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Friday, Mar 9, 2007

I’m not one who misses the record store. I don’t worry that they are disappearing or miss serendipitous moments of discovery while flipping through the racks or the helpful recommendations from my friendly and knowledgeable record-store clerk or any of that. Because I grew up in the suburbs, my early record store experiences took place not at some indie store out of High Fidelity but in Listening Booth and Wall to Wall Sound, mall stores where the cashiers were no more knowledgeable about music than the sweater folders at the Gap. These stores had a sparse, random stock once you moved beyond whatever the big record companies were paying the chains to promote, so you had to dig pretty deep into the store, past the promo posters and mock album covers and cut-outs (like the Debbie Harry Koo-Koo stand-up in the mall scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High) to find anything out of the ordinary, and then you would have to buy it typically with absolutely no idea of what it would sound like. Now, of course, you don’t have to put up any money to take that kind of chance on new music. I can’t decide if this lack of investment makes it easier or harder to get into new music. It does mean that I generally have a better reason to make the effort than “I just bought this, I have to get my money’s worth.” I think I heed friends’ recommendations and the general buzz a little more than I used to, but that might just be a product of being older and having less ego invested in being a listening pioneer, in fancying myself the Magellan of music or something.


Anyway, this WSJ article, about how the iTunes store brokers the space on its homepage, starting me thinking about this. With iTunes selling upwards of 5 million songs a day (!) what it chooses to promote on its page can drive sales, and record companies want a piece of that action. Record stores used to charge labels for favorable placement, which led to the annoying displays and the annoying music you would hear played there. But iTunes alleges not to play that game:


Apple says it shunned pay-for-placement—as have online rivals including RealNetworks’ Rhapsody—to provide unbiased music recommendations. Eddy Cue, the Apple vice president who oversees iTunes, says the company hopes to recapture some of the spirit of independent record stores, when clerks would give uncompromised tips on promising performers. “That for us was kind of gone in the new retail environment,” Mr. Cue says. Customers used to believe that advice on music “was coming from someone who really liked it versus someone who was paid to say they liked it.”


Accordingly iTunes has “music editors” on staff to curate the store’s main page, and they limit the use of their retail clout to get exclusive material from prominently featured artists or to drive prices down on artists they’d like to feature.


That may sound pretty progressive of Apple until you realize that unlike the Listening Booths of yore, it doesn’t need to make money selling music—it sells DRM’d songs to force you to keep buying iPods, which have become the company’s cash cow. And the fact that iTunes is a virtual monopoly as far as legit online-music sources go, they have a concentrated amount of influence that can only be abused. It’s the exact opposite of the local music markets that once flourished and spawned idiosyncratic regional hits, the sort of stuff that ended up on the Nuggets compilation. Instead iTunes can break whoever it wants globally. Of course, iTunes has an advantage that traditional retailers could only garner through the laborious construction of outlets across wide geographical areas: it can manage the scale on which it operates on almost a real-time basis, targeting its homepage to different demographics depending on other data it can collect or apply as you log in. So the store can be local to the tastes exhibited in your own iTunes library or can be international or it can blend these in any number of ways, changing to suit trends in retailing as they evolve. It can be a mom-and-pop store, a hipster enclave (with its “editors” playing the role of record-store denizens, supplying cutting edge content), or a mall chain or a big-box store, depending on your mood or its prerogative.


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Friday, Mar 9, 2007

While it’s understandably a source of celebration that major radio conglomerates are paying up for their pay-offs, for some reason, I’m not too optimistic that they’re going to play clean from now on, especially given their track record.  Start with these stories detailing the settlements:


Broadcasters Agree To Fine Over Payola


Payola pact could boost airplay for indie music


Even there, you’ll notice some skepticism that the broadcasters will find some way around this by not giving indie music prime time slots or loosely defining what “indie” means.  It’s kind of the same problem that the FCC busted Univision over recently when they played fast and loose with what constituted “educational television” that they were required to broadcast- they showed cartoons to fill in this gap and obviously, that doesn’t cut it.  Like I said, don’t be surprised to see this repeated again with the payola settlement.


And then there’s the very troubling rate increase that might shut down internet radio as we know it.  Soundexchange, the RIAA’s (and by proxy, the major label’s) company to set rate made an six to twelve percent increase in the cost that they charge per listener for the music the stations are allowed to play:  Royalty Hike Panics Webcasters.  That can add up to so much money (and be retroactive for years) that stations won’t have the funds to cover it anymore.  The end result would be that the stations won’t be able to afford to play music anymore.  And here we have yet another example of a greedy industry stupidly trying to squeeze money from other sources and managing to quietly kill off support of legitimate product (just like the lawsuits and DRM have managed).  A chilling prediction from the Wire article linked above: “If the new rates stick, online music fans may come to expect far less innovation, variety and quality when it comes to internet radio. Some industry experts fear that even more users could be driven to illicit services that pay no royalties or those that operate from other countries.”


Though congressional hearings are pending, you can also make your own voice heard about this tragic idiocy: Save Internet Radio petition.


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Thursday, Mar 8, 2007


Spring has sprung – so get out and live your life. Take some time. Stop and smell the flowers. Do anything and everything you can, but whatever you do, DON’T WATCH THE PREMIUM CABLE MOVIE CHANNELS THIS WEEKEND. All four films being offered, including one made exclusively for the coaxial market, are absolutely lame. They lack sufficient cinematic and artistic cred, and consistently undermine the individuals responsible for their creation. Where once the arrival of winter’s thaw marked the dog days at the local Multiplex, it appears pay TV is the new landfill for lost motion picture prattle. If you insist upon cranking up the cable box and bothering with any of these offerings, SE&L can only sell you on one – and the pitch is pretty weak. In fact, this may be a good time to explore other options in Saturday evening adventure. Here’s what’s waiting on 10 March:


Premiere Pick
Stay Alive


You know the pickings are exceptionally slim when SE&L goes about recommending a rather under-baked video game styled horror film as its premium channel pick – especially one as slipshod as this one. Tripping lightly into Silent Hill territory, with just a smidgen of Final Destination to add to the illogic, what starts off interesting (including a nice bit of immersive 3D animation) ends up inert as old legends come back to life for absolutely no good reason. The cast is comprised of unimpressive actors, each one looking lost in what is essentially a slasher film with microchips instead of machetes. With an overblown ending and more than its fair share of plotholes, the only entertainment you’ll get from this failed horror hackwork will come from second guessing the characters. Sadly, you will probably overestimate their intelligence every single time. (3 March, Starz, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Life Support


It’s more issue-oriented fare for the Emmy winning network as Queen Latifah stars in this based on a true story drama. Her character is an urban activist, a former junkie now infected with AIDS who wants to help others avoid her physical fate. In addition, there’s an older daughter whose overflowing with bitterness regarding her upbringing, and various stoic subplots that take attention away from the main narrative. For all its noble intentions, this is nothing more than a mediocre made for TV weeper. (10 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Sentinel


At first, we here at SE&L were excited. It looked like one of our favorite novels from the mid-70s, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, was getting the remake treatment. The original motion picture adaptation was a pointless little travesty, and an update at the hands of one of our modern macabre experts would be more than welcome. Turns out this is some minor Michael Douglas thriller. That sound you hear is the superstar’s demographic demanding their money back. (10 March, Cinemax, 9PM EST)


The Pink Panther


Steve Martin should be ashamed. Shawn Levy should also hang his head in collaborative guilt. Together, these two supposedly talented men shit all over the legacy of Peter Sellers and his slapstick collaborations with the brilliant Blake Edwards. And rumor has it that a sequel may be in the works. Apparently, audiences enjoyed this update on the modern Inspector Clouseau character enough to warrant a return to the well. Here’s hoping all involved drown. (10 March, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
O’ Brother Where Art Thou?


After The Big Lebowski failed to make them mainstream heroes, the Coen Brothers decided to step back and regroup. Fargo Oscars in hand, the boys called on some odd source material (Homer’s The Odyssey) to forge their next effort, a rustic riot that stands as one of their best films ever. George Clooney, in the Clark Gable part, leads thick-witted associates Delmar and Pete through a sticky Alabama backwater, all in an attempt to locate a tantalizing treasure that may or may not exist. Aside from the amazing performances and pitch perfect casting (including Brother favorites John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and John Turturro), the movie featured a Grammy winning soundtrack of classic country and bluegrass songs. Indeed, thanks to that T-Bone Burnett produced collection, more people were exposed to the Coen’s creative conceits than ever before. (11 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Human Nature


Back before they were both big names, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry delivered this quirky romantic comedy. Or is it really a science fiction fantasy. The premise has scientist Tim Robbins and his hirsute girlfriend Patricia Arquette (she has a biological condition that produces excess body hair) discovering a real ape man – that is, a feral human raised in the wild. The result is some surreal interpersonal problems and a lot of strophic sexuality. (10 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

Jesus Christ, Superstar


While not quite as controversial as Martin Scorsese’s take on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, Norman Jewison still fielded a lot of public grief from bringing this blasphemous rock opera to the big screen. Even worse, he filled his cast with clear counterculture types, turning the hit musical into a statement about the National disconnect over the Vietnam War. It remains a wonderful version, with some stellar turns both vocally and acting-wise. (15 March, Sundance, 7PM EST)

Fahrenheit 451


It remains a minor glitch in a true cinematic giant’s substantive resume. By the end of filming, both actor and director couldn’t stand each other. And as book to film adaptations go, it stands as a solid, if slight, effort. For François Truffaut, there would be other triumphs. But fans of author Ray Bradbury still wonder why no one has picked up the remake mantle on this classic tale of totalitarianism run amuck. (12 March, Sundance, 6AM EST)

Outsider Option
Dawn of the Dead (2004)


It shouldn’t have worked. When zombie king George Romero delivered his sequel to the stellar Night of the Living Dead in 1978, he had to do so without a rating. The material was so horrifying, and the amount of gore so generous, that the MPAA would never approve the picture. Fast forward 26 years, and first time filmmaker Zack Snyder decided to helm this remake, complete with as much arterial spray as possible. Thanks to a clever update from genre genius James Gunn (the first ten minutes alone are refreshingly frightening) and a decision to turn the living dead into fast moving monsters, what could have been a disaster ended up one of 2004’s certified smashes. Now, as Synder’s sword and sandal epic 300 prepares to hit theaters, revisit this filmmaker’s fascinating vision with this unholy look at a world gone horrific – and hungry. (10 March, Starz, 11:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
I Bury the Living


After more than a month off, TCM brings back its Underground series, and horror host Rob Zombie. This time out, we get an Albert Band classic, a grisly little tale of a cemetery worker whose casual placement of pins on a graveyard map causes the death of said plot owner. With a terrific performance by Richard Boone, and a last act twist that helps up the ick factor, this is old fashioned fright filmmaking at its finest. (9 March, Tuner Classic Movies, 7:30PM EST)

Blue Sky


While it may seem like she fell off the face of the Earth since this, her last major Oscar nominated performance (which she won for, by the way), Jessica Lange has actual been featured in nearly 20 projects over the last 13 years. Still, how she moved from the A-list to an afterthought remains a motion picture mystery, especially considering her remarkable work in this period drama. Sadly, this was also the last film for the award winning Tony Richardson.(12 March, Movieplex, 9PM EST)

Blue Thunder


A perfect example of ‘80s high concept action and adventure, this clever retrofitting of the chase/conspiracy picture found Roy Scheider behind the controls of an experimental helicopter. Thanks to a sly little script by Dan “Alien” O’Bannon and definitive direction from genre master John Badham, this technological take on the standard morality tale was a surprise hit that still manages to hold up, even under today’s F/X fancying demands. (13 March, Flix, 10PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Mar 8, 2007

I was saddened to see that Baudrillard had succumbed to the most fatal strategy of them all: death. He argued that most experience in capitalist culture consists of simulacra and simulation; death presumably is exempted from this—the one authentic experience not subject to amplification through media representation or manufacture. Though he’s mainly remembered for his media criticism, his ideas about pseudoevents and which always runs the danger of being oversimplified or sensationalized (or turned into a Keanu Reeves movie), his early work on consumerism shouldn’t be neglected; I’ve certainly got a lot of mileage out of For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, which grounds his ideas about hyperreality, consuming on the symbolic level and signs supplanting what they signify in Marxist terms, remaining far more systematic than the later works, which tend to follow a free-associational logic. It seemed to be the case that it had become fashionable to dismiss Baudrillard as a philosopher clown and his works as stunts—he was more interested in coming across outrageously and incomprehensibly than in formulating clear and convincing analyses; but now perhaps his death will restore some dignity to it and let us go back to it and read it with attention that’s sure to be repaid in insight. But it’s sad that he’ll say no more to complicate whatever understanding we struggle to come to of what’s he already written.


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Thursday, Mar 8, 2007


What a difference a day makes. Yesterday I was comped at one of Tokyo’s finest; today, on my own dime, I am in one of the more plebian of stop-spots. A difference of 2 stars, but in the end, does it really matter? All we peripatetiques require is a hole to sit over to deposit our wastes, a spigot to cleanse us, a bed to lay our heads on; if possible, a television to enlighten or entertain, a closet to hang clothes so they don’t inordinately wrinkle and smudge, a fridge to store and keep some liquids and edibles cool.


The rest? The bidet, the fully stocked fridge, the movies on demand, the internet hook-up, the room service, the pool or exercise room? . . . In the end, like life, it is only a matter of degrees. Everything beyond basic is merely an exercise in ostentation; leaps in perception.


 


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