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Sunday, Oct 21, 2007


So, you want to be a filmmaker - and not just any kind of cinematic savant, but a semi-genuine, wholly independent, self-styled artist who reinvents the various genres they attempt while maintaining one realistic eye on the ever-changing moods of the mainstream. You long to see your name in lights, or if not that, as the headline on some web critic’s blog, and you bask in the imaginary glow of your own creative epiphanies, struggling for a way to share them with the rest of the world. Well, thanks to DVD, and the accompanying wave of handy homemade moviemaking sciences, your long dormant living dead extravaganza is just a few simple steps away. And SE&L is here to help. Call it an instructional guide or a series of procedural stereotypes, but almost all the no name homemade horror movies follow a concrete collection of logistical laws.


Certainly, some of you aren’t interested in tripping the terror fright-tastic. You’d rather work out the longstanding issues between yourself and your parents, your sexuality and its uncharted truth, or the world and your passionate personal political agenda. Now, there is nothing wrong with said subjects, and well received examples of same pepper the emerging underground scene. But if you want some cash to go along with your chaos, fear is a solid first rung on the inevitable ladder of legitimacy. It’s easily marketable, instantly recognizable, and occasionally profitable – or so the interviews with established genre veterans frequently state. However, you’ve got to get past a few hurdles before becoming the next Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson. Let SE&L provide the blueprint for your approaching success with these 10 simple steps. When applied, they provide the shortcuts that others had to struggle to discover. While not foolproof, it’d be foolhardy to ignore them, beginning with:


Step 1 – Ignore the Conventional Wisdom RE: Technology
It used to be that, if you wanted to make movies, you had to know film. Not just know film, but study celluloid in a way that suggested a scientific handle on the subject. You had to make every reel count, taking exposure, lighting and shutter speeds. And talk about expensive. You had to pimp yourself to every dentist, local real estate magnet, and businessman with a hankering to play producer just to get a minimal amount of scratch. Well, Grandpa, digital is your deliverance. On the cheap – or cheapish – you can get a good camcorder, a collection of tapes, and – Viola! – you’re a director. Of course, mise-en-scene and other aesthetic artform considerations are optional. You’re a rebel. Screw the language of film, right?



Step 2 – Reminder: Stay Firmly Within the Homemade Horror Movie Subject Areas
Of course, creativity will not be your strong suit, initially. You just figured out how to download and access editing software on your laptop. No one expects you to be George Romero after that. Still, there are limits to your potential premises, dogmatic dictations about subjects you can and cannot tackle. Here are the three acceptable areas of horror that you are allowed to explore – zombies, vampires, serial killers. Prohibitions exist on anything involving science fiction, ghosts and/or haunted houses, and first person POV Blair Witch rip-offs. No one, not even the experts in said genres, can avoid those potential motion picture pitfalls consistently. They’re deadlier than a store bought monster mask and an aging porn star cameo combined.


Step 3 – Hire only Friends, Associates, and Random Well Wishers
They say a film crew is like a family – one big, dysfunctional and incestual hillbilly clan. So remember to keep your employees intimate. Avoid the local colleges and high schools and hire only actors who will tolerate your first time filmmaker hissy fits. There’s only room for one overly dramatic diva on set, and it’s YOU, baby. Besides, theater majors make lousy scream queens. As for costumers, cinematographers, and special effects technicians, look for members of your immediate sphere of influence and target individuals with a penchant for thrift stores, a relatively steady hand, and a collection of self-made taxidermy specimens, respectively. They will elevate your production value ten-fold.


Step 4 - Don’t Skimp on the Storyline
Remember, you may never get another chance at making a movie. No matter technology’s ease of access or the fervent desire of those around you, creating cinema can literally kill your inspired drive. It’s that whole “dreaming vs. doing” ideal. Anyway, since this may be your single shot, use it as a means to work out each and every one of your narrative agendas. Always wanted to feature a mass murderer who plays in his own feces while watching female victims go lesbian for his enjoyment? Make that a major subplot. Do you think Eddie Deezan like know-it-all nerds with creepy, whiny voices have been marginalized in the last few years? He’s your hero! Remember, there are no bad ideas, just badly written ones.



Step 5 – When in Doubt, Throw Blood on It
Of course, you may be one of the unlucky multitude that actually stumbles upon one of those rare lame storylines. It happens. If you discover that your re-vampire saga about extraterrestrial neckbiters who want to impregnate the females of Earth as part of some master race plan just doesn’t have the heft you imagined, gore it up. Bring on the body parts and offer up the offal. Even the most discerning fright fan will cut you some slack if you, in turn, cut up some corpses. Of course, don’t go overboard. Ample arterial spray is one thing. Autopsy like vivisection is reserved for sluice experts like Tom Savini only.


Step 6 – Nudity is Nice as Well – With One Caveat
If you can’t say it with blood, naked bodies will work just as well. As a novice filmmaker, you may not know this, but horror is the heavy metal of cinema. It plays directly into an adolescent’s angst, sense of social worth, and desire to see things die. So pander to this populace a little and toss in some tush. Just remember this one important fact – most of the girls who’ll agree to get wild have their own body issues they’re dealing with, and aside from random cutters, most have chosen tattoos as a way of expressing this pain. Exposed breasts are always a fright film plus. Said mammaries with large Middle Earth maps across them tend to be antithetical to arousal


Step 7 - Reminder: It’s not Stealing, it’s a Homage
Don’t be afraid to copy. This isn’t high school math, or the Bar Exam. Peeking at previous auteurs’ efforts is perfectly acceptable in the world of outsider cinema. After all, you’re supposed to benefit from the trailblazing of those who came before, but it’s not an inferred process. There is no celluloid osmosis. So you have to watch the work of others, and if something they’ve done inspires you, go ahead and borrow. If it works, you’re a studied apprentice of past masters. If it doesn’t you’re merely offering a tribute to those who came before. In the realm of horror especially, plagiarism is permitted. In fact, it’s how many macabre maestros earned their wicked wings.


Step 8 – Out of Fashion Musical Trends are Your Film Score Friends
Unless you’re going wholly retro and returning to the days of silent scares, you will need underscoring to set the mood and tone of your narrative. Some experts have even stated that motion picture dread is 10% story, 40% image, and 50% sound. In that regard, you won’t be able to afford some slick orchestral composer ready to channel Bernard Hermann and Danny Elfman. Nor are you John Carpenter or Robert Rodriguez, capable of making your own scary movie noise. While licensing fees can eat into your limited fiscal means, remember this – forgotten tune trends can bail you out every time. Scare standards include ska, death metal, techno, and navel-gazing alt-folk acoustic fare.



Step 9 – Post Production is Cinematic Salve
There’s an old saying on Hollywood film sets – “We’ll fix it in post”. Nowhere is this maxim truer than in the realm of outsider filmmaking. Something that looked remarkable the day you created it can feel sophomoric or ever silly when buttressed up against a supporting set of shots. Even worse, an actor or actress you admired tremendously when they emoted in person may resemble a lumbering lox once the viewfinder focuses on them. Thanks to all the advances in after production retrofitting, you can CGI out a bad performance, or rerecord a lisping thespian’s dialogue. Even better, colors can be moderated and details clearly defined with a series of keystrokes. In fact, the only trouble untweakable is your own lack of talent.


Step 10 – Distribution is only a DVD Drive Away
So, you’ve spent six consecutive weekends at your grandfather’s ranch filming in his abandoned chicken coop. You’re friends are tired, your significant other hates you, and you’ve got fake blood, Vaseline, and way too many Hot Pocket drips staining your wardrobe. You’ve sacrificed time, learned (and then relearned) cutting style and narrative clarity, and that local punk funk fusion band you commissioned is three weeks late delivering its “Devil’s Suite” for your climatic chainsaw orgy. Now imagine what such a circumstance was like when you had to rely on a theatrical release of a VHS company to carry your vision. Now, all you need is a computer, a pile of discs and the desire to burn baby burn. It may not certify your international acclaim and untold wealth, but at least you’re guaranteed some level of audience.


And there you have it – 10 simple lessons, 10 foundational rules of thumb that will start you off on the right film footing. Violate/ignore/reinterpret them at your own, and your directorial future’s, risk. Pay no attention to those who’ve completely avoided any or all of these guidelines and still managed to make stellar homemade cinema. There’s freaks after all, the exception that never bears out the actual rule. There are only so many Eric Stanzes and Scott Phillips in the world of outsider auteurs, and even they fall into parts of this determinative Decalogue now and again. While some would like to think this is a New Wave for motion pictures, a kind of digital self determination, viewers and commercial success continue to impose their own archetypes and clichés on the burgeoning format. Before the pool of popularity dries up, you better jump in and start swimming. The water may be murky, but the currents are completely in your favor – for now.


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Sunday, Oct 21, 2007

Welcome back, Re:Print!


Three weeks later, and we’re back online. But, you know, amid the confusion surrounding my recent house-move, lack of co-operation from both my Internet provider and my apparently exhausted motherboard, and fear that Re:Print would never again see the light of day, there was an upside. I got to read—a lot. Instead of waking up each morning and heading straight for the office, I made myself a cup of hot Milo, grabbed my new blanket (thanks Trish!), plonked on the couch, and read. Book after book after book. For the first time in years, I didn’t have to struggle to find reading time. It’s been sensational. And I’ve decided to stick to the pattern—emails to be checked the night before; mornings to be spent in my blanket and the company of a book. It helps that my surroundings now include paintings on the wall, clean carpets, and the open air of a big, beautiful new house—decidedly different from the three-room-flat-with-ant-problem-behind-the-busy-restaurant I used to try and read in. 


Fulci is overwhelmed.

Fulci is overwhelmed.


The other cool thing about the move has been about re-acquaintance. My lack of living space has meant that my ever-growing library has been kept in stacks around the house, stuffed into bookcases three-deep, and buried away in my parents’ garage in tubs meant for clothing and laundry. Now, because I’m the proud owner of my own office, I’ve got room to house the lot. I loathed packing the heavy monsters, but unpacking them has been an unexpected dream. I found books read and filed away, books bought and never properly organised, books acquired and promptly forgotten. Here they all were—from an old copy of Tom Sawyer, to The First Wives Club, novelisations of Gremlins and The Eyes of Laura Mars, weirdo horror books like Crawlspace and The Last of the Crazy People. I found my collection of Outsiders paperbacks, my dog-eared copy of That Night, and even my grandfather’s Bible with an inscription in front dated 25-12-1927. Pouring through the stacks, I found myself remembering little stories connected with those books—when I got them, where, and why. I remembered the days when I could read endlessly, when there were no emails. It’s been a re-acquaintance as much with myself as my library.


Now, for the fun part—the organising. And to purchase shelves, to finally catalogue the collection as it rightfully should be. My books, like me, deserve some room to move.


 


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Sunday, Oct 21, 2007

Where would the NFL be without its advertisers, who help complete the package of masculinity it has so successfully managed to sell over the decades? During a football game, the ads—invariably for trucks, beer, and junk food—reinforce the kind of paradigmatic manliness on offer as a vicarious fantasy. When you are not butting heads with your grotesquely muscular closet paramours on the gridiron, you are cracking open light beers and trading leering sexist remarks or participating in some other bonding ritual (often involving passive spectatorship, often literally watching TV, mirroring the position of the viewer). Or you are conquering some barren, open landscape in your truck, or doing some kind of sainted, vaguely patriotic salt-of-the-earth, real-American manual labor involving hauling something unbelievably heavy. The sum of all this makes watching football on a Sunday a somewhat surreal excursion into the pure ideology of modern manhood, where women, if they appear at all, are never anything more than a punchline to some joke shared between men, whether among the characters in ads or between the ad writers and the viewer.


The best example of this currently is a Taco Bell commercial touting its chili-cheese nacho chips; the setup is the older brother is inculcating his younger brother with his life rules—don’t marry a woman with tattoos is one of them, and the joke is that in the end, he is pussy-whipped by just such a woman, who appears to yell at him. The joke is sort of on the would-be macho man, who we are supposed to laugh at—but we are laughing at him primarily because he hasn’t been able to keep his life in line with his desires of living manly, unfettered by cloying femininity, dreams which are more or less validated by the shrew. The younger brother makes a crack-the-whip motion to reinforce the idea that we should not be on the woman’s side here; we should imagine ourselves to be the smarter, younger person who still hasn’t been spoiled by the demands and compromises of adulthood. The commercial makes absolutely no effort to describe the product it ostensibly is selling—the nachos—perhaps because there is nothing really to promote there—they are almost literally an empty vehicle for other ideological fantasies, so that the chili-soaked grease boats carry not flavor but the pleasingly salty savor of manliness.


I think the gist of commercials like these is to associate the brand with a feeling of empowerment, which for men, hits home most deeply when the power comes at the expense of the women in their lives. Why should this be? Evolutionary psychology? Doubtful, though I’m sure the argument has been made somewhere. Another theory: The careful development of the commercial potential of sexual difference that evolved with capitalism as it became clear that the economic system was going to erode male privilege in other ways, luring women into the workplace, disseminating the value of individual liberty generally, and making it clear that no traditional values were safe from creative destruction. So marketers have taken notions of sexual hierarchy and turned them into brands to give them continuing currency, even as the socioeconomic circumstances that helped produce them disappear.


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Saturday, Oct 20, 2007


It’s been said that horror is cyclical, a looping genre tied to the current times and/or reigning cultural atmosphere. When politics are liberalized, more subtle scares are apparently in order. That may explain the sudden rise in Japanese ghost stories and bloodless supernatural sagas during the ‘90s. But put a Hawkish conservative in the White House, a man using his own source of scare tactics and military might to make his points, and the slice and dice gorezoning begins. When Reagan ruled the Oval Office, the slasher film saw mass murder made mainstream. George W. Bush and his War on Terror has itself resulted in torture porn and violence soaked exploitation. F/X master turned director Robert Kurtzman wants to use both formats to forge a post-millennial example of splatter slice and dice. It’s too bad then that Buried Alive isn’t more menacing. It’s got the fright formulas down pat. But unlike other retro fear factors, it can’t quite deliver all the gruesome goods.


Our story begins in typical Greed Decade fashion. A collection of college kids, including the nerd, the stud, the sorority chicks, and the daredevil dude with a few sordid secrets, all get into a Cadillac convertible and head out to the family mansion in the middle of the California desert. Seems great-granddad struck gold decades before, squirreled his strike away and – rumor has it – buried his first wife (a Native American) alive. A second marriage, a deadly fire, and a sole survivor have left the family cautious and cursed since then. Cousins Rene and Zane sense something is amiss in their genealogy, but can’t quite get a handle on the haunting. Even certified dweeb Phil and his Web savvy searching turns up little about the clan’s murder/massacre heritage. Of course, crude handyman Lester has his own theories about the legends. He believes the gold is still under the house, waiting to be discovered, and he’ll be damned if any rightful owner claims it first. Yet once everyone settles in for a night of beer, boot knocking, and various other nocturnal bumps, it is clear someone – or something - wants everyone dead.


Before cutting this inoffensive little scarefest down to size, it’s only fair to give Buried Alive some complimentary critical due. Kurtzman, who cut his teeth delivering life-like optical dread to such films as The Green Mile, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Identity does have some minor directorial chops. Previous efforts like The Wishmaster and The Demolitionist suggest a way with action, thrills, and slaughter-based chills. So handling an old school slasher flick should be no problem – especially one as simplistic as this. Indeed, we have a lone specter, a few creative axe murders, and limited red herrings to confuse the creepiness. An additional bonus is the presence of the Saw man himself, Tobin Bell. Relegated to playing the seedy supporting role of Lester, this neo-terror icon does a delightful job of making his caretaker character a suspicious, tripwire threat. We’re never quite sure what to think when Lester is around, and Bell’s shaded performance definitely adds to the mystery. The rest of the cast is competent, if rather cardboard, with some obviously hired for their titillating topless talents.


And the story’s not too shabby either. The script, by Art Monterastelli, best known for such episodic TV as Nowhere Man, High Incident, and Total Recall 2070, stays true to the tenets of the iconic ‘80s format, giving us good set-up, successful cat and mouse, and a collection of clever kills. There’s even some tasty totem mumbo jumbo to keep everything nice and ethereal. In fact, had the film stuck with the mythological aspects of the narrative and avoided all the sexed up skirt chasing, along with all the silly sorority initiation hi-jinx, we’d have a much better movie. Kurtzman canters past these pitfalls with ease, working around then by using location, production design, and blood spatter to save the day.


Almost. Indeed, Buried Alive starts to run out of steam about 45 minutes into its running time. At that moment, we realize we’ve only had one death (a fresh and funky bisection), way too much implied incest (Rene and Zane are more wannabe copulating than kissing cousins) and an overdose of paranormal inference and hinting. Unlike the camp based creepshows that used the fireside ghost story as a means of getting the premise presented, Buried Alive has to wait for scene after endless scene of goofball grab ass before slowly explaining the secrets – and then, it’s left to the finale to finally wrap everything up. To their credit, Kurtzman and Monterastelli don’t shy away from giving us a rather malevolent conclusion. Unlike the standard ‘last girl’ motif, we get unexpected consequences and acts of outright cowardice. Even better, our rotting corpse monster achieves some sort of metaphysical comeuppance (though it could just be a backwards way of setting up a sequel).


And yet, something is not quite right with this movie. It builds to an intriguing apex, and then decides to coast on its own cleverness until the viewer catches it napping. Then it tries to save face by going gonzo - only by then, we’ve stopped feeling connected to the characters. Indeed, there are scenes (Zane “singing” his family’s harrowing history, a blond bimbette playing Bambi as she whines over a sprained ankle) which throw us off completely. We have no reason to hate these individuals – they’re merely aggravating in an obvious, arrested adolescent manner – and recognize their status as victim fodder early on. But Buried Alive seems stuck on cruise control once the party shifts to the desert. All the face hacking, throat cutting, back slashing arterial spray can’t give the atmosphere back its genre sea legs. We just keep watching things drift until the necessary denouement. Then the ending gives it one more horror happenstance try before the credits finally roll.


It’s hard to completely blame what’s on the screen. After all, the slasher film in general is deader than Rob Zombie’s fanboy affections. Successfully bringing the by-the-numbers murder movie back seems like an example of a fool’s paradise mixed with a psychopath’s less lucid brainstorm. Even the recent theatrical revamp attempt, the excellent Hatchet, needed excess amounts of self-referential humor and cartoonish claret to make its Freddy/Jason/Michael macabre work. Here, all Kurtzman and his followers have is a modicum of mood, a smattering of style, and a heaping helping of axe fu. If you’re nostalgic for those long ago Saturday nights when dates where dicey and an evening with a stack of generic VHS video nasties was more your social life speed, Buried Alive will really work on your wistfulness. Otherwise, fright fans should heed the typical artform warning. A revival is only as good as its original source material. And since slasher films aren’t Shakespeare, updating them can lead to a box office of discontent. This amiable attempt is not necessarily doomed, just derivative.


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Saturday, Oct 20, 2007

Writing about money and the value of things.

Piggy Bank. Photograph by BabaSteve

Piggy Bank. Photograph by BabaSteve


Marketshare


Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson has an interesting perspective on the failure of the New York Times subscription service, Times Select, on his blog. He says that the New York Times Opinion pages, “possibly the best raw material for blogging and online discussion,” lost out on being a leader in the debates swirling around the issues because the meaty content was hidden and open only to subscribers.  “Would the Huffington Post be what it is today if it weren’t for TimesSelect?” he wonders. “I don’t know, but that’s the kind of thinking I try to do instead of traditional economics/revenue maximization when I think about stuff like this.”


He writes that his perspective was formed by being an early investor in TheStreet.com which was a subscription service which lost on market share to the free MarketWatch. Market share drives everything else online, Wilson believes, and if the a content provider’s material isn’t visible there’s nothing to build a business on.


The Proprietary Model Heading Towards Extinction?


Apple built it’s business and cult-like following around being a closed system. The current controversy about the lack of openness of the i-Phone and people’s ability to mould it into something they want to use, rather than a cool system that Apple decides everyone should use has created cracks in Apple’s philosophy. Steven Johnson, on his blog, writes about the decision to open up Apple’s i-Phone to third party developers.


It struck me yesterday reading Steve Jobs’ personal note about plans for third-party apps on the iPhone that the most telling thing about the announcement was the opening five-word phrase:



Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers’ hands in February.



Let me just say it. What we’re starting to see here (and of course in the anti-DRM letter from earlier this year) is a pretty significant shift in Jobs’ public relations strategy, in that he seems to have recognized that there are limits to secrecy. Yes, some developments are best kept under wraps for as long as possible—like the iPhone or the Intel switch—contrary to all the principles of Web 2.0 openness and transparency. But with other decisions, you’re sometimes much better off going public early, and exposing some of your thought process when you do.


Old Thinking at Work in a New World


Fred Wilson’s criticisms about Times Select in his blog over the last year consistently return to the New York Times management not understanding the culture of the online world and the notion of value, what assets can be charged for or used to create revenue and what must be provided freely in order to establish and maintain credibility. The Australian media market is suffering the same uncertainties, and there’s an essay in The Monthly magazine, by David Salter, who suggests that the media in Australia has become unhinged as its previous revenue sources dry up.


Why do our media organisations now seem so close to unravelling? It’s always tempting to search for grand themes that offer a convenient, catch-all explanation. The truth is more complex and scattered. We’ve come to a point where a handful of powerful yet disconnected impulses are tugging the media in different directions. The brash, self-regarding confidence that characterised so much of Australia’s print and electronic output has largely evaporated. The old swagger is gone.


New technology undermines the media’s poise because few local editors and producers understand it. The newspapers’ embrace of the www world was motivated more by fear of being left behind than by any genuine expectation of journalistic improvements or expansion. Their rush to re-version themselves on the internet came largely without a workable strategic plan as to how the two forms would then support each other as businesses. The more prominent writers were given blogs on which to blather, adding to their workload without adding to the number of people willing to pay cash for a daily newspaper.


The Cultural Value of Economics


This year’s Nobel Prize in Economics goes to three individuals who have helped to establish “mechanism design theory.” They’ve created analytical tools that may help to evaluate the social costs and benefits of market forces. At least that’s what I think the work is about from quick read throughs of the Nobel Committee’s release and a few news stories I’ve read.


One of the award’s earlier recipients, Joseph Stiglitz, whose writing has helped to make the economics of globalization coherent for a general audience comments on the award in the International Herald Tribune


“Historically there was a lot of justification to the critique that it was somewhat ideological in nature,” said Joseph Stiglitz, who received the award in 2001 along with George Akerlof and Michael Spence for their analyses of markets where people possess different degrees of information.


He referred to a six-year period in the 1990s when economists from the University of Chicago - Milton Friedman’s headquarters and the temple of laissez-faire economics - received five Nobels. Some of that work, he said, “was clearly not breakthrough in any fundamental sense.”


That is no longer the case, he said; indeed, the trouble, Stiglitz said, stems from the committee going to the opposite extreme.


“The main criticism right now is, if anything, they’re slanted more to mechanical modeling and technical advances,” he said. “One can understand that as part of a response to criticisms that they were too ideological,” he said, but the problem is that not enough thought has been given to “how substantial the work is.”


Patricia Cohen. International Herald Tribune. October 19, 2007


The debate involves the definition of economics, if it’s something scientifically quantifiable and mathematically rigorous, or a set of theorems based around observations of financial forces that require cultural details for their context.


Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s blog, Freakonomics, takes economics to pop culture. Their blog grew out of a book which grew out of a feature in the New York Times, now resides on the Times’ opinion page. They write about the Nobel Prize in Economics, linking to an Economist story that explains the prize itself, while drawing out the curious, hip details that characterize their work, mentioning that a Nobel laureate in Economics, Eric Maskin, lives in Albert Einstein’s old house and dresses up as Einstein on Halloween.


They write about the new economic systems that have emerged online, for instance this evaluation of Amazon.com’s reader reviewing system.


What Are We Buying?


The Ethicurean writes on food from an economic as well as ethical perspective, from the farm bill and the environmental and social as well as economic costs of agriculture, to the price of food and the value structure of organic food. “Organic”, “Free Range”, “Bio-dynamic”, the labels on food tug on our hearts and consciences as much as our wallets, and The Ethicurean’s founding editor, Bonnie Powell, has this recent examination of the “grass fed” labelling system for beef.


Exciting announcement for Ethicurean readers: After almost five years of deliberation and two rounds of public comments, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has finally issued standards for “grass (forage) fed” marketing claims — ones that actually mean what most consumers think they should mean, and aren’t chock full of industry-pandering loopholes as we feared they would be.


 


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