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Sunday, Feb 25, 2007

It was almost as if they did it on purpose. Two hours in, and Oscar was bucking the trend. Eddie Murphy was left standing at the altar, his all but guaranteed Best Supporting Actor award walking off with Alan Arkin. You could almost see the cloud caused by Norbit filling up the Kodak Theater. Then Dreamgirls suffered another setback when it’s 60% chance of winning the Best Song category was completely ignored. A certainly shocked Melissa Etheridge walked onto the stage to the thunderous applause of an audience already in love with everything that Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth stood for. Even the ancillary categories got into the act. A little known animated short called The Danish Poet beat out a category of competitors that each sounded like a shoe-in.

But then it all collapsed, falling apart faster than Clint Eastwood’s remarks for specially recognized recipient Ennio Morricone. Instead of continuing the snubs, instead of recognizing something other than the predicted winners, Oscar went right back to following the formula. Though it seemed like it could conceivably continue the twist ending trend - they gave the cinematography award to Pan’s Labyrinth (beating out favorite Children of Men) only to turn around and award Germany’s The Lives of Others over Guillermo Del Toro’s popular pick – the voting members decided to stick to the script. With the exception of The Departed for Best Picture, the rest of the major categories went as planned.

And in some ways, that’s how it’s meant to be. What would have been the story this manic Monday had Babel swept all the categories, or if Peter O’Toole had finally won his well deserved trophy? Would the headlines read differently had Martin Scorsese walked out of the ceremony sans the little gold man, and would anyone outside a certain cinematic fanbase really bat an eye had Helen Mirren been upset by, say, the absentee Dame Judi Dench? No, Hollywood handed the media just enough spectacle mixed with speculation to guarantee a lot of post-presentation quarterbacking. But that’s all. While it may be interesting to ponder these questions while going over the big night’s picks and pans, it doesn’t make for a satisfying celebration of film. 

It’s fairly obvious that somewhere along the line, Dreamgirls wasted all its acquired Academy Awards goodwill. Snubbed from most of the important categories (actor, actress, director and film) it could only snag an obvious victory for Jennifer Hudson. Had that predicted incident not occurred, the heavily hyped musical would have only had the Best Achievement in Sound award to its name (kind of obvious, don’t you think?). Similarly, Babel was oft cited as the Crash of 2007, a stunning possible spoiler with as many detractors as defenders. Oddly enough, it too was tripped up – multiple times. Of its seven nominations, it could only win in the Best Score category. Even Little Miss Sunshine underachieved. It’s wins for Arkin and Best Original Screenplay represent a 50% return on its four lowly nods, but for a film regularly anointed by divergent groups as the year’s best, even that number seems like an underachievement.

Then there’s poor Guillermo Del Toro. How horrid was Oscar to him? Here’s a man who made what was, arguably, one of the greatest foreign films of the last few decades, a work easily comparable to the likes of Fellini and Buñel, and yet he has to sit back and watch as his work merits three technical awards. What seemed like a sweep at the beginning of the evening turned into a kind of inverse rebuff. As a matter of fact, if you look at the awards Pan’s Labyrinth lost, you’d think the Academy had it out for him personally (two of the three losses were for his direct involvement in the film). The same could be said for Disney. Aside from a lone statue for The Pirates of the Caribbean‘s F/X work, the studio was shut out of the Best Animated Short Subject and Feature category. In all, the House of Mouse and its partner Pixar lost four potential Oscars.

Certainly there are reasons to celebrate. It was a smooth move on the part of the telecast to have Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppolla and George Lucas present the Best Director category. Though it gave conspiracy theorists fuel to fuss that the Academy Awards voting (and results) are not as secret as one thinks, it was awesome to see Scorsese take the stage to the warm embraces of the men with whom he helped shape the ‘70s – the last great decade of film. It’s great that he finally has the Academy monkey off his back. Now maybe they can recognize him when he makes one of his truly great films. Similarly, Al Gore’s victory for An Inconvenient Truth may have marked another illustration of Tinsel Town’s liberal leanings, but the piercing documentary on global warming really does deserve all the supporting accolades it can get. Even Ellen DeGeneres was warm and witty, using her dry and droll style as the perfect counterbalance to what always ends up being a sadly sloppy spectacle of self-importance.

Naturally, the Academy still can’t get its shindig technicalities together. Pointless montage tributes by the likes of Michael Mann (some random look at America in movies) were upstaged by even worse visual dance interpretations of the nominated films by the stupid shadow ballet of something called Pilobolus. While those in the theater got to witness the warm embrace that Morricone gave Eastwood after his Once Upon a Time in the West-less resume was screened prior to the awarding of his honorary Oscar, the folks at home missed the moment. Whoever was doing the directing decided that random shots of clueless stars was better than viewing a little Spaghetti Western history. Similarly, George Miller’s award for Happy Feet was another of those minor upsets that will end up being overblown by pundits come column time, but Mr. Road Warrior needs a better stylist. He looked like an Aussie barrel of petrol in a bad penguin suit.

Overall, Oscar remains a horrible waste of nearly four hours, superfluous Celine Dion included. Another big budget high profile release from a major Hollywood studio loaded with celebrated superstar talent ends up walking away with Best Picture, the pre-season awards glut tore all the tension out of the major triumphs, and Jack Nicholson was once again the self-imposed life of the party (apparently, in his next film, he’ll be channeling Rod Steiger). The artist formerly known as Dirty Harry proved he can’t improvise worth a crap and Leonardo DeCaprio has sexy stoic game face to spare. It was a night of prepared statements on folded index cards, frequent shout outs to God, and the overwhelming impression of a major awards derailment diverted. It was safe. It was static. It was Oscar.

Maybe one year the Academy will simply go for broke. It will ignore SAG and the DGA, the WGA and the Golden Globes, and decide for itself what deserves end of the cinematic season praise. It will press past the publicists eager to meter out a little more marketing mantle and avoid the studio heads who hold the fate of the film community in their baffling business minded mitts. Instead of ignoring movies like The Fountain or Children of Men, it will find room on its plate for inventive, edgy efforts. There may even be a time when comedy comes to the fore, finally taking its place alongside the drama and the musical as Best Picture mainstays. Until that day, we can be thankful for the little surprises scattered amongst the aggravating annual afterthoughts.

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Sunday, Feb 25, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Andrew Bird —"Heretics"
From Armchair Apocrypha on Fat Possum

Listen to “Heretics”

Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist and lyricist Andrew Bird picked up his first violin at the age of four. Actually, it was a Cracker Jack box with a ruler taped to it, and the first of his many Suzuki music lessons involved simply bowing to the teacher and going home. He spent his formative years soaking up classical repertoire completely by ear so when it came time for a restless teen-ager to make the jump to Hungarian Gypsy music, early jazz, country blues, south Indian etc., it wasn’t such a giant leap. It’s fitting that now, though classically trained, he has instead opted to play his violin in a most unconventional manner, accompanying himself on glockenspiel and guitar, adding singing and whistling to the equation, and becoming a pop songwriter in the process.

The Beauty Shop —"Monster"
From Crisis Helpline on Believe Music

Listen to “Monster”

The Beauty Shop released their first album in 2002 (Yr Money Or Yr Life; Mud/Shoeshine) and immediately garnered impressive notices in the press. From Champaign IL, this three-piece have been compared with Nick Cave, Violent Femmes and The Handsome Family with a Leonard Cohen “bad attitude” vocal twist.

Sex Mob —"Pymy Suite"
From Sexotica on Thirsty Ear

Listen to “Pymy Suite”

Sex Mob is a band out of time: a smartly old-fashioned quartet of world-class musicians with a satchel full of charts. Sex Mob is a band of the now: post-modern waltzes mutating into dub-echoed free jazz. Sex Mob is social music: a rollicking midnight set with clatter and drinks and a band. Sex Mob is a happy contradiction: an experimental jazz outfit whose music has slid readily into the mainstream via Saturday Night Live, MTV, and National Public Radio.

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Saturday, Feb 24, 2007

A while ago in a thrift store in Vancouver (sad how vividly I remember the provenance of these things) I bought a beat-up paperback copy of Journey into Russia by Laurens Van der Post. It’s an account of his tour of the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, and it’s well worth the penny it’s selling for if you are at all touched with Russophilia or have any interest in what image the Soviet Union tried to project of itself. The book is suffused with a sense of the Soviet regime’s permanence, which inspires now a sort of awe at how history overtakes us. I haven’t read the book straight through; I pick it up now and then and read paragraphs at random—a conversation at an airport, a description of mosque minarets at Tashkent, train travel across Siberia, his admiration for scientists at Lake Baikal, drinking out of politeness with Georgians in Tbilisi, an account of a May Day parade. Van der Post records all his encounters with ordinary citizens, trying to feel out how deep state propaganda has sunk into their consciousness, and you come away with the impression that every Russian is an able and complex critical thinker, having been forced by the absurdity of totalitarianism to develop multiple levels of ironic expression as well as a thorough understanding of a wide range of perverse incentives. The socialist state seems to have made people’s thinking more dialectical, though by a method no one preferred: the state was so awful and intrusive that Soviet citizens were required to be in a perpetual condition of private opposition and interior doubleness—the lived a continual critique of everyday life by necessity. We bourgeois in America have the luxury of far less cognitive dissonance and hence an underdeveloped critical apparatus.

Growing up in the 1980s I always thought it was bizarre to consider the Soviets as enemies; it seemed like we should feel sorry for them since so much of our indoctrination involved demonstrating to us how good we had it in America, how much freedom we could take for granted. As a 14-year-old I didn’t find their state tools of oppression very intimidating, as was exemplified by a skit about the KGB I wrote and performed with my friend John as a World Cultures class project—we made KGB spies out to be bumbling Keystone cops with an Abbott and Costelloesque interrogation style. And I wasn’t upset by Marxist ideology, which actually seemed pretty appealing as I understood it then—a welcome respite from any need to be ambitious. Ignorance was bliss for me, I guess. The Chevy Chase film Spies Like Us pretty well captures the attitude I had toward the cold war—basically that it was not a tenuous balance of world power in the face of the threat of nuclear apocalypse but a sloppily constructed comedy. To have to wonder whether the Russians loved their children too seemed really ridiculous.

But that many Americans took the threat very seriously indeed is made painfully obvious by reading the essays in Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics—Hofstatder has an unusually strong stomach for right-wing demagoguery, and he illustrates the role the communist threat played in allowing for the development of what he calls “pseudo-conservatism”, a ultrareactionary pose that regards the chosen enemy as all-powerful and insidious, capable of infiltration and threatening the homeland from within and thus calling for the systematic rooting out of all sorts of internal enemies and the rigorous enforcement of conformity. (Essentially it is the mirror image of Stalinism.) Of course, Islamic terrorism has replaced communism as the all-powerful threat, and this is an even more dangerous form of pseudo-conservatism: no longer must we fight to preserve American values so much as the Christian supremacy that right-wing ideologues believe to be synonymous with America. (This makes it easy to imagine Jews and atheists eventually being classified as internal enemies, along with every variety of brown-skinned people.) Hofstadter attributes this intolerant tendency in a small segment of Americans to a perverted form of status seeking in a society where social aspirations outstrip the actual rags-to-riches possibilities. He also provides the appropriate Tocqueville quote: “Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy.” Perhaps it’s a universal human tendency to conflate the people we specifically envy with a widely accepted set of enemies, always a way to interpret our jealousy as their elitism or immorality. Reactionary politics become another one of the hidden injuries of class in America—is that too patronizing to say? Communists, terrorists: they become inexact proxies for a shadowy power elite who are making value systems intolerably pluralistic.

Passing through the offices of the magazine I work for was a DVD set called Animated Soviet Propaganda. It’s a conflicted package; despite campy design drawing on 1930s Russian poster style, it wants to dignify its subject and escape accusations of kitsch, so it features an essay by Igor Kokorev, a Russian sociologist, on how the films played into the Soviet oppression. Kokarev likens Soviet society to a religious cult (as does Van der Post on a few occasions) and enumerates how the people were kept down: “We were kept apart”; “We were forced to conform”; “We were ruled by fear”; “We were hemmed in by secrecy and censorship” etc. It sounded a little like a rundown of conditions in suburbanized War on Terror America. Kokarev describes how “language was stilted” in the Soviet Union, perverted by Leninist ideological discourse. Americans are no less immune to stilted language, though, it’s only ours takes the form of capitalist dogma: the marketing rhetoric and trendy neologisms that n+1 was complaining about taking over the blogosphere. We don’t always recognize that as propaganda or take it very seriously or attribute much efficacy to it; it seems more like nuisance, probably how state propaganda struck Soviets, even as they began to talk like Ninotchka.

But this passage from Kokarev’s essay struck me:

Personal modesty was a prized virtue in Soviet society as was a lack of pretentiousness in one’s home and a certain disdain for comfort and fanciness. The natural human desire for better conditions, more consumer goods, and a higher standard of living was delayed, put off until the future. Monotonous gray clothing ... was the normal conditions of life for everyone. Young people who tried to dress stylishly were derisively nicknamed “stilyagi” and were publicly insulted in the street.

This is the vision of the USSR I tend to romanticize—a world without fashion. But I should count my blessings: fashionability probably meant much more in a society that regarded it as a threat to stability rather than wasteful diversion. My suspicion of fashion would have no meaning in a Soviet culture; here I can construe it into a political position (one that requires nothing more from me but to dress badly). Maybe I need to adopt the attitude of Gavin McInnes, editor of Vice magazine: “I hate looking at metrosexuals wearing flip-flops with a suit but I usually get over it when they walk out of view. It’s only annoying for a very short time. The truth is fashion is boring and only stupid people genuinely care about it.” Sometimes I worry that my preoccupation with criticizing “style” consumerism makes me into one of those stupid people.

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Saturday, Feb 24, 2007

Even though I trashed two articles related to the publication in my round-up of 2006 and recently published an article in my zine lambasting the freak-folk scene that’s based around it, I take no pleasure in saying that Arthur Magazine is probably going to disappear.  I did like a lot of the content in Arthur otherwise and always thought it was a great model for indie publishing, even though from the L.A. Times article it’s obvious that they had problems keeping themselves alive financially.  I just hope that it can somehow continue it online (which is something I pushed for when they started out).

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Friday, Feb 23, 2007

Building off the finding that low-income workers work fewer hours than higher-income workers, this post at The Economist‘s Free Exchange blog floats the idea that the problem with the poor is not that they’re lazy but that their entertainment has become too affordable:

In America since the 1970’s, the relative returns to low-skilled labour have markedly declined.  At the same time, the value of leisure has skyrocketed, thanks to improved entertainment opportunities.  Even a poor family can afford a television, a cheap DVD player, and a subscription to Netflix; they are also highly likely to have cable.  Thanks to cheap airfare, they may also be able to fly somewhere better than their backyard for vacation.
A 1970’s high-school educated worker looking at the tradeoff between work and leisure might be thinking:  “the price of a steak, versus an hour watching the grass grow and arguing with my wife.”  These days, the calculation is more like:  “the price of some terrible fast food, against an hour of watching scantily clad women bouncing around on cable.”  Small surprise that they are choosing to consume more free time.

This strikes me as a variation on that favorite refutation of the problem posed by income inequality, what Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber has dubbed the Playstation proof: that measures of income don’t necessarily account for all the quality-of-life improvements now taken for granted and how much more purchasing power there is in even a small income relative to horse-and-buggy days. And it can skew ideologically in opposite directions, as a criticism of the deeply unfulfilling work the poor reject in favor of entertainment or as a conjecture that the poor are not merely lazy but are perhaps too easily entertained—their modicum of ambition is too easily subsumed by diverting distractions. The observation doesn’t seem to lead to any useful policy prescriptions: “We need to make poverty more unpleasant. The poor are enjoying themselves far too much.” Or “Poverty is not really a problem: see, they have Netflix.” And that’s not even considering potential problems with the initial premise that the fewer hours the poor are working is a matter of choice: what about the “reserve army of the poor”? What about the unpaid hours logged in transportation and what not? Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed does a pretty good job demonstrating how everything in lower-class life has elements of logistical hassle to it, even before one considers the psychological burdens of relative deprivation, the lack of any form of safety net and the forced improvisations of life at society’s margins.

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