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Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported on the precipitous drop in the value of shares of Heelys, manufacturer of those rolling shoes that were popular a season ago with kids looking to break their necks. (I guess the WSJ is still good for something. My flight to quality and the FT won’t be complete until my WSJ subscription runs out.) My first reaction to this was delight; the shoes were a stupid trend, and there’s schadenfreude in seeing its inevitable demise. You have to wonder what sort of investor saw a sustainable growth potential in a business that sells novelty shoes to ten-year-olds? Optimistic neophytes, or opportunistic daredevils? Anyway, I started to wonder why I had anything invested myself in the fate of this company, even if it was only emotional investment. Why was I so pleased?


Initially, the failure of such companies as Heelys seems to prove that it’s a bad move to base businesses on frivolous fashion, which by extension seems to suggest that fashion itself is a dubious force, something better eradicated, like volatility in the markets. When the Heelys of the world fail, it should theoretically remind everyone not to get too wrapped up in fads, and to look elsewhere for engines of growth—to technology that breeds efficiency, for example. This is in keeping with my general skepticism regarding retail stocks, which are always dependent on fickle and unpredictable customers spending irrationally in a way I wouldn’t otherwise condone.


But if I’m hoping that the failure of fashion-forward companies somehow portends the end of the industry, I really need to consider more carefully this passage from the WSJ article:


Industry analysts said [Heelys’] sales drop stems from a more prosaic cause: An increasing number of youngsters said they would rather wear something else. Amy Braunstein, 14 years old, who was shopping at Dallas’s NorthPark Center mall last week, said Heelys were popular among her classmates two years ago. Now, the eighth grader said most children wear Nike Inc.‘s Converse shoes, leaving their Heelys at home. “They’re old,” she said.


If anything, Heelys’ failure demonstrates the remorselessness of fashion, and how deeply it has been entrenched even in the mind of preteens. It’s influence is far from showing any signs of mitigating; instead its stranglehold on culture grows stronger. Were Heelys able to establish itself and maintain its stature perpetually without having to come up with “new shoe designs, including nonwheeled sneakers and a wheeled boot”—pointless innovations (nonwheeled shoes sort of defeats the whole company’s raison d’etre)—then foes of fashion would have reason to be pleased. Instead, I’m thoughtlessly celebrating the opposite. This probably means that I actually take more pleasure in trends than I ordinarily admit to myself—I just happen to enjoy the side of the cycle when trends fade and companies fail rather than when they rise, like a craps player playing the don’t-pass line. Foolishly, I think this makes me a contrarian, and I pretend that I’m not really interested in the craps game at all, while I am making private little bets all the while.


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Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007

There’s a good cover story from Prospect Magazine which lays out all the problems that the record industry has been going through for the last few years and how they brought a lot of it on themselves (no matter how many lawsuits they file to the contrary).  One thing I don’t agree with in the article is about included free CD’s in newspapers- they think it’s useless and only devalues CD’s when in the article, they’ve already argued how CD’s are ALREADY devalued (and Prince used this ploy wisely too).  Also, I don’t like how the article doesn’t offer solutions and instead only serves up a lot of gloom- concert sales seem to be the only way artists can make a living nowadays but as many rappers have shown, there’s a lot of money to be found in other kinds of marketing.


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Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007

The New Pornographers continue to set the bar for the indie music scene. This Canadian band released their first album Mass Romantic in 2000, winning a Juno Aaward for Alternative Album of the Year. The New Pornographers also have songs featured on The Office and Weeds. Their latest album, Challengers, came out today, August 21. 


On the Late Show with David Letterman:



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Monday, Aug 20, 2007


Rob Zombie is a genre archivist. Name an obscure or forgotten horror/exploitation film from the ‘30s – ‘80s, and he’s probably seen it, memorized it, and pulled the best bits out to form his own unique aesthetic. Anyone who has listened to his music – either as part of his original band White Zombie, or his ongoing solo career – can hear the references, lyrics filled with amazing macabre imagery and outright schlock homages. But the transition from band frontman to film director remains mysterious, almost unimaginable in these days of carefully controlled Hollywood bottom lines. Yet Universal (and then MGM) both bet that this ghoul geek could deliver the kind of big screen scares that drive audiences to dread. Instead of going right for the standard fear factors however, Zombie delivered two amazing movies that challenged the post-modern mindset to confront the terrors of old and recognize their repulsive, repugnant pleasures.


In a three film oeuvre (his questionable remake of Halloween will open on 31 August, 2007), Zombie has established a clear understanding of what it takes to make a major motion picture. He’s not sloppy in his cinematography or undermined by paltry production design. But there is a clear inspirational distinction between his first above average attempt (2002’s House of 1000 Corpses) and his latter, legitimate masterpiece (2005’s The Devil’s Rejects). It’s a comparison that’s easily made by the recent rerelease of both films as part of a three disc DVD presentation from Lionsgate. While really nothing more than a repackaging of previously available Special Editions, the contextual information provided, as well as a chance to evaluate both movies side by side, illustrates that what started off as pure nerd fandom is now turning into a calculated and creatively impressive career behind the camera.

Both films draw on the same set of characters and background elements. Where they differ is in their style and substance. When House of 1000 Corpses begins, a group of roadside attraction lovers stop off at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen. There they learn of the notorious Dr. Satan, a deranged surgeon who performed unspeakable experiments on the patients of a local insane asylum. Hoping to see his grave, our newly labeled victim fodder head out into the dark, rainy night. There, they run into Baby Firefly, a hitchhiker claiming special knowledge of the area. An unseen shotgun to their tires later, and the foursome are guests in the gal’s whacked out house. They reluctantly meet the rest of the clan: flitty Momma, ditzy Grandpa, titanic Tiny, rugged RJ, and the spectral and sinister Otis. Turns out, they’re a clan of serial killers, working directly with the demented doc by supplying subjects to continue his craven calling.


In The Devil’s Rejects, the Firefly family are ambushed by the police, and sent scattering into the local countryside. Baby and Otis join up with Captain Spaulding (who turns out to be yet another relative). The trio scours the countryside for a means of escape. They wind up at a fleabag motel, where they take a country singer and his entourage hostage. In the meanwhile, Mother Firefly is interrogated by the local sheriff, whose brother was murdered by the brood. Desperate to rid the area of the reprobate once and for all, the lawman calls on the help of some less than trustworthy bounty hunters. This results in a stand-off between good and evil, with the deck stacked heavily on the side of those mindless murderers who’ve got nothing left to lose – except their life.


The dichotomy is practically inherent in the plots. House of 1000 Corpses comes off like a dark ride gone deranged, a slasher slice and dice accentuated with a clever carnival barkers belief in the power of macabre iconography. Sitting through the occasionally scattered narrative, one get’s the impression that Zombie believed this would be his one and only shot at making a cinematic statement. So instead of using a subtle, more assured approach, he went wild, unclogging every craven thought from his creative kitchen sink. The results are a baneful blacklight poster come to life, an occasionally incoherent callback to every blinkered idea that ever gave the director the horror heebie jeebies. The plot points borrow heavily from several certified genre classics, yet all are filtered through his headbanger’s ballsiness. There’s a deadly amount of dark comedy, an unsuccessful finale, and enough flashes of filmmaking brilliance to indicate that Zombie’s moviemaking presence is something much more than a fluke.


The Devil’s Rejects, on the other hand, is pure exploitation bliss. Carefully recreating the atmosphere and action of a sleazoid ‘70s drive-in death wish, this grindhouse glorification puts the spring 2007 attempt by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez to shame. Zombie understands that there is more to raincoat crowd entertainment than scantily clad gals and buckets of blood. Indeed, tone and temperament are far more important than girls and gore. With its washed out cinematography and Me era optical nods (freeze frames, fade outs) the filmmaker forces us back in time, taking us on a fatalistic trip through a violence strewn landscape of dishonesty and dead bodies. By correlating the Fireflys with even more despicable desperados (especially the ‘anything for vengeance’ sheriff), Zombie actually gets us to care for this corrupt clan. Even as they gouge and vivisect their way through the Tennessee countryside – which in perfect passion pit tradition, looks a lot like California – we want to see them succeed, if only to put their far worse tormentors in their place.


As a progression, both films become a revelation, especially when accompanied by perspective adding DVD bonus features. Zombie provides a pair of interesting commentaries, the first one complaining about his mistreatment at the hands of the studios, the second complimenting the suits who supported him the second time out. He remains angry over the massive cuts Corpses had to go through to be determined releasable by both the MPAA and his original Tinsel Town sponsors. He worships the collection of genre names he got to work on both films, and marvels at how nuanced and knowing their performances are. Most importantly, he recognizes his flaws, failing to blame them on anyone other than his own inexperienced and learning self. He comes at cinema as a fan acknowledging the need for an apprenticeship, not a conceited quack whose one step away from hackdom.


This also comes across loudly in the nearly three hour documentary provided as the third “disc” in this set. Entitled 30 Days in Hell, this look at the production of The Devil’s Rejects reveals a cast and crew completely in tune with their director’s desires. One producer even goes so far as to suggest that, sans pay, the incredibly talented company would continue to help Zombie achieve his aims. It’s a stunning revelation, one that arrives from confidence and uncompromised creative license. If Corpses is corrupted by a fear of failure and a lack of faith in the man hired to make the movie, Rejects has the reverse issues. There is such a devotion to the director’s vision that one fears a kind of closed off, narrow-minded outcome. Indeed, some still found Zombie’s revolutionary retro retread to be a vile, reprehensible assault on the senses. It’s a safe bet that those critics never saw an exploitation film in their entire life.



This doesn’t help Corpses any, though. It stands as a solid attempt, an all or nothing, over the top amalgamation of every minute morsel that made up Zombie’s life as a fright film fan. The performances are excellent all around, especially Bill Moseley’s messianic Otis and Spider Baby’s sensational Sid Haig as the creepiest combination of clown and fried chicken cook you’ll ever meet. Yet the problematic production (stopped once, restarted again months later with even less enthusiasm) coupled with Zombie’s own accepted inexperience leads to a feeling of dissatisfaction. Appreciating the film becomes a challenge, a direct mandate from Zombie to be “with him, or against him”. Rejects is more realistic. It doesn’t ask for pretext, though those of us who love the old grindhouse gang find far more pleasures here. Instead, it states its purpose clearly and convincingly, never nitpicking the nastiness inherent in the narrative while avoid the cartoonish carnival ideal that marred some of Corpses’ concepts.


All of which makes the wait for his take on John Carpenter’s slice and dice classic that much more difficult. Trailers tell of a rising “traveling company” ideal, with almost everyone associated with Corpses and Rejects back to play roles here. Zombie has also dug deeper inside the genre bin, bringing out new cast members previously associated with the franchise as well as names known to those who frequented the bottom shelf of a ‘80s Mom and Pop video store. It’s rare to see a filmmaker literally grow up and mature on the big screen. They usually don’t get such a large canvas to practice on. Ron Zombie will either become a macabre maestro or a one and a half hit wonder. But thanks to the insights provided by the 3 Disc Collector’s Edition, we can certainly see that there is more to this man than a personal warehouse filled with multimedia editions of Famous Monsters of Filmland. He is a fine filmmaker, and House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects proves this.


 


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Monday, Aug 20, 2007
by Edward Wasserman

What’s the worst thing about the media?


Everybody has a favorite peeve: Bias in reporting, hyper-commercialization, encouraging people to buy things they don’t need and can’t afford, undermining core values, nurturing cynicism.


There are others, and Web sites are refilled daily with fresh angles on the case you can make against the media—here, I mean specifically the U.S. media. A case can also be made for the media, but that’s not my interest today.


I’m interested in introducing my nominee for the very worst thing about the U.S. media, the single greatest harm the media do to American society. That, in my opinion, is to hang a for-rent sign on our political system.


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