy is best. And the site is updated so frequently that to keep up with it is extremely inefficient (though it does offer specialized feeds so you can cut down the flow). If I truly was concerned with being productive, one of the first things I’d do is forbid myself from reading Lifehacker.

It may just be semantics, but when I think about it, I find something repugnant about “hacking” life. As if life itself weren’t enough, and I should be finding shortcuts to preempt its flow, programming myself to be less life-like.

Productivity is not the abstract end in itself that the site makes of it—it’s not a prêt-à-porter product. When devising means to be more productive, obviously it matters what your larger, more meaningful goals are. But productivity for its own sake allows you to forget that you may not have larger, more meaningful goals—a common affliction in capitalist societies that devalue the meaning of work and make leisure a kind of compulsion. In other words, productivity is another mask for convenience, which is really just consumption efficiency presented as quantitative hedonism.

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Monday, Mar 3, 2008

From time to time, SE&L will step back and let the Tinsel Town marketing machine do what they do best – tantalize and tease us with clever coming attraction previews and trailers. The five films focused on this time around represent some highly anticipated future outings, including the latest from cinematic stalwarts like M Night Shyamalan, Mike Meyers, and Kung Fu Hustle‘s Stephen Chow. Every few weeks, we’ll take a break from casting our critical eye over the motion picture artform and let the shill do the talking. And of course, once they do open in theaters, you can guarantee we will be there, deciphering whether the come-on matches the context. In any event, enjoy:

The Love Guru
It’s more Austin Powers’ style wackiness as Meyers portrays an Indian shaman trying to save the career of a professional hokey player. Standard hijinx ensue.

Hong Kong God Chow turns family friendly with this ET like tale.

The Happening
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and only the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable knows what’s on tap.

Baby Mama
Tina Fey takes a break from 30 Rock to offer her own satiric take on superwomen and the desire to have it all - including a surrogate kid.

Midnight Meat Train
The Clive Barker tales gets a stylistic spin. Looks like it could be a solid genre winner.


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Monday, Mar 3, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
RICHARD SWIFT [ Photo: Paul Heartfield]

RICHARD SWIFT [ Photo: Paul Heartfield]

Richard Swift
Knee High Boogie Blues [MP3] (from Richard Swift As Onasis releasing 8 April)

Phone Coffins [MP3] (from Richard Swift As Onasis releasing 8 April)

Tift Merritt
Keep You Happy [MP3]

Gnarls Barkley
Who’s Gonna Save My Soul [Video]

No Kids
The Beaches All Closed [MP3]

School of Language
Rockist Part 1 [MP3]

Martinho Da Silva
Claustrofobia [MP3]

Silversun Pickups
Little Lover’s So Polite [Video]

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Monday, Mar 3, 2008

From Reason‘s site comes this essay by Ron Bailey, which argues that couples are having fewer kids for the simple reason that many couples don’t actually like them.

So, modernity essentially transforms children from capital goods that produce family income into consumption items to be enjoyed for their own sakes, more akin to sculptures, paintings, or theatre. But that’s just the problem—according to happiness researchers, people don’t really enjoy rearing children.

This makes intuitive sense to me. Since society has changed and women are no longer forced to be mothers, children have become voluntary, they represent choices, and the atmosphere that we are conditioned to associate with choice, the place where our choices matter, is the marketplace. Choices are less deliberative, evaluative acts than opportunities for consumption. A choice is a moment in which we can bask in all the privileges and pleasures of consumerism.

Surely, some would be appalled at the selfishness implied by viewing children as toys manufactured for the parents’ amusement, but would such an attitude be so incongruent with the values generally promulgated in commercial society? In the abstract—to the prechild couple perhaps—children are seen as precious objects to add to a collection of quirky, self-defining things—it’s perhaps the ultimate identity good, as it’s literally a piece of yourself made into something else. And children can function as lifestyle accoutrements that announce a certain set of priorities, that you subscribe in some way to “family values” and take a pride in nurturing. And children allow parents to show off a host of attendant status-signaling goods, like strollers and elite preschools.

Bailey cites happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert, who says people claim to say children make them happy because that is what they are expected to say, and because a form of the sunk-costs effect kicks in:

Gilbert observes that the more people pay for an item, the more highly they tend to value it and children are expensive, even if you don’t throw in piano lessons, soccer camps, orthodonture, and college tuitions.

That’s a rather benign explanation; those with a more conspiratorial bent might attribute the cheerleading for a childcentric culture to a wish among reactionaries and conservatives to preserve the old order of gender roles: the impositions and imperatives of child care tend to lead to women doing a bunch of domestic work, rendering them less fit to compete with men in the non-domestic sphere. If women aren’t staying at home altogether, they are instead working the “second shift” of managing family life and attending to its emotional and physical needs. As Tim Harford points out in The Logic of Life (citing Gary Becker), the comparative advantage women often have in performing domestic labor encourages families (“rationally”) to organize the division of labor in a household so that women do most of the housework. “There is no reason to believe that men were breadwinners because they were any good at it,” Harford explains. “They might simply have been breadwinners because getting them to help around the house would have been even worse.” In this argument, domestic work is regarded as primary, and comparative advantage is adjusted in accordance to who best performs that fundamental labor for reproducing society. Ironic, then, that such primary work is poorly compensated and inadequately recognized socially—in fact, society seems organized around sentimental principles that invalidate the notion that domestic work is work at all. Worshipping children is one way of negating the work of rearing them.

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Sunday, Mar 2, 2008

Everyone wanted their moment. Everyone wanted their time with the masters. On an unusually cool Florida night, with a wind whipping around the Channelside Theaters reception area, two exploitation icons sat, waiting to greet their fans. It was magical, the kind of high profile appearance that turns Tampa from a backwater cultural burg into an outpost along cinema’s historic highway. When the Gasparilla Film Festival announced that Blood Feast, the 1963 gore epic would be part of their itinerary, some movie snobs scoffed. After all, we’re talking about a 45 year old cheapie that earned its reputation on notoriety, not name talent. But when it was also disclosed that producer David F. Friedman and director Herschell Gordon Lewis would be on hand to reminisce about their infamous film, the connection became clear.

For those unfamiliar with those names, Friedman is the acknowledged ‘Mighty Monarch’ of the exploitation arena, a producer who had a more than influential hand in taking the taboo busting genre from the grindhouse to the arthouse - and back again. His partner in crime was Lewis, a Chicago based maker of advertising and industrial films who quickly learned that the real money was in pandering to the prurient interests of an audience. Getting their start in nudist camp films, the guys quickly learned that anyone could feature topless females cavorting around lush tropical backdrops. They needed something new and different. With his fascination with Grand Guignol, Lewis suggested gore. Instantly, the pair traveled to Florida, concocted a bizarre Egyptian ritual narrative, and Blood Feast was born.

Now, nearly five DECADES after they literally created the first splatter film, they were back in the Sunshine State, and reveling in the overwhelming accolades that never came their way eons ago. Friedman, 85 and in slightly failing health, stood and greeted his admirers, while Lewis, 79 and as spry as ever, sat at a table and held court, just like any member of royalty would. Among the throng waiting were fanatics, geeks, punk rock devotees, and the occasional gob-smacked critic. Hands clasped DVD covers, worn trade paperbacks, souvenir barf bags given out for the screening, and some highly unusual mementos. One young man, a fledgling F/X artist who was inspired by Feast, brought his metal make-up kit. After the standard star-struck approach and the exchange of personal pleasantries, he got Friedman and Lewis to sign his case. 

From the outside looking in, these exchanges seemed slightly selfish. With both men clearly feeling their age, it was oddly uncomfortable to watch their fans swarm and monopolize their space. Some would stand for a second or two, happy for a signature and a quick digital snap. Others, however, needed to explain themselves, to clarify their passion for Freidman’s films or Lewis’ later productions in obsessive detail. As others waited for their equally important moment, these home video vampires stood their ground. Certainly the guests of honor never showed it, nor did the festival handlers, but there was an invasive atmosphere that made some of the exchanges uncomfortable to watch. There is a mythos surrounding these men that mandates a certain level of respect. For some of the Kevin Smith wannabes in the crowd, it was more about their perspective than those being honored.

Still, fandom breeds a certain level of entitlement, and the rarity of the appearance definitely brought out that facet. But there were also high levels of admiration, and some clear moments of inspired reverence. A few in attendance held copies of Friedman’s definitive biography A Youth in Babylon, praising a clearly moved man for his enlightened narrative on the history of exploitation. Lewis found himself signing everything from old VHS copies of Feast to ultra-rare Laserdisc versions of the film. Even soundtrack CDs, released since the advent of home video, found their way into the mix. Couples calmly asked for photos while one clueless attendee turned to a group standing nearby and asked, “Who is Herschell Gordon Lewis?”

It was that kind a night, an event where the age old adage about never meeting your heroes bore both legitimacy and ludicrousness. For anyone who’s heard Friedman and Lewis on DVD commentary tracks, or has been lucky enough to see one of their few taped interviews, meeting them in person is like déjà vu all over again. Their voices remain the same - a clear combination of a well lived life and pure carnival barker showmanship. While they look much older, the same glint appears in their eyes, faces literally lighting up the minute someone mentions Lewis’ work in marketing (where he truly made his name) or Friedman’s connection to the carnival (he still comes to Florida every year to attend the industry convention in Gibsonton).

Before they knew it, the theater was ready to show their film. Promises of a pristine print from San Francisco quickly turned out false. Instead, a relatively ratty copy of Blood Feast gave viewers a scratchy, slightly out of focus look at the classic. Even in 35mm, the audience knew it was a lark. As Lewis would later say in the hilarious post-screening Q&A, they laughed in all the right places. There were audible gasps during the gore, and more than a few Mystery Science Theater 3000 like riffs. Every once in a while, a keen observer could hear Lewis and Friedman talking, their recognizable voices responding to something they saw on the screen. There was applause at certain points and a clear sense of satisfaction when it was all over.

Local St. Pete Times film critic Steve Persall, instrumental in getting Feast shown at Gasparilla, led the post-screening interview. While they searched for a working microphone, Lewis stood up and proudly announced that they both could ‘project’, and from that moment on, the genuine lovefest began. As a fount of undeniably entertaining stories, both men mesmerized the crowd. They told of how a concrete sphinx outside the Suez Motel on Miami Beach inspired their plot, and how Kansas City banned the use of the word “Blood” in film advertising - which made showing In Cold Blood quite difficult. There was a singalong (Lewis leading the audience in a stirring rendition of the Two Thousand Maniacs theme song) and a last minute slasher gag that went horribly wrong.

After the aborted effect, a feigned throat slashing that saw more fake gore on Lewis than his intended victim, the remaining fans starting moving toward the men. On the screen above was a symbolic splash of grue, leftover from the effort. As it trailed down the stark white scrim, workers hurried to wash it off. Yet the imagery was undeniable. Here were two octogenarians, life spent in pursuits both in and outside of exploitation, being celebrated for finally placing ample arterial spray onto celluloid. Even in 2008, they can’t help but leave their imprint everywhere they go.

A little Windex and elbow grease finally cleared off the claret, but few will forget the magical evening spent with two true artform pioneers. The grindhouse gave mainstream movies the chutzpah to move beyond studio system mandates - and it was men like David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis who took all the risk. It’s about time they were rewarded - and on this one Tampa evening, they definitely were. 

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