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Wednesday, Jan 31, 2007

After struggling with an intro essay for weeks and culling together articles for the last 12 months, my article on the best music journalism of ‘06 is now up on the rockcritics.com website.  I don’t have much to add because I think I spilled all my thoughts about the subject there!  I hope you enjoy it and feel free to let me know if you think I missed anything.


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Tuesday, Jan 30, 2007


Up until now, it’s been relatively easy to dismiss Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. Oh, he’s just a glorified genre director, some might say, pointing to his initial forays into fear with such works as Cronos and Mimic. Others look directly to his comic book efforts, from the only decent installment in the Blade series (#2) to his magnificent makeover of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and deny his inherent ability. Even his defiant history lesson from 2001, Espinazo del Diablo, El (The Devil’s Backbone) is viewed as more of a ghost story than a grand artistic statement.


But with the release of Laberinto del Fauno, El (Pan’s Labyrinth) and the surrounding critical clamor, Del Toro is finally finding the respect that his films have long mandated. And there’s a good reason for all the accolades. Without modifying his cinematic approach, and staying true to his vibrant vision of a world constantly weakened by elements both fantastical and fatal, this fascinating fable of a little girl’s hellish existence amongst the Post-war Fascists of Franco’s Spain is simply stunning. It’s a testament to human will and the power of the mind to make substitutes and sacrifices for the horrors all around us.


When we first meet Ofelia, our world-weary juvenile heroine, we immediately see the toll this national uprising has taken on its people. It is written all across her wrinkled brow. She’s a tired child, her face formed into an almost constant state of sorrow. In her hands she carries several books, her only escape from an existence without security, without love, and most recently, without a father. All of these factors will play an important part in Del Toro’s designs. He will take this innocent’s fears, amplify them via an alternative narrative based in classic Brother’s Grimm-like fairytales, and create a kind of commentary on the harsh realities of life during wartime.


Moving from the city to the country, Ofelia is at the whim of her situation. Upon arrival, she meets a friendly face in Mercedes, one of the few adults who actually considers Ofelia more than merely an under-aged nuisance. At this point, we expect the movie to be a kind of indirect parent and child partnership, a desperate rebel sympathizer and an impressionable kid trying to stay safe inside a realm of deception, despair and death. Ofelia’s actual mother is pregnant, the suggestion being that she sold out her husband and carried on with the corrupt Captain Vidal, resulting in the spouse’s death and her current delicate condition. Indeed, the subsequent marriage and move to a more secure rural location is killing her, making Ofelia even more fearful of her status.


Within this setting, Del Toro then subverts the story. Instead of focusing solely on Mercedes and Ofelia, both characters take off in different directions. As the maid with radical motives helps the freedom fighters in the hills, Ofelia explores the garden maze just off the primary path to the Captain’s headquarters. There, she finds the fairies of her books, and an earthen spiral staircase that leads to the realm of the title faun - a half man, half beast who holds the keys to the child’s chance of survival. He will provide her with three challenges, each one testing a specific mantle. If she passes each one, there’s a promise of passage into a realm of happiness and hope.


It’s here inside this rather complicated set-up, battles with fantastic creatures juxtaposed against real life combat, the gaining of magical objects and powers presented alongside the spilling of actual blood, where the movie finds its focus. But surprisingly enough, Del Toro is not trying to spin a simultaneous allegory – Ofelia’s trials vs. those of Spain in general. No, in each one of the little girl’s tests, choice is a key component. In essence, Del Toro is attempting to describe and define conviction, to show how opportunity meshed with option creates decisiveness, and with it, purpose and assurance. Indeed, Ofelia’s adventures are all about defiance and discovery, centering on confrontation with hope the ultimate prize.


Take her journey into the lair of the Pale Man. She has been warned by the faun Pan not to eat or drink anything found on the disturbing figure’s table. She is to pursue her goal and nothing else. Yet the little girl, given over to feelings of being left out and ignored, can’t refuse the inviting items spread out along this baneful banquet. She makes a minor decision, one she thought was meaningless since it was so insignificant in the grand scheme of her quest. Yet the repercussions are truly terrifying, and the long term ramifications lead to one of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s most important points. Del Toro is showing how one small decision can snowball into a life or death disaster – and how we never consider the consequences at the time we make the choice.


A lot of Pan’s Labyrinth plays on such subtexts. When we learn that the house doctor is also a rebel sympathizer, that Captain Vidal is a tripwire psychopath that can kill a man as easily as he can order a meal, that an unborn child can become a bargaining chip in the ongoing clash between people and politics, we recognize the director’s complicated designs. He is showing us how most people parlay their everyday existence into a series of conflicts and compromises, living with the judgments they make and suffering in silence with the secret strategies they find important. By giving us the little girl’s learning curve, and placing it alongside people who have already discovered these lessons, Del Toro is piecing together his own puzzle – and the images it shows are unsettling indeed.


There will be those put off by the brutality of Franco’s soldiers, their mindless destruction of their fellow Spaniards all in the name of “winning and losing”. Vidal even states that the reason behind the genocide is really just a matter of supporting the proper position. “They just don’t recognize who won” he says, and he wants to make sure that the individuals plotting their resistance pay the price for such ignorance. Unlike The Devil’s Backbone, which was more supernatural in its tone, Pan’s Labyrinth is a bloodier, more visceral experience. While not obsessed with gore, Del Toro does not shy away from the grotesque that accompanies hostilities. Torture is not downplayed – its physically corrupting consequences are shown in sickening, shocking realism.


But it’s the fantasy facets that really astonish us. Bringing an unbridled imagination to the movie’s main setpieces, Del Toro delivers amazingly memorable entities, from the insect like fairies to the giant toad who holds a magic key in its mucus-lined mouth. Pan himself is a combination of the seductive and the sinister. We can never truly decipher his motives, and there are moments when we wonder if he too is manipulating Ofelia for some other ominous purpose. From a purely visual standpoint, Pan’s Labyrinth stands alongside the works of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam for unbelievable optical flair, and just like these amazing auteurs, Del Toro’s incorporation of such material is seamless. We never once doubt that what we see is being experienced by Ofelia, or the other characters in the film.


With its flawless performances, amazing combination of exquisiteness and cruelty, and careful narrative construction that builds to one of the more superb endings in recent memory, Guillermo Del Toro has finally delivered his mainstream missive, a film that argues so effectively for his abilities that it can’t be easily dismissed as the ravings of a horror nut or a superhero scenarist’s filmic fluke. No, when the history of foreign film is finally written, Del Toro and his fellow Mexican filmmakers (Alfonso Cuoran, Alejandro Iñárritu) will argue that, in 2007, they illustrated that, as a language, cinema is both international and insular, a product of both the artform and the individual working within it. And no one has more inner demons to deal with and defend than fantasy’s new agent provocateur.


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Tuesday, Jan 30, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Yung Joc, featuring Trey Songz and Marques Houston
1st Time [Video]


8 Ball and MJG
Relax and Take Notes [Video]


Diddy, featuring Keisha Cole
Last Night [Windows Media]


 


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Tuesday, Jan 30, 2007

Tyler Cowen links to this WashPost article about historical gambling, a potential future offering at Virginia’s horse racing tracks.


Colonial Downs, which offers betting on horse races at 10 sites across Virginia, is pushing for changes in state law so that it can offer a new form of gambling, called historical racing, on which people wager on horse races that have already taken place.


Like Tyler’s, apparently, my first response to this was “Wow. That sounds pretty stupid.” But that’s because I’m thinking that the pleasure of gambling on horseraces lies in the number-crunching and theorizing that handicapping consists of and then the drama of seeing your theories tested as the races happen live. And, actually, I’m thinking that gambling on races when you know the outcome already wouldn’t be much fun because you wouldn’t ever lose. Where’s the joy in that?


That’s when it becomes pertinent to consider historical gambling’s other, far more accurate moniker: instant gaming. The machine picks an old race, and you instantly bet on a horse based on the odds at the original post time. I’m assuming the specific data (names of horses, date, track location, etc.) is scrambled so you can’t fire it into a BlackBerry and get the results. Then you instantly see whether you made the right choice and get paid out according to those odds. It follows that same Pavlovian mechanism of instant gratification that scratcher tickets exploit, only with a throughbred racing theme and even more unpredictable expected returns. (Original odds are based on pari-mutuel wagers; applying them to a single bet seems almost arbitrary. The bet, the odds, and the outcome would seem to have an almost random association in instant gaming.) The charade of handicapping involved in this allows track owners to argue (with a straight face even) that instant gaming is a game of skill and not chance, like slot machines, which, incidentally, are prohibited at Virginia’s tracks. It’s clear why track owners want slots. They want to transition out of the dying business of thoroughbred racing (R.I.P. Barbero) into the always profitable business of straight gaming. These machines would likely be more profitable than straight slots because with the fluctuating odds, it seems like it would be difficult to mandate a reasonable payout percentage. (Slot machines in Las Vegas return around 90 cents for each dolllar played on them; Nevada requires that they be set up to pay out at least 75 percent of money put in.) Players would certainly have a tough time deducing their expected returns.


But reading about this made me rethink which form of gambling is more “dangerous” to the gambler, the game of pure chance, which inspires the average gambler to superstitious flights of fancy, or the game that promises the gambler a chance to use his skills, which probably leads to his overrating his responsiblity for success (like the traders Nassim Nicholas Taleb likes to excoriate) and ignoring the amount of chance still involved. Is it better to handicap and lose, or guess randomly and lose? Handicapping horse races (and making sports book bets or playing poker) invites you to stake intellectual capital along with cash, and the former can be hard to recoup. At least losing at a slot machine won’t bruise your ego along with emptying your wallet.


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Tuesday, Jan 30, 2007

Via Lawyers, Guns and Money comes a link to website that pulls random Flickr photos and joins them with shuffled-up corporate slogans to generate instant ads. Here’s the creator’s explanation of this particular artwork’s mission:


By remixing corporate slogans, I intend to show how the language of advertising is both deeply meaningful, in that it represents real cultural values and desires, and yet utterly meaningless in that these ideas have no relationship to the products being sold. In using the Flickr images, the piece explores the relationship between language and image, and how meaning is constructed by the juxtaposition of the two.


That sort of sounds like standard-issue gallery-placard mumbo jumbo, but I agree that way ads communicate is both deep and profoundly empty. What we want requires our action, and usually that action is more sophsticated than a shopping decision. Ads try to obfuscate that, seize our desire and fuse it to some inert product while leaving us passive and ultimately unsatisfied. Ads reify the language of values and the images of happiness, satifaction, fear, carnality, etc. we use to consciously comprehend our desires, but they also supply such images and words, thereby encouraging us to use an impoverished Newspeakish emotional vocuabulary with which to understand our place in the world.


If I were the creator of this, however, I wouldn’t have called it an artwork—rather a fully scalable marketing technology leveraging the power of informational social networks to provide real-time consumer-based solutions.


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