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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Courtesy of author Bakari Kitwana , Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop


Rap Sessions: Does Hip-Hop Hate Women?, a townhall meeting on gender and hip-hop which convened at the University of Chicago last month, airs tonight at midnight on C-Span. Tune in to one of ten similar townhall meetings that toured the country throughout March and April 2007. Organized and moderated by Bakari Kitwana (Executive Director of Rap Sessions and author of The Hip-Hop Generation), the panel discussion features Tracy Sharpley Whiting ( author of “Pimps Up, Ho’s Down); Mark Anthony Neal (author of “New Black Man); Joan Morgan, (author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost); David Ikard (author of “Breaking the Silence: Toward a Black Male Feminist Criticism); T.J. Crawford (chairman of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention); and Amina Norman-Hawkins (Executive director of the Chicago Hip-Hop Initiative). See Rap Sessions  for details.


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Sunday, May 27, 2007

I once had a girl, or should I say . . .”


No, that’s John’s line. Me, being different, mine better start cleaner. Clearer. Something more kosher, like thus:


I once had an acquaintance who wrote songs for a living. Apparently she had a knack for it since she managed to cut 5 records (remember those vinyl things?) and 3 CDs over the past couple decades. Because I had a past life in music (well, after a fashion) sometimes we sat around and kicked song titles or themes about. Just for the jest of it.


”Hey, how about a song about a couple meeting for a date, only they screw up their coordinates and board trains going in opposite directions, and end up in different cities? Call it something like ‘wrong-headed rendezvous’.”

“That’s horrible.”

“You can do better, then go ahead.”

“Well sure. How about the ballad of a guy and girl who fall for each other after he almost drowns and she has to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Call it ‘breath-taking love’.”

“You really think that’ll sell? Well, no wonder you’re holding chalk in a classroom.”


 


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Saturday, May 26, 2007


Reality TV really doesn’t need help making fun of itself, what with the preening man whores and street beat skanks of shows like I Love New York and Bad Girls, respectively. Like a satiric version of a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing the limits of plausibility has caused the medium to manipulate the product into more and more perplexing – and preposterous – positions. At one time, all we cared about was survival and self reliance. Now, it’s a combination of egomaniacal exaggerations of excellence meshed with worthless wish fulfillment. So if someone told you that the latest exercises in televised authenticity will revolve around finding the best pirate, the newest superhero, or the most talented handicapped person, you probably wouldn’t flinch. Oddly enough, two of those three are actually on their way to a boob tube near you. The third forms the foundation for one of the funniest, most critical comedies about the business of show ever conceived.


Like Lollilove before, Special Needs is an amazing new mock documentary by the multitalented Isaak James. Centering on a TV wunderkind named Warren Piece (James) and his American Idol like cast of critical cohorts – former A-lister Laura Wilcox (Eva James) and confused corrections officer David Smith (Michael C. Kricfalusi) – we are thrown into a world that, at first, looks shockingly familiar. Piece and his posse are self-centered schmoes, each one working through their own set of aggressively inconsiderate issues. Smith wants to be taken seriously as part of the entertainment industry. Wilcox is working off a ‘fat actress’ reputation. And Piece needs to make up for a previous reality show disaster. When desperate network CNT puts a newbie in charge of production, the trio thinks they’ve found a friendly ear. All that’s left is to pitch their latest project.


And it’s a dozy. Piece wants to find a group of photogenic, engaging ‘retards, psychos, and freaks’ to star in his latest reality brainstorm – Handicaps. That’s right, He plans on picking individuals with differing physical and/or mental issues and force them to live together in a swanky Addams Family-like Victorian house of humors. Then he can monitor their behavior and manipulate the playback in order to discover what it’s really like when mongoloids and misfits stop being polite, and start being…well, he hasn’t quite gotten that far yet. Noted for his outrageous ideas and Simon Cowell on steroids critiques, Piece has to find a hook to keep audiences intrigued, and with the help of some stoned production assistants, the final facet is put in place – TALENT!


Now all he needs are the weirdoes. At first, it looks like Special Needs is going to be the same old sloppy spoofery. James – who wrote, directed, stars and probably prepared the craft services – appears overly eager to roll out a combination of actual and ‘artificial’ human oddities and get us to laugh at what makes us uncomfortable and antsy. We expect the thwarting of convention, the tweaking of PC paradigms, and some good old fashioned vulgar funny business at the expense of someone else’s predicament. Yes, it will all be in bad taste, but the current envelope pushing conceit of motion picture comedy readily supports such obvious offensiveness. Just ask the Farrelly Brothers.


But this is not where James and his clever cast actually go. Not at all. Instead, we are wrapped up in an engaging and intricate world of high maintenance histrionics, battling bravado, cockeyed creativity, and just enough sideshow shock value to transcend the potentially tacky. Special Needs does employ the services of several handi-capable individuals, and all of them single-handedly steal the show. During an open audition for potential participants, we are introduced to a paranoid schizophrenic lounge singer, a determined deaf actor, a genial blind man, a wheelchair bond vixen, and a no bullshit dwarf. Initially, they remain on the fringes. But once the callbacks come, James gives each individual their three dimensional setpiece moment to shine. 


The clear breakout star here is someone called Killer P. A bad ass gansta rapper with cerebral palsy, if he’s not the future of urban culture, no one is. Using an aggressive thug life stance to shelter criticism over his obvious physical limitations, he’s a foul mouthed masterwork, a tripwire Tupac locked in an equally potent personal fortress. He’s a classic character (or a great find) and almost instantly demands the making of a solo feature all his own. Every moment he’s on screen is worth savoring and repeating. He’s gutbustingly great. He also illustrates part of Special Needs’ motion picture mystery. If he was discovered by James and brought to the project, then this filmmaker has a clear eye for flawless idiosyncratic talent. On the other hand, if he’s merely a handicapped actor putting on a front, then James is a genius for creating such a character, and P (real name, Keith Jones) is equally brilliant at bringing him to life. For this one element alone, Special Needs deserves unlimited praise.


But there is more to what’s going on here than outlandish personalities and a sly spoof of reality TV. In fact, it’s safe to say that this film really isn’t ‘about’ a potential series centering on the handicapped. Instead, it’s about the individuals involved, from Piece’s high-strung hubris to Laura Wilcox’s self loathing meanness. While the entire team behind Handicaps comes across as vain, angry, bitter and unlikable, James takes his time and opens up each and every character. We learn enough about each one to care (if only a little), and by the end we’re almost happy that the show appears to be a winner. And it’s not just the players that get fleshed out. The story is solid with an amazing amount of social commentary and depth.  Scenes are densely packed with multilayered material and James manages to find meaning in even the most scatological scene (as when the P.A.s lace the stars’ lattes with laxative).


Yet none of this touches on what really makes Special Needs shine – its brave sense of humor. Allowing the handicapped actors onscreen to hold their own, to be both the brunt and providers of many of the jokes, keeps the comedy fresh and honorable. Even when Killer P is hit with the N-word, his hilarious reactions take the sting out of the sentiment. In fact, that’s this film’s major motion picture contribution. In recent years, off balance disasters like The Ringer have tried to temper the mentally and physically challenged with something akin to soiled saintliness. Sure, they’re crude and rude, but they also have a built-in buttress against such standard human behavior that gives them a moralistic pass. Here, James simply let’s them be people. They are not defined by their malady anymore than Piece is hindered by his closet gayness, or as Laura is trapped in a shame cycle of body image issues.


This makes Special Needs a certified cinematic home run, an instant candidate for independent comedy of the year, and another terrific title in Troma’s growing collection of outsider gems (the company will release their DVD version sometime this year). Those expecting a mean-spirited marginalizing of the disabled will be greatly disappointed, while others wanting the mindless purveyors of reality rot to really get theirs will be doubled over in sidesplitting delight. That he managed to salvage something that could have been a disaster is not Isaak James’ greatest accomplishment here. No, the real revelation is his ability to thwart convention while carefully walking across all the formulaic necessities mandated to make a clever motion picture. Along with proving yet again that mainstream moviemakers have completely forgotten how to handle humor, Special Needs argues that the future of film lies somewhere beyond the fringe. Any cinephile who visits there will be wonderfully rewarded. 


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Saturday, May 26, 2007

I have a naive faith in the transparency of numbers, trusting that they have no significance in themselves but allow us to see directly through to the importance of the amount they have measured. Numbers are truly floating signifiers, with no meaning until they are given a context, something to count. I naively believe that everyone else fundamentally feels the same way, in the abstract. This seems a cornerstone principle of what it means to be rational, and it draws the boundaries that mark off the territory of superstition. The incantations of economic data or earnings reports, with their endless litany of percentage gains and year-over-year comparisons and moving averages, seem in part an elaborate ritual to testify to the neutrality and clarity of numbers, so solemnly are they invoked to give meaning not to themselves but to large intractable phenomena in the economy. Few reading these stories about economic indicators or market performance reports care about the specific numbers, only the justification and the argument that the numbers allows to be built around them. They anchor the ongoing narrative of capitalist practice without usurping it. The efficient transparency of numbers facilitates the smooth series of exchanges and calibrations capitalism requires—the price system works because no one presumably fetishizes the price itself but rather allows it to shift freely according to conditions.


That’s why a story like this one from the Wall Street Journal a few days ago is so disturbing: it relates how numerology contributes to driving the Chinese stock markets.


Part superstition and part self-fulfilling prophecy, numerology is a basic trading strategy in China. The philosophy reflects the widespread belief in Chinese society that numbers contain clues to good fortune.
It is a little noticed force adding fuel to a roaring market in the world’s fourth-biggest economy. The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index is up 56% this year and quadruple its level at mid-2005, a spike that is raising concerns about an investment bubble.
Investors’ zeal to base decisions in numerology also helps explain why Beijing has been unable to temper enthusiasm in the stock market through conventional measures, like credit tightening last week.
To professional observers, the Chinese investing public’s trust in the predictive power of numbers—rather than fundamentals like business prospects or profit—is one of many reminders of how buying on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges looks like gambling.
Brokerages are set up like casinos. Investors drink tea, smoke and chat as they make trades on computers lined up like slot machines. Instead of dropping in coins, they swipe bank cards to pay for shares.


What makes this so flabbergasting, I think, is the enormous effort made in business discourse to make stock markets not seem like gambling. a great deal of emphasis is placed on providing information that justifies stock prices, connecting them to earnings in elaborate ways. But if the stock prices have more to do with the numbers themselves, then it’s just roulette. Then it’s predictable only in the sense of self-fulfilling prophecy mentioned above, which scuttles the idea that economic growth and the stock market are connected, that stock market bubbles are producing real progress or change in the society at large.


And then an article like this one, from last week’s Economist seems scarier.


For the government the situation poses quite a challenge, particularly as anecdotal reports indicate that the stock buying craze is rampant both among the urban middle class and less well off sections of society like taxi drivers, pensioners and students. Should the market suffer a downturn these people could vent their fury, as investors did in the late 1990s when stock price crashes occurred, threatening political stability. The government will want to avoid such scenes in 2007 and 2008, as the Chinese Communist Party holds its five-yearly congress and the Olympics kick off in Beijing.


Inducing novice investors with possibly numerologically based investing strategies into an overheated market seems like a recipe for catastrophe.


Hence, from this week‘s Economist:


The Chinese consider four to be a very unlucky number (because in Mandarin it sounds like the word death). The number 4444 is thus presumably as bad as it gets. So suppose the Shanghai A-share index closes during the next week at 4,444 (it stood at 4,375 on May 23rd), which is quite possible given its 258% gain since the beginning of 2006; might that frighten investors enough to cause the share-price bubble to burst?


It just seems terrifying to me that stock markets can aggregate people’s superstition and give it agency in the nonbelieving world at large.


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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Riding cabs is the mode of the realm for travelers in any city not their own. Rental cars and trains and trams work, with more money or a bit of initiative, still, cabs are probably the cheapest means of purchasing mobility and possibly even scoring quick information about the local bests in eats, attractions, edification, and sundry merry-making.


Or not . . . depending on whose back seat you end up occupying.


Of course, it isn’t always a back seat. Since, in certain venues, custom dictates taking the shotgun seat. However, without a guidebook in hand (and then why pay for the cabbie for those choice informational tidbits?), it is not always clear which seat to take. It seems to me that once in Dresden when I took up the seat in the back of a cab, the driver did a double-take. Like: “who do you think I am, pal? Your chauffeur?”


Some people adopt the weirdest points of view.


 


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