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Tuesday, Dec 5, 2006

Or, actually, the “incomplete” dossier. Still MIA in this otherwise stellar presentation of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam via Joseph Conrad masterwork is the equally sublime and definitive documentary companion piece Hearts of Darkness. Said warts and all look at the production, featuring amazing behind the scenes footage and audio recordings of the filmmaker’s frequent meltdowns, has long been rumored to be part of a comprehensive Apocalypse package. Its absence here continues to fuel speculation that Coppola no longer appreciates the film’s portrait of him as director/demagogue. Or maybe the memories are still too fresh and painful to revisit, even 20 plus years later. Thankfully, we have both versions of the finished epic (original and expanded cut) and a wealth of extras to keep us occupied. [Amazon]



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Tuesday, Dec 5, 2006

Will Shortz Presents the Little Black Book of Sudoku by Will Shortz [St. Martin’s Press - $12.95]


It’s that wacky number game the Japanese turned into a pop culture behemoth… Sudoku.  Few gift guides in this day and age would be complete without something for the puzzling addicts that proliferate on all forms of public transportation in our major metropolises.  The kick to Shortz’s book is that it comes bound in a pop-rific black, hard-bound cover with a colorful play on words that looks and feels all pop art trendy.  It’s the upscale puzzle book gift this year for the leather briefcase carrying set. [Amazon]


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Tuesday, Dec 5, 2006

The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis by Jacques Lacan [W.W. Norton - $27.95]


Early drafts of Russell Grigg’s translation circulated surreptitiously for years, and so it is a delight to see Lacan’s most obviously political seminar arrive this holiday season for a generation of film theorists, cultural studies buffs, and others interested in psychoanalysis to absorb. Seminar XVII has served as the subtext for the one-man theoretical explosion that is Slavoj Zizek, and its publication will allow for a reassessment of Zizek’s contribution. Seminar XVII offers up both the clearest account of Lacan’s debts to Marx and Hegel and an uncannily prescient critique of the cannibalization of psychoanalysis by academics. [Amazon]


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Monday, Dec 4, 2006


Wallet worn out yet? Credit card crying “Uncle” under the strain of your increasing personal penury? Well, too friggin’ bad! Tinsel Town is not done delivering potential materialistic mandates for your ever-growing list of compulsory consumer purchases. After all, with a pair of the summer’s biggest titles just now hitting B&M shelves (and many more on the way before 25 December) and a non-stop barrage of catalog and reissue content, your cash is guaranteed to be strapped for weeks to come. Hoping you believe in the otherwise noble sentiment that ‘giving is better than getting’, marketers are making it harder and harder to avoid the digital domain as a potential gift category. Even when the titles are less than tantalizing, the presentation and packaging can boost a forgettable effort into a full-blown blind buy. Here’s something to ponder, however. If it really is the thought that counts, what does it say about you when a loved one unwraps the collector’s edition of Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. You better have your excuses ready in advance. The other choices chasing your checkbook this 5 December include:


1900: Special Collector’s Edition

*
Bernardo Bertolucci’s follow-up to his international hit Last Tango in Paris turned out to be a five hour and eighteen minute epic spanning 45 years in a small Italian town. Centering on the rise of fascism and the role communism played within the populace, the Mediterranean maestro cast Frenchman Gerard Depardieu and American Robert DeNiro as his heroes and filled with screen with images both beautiful and baneful. Some of the content pushed the limits previously set by Tango even further, and to this day, several sequences involving young boys have never been shown in the United States. While more than a few film fans find it all rather rough going – it is a very long 318 minutes – there is no denying Bertolucci’s connection to the material – or his inherent artistry.



Grey Gardens/ The Beales of Grey Gardens: Criterion Collection

*
Documentaries don’t get more spellbinding than this look at wealth in decay and the lives of two women, both lost within their own insular universe of privilege and pain. Brothers Albert and David Maysles struck subject matter gold when they discovered Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale (cousins of famed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) living in reclusive squalor in the title estate on the Hamptons. Eager for the attention they once held as members of high society, the pair were happy to “perform” for the directors, letting down their guard just enough to see the substantial sadness inside. The 1975 masterpiece is now supplemented with an amazing contemporary companion piece, arguing for the timelessness of both the Maysles moviemaking prowess and the Beale’s quiet desperation.



PopMatters Review


How to Eat Fried Worms


Based on Tom Rockwell’s classic kids novel, this story of bullies belittled and invertebrate guts digested should have been a fun family classic. But somewhere along the line, director Bob Dolman (whose only other credit, 2002’s The Banger Sisters, does not bode well for his filmmaking acumen) loses the lessons and overdoes the gross outs. Granted, in this post-millennial maelstrom of mixed juvenile messages – parents push safety while allowing questionable content to guide their wee ones – such an entertainment approach may be defendable. But silliness always needs to be balanced with substance, less the whole endeavor grow unruly. Dolman does have a good eye for underage talent, and there will be certain kids who could care less about a message. They’ll just want more of the sticky, slimy stuff. For them, the title tutorial will be sickeningly satisfying.



PopMatters Review


Idlewild


As Big Boi and Andre 3000 of Outkast went from multi-platinum recording sensations to disgruntled bandmates on the brink of imploding, the announcement that their next effort would be an old fashioned movie musical sent many of their fans reeling. How would these hip hop heavies, responsible for reinventing the genre with their style defying indifference to the rules, actually match up against the song and dance classics of Hollywood’s Golden era? The answer was…confusing. Idlewild‘s over the top flights of fancy, loaded with visual finesse and pop art poetry lacked the cohesive narrative that drives most song and dance showcases, and the aural element provided by the duo definitely lacks the sonic internalizing of a Broadway effort. But writer/director Bryan Barber, creator of many of the group’s classic videos, proves himself a fine filmmaker. He saves something that otherwise feels slightly self-indulgent.


 


PopMatters Review


Miami Vice*
It was an interesting idea on the part of writer/director Michael Mann: take his seminal TV series that seemed to define the ‘80s and strip it of every last iconic element. Then mix in heavy doses of star power (in the form of Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx), modern technology (cellphones, laptops) and illustrate the new 21st century version of the undying drug trade. The results should be realism reinvigorated. The only factor he left out was the fun. This is a deadly serious, almost expressionistic thriller, a movie where tone takes precedent over almost everything else on the big wide screen. Filmed in digital video for that Collateral-like look, and loaded with breathtaking imagery, there’s no denying that Mann has a flare for the epic. Sadly, the rest of the movie feels underdeveloped and superficial.



PopMatters Review


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest*
It’s hard to fathom why critics ganged up on this wonderful follow-up to the original seafaring adventure. It had so much more of everything that made the first movie great – more Johnny Depp, more insanely inventive villains, more tantalizing thespian eye candy (Mr. Bloom for the gals, Ms. Knightly for the guys). Still, reviewers treated it as some reprehensible pretender to the scallywag throne, condemning it to walk the pedestrian plank. We here at SE&L couldn’t disagree more. For us, this second portion of POTC is the reason why we anticipate the summer season year in and year out. It perfectly encompasses the best that blockbusters have to offer especially in this overly ironic age. Is it overlong, narratively convenient and piled high with occasionally contradictory concepts? Absolutely – and we wouldn’t want it any other way.


PopMatters Review


Pulse (2006)
Signaling the exact moment when the J-horror fad died in America, this reimagining of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2002 masterpiece Kairo forgets the first rule of any adaptation – try to keep what made the original so compelling in the first place. Instead, screenwriters Ray Wright and Wes Craven give filmmaking novice Jim Sonzero very little to work with outside the standard “technology is evil” idea (a minor part of Kurosawa’s creative conceit). Filmed in a manner that desaturates all the colors out of what is already a dour setting, this is the motion picture equivalent of mildew. Instead of mimicking the first film’s snowball approach, where small moments gather and build toward an apocalyptic ending avalanche, we get typical teens trapped in a sloppy spook show. While it can be visually arresting, Pulse pales in comparison to its source.



PopMatters Review


And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 5 December:


Bleak Future*
As a standard maxim, certain cinematic elements just don’t mix. Perhaps the most obvious example is any attempt at mixing science fiction with comedy. It’s like oil and water. Luckily, Brian S. O’Malley never listened to this routine rule of thumb. If he had, we wouldn’t be blessed with the remarkably engaging, absolutely hilarious end of the world insanity known as Bleak Future. Like George Miller mashed with Peter Jackson, this satirical shape of things to come is simultaneously smart and stupid, realistic and retarded, inspired and insipid, wholly original and a complete and utter rip off. It is also one of the oddest, most endearing entertainments to come out of the outsider arena in quite a while. It’s a gangly geek fest just waiting for the right collection of nerf herders to embrace its cool cult craziness.


 


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Monday, Dec 4, 2006

As someone who occasionally complains about free-market ideology and economists’ traditional assumptions about rationality—that it operates universally and consists of individuals’ maximizing utility by unerringly choosing among a variety of alternatives to yield the most satisfactory outcome—I found Hayek’s short essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” interesting. It seems to implicitly acknowledge that the view is ideological (rather than an empirical observation of human nature) while insisting on its profound usefulness upon being widely adopted. The essay is a concise explanation of how the free market can be seen as a system for distributing knowledge via the medium of prices, which are simple and straightforward enough for any participant in an economy to understand. By responding predictably to price changes, individuals can pass along critical information—“the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place”—without ever having to comprehend it or explain its overall significance.


To know of and put to use a machine not fully employed, or somebody’s skill which could be better utilized, or to be aware of a surplus stock which can be drawn upon during an interruption of supplies, is socially quite as useful as the knowledge of better alternative techniques. And the shipper who earns his living from using otherwise empty or half-filled journeys of tramp-steamers, or the estate agent whose whole knowledge is almost exclusively one of temporary opportunities, or the arbitrageur who gains from local differences of commodity prices, are all performing eminently useful functions based on special knowledge of circumstances of the fleeting moment not known to others.


Hayek pretends to find it strange that this exploiting this kind of knowledge, which is typicallly the basis of entrepreneurial opportunity, is scorned. But the possession of such knowledge is not necessarily earned by careful study or diligent habits or admission into prestigious educational institutions but by sheer good fortune; it seems unmerited, its distribution seems random and hence unfair. (Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling refers to this deploringly as the “managerialist bias”—the assumption that only those specially trained and certified should be entrusted to make economic decisions that affect us all.) But Hayek insists that knowledge is valid only when it is distributed arbitrarily rather than centralized in the hands of planners (or bureaucrats or educators or whomever), who more likely than not, in his opinion, are corrupted by their power (this is the gist of The Road to Serfdom).


So if knowledge is distributed among people who don’t ultimately have enough of it to do any real structural damage with the information—a happy consequence of democratic societies—what remains necessary is a mechanism that transcends human agency to aggregate that knowledge and make it socially useful. Enter the market, which allows the semi-informed person to make decisions based on price. As far as Hayek is concerned, when one is making decisions, “It is always a question of the relative importance of the particular things with which he is concerned, and the causes which alter their relative importance are of no interest to him beyond the effect on those concrete things of his own environment.”  That almost seems tautological to say decisions are a matter of choosing between the relative importance of things, but actually this is where the economist’s assumptions about rationality are imported into the scheme. (Hayek calls it “econommic calculus.”) Prices think through the importance of information for us so that we don’t have to, and it has the added benefit of being unerring at least in the sense that it is impersonal. In other words, prices don’t tell us the inherent value of an object but an unbiased accounting of an object’s overall significance to society—and this information, divorced of the reasons behind the number, is all we really need as individuals. “The problem is precisely how to extend the span of out utilization of resources beyond the span of the control of any one mind; and therefore, how to dispense with the need of conscious control, and how to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.”  We receive our marching orders from prices, which in this view reflect society’s best interests or at least its collective inclinations, rather than Big Brother. Consequently, all we need to learn from society during our schooling is a proper respect for prices, for always trying to get the most for less (a lesson that, incidentally, is endlessly reinforced in advertisements). This plays out in the inculcation of “rational” behavior, always being concerned with maximizing utility, which is essential to making the entire system able to coherently communicate anything. If people behave in a wasteful way (destroying the accursed share, as in Bataille’s theories, perhaps?) what the price system communicates may have less and less to do with what is socially useful and necessary.


This suggests why the market, conceived in these terms, can seem so objectionable—it obviates the need for human understanding and reduces decision-making to a mechanistic response to a single figure. It suggests that all other considerations are not just misguided but are in fact harmful obfuscations. Extrapolate from this and you yield a worldview that has no regard or use for curiosity—and a very cursory look at America’s chain stores and passive entertainments would seem to support the idea that we already live in that world.


UPDATE: See this Blood and Treasure post for an analysis of Hayek’s fondness for “liberal dictatorship”. Writes Jamie K.: “I’ve argued before that many of China’s anti subversion laws – like those against ‘causing turmoil’ or ‘disturbing social order’ - have a Hayekian feel to them. They’re essentially designed as measures to stop people exercising the conceit of reason.”


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