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Tuesday, May 22, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

All this week PopMatters is offering exclusive excerpts from the new Chris Salewicz biography of Joe Strummer, published this week in the U.S. by Faber & Faber.


Tuesday [5/22]: Hop aboard the Anarchy tour bus for an exclusive ride with everyman’s thinking man and his smart band: the Clash’s first tour, first single, and their first album.  [read article]


Here we offer some of the best videos from The Clash’s first two albums, although some of the live dates are from the early ‘80s and offer better sound quality than video from 1977-78:


The Clash - Capital Radio & Janie Jones


The Clash - White Man in Hammersmith Palais [Live in Japan]


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Monday, May 21, 2007


Aren’t you sick of the Summer Movie Season already? Granted, it’s only been three weeks, but with its rollercoaster conceit of overly hyped/underwhelming tre-quels and box office browbeating over whose unnecessary retreat will reign supreme, it seems like the next three months will be one massive misfire after another. And it’s already getting very old. While there is some legitimate relief on the way in the guise of Judd Apatow’s amazing Knocked Up (more on that in future sections), anyone hoping for a little artistry among the artifice is barking up the wrong bush. Still, there’s always the digital domain to save us from Hollywood’s annual hog and phony show, and this week’s offerings are consistently excellent (with one shockingly lame farcical flop excluded). So save yourself a trip to the Cineplex and revel in one of the many memorable picks for 22 May, including SE&L‘s solid selection:


Apocalypto


Had stumbling superstar Mel Gibson not ruined his reputation by giving in to his inner racist ideals, he would probably have had another massive mainstream hit on his hands with this incredibly adept period piece. As much about the setting as the stunt work, Gibson turned an ancient Mayan civilization with its rituals and superstitions into a kind of organic science fiction. He drops us directly into the middle of a mesmerizing, slightly surreal locale and then leaves us with very little that is recognizable or real. Instead, we must piece together the reigning realities like fragments of an ancient puzzle. With its direct from digital glow (Gibson avoided film for cost considerations) and sublime art direction, we never once doubt the authenticity or accuracy of the tale (though scholars have frowned on some of the historical errors). Besides, it’s one of the best movies ever to attempt the lo-tech action genre.

Other Titles of Interest


Epic Movie


Someone forgot to tell the makers of these meaningless spoof movies that the comedy only works when the target has become a part of the legitimate pop cultural lexicon, not merely some flash in the pan fad that’s here today and forgotten a fortnight from now. Whatever the case, as long as there are ADD addled audiences willing to support such drivel, Tinsel Town will keep churning them out.

Prince of the City: Special Edition


Some consider this to be Sidney Lumet’s last great film (with the occasionally manipulative The Verdict riding in a close second), and in some ways, they’re right. It was the last time Lumet would let his material do the talking, permitting this story of police corruption and the officer/whistleblower who risked his career – and life - to reveal it, develop organically without contrivance. Thanks to a terrific turn by lead Treat Williams, it remains a forgotten gem.

Sansho the Bailiff: The Criterion Collection


Japanese cinema doesn’t get more beautiful or heartbreaking than this stellar drama from Ugetsu director Kenji Mizoguchi. In a career that spanned nearly 50 years (he began making silent films in 1923), this tale of an exiled governor and the family desperate to reunite with him is considered a creative crowning achievement. Thanks to those experts at Criterion, the proof is there for all to see.

The Third Man: The Criterion Collection


Carol Reed’s signature film is also his most unabashedly brilliant work. Mixing a flawlessly crafted combination of acting, story, setting and subtext, what starts out as a standard thriller becomes an existential exercise in identity and duty. If you don’t already own a copy (shame on you), now’s your chance to get the latest treasure trove treatment from DVDs’ best preservationists. Apparently, modern director Steven Soderbergh is on hand to deliver a definitive commentary.

Venus


It’s sad, when you think about it. Longtime Oscar bridesmaid Peter O’Toole was practically guaranteed an Academy Award for this supposed swansong performance as an aging actor who falls for a troubled gal 50 years his younger. No one could deny the grand thespian’s presence, but when placed alongside work from Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling, and eventual winner Forest Whitaker, he just couldn’t compete. Not the brightest way to end a stellar cinematic career.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Straight Time


It seems like an odd combination at first: intense New York actor Dustin Hoffman playing a recently paroled LA ex-con looking to change his life and mend his ways. But thanks to the impressive artistic approach taken by experimental director Ulu Grosbard – call it ‘languid legitimacy’ – what we end up with is one of the two time Oscar winner’s strongest performances. Naturally, Hoffman’s Max Dembo is a tormented man who can’t stay out of crime’s way (thanks in part to a power mad probation officer played by M. Emmet Walsh) and he’s soon on a rampage to repay society for having such unflinching faith in its penal system. Long forgotten by supporters of ‘70s cinema, this new to DVD release should function as a way of rediscovering this legitimate motion picture classic.

 


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Monday, May 21, 2007

A column by Edward Andrews in Sunday’s New York Times cast a gimlet eye at the notion that consumers need to be protected from price-gouging oil companies.


if the oil industry is so powerful, why did it let gasoline prices fall through the floor throughout the 1980s and part of the 1990s?
For that matter, why did it let gasoline prices fall sharply after they spiked in 2005 and 2006?
Many Democrats, and a much smaller number of Republicans, remain convinced that there is a villain.
One freshman senator — Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania — has introduced bills to tax the “excess profits” of oil companies when oil sells for more than $50 a barrel.


I used to much more sympathetic to the logic behind Casey’s proposal, seeing profit as something unfairly extorted by the powerful, who exploit a particular moment in time. If you isolate gas prices from everything else in the economy, mayb eyou can make some kind of case for some “natural” level of profit beyond which a company becomes unduly rapacious. But ultimately, there is no coherent logic for where to draw the line regarding what level of profit is excessive, particularly when you consider a corporation’s guiding principle of maximizing value for stockholders. I’m not saying that excuses all forms of greed a corporation exhibits, but the whole reason for organizing corporations, though, is to produce entities capable of overriding mere human morality by dispersing ethical responsibilities across an institution. Where you stand toward this depends on how you view the prosperity such amorality produces along with the callous indifference to human needs.


Anyway, one can’t isolate the significance of the price of gas from the rest of the economy; it indicates not merely the demand for gas relative to its supply, but the value of gas relative to other energy options and other goods generally. Were we to make gas cheaper than the market would bear, this would distort signals across the entire energy economy, and tend to reinforce the inefficiencies that are already making gas inexpensive, requiring more state intervention to inhibit gas-price inflation, and so on, and the next thing you know we are on the road to serfdom. Okay, well, maybe not, but if the market can bear the profit margins oil companies want to pursue, it’s a signal not of their greed (after all they are only doing exactly what’s expected) but of a drastic overreliance on gasoline best addressed through other means. Expensive gas makes other forms of energy seem more cost-efficient; obviously this compensatory fact is not true if the state intervenes to upset the price system. Taking a windfall tax on oil companies’ excess profits and investing it in alternative energy seems sort of a backwards way of accomplishing what the market’s logic would push for anyway. (Maybe I have been reading too much economics.)


Also, environmentally minded liberals should be aghast at the idea that gas prices would be lowered by state fiat, which essentially means the government would be (further) subsidizing rampant carbon emissions rather than incentivizing conservation like it pretty obviously should be. It’s not quite a Pigovian tax, internalizing the external damage wrought by gasoline consumption, but it at least has the similar effect of discouraging consumption and dislodging the stubborn inelasticity of gas demand. Yes, higher gasoline prices more severely afflict the lower and middle classes who are trapped by a species of path dependency into needing gas-burning autos to maintain the standard of living they are used to, but the cycle needs to be broken somewhere. And is there any aspect of society that is not improved by people using their cars less often?


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Monday, May 21, 2007

I Tell Ye Sorr ...


Judged by any of the normal standards, William Hope Hodgeson was a bad writer. He had a tin ear for prose (he sounds most artful when he’s writing in a strange Ye Olde mix, doubtless inspired by the same current of social thought that led to Lord Dunsany’s stories, William Morris’ handiworks, and the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites) and his characterisation is thin to the brink of fatal anorexia. The people in his books are often little more than names (Tonnison, George, Monstruwacan) or accents (“I tell ye sorr, ‘tis no use at all at all thryin to reclaim ther castle. ‘Tis curst with innocent blood…”). It’s easier to remember them for what they go through (grim battles with Yellow Things; disorienting trips through time) than who they are.


But Hodgson the writer (I have no idea if this extended to Hodgson in everyday life) dwelt in a state of extraordinary and vivid terror, and it is this emotion that gives his stories their power. To read his books is to watch a man fighting to dig an elusive core of fear out of his mind and see it in daylight. He does not wallow in it, as a Stephen King does. He does not revel. When King describes a boy’s brains sounding like snot as they hit the wall in Needful Things, he seems to be standing aside and almost chuckling at the overdone grimness of it all. Hodgson didn’t have King’s facility with words; he never manages a throwaway tone; he is not funny. “I want you to try to understand,” his narrator cries urgently in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder as he describes the advent of the evil Hog. “I wonder if I make it clear to you,” he says. “Can you understand ... Do you understand at all?” Hodgson was serious about his monsters, as Lovecraft was serious about his Old Ones even when he was giving them ridiculous names.


The Hog is “a seemingly motionless, pallid swine-face rising upward out of the depth.” A page later it is “a pallid, floating swine-face” and then “the dreadful pallid head.” Like Lovecraft, Hodgson is trying to write about forces so alien to nature that they can’t be described with any accuracy. Our human language can only grope around them, throwing out the word “pallid” again and again in the frustrated hope that it will give the reader a faint idea as to the colour of this unearthly thing.


No wonder H.P. found him inspirational. “Despite,” he wrote, “a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows, Mr. Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality. Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal.”


Hodgson died in 1918, which means that he is not around to complain about copyright and some helpful people have put large parts of his work on the internet. You can find him at Project Gutenberg, but I prefer the cleaner-looking site at Adelaide Uni. I’d recommend that you start with The House on the Borderland and move on to Carnacki the Ghost Finder, then The Night Land. After that, take the rest at your leisure.


(On a tangent, the Adelaide University site also has Virginia Woolf’s wonderful Two Parsons, which stays in my mind like no other book review I have ever read.)


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Monday, May 21, 2007

Two newish sites that I hope you’ll visit as they promise to be forums for intelligent conversation via music:


- Jazzcorner’s Speakeasy: From the fine jazz website comes this message board with Top 10’s, reviews and discussions about ECM Records, Musicians Resources, festivals, politics, classifieds and even a place to chat with jazz musicians.  Great idea and it’s already getting a lot of traffic (thousands of posts there at last count).


- Bluegum blog courtesy of “black rock critic Kandia Crazy Horse & performance studies scholar Tavia Nyong’o” where they’re now discussing the recent Black Performance Theory conference.  Admittedly, I work with KCH sometimes at my zine but even if I didn’t, I’d still be a fan of her ultra-thoughtful critical work.


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