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Friday, Apr 20, 2007

Via Kottke.org comes this link to an International Herald Tribune story about the ban on outdoor advertising in São Paulo. I don’t have much sympathy for this line of protest against this:


“This is a radical law that damages the rules of a market economy and respect for the rule of law,” said Marcel Solimeo, chief economist of the Commercial Association of São Paulo, which has 32,000 members. “We live in a consumer society and the essence of capitalism is the availability of information about products.”


Billboards aren’t about distributing information; they are about reshaping the limits on our thought, so that it includes the advertised product at the expense of what we might learn were we left to our own fact-finding ability.


It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I’m a bit sympathetic to this:


“I think this city is going to become a sadder, duller place,” said Dalton Silvano, who cast the sole dissenting vote and is in the advertising business. “Advertising is both an art form and, when you’re in your car or alone on foot, a form of entertainment that helps relieve solitude and boredom.”


My sympathy makes me wonder if my culture has brainwashed me, and whether that makes laws such as São Paulo’s that much more necessary, as much as the paternalism and free-speech implications of it bother me. Should public space remain blank to remain neutral, to remain a public good to the entire public? Or is the brokered colonization of that space adding value to all as well as creating an industry that keeps people employed and others consuming?


Sometimes, in the most feverish moments of my antiadvertising fervor I would dare to dream about such a ban but found it quite impossible to imagine it, in part because as a child growing up in a sleepy semi-rural part of Pennsylvania, I craved much more visual stimulation in the public sphere and was drawn to what seemed to me the de facto excitement of neon. This signified to me the hustle and bustle of commerce, which I had naturally come to think was the essence of “real” life. Nature? Yawn. Reality, as far as I was concerned (though it’s not like I was consciously conceiving a philosophicla position about it) was the process of exchange, and all the emotions that process inspired. Sometimes I want to blame American culture for instilling this impression in me, but I find I still can’t quite shake it. I still get awfully nervous when I find myself “stranded” in the countryside. (In Mediated Thomas De Zengotita has a good passage relating the unnerving quiescence of finding oneself free of media blare, how one can feel strangely orphaned.)


That feeling led me to live in Las Vegas for several years in an attempt to surfeit myself on neon, and on the abstract notion of “action,” both visual and propositional. It almost worked. Las Vegas seemed like a blank slate invigorated by huckster energy that manifested as flashy come-ons and temptations, but that impression is part of what the town’s vested interests worked to create, the retrospective illusion that there was nothing until they came. But by the time I left there I had grown to have a newfound ardor for “emptiness,” for the grandeur of the high sierras, for Death Valley, for the miles of desert surrounding roads that seem endless, roads so featureless that drivers routinely end up in accidents out of boredom.  Now, I feel both repulsed and attracted to visual noise and the way it can alter our consciousness and our priorities, the way it signals a falsely triumphant subjugation of nature by humankind. But I wonder whether to live in a place where billboards were taken down but their infrastructure remained would feel like living in an urban ruin, in a dead space where vitality had drained away. How long and how much commitment would it take to eventually dispel that feeling?


 


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Friday, Apr 20, 2007
by Cliff Lee

If you’re reading Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, odds are that you’re not a sports addict. A sports addict, after all, would have no use for a quarterly magazine that covers a subject matter that changes by the week, if not the day. Play, which has earned billing as an “everyman” sports magazine, is not interested in reflections on the New York Yankee’s early April slump or previewing the upcoming NBA playoffs. The sports addict will already have all that information readily available from their weekly subscriptions to Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News. The sports addict is probably also less inclined to indulge an elegant photo essay on the battered and bruised bodies of NFL defensive linemen or the daunting feats of women climbers. It will never be as funny as ESPN: The Magazine, but Play tries its hardest to be witty with a dash of Chuck Klosterman, whose sports musings, most recently on eccentric basketball star Gilbert Arenas, are infinitely more bearable than his meditations on music and pop culture.


No, if you are reading Play, you like sports, but are a casual fan at best. You appreciated the wall-to-wall preview of the soccer World Cup, despite having never watched a single game since four years prior. You also call it soccer.


 


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Friday, Apr 20, 2007
by Gail Shister [The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)]

PHILADELPHIA—In an unusual midcourse correction, TV networks have scaled back, or stopped altogether, running the disturbing video made by Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui.


Bowing to a storm of public censure and the outrage from victims’ families, NBC said Thursday that it would severely limit its use of the video on all NBC News broadcasts as well as on MSNBC.


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Thursday, Apr 19, 2007


You’d never know that Spring was just around the corner – that lousy groundhog. Baseball has had several of its opening week games postponed or relocated due to snow, and a nasty Nor’easter tore through the upper half of the US, causing damage – and a few deaths – along the way. If the showers we’ve seen this April are any indication, May’s gonna be overgrown with floral facets. Perhaps we can all dry off with a weekend in front of the idiot box. There’s some fresh fare there, including a hilarious satire on a very strange subject, a dumb gearhead actioner, another failed drama from a former directorial god, and a wicked little indie effort. Toss in the typical outsider and non-Tinsel Town odds and ends and you’ve got plenty to keep you couch bound and (somewhat) happy. And before you know it, it will be time to complain about the heat. Let’s begin with the weekend of 21 April’s best bet: 


Premiere Pick
Thank You For Smoking


It’s a highly unorthodox premise - especially for a comedy. A cutthroat tobacco lobbyist – played by pseudo star Aaron Eckhart – spends his days shilling for cigarettes while trying to connect to his distant 12 year old son. Not your normal laugh riot. But it’s obvious that some small amount of funny business filmmaking rubbed off onto Jason Reitman from his famous father, Ivan. After a series of well received comic shorts, this first attempt at a feature was a clear critical success. While many will still have massive problems with the subject matter – after all, when was the last time anyone considered smoking to be socially acceptable, let alone worth joking about. But thanks to the wonderful source material (Christopher Buckley’s book remains highly regarded) and an inherent way with wit, Reitman’s debut marks the beginning of a potentially profitable stint behind the lens – both commercially and comically. (21 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift


Same premise, same storyline, different locale. For this third go around in the FF franchise, our pissed off pre-adult heroes head to Japan, where drifting is all the rage. Apparently, this means kids destroy their brakes and alignment by purposefully fishtailing their back tires. Peachy! As an aside, beware of those earworm masters The Teriyaki Boys. Their hideous theme song plays throughout this derivative action pic. (21 April, HBO, 8PM EST)

Find Me Guilty


Sidney Lumet wants to return to the courtroom drama with this movie about a mobster who decides to defend himself during an important trial. Sadly, he brings along a toupee sprouting Vin Diesel to play his lead. Things only grow more groan inducing from there. While many praised both the ‘Pacifier’ and his performance, this is no Verdict or Serpico. In fact, it’s barely worth comparing to Lumet’s other concrete credits. (21 April, Starz, 9PM EST)


Edmund


Turn off the Tudors marathon for a moment and switch the dial over to this William H. Macy tour de force. Playing a man who finds his life unraveling over one long, intolerance filled night, Macy is magnificent, channeling all the rage and rejection of the title character. Even more amazing is who’s behind the camera. Casting fictional horror aside for the moment, Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon steps up to deliver his own look at NYC as Hell. (21 April, ShowTOO, 10PM EST)

Indie Pick
We Jam Econo: The Story of The Minutemen


Thanks to DVD, and in some small ways, the success of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, the documentary has finally come of age as viable commercial cinema. Even better, filmmakers are finding that even the most obscure subject can reap remarkable artistic benefits. Take this amazing movie about the seminal ‘80s post-proto punk band The Minutemen. Thanks to a wealth of astonishing performance footage, some rare group interviews and present day chat ups with the remaining members, we learn how three disaffected youths from San Pedro, California became an unmatched rock and roll force. With the death of leader D. Boon hanging over every frame (he died tragically in an auto accident in ‘85), there is a meaningful melancholia attached to discovering how powerful and potent this musical maelstrom once was. Thanks to director Tim Irwin, and the magic of the digital format, his story has been perfectly preserved for generations to discover and appreciate. (23 April, Sundance, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Magnolia


For his follow-up to Boogie Nights, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson forged this heartfelt homage to idol Robert Altman and his multifaceted masterpiece Short Cuts. Instead of channeling Raymond Chandler, however, PTA went biblical with his tale of several solemn individuals whose lives intersect in strange, almost spiritual ways. Featuring one of Tom Cruise’s best performances and similarly classic turns by Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Thomas regular John C. Reilly, this epic exploration of human emotion stands as one of the ‘90s great films. (21 April, IFC, 11PM EST)

Dancer in the Dark


The musical doesn’t seem like the best genre to fit within director Lars Von Trier’s Dogma ‘95 ideal, but somehow, the crazed Danish director makes it work. With Icelandic muse Bjork in the lead, this depression era drama about a foreign factory worker who thinks that America is all one big Hollywood movie mixes unbelievable hardship with sudden bursts of song. Some will find this film frustrating and obtuse. Others will simply appreciate Von Trier’s attempt to reinvent the filmic format. (23 April, IFC, 2:30PM EST)

Let’s Rock Again


With the passing of Joe Strummer from a heart attack in 2002 (he was just 50!) any hopes that the punk rock rebels The Clash would ever reunite were dashed forever. Thanks to documentarian Dick Rude, this one hour love letter to the fabled frontman catches up with his solo career, and the unbridled joy he had when performing. It’s just a shame he didn’t live to see the full impact of his legacy. Luckily, his music will remain with us forever. (26 April, Sundance, 10AM EST)

Outsider Option
Plan Nine from Outer Space/ Bride of the Monster


Ed Wood gets a bum rap these days. After years of perpetuating the myth that he is the worse director in the world (thank you very much, Medved brothers), DVD has really helped rehabilitate his status. After a double dose of Dr. Uwe Boll or a retrospective of Raja Gosnell’s crappy canon, our main man in angora looks like a flipping genius. Indeed, many mistake Wood’s wonky way with narrative and script as something to savage. But he’s so innocent in his incompetence, so fully ensconced in his errors that it comes across as visionary, not vile. Now, thanks to the random Rob Zombie-ing of TCM’s Underground, two of the masters amazing mess-terpieces are available for sampling. While Plan 9 is the more noted of the two, Bride of the Monster has its own calculated cool. Together, they tell a decidedly different story about who Ed Wood was, both as an artist and a misrepresented legend. (21 April, Turner Movie Classics, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Priest


Rife with scandal the moment it was released, this look at the hypocritical conceit that exists between religion and reality doesn’t follow the standard storyline. Instead of pedophilia, this movie mocks the traditional vow of celibacy, and how harmful it is to both individuals and their faith. The title character, a cleric torn between the Lord and his gay lover, illustrates all these points in passionate, perplexing form.  (23 April, Indieplex, 11:15PM EST)

Rope


It’s often considered one of Hitchcock’s failed experiments, a standard murder mystery made up of a series of four to ten minute “continuous takes”. Entire scenes were filmed without edits, meaning camera movement and angles had to be carefully choreographed around the acting of the cast. For this reason, many find the movie mannered and obvious. But if you can ignore the stylization, you’ll be rewarded with another of the Master of Suspense’s visionary wonders. (25 April, Retroplex, 6:35PM EST)

The Solid Gold Cadillac


Poor Judy Holiday. She was a classic city gal trading on her metropolitan moxie to bring a level of intelligence and strength to the basic dumb blond roles she was given. Sadly, her death from breast cancer at the age of 43 kept her legacy from fully developing. Still, the Tony and Oscar winning actress is very good in this corporate comedy, a typical late ‘50s laugher about bumbling big businessmen and the outrages of industry. What makes this a passion pit presentation is a real head scratcher. (26 April, Drive-In Classics, Canada, 9PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Apr 19, 2007

As someone who has groused about the negative savings rate in America (it seems indicative of competitive consumption for its own sake that yields little in well-being, and signals a muted lack of faith in the future), I feel obliged to present a contrary view. Writing at Slate, Henry Blodget makes the case that a rational response to the American tax system is to spend as much as possible.


The problem is how we tax investment gains. Over the past 80 years, the average annual return on Treasury bills (a proxy for savings accounts) has been 3.7 percent per year. Inflation, meanwhile, has averaged 3.1 percent per year. This combination has produced a “real return” of a paltry 0.6 percent per year. If you got to keep that 0.6 percent, you might still have an incentive to save: A $616 real gain on $10,000 in 10 years wouldn’t be much, but it would at least be $616 more than you have now. Unless you’re so poor that you’re exempt from taxes, however, or so flush that you can afford to lock up cash for decades in a tax-deferred annuity or retirement account, you won’t be keeping that 0.6 percent. You’ll be giving all of it—and probably more—to the government.


Blodget proposes making savings taxfree, which makes some sense if you think about middle class folk building up little nest eggs. But you have to consider who would really benefit from tax free savings—those with massive estates or inherited wealth. If we stop taxing interest and dividends, more tax dollars would have to come from levies on income—what John Edwards is talking about when he complains that we tax work instead of wealth. Such a tax scheme would create incentives to elude work as much as possible, or at least disguise work as some other form of income (say, stock options).


The other alternative is to tax consumption instead of income—through a sales tax or VAT. But then you run into the problem that such taxes are typically regressive (the burden of them is proportionally heavier on those with less income). Perhaps that complaint becomes less ignificant when we consider that our current system is getting more regressive as we speak.


Nonetheless, if one believes that consumption has negative externalities, as Robert Frank argues here, and one accepts the economists’ prescription of taxes to rectify externalities, then the policy course is plain. Writes Frank:


In Luxury Fever, I suggested that we scrap our current progressive tax on income in favor of a far more steeply progressive tax on consumption. Because total consumption for each family can be measured as the simple difference between the amount it earns each year (as currently reported to the IRS) and the amount it saves, such a tax would be relatively easy to administer. And if the tax were coupled with a large standard deduction (say $7,500 per person) and had low marginal tax rates on low levels of consumption, it would be even less burdensome for the poor than our current income tax.


More important, it would provide top earners with strong incentives to save more and limit the rate at which they increase the size of their mansions. Their doing so would reinforce the incentives on those just below the top to do likewise, and so on all the way down. Phased in gradually, this tax would slowly reduce the share of national income devoted to consumption and increase the corresponding share devoted to investment. Total spending would continue at levels sufficient to maintain full employment, and greater investment would lead to more rapid growth in productivity.


Of course, taxing consumption (which people associate with rewards, pleasure, etc.) is never going to be as politically feasible as taxing work (which people all too often associate with drudgery, humiliation, subservience, and boredom). And it seems doubtful that changes in our attitude would follow from changes in the incentives generated by tax policy. The same problem seems to beset any potential tax on carbon consumption—our attitudes toward gasoline consumption won’t change as fast as our attitudes toward the politicians who levied the tax—they have everything to lose and nothing to gain. (but the respect of future generations grateful to still have an inhabitable coastline. But then, what’s that worth now?)


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