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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I’ve already crowed about a wonderful Alternet article to a number of friends but I have to say something here about it also.  It’s Yvonne Bynoe’s Hip Hop’s (Still) Invisible Women and it’s a great read not only because it’s so astute but it also suggests ways out of the problem of womens’ too-often degraded image in hip-hop (though note that this does not happen in ALL hip-hop, OK?).  I’m especially intrigued by the idea of a hip-hop version of the Lilith Fair.  Sounds like a great idea.


On a totally different tip, I was intrigued by this article about NEA head Dana Gioia.  While he deserves kudos for preserving the NEA in the wake of a conservative backlash that it faced in the ‘80’s, shouldn’t he also be promoting some American playwrights and not just Shakespeare in the schools?  It’s not as if we don’t have a fine tradition of the stage here in the States: off the top of my head, there’s Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, August Wilson, Arthur Miller and David Mamet.  That’s not even mentioning musical theater, which I usually can’t stand but is definitely part of the American cultural landscape: Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart, Sondheim for starters plus West Side Story, Dreamgirls, Hair and so on.  Surely, at least some of that won’t ruffle the feathers of conservative critics who want schools or even the general public to appreciate some of our cultural heritage.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Asad Raza, one of the proprietors of the excellent 3 Quarks Daily blog, wrote a long provocative essay about alienation in Whole Foods Market, contrasting shopping there with shopping at some of the butcher shops and fish stands and so on in Lower Manhattan. In Whole Foods, Raza contends, groceries are mediated by explanatory text and rendered safe—kind of like foreign countries in Disney’s Epcot center. Whereas at vegetable stands in Chinatown, consumers have a much more direct relation to food, trusting their senses instead of the copy.


The Bowery Whole Foods tells us something remarkable about its shoppers: how ignorant they are of where they are and how alienated they are from food.  Perusing it, the thing that impresses you most is the pervasive labeling, the enormous amounts of information appended to everything.  Everywhere are little identificatory notes, signs overhead, brochures on what to do with their sausages (eat them?), glossy photos of the smiling man who supposedly dredged up your mussels or baited the hook upon which your (always already headless and filleted) wild salmon met its end.  This is food shopping for people who have come to trust only that which is mediated by text, addenda, explanations, certifications.  It is a website come to life, or a piece of life for those who prefer websites: each piece of signage functions as the hyperlink that clicks through to a capsule review.


The food has become text, something we read and write rather than consume; we communicate with it and corrupt our sensual relationship with it, thinking it rather than tasting it. It’s a similar point to the one I was making about music a few weeks ago. Raza is suggesting a more authentic relation to food that is corrupted when we turn it into information we can master and identify ourselves with—it may be more pleasant to we information workers to know things than to eat things.


There is something else alienating about Whole Foods: it posits a universe in which we are all only consumers.  The holism its name gestures towards is not the holism of a community in which buyers and sellers know each other.  Instead, it’s purely about the foods themselves: one’s interest in food is projected as only another form of self-interest…. These neoliberal shoppers prefer the impersonal embrace of a corporate parent, disguised as some vague moral goodness.  Yet a principle like seasonality is sacrificed to the lure of exotic, irradiated produce available year-round.  Such are the characteristics of the so-called “foodies.”  Even the term suggests a cute and infantile hobby.  And it does seem infantile to shop at Whole Foods while all around you sits the very food cultures about which Whole Foods’ publicity materials fantasize.


He has a point here; it seems odd to choose Whole Foods over the more authentic food shops around it. (It’s not really all that odd though; those shops can be insular and hard to negotiate; Whole Foods charges more to provide customers with a more conveniently familiar experience.) Raza argues that “in a world in which we’ve been socialized to distrust the claims of brands, we paradoxically require ever greater documentations of authenticity, ever wordier mediations between ourselves and things.” But Raza’s own apparent mastery of the food scene on the Lower East Side and his evocative description of it calls his own discourse into question; his eloquence about food is not entirely different than the Whole Foods blurbs, and he is supplying some website content that could supplant direct experience in the process of trying to inspire it. If we use his essay as a tourist guide to butcher shops, then our experience of those shops may be no different than our experience in Whole Foods. Slumming it in old-school bakeries and fish stands is not necessarily any more authentic, since authenticity depends on the subject position of the consumer and whatever patterns and intentions that consumer follows through with over time. Food tourists are food tourists, whether they are at the novice level of shopping in Whole Foods, or at the advanced level of gutting fish on Grand Street. Any way we get our food in the city is going to be alienated and inauthentic relative to some other way of procuring; to fetishize one or the other can ultimately seem an attempt at self-aggrandizement, for dignifying whatever progress we have made toward our own ideal. Raza’s critique of foodie infantilism seems misleading: His criticism is that foodies’ yearn for safe experiences of esoteric consumption, but I think one becomes more of a foodie the more daredevilish one’s consumption becomes. The goal is to make eating an experience rather than a routine—make it an activity in which one can deploy connoisseur knowledge and come away with untoppable stories. (Are snobbery and vanity infantile? Perhaps.) But to escape the pejorative connotations of foodie-ism, one commonly tries to associate food practices with sociopolitical goals; this move supplies a rationale for consumption choices theoretically external to personal identity building. You can go to the co-op or the green market and have environmentally and politically wholesome reasons for your food choices that you can refer to when someone wants to prick you for your pretensions. But this has the unfortunate effects of tainting those wholesome aims with the stench of privilege, which in turn supplies the enemies of such notions with a useful line of attack: sustainability movements, etc., become the province of self-satisfied do-gooders who have the luxury for such preoccupations.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Reflections on Student Media

Here we go again. Another college administration is sabotaging its student newspaper.

At St. Louis University, a college board recently gave administrators approval to rescind the newspaper’s charter, which was written by students, and write a new one. College officials have stated this move will improve the overall quality of the newspaper. Students argue it is a veiled form of censorship aimed at a newspaper that has been critical of the administration and its decisions.


Examples of censorship and a “controlled press” on U.S. campuses abound. Unfortunately, these threats to free speech and a free press are littering many bucolic campuses. At times, it sadly seems that those campuses whose administrations don’t interfere with their students’ newspapers are becoming the exception and not the standard.


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Tuesday, May 15, 2007


If there is such a thing as a successful piecemeal horror film, 28 Weeks Later is it. A sequel in source only to the wildly inventive 2002 Danny Boyle classic, this latest twist on the zombie genre (Okay! Okay! Let’s just call them ‘murderous maniacs’ and be done with it, all right?) suffers from a great many missteps. It gives us protagonists we really don’t care about, follows a very uncomfortable extreme vs. ennui narrative structure, and substitutes gallons of grue for ideas and innovation. And then there are the problems it could not have anticipated. Thanks to last year’s stunning Children of Men, the notion of a devastated UK as a symbol for social decline and war torn terrorism has already been purchased and spent. This makes any attempt at commentary by new director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo feel like a parable without a point.


We get off to a good start, however. It’s been several months since the outbreak of the Rage Virus in Great Britain and the US military has stepped in to start cleaning up the country. London itself is basically quartered off into two main areas – the danger free “Green Zone” (oh, how Iraq War) and everything else. Outside the boundaries of the tough talking, foul mouthed yanks, the countryside is crawling with the infected…as well as a few survivors. Don and Alice are two of the barricaded refugees, eking out a meager life inside a squalid yet secure cottage. They are joined by the home’s original owners, an elderly couple, as well as a pair of unidentified men. There is also a young woman whose boyfriend has gone out looking for help. Conversation naturally turns to this act of desperation, and after much hopeless banter, a knock at the door brings the group the latest in a seemingly neverending list of ‘do or die’ quandaries.


At this point, 28 Weeks Later makes its first minor fumble. The argument over who to let behind the intricate set of locks and barricades itself leads to a massive slaughter spree, and while the terror element is fantastic, the logical aspect is daft. One of the key flaws in this film is the idea that youth trumps everything. It is the reason Don and Alice end up staring into the face of horror yet again, and it will also become the catalyst for the film’s far more devastating plot decision. As stated before, the US military is envisioned as a sex obsessed, by the book battalion of bumblers who are supposed to guarantee the Green Zone’s security. Yet they can’t seem to stop a pair of pretentious kids from crossing over into danger. Backtracking for a moment, these juvenile lawbreakers are Don’s kids, released from a refugee camp in Spain and part of the lucky 15,000 individuals allowed back into London. So naturally, the first thing they want to do upon entering the country is sneak off to their old abode to snag some mementos.


It’s a jarring, unimaginable narrative fumble, the kind of logistical left turn that literally derails the film. In fact, it is so outrageously bad that Fresnadillo must spend the entire rest of the movie making up for it. And just as he almost succeeds, a second sloppy situation stuns the story. At that point, 28 Weeks Later is beyond saving. This is not to suggest what we have here is a horrendous flop. On the contrary, the visual elements employed and the generous amounts of inventive gore do a splendid job of supplementing our incredibly weak internal rationales. Even as more baffling incongruous coincidences occur (the kids found more than just keepsakes during their journey), leading to perhaps the most ludicrous re-infestation ever conceived for a fright film, the way Fresnadillo handles the artistic aspects is absolutely fascinating.


Still, there is a lot of ludicrousness to pardon here. Again, the Americans are looked upon as clueless, reduced to basically two surprisingly simple strategies – preserve order, or nuke everybody. When called to respond to the new epidemic, their carefully plotted out plan is basically this – unload your entire magazine into any crowd you see. Similarly, the lack of crystal clear characterization makes everyone’s motives seem suspect. Take the troublesome adolescent twosome. First they seem happy to be in England. Then they miss their ‘mum’. Then they act like spoiled little brats when they wind up in quarantine, and before long, their whimpering like whelps to be saved and protected. Similarly, our GI Joe hero shifts wildly from cocky to caring, arrogant to altruistic without a clear reason for the massive mood swings. The rest of the cast comes from the one note school of genre performance. They just keep hitting that single stance over and over again until we finally give up and concede the personality point.


There are reasons, however, to really like this scattershot effort. As stated before, Fresnadillo really wants to be a movie macabre innovator. He’s desperate to diffuse the typical dread dynamic by employing filming techniques that draw the audience right into the action. By mixing quick cutting, jagged handheld camerawork, mangled mise-en-scene and any other untested trick he can come up with, he allows us to experience both the fear and the frantic pace of a siege situation. Similarly, he uses this inventive approach to keep as much of the brutality intact as possible. There are sequences of violence in 28 Weeks Later that rival their literal zombie brethren in nastiness and effectiveness. Again, Fresnadillo must be livid that Grindhouse hit theaters first. His clever helicopter gag is actually better than Robert Rodriguez’s splatter session.


In addition, Fresnadillo is not afraid of flaunting convention. There are several moments in this movie where a firm foundation in standard Tinsel Town tendencies are tossed out the window in favor of shocking, sometimes sickening realities. No one is safe, anyone can die at any time, and the typical caveats against killing children, the innocent and the infirmed are almost wholly abandoned. Of course, for every shocking stance like this, we must suffer through a series of unbridled happenstances that are supposed to have some manner of emotional resonance. Instead, we as the audience become keenly aware that somewhere, in a studio bungalow, a group of screenwriters (four are credited here) actually concocted this forced accidental tripe. With an ending that’s uninvolving and kind of flat (never mind the direct rip off of Stephen King’s tunnel sequence from The Stand), and the purposeful placement of facets to form 28 MONTHS Later, what should have been a knock out can barely manage a decision on technical merits.


And yet there is something about 28 Weeks Later that definitely gets under your skin. Perhaps it’s the last remnants of Boyle’s initial inventive conceit. Maybe us horror fans are so sick of lackluster living dead movies that we will accept anything remotely resembling the genre just because it manages to be competently made and expertly manipulated. It could be the amount of bloodshed strewn across the screen, or the expressionistic way the violence is tempered (can’t wait for the UNRATED DVD edition). Whatever the case, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is definitely a filmmaker worth following. His future is very bright indeed. After this unexceptional sequel however, few will be anticipating another return to this fractured franchise.


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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

At BusinessWeek‘s website is this debate between economists Nouriel Roubini and Tyler Cowen about what, if anything, should be done about predatory lending. The debate hinges on whether it’s okay for firms to exploit the financial ignorance of a populace—whether it’s okay to base your business model on other people’s stupidity. In general, this seems bad to me, because it gives people a vested interest in the stupidity of others, which ultimately disserves society as a whole. the predatory lenders profit at the expense of the general well-being of society, assuming society profits from having smart people in it who understand how to make economic exchange more efficient and are more capable of watching out for their own interests. This is essentially what Roubini is arguing when he suggests unrest and misery in subprime credit markets can spill over and present us all with a recession. The ignorance of borrowers and the cupidity of lenders don’t merely affect those involved in the exploitative arrangements, but they have macro effects.


The case for predatory lending is that, well, they are better than loan sharks, to whom bad credit risks would have to turn for their needs. But this doesn’t address the real problem, which is how unscrupulous lenders use deceptive practices to put borrowers in debt traps. Borrowers fail to understand the ramifications of the loans they agree to and aren’t aware of alternatives. To Cowen, this is a matter of choices: some individuals choose to be ignorant (it costs more in time and effort than it is worth to them—financial stupidity is valuable), and choose bad loans, and we shouldn’t force them to do otherwise and trample on their right to make bad decisions. (Alas, freedom means freedom to fail.) Writes Cowen: “Government cannot protect us from every possible form of our own stupidity, and it’s often counter-productive for it to try.” The thing is, deception can make almost any of us look stupid after the fact; the line between deception and opportunity is hard to draw. Is hiding fees deceptive or just good business sense? The emotional pressures and desperation involved in emergency borrowing are sure to cloud judgment and invite lenders to cut corners or make misleading promises that may not be deceptive on paper but are surely deceptive in practice, in the moment. The definition of what constitutes deception can be especially nebulous, making it far from a simple proposition to restrict government’s role to be “to ensure transparency of terms and protect against fraud” as Cowen recommends.


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