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Tuesday, Dec 19, 2006

It’s extremely counterproductive to feel obligated to resist the zeitgeist; when the holidays come this means resenting everything commercial culture dredges up to remind you spend, spend, spend. It means yearning to plug one’s ears with cement to blot out holiday music, and it means taking each Christmas card received as some kind of insult or provocation, rubbing your face in the fact that you haven’t gotten it together to get your own in the mail. Then there’s the contrived gift exchanges and fatuous sentimentality—I’m predisposed to see the worst in all of it because I am prejudiced against whatever appears to be popular and whatever “ordinary” people seem to be doing. No one wants to be ordinary, but growing up I latched on to the “alternative” ruse that one can be distinctive by having esoteric tastes and by advertising one’s contempt for whatever cultural artifacts and rituals have become things that relative strangers can share and bond over. Perversely, I tend to remove those things from my conversational repertoire and as a result spend an awful lot of time blogging to myself. With this strategy, loneliness and alienation become badges of true singularity. Congratulations, no one can relate to you. What an accomplishment.


Anyway, my instinct to sneer at this best-albums roundtable at Slate is what started me thinking about this. What put me off most was the writers’ enthusiasm, which was awkward for me because theoretically that is what I’m afraid consumerism obliterates. I’m always worried we’ll lose the public space in which to express enthusiasm authentically, since it’s usually cynically simulated in ads, devaluing all expressions of it. Perhaps that is what sets me on edge here—I subliminally suspect editorial fluffing, encouraging writers to be more effusive in their praise and hype when its deeply ingrained in me to think that the best things speak for themselves. Of course that’s not true—there’s too much stuff for anything to be noticed on merit alone; everything needs an advocate, needs to be known by someone important (one of the influential operatives Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point) who will spread the word. So what gets recognized and cited in year-end lists like this are the things that have been adopted in chummy networks of the privileged, those who feel entitled to have opinions and blast them out at everyone and can expect to be paid attention to. So the best-of lists are coded maps to these networks of influence, the same ones that keep elite colleges elite and keep media jobs in the family and keep American opinion-mongering ultimately homogenous and subject to observable, bankable trends. In some ways I think the “holiday spirit” can also be mapped to this network of the powerful congratulating themselves for how they have closed ranks—right now that is just a paranoid notion of mine, I think, but something about the oppressiveness of polite conventions seems intended to conserve power. Holiday cheer, the universal zeitgeist, seems a deeply embedded way of endorsing the status quo without apprehending the specifics of what you are affirming. The social machinery that manufactures what should be, what we should feel, what we should value, lumbers into high gear in the holidays, purveying a utopia-lite in lieu of any progress toward true egalitarianism, a synthetic Candyland where everything in our culture is made to seem bountiful, commercial rituals (which stoke capitalism’s creative destruction) reaffirm a specious continuity to social life, and we are invited to swap presents as though it can be achieved with none of the potlatch humiliation and overdogging that gift exchange is rooted in. Critics in the popular press effusing over all the year’s great works constitute one set of gears in that machine.


Seeing a dialogue unfold amongst this cognoscenti network regarding the most democratic of artforms, pop music, about which one can form meaningful aesthetic opinions without any prior training or education, is just extra depressing because you can sense the strain of the writers, who are obvious smart and sincere music lovers, trying not to posture while at the same time laboring to justify their coronation as “working critics”. They try to display their versatility and populism by referencing music from a spectrum of genres, kowtowing to contemporary country like Democrats angling for the NASCAR dad vote. They try to vindicate what is popular, avoiding accusations of elitism or irrelevance, but they slip in enough references to obscure musicians to demonstrate how they are slumming. They need to manufacture authority for their criticism in a field with no traditions for certification other than a lively, compelling voice, and consequently pop-music writing tends to be palpably narcissistic, preoccupied with methodology and metacritique of other critics, always reflecting back on the writer’s own right to speak. Perhaps all writing is this way, at the root of things. Perhaps this is just what it means to have a conversation.


I’m trying to think what I would prefer instead of this critical conversation. As much as I remain unconvinced by anything a music journalist gets paid to write, I actually find year-end lists useful—for though my instinct is to recoil from the popular, my way to overcome this juvenile behavior and try to combat the tendency of getting stuck in the music I listened to at 20, is to download whatever records the cognoscenti have elevated. I don’t like very much of it, but I feel I’ve done my cultural duty and forestalled nostalgia, for a few weeks anyway. If I could come up with a similar strategy for making peace with the holiday spirit, I’d feel even better.


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Tuesday, Dec 19, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Mos Def
True Magic

[Geffen]
US release: Friday, December 29th


Stream: “Fake Bonanza” [Real Audio | Windows]
Stream: “Napoleon Dynamite” [Real Audio | Windows]

[Mos Def | MySpace]


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Tuesday, Dec 19, 2006

Maybe it’s just that the press revels in cannibalism or they’re goths but they seem uncommonly fascinated with their own demise.  By now, you’ve read the endless weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth about how Web 2.0 is killing journalism as we know it (and letting the great unwashed participate more and more).  One well-toasted article (deservedly so) about this is from the Center for Citizen Media blog (gasp, new media!): The Demise of the Professional Photojournalist.  While it’s another article mourning of the traditional journalist, it also points out what Web 2.0 has to offer and what it ultimately cannot offer.


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Monday, Dec 18, 2006


Christmas crunch time, people. You really need to stop all that present-buying procrastination and, to paraphrase a line from Total Recall, get your ass to the mall. With only six full days before a certain St. Nick is supposed to show up with many material goods to illustrate just how much you love your faithful family members, consuming, not time, is of the essence. Luckily, those marketing wizards over at DVD Central have stockpiled a few first-class titles to tempt you back into the unruly shopping hordes. Of the seven featured films discussed, at least two are major must-own offerings, with another couple completely acceptable, depending on your love of football and/or failed fairytales. There definitely is some digital dung out there too, especially in the realm of romantic superhero comedies and ridiculous remakes of past horror classics. Add in an unique animated sci-fi thriller and you’ve got something for everyone on your “buy or die” list. And with less than a week, slackers can’t be choosers, right? So break out the billfold and line up like lemmings as 19 December delights you with the following prospective giftage:


Invincible

Somehow, Hollywood is stuck in a discernible cinematic rut when it comes to sports movies – even one’s supposedly “based” on a true story. There always has to be an underdog, a cause worth fighting for, and a last act contest or confrontation that challenges the mantle and make-up of the characters we’ve watched for the last 80-plus minutes. In the case of this footnote in the career of coach Dick Vermeil during his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, we see bartender/team walk-on Vince Papale live out the dream of every drunken football fan in America. Anyone familiar with the tale will tell you that in the City of Brotherly Love, where Vermeil was hired to turn around a failing franchise, those open try-outs were both a blessing and a curse. The city has never forgotten that singular season where they felt really connected to the players. Sadly, it’s a sentiment all but lacking in the multimillion dollar era of the sport.



PopMatters Review


The Lady in the Water


It was either the biggest leap of filmic faith ever made by an up and coming superstar director, or the sloppiest example of uncontrolled hubris ever exhibited by a yet to be fully established filmmaker. Angry that Disney would not develop his latest script (a project they feared would flop) M. Night Shyamalan pulled up production stakes and turned his talents over to Warner Brothers. Of course, the competitor was more than happy to have the man who helmed The Sixth Sense and Signs under their moviemaking moniker. Then, just to pour cinematic salt in the wounds, Shyamalan cooperated with a book blasting the whole House of Mouse approach to his project. Unfortunately, what got forgotten along the way was the movie. And in this case, the film is a frustrating, forced fairytale that takes up too much time establishing its parameters with not enough effort going toward enchanting the audience. While it has some interesting moments, it’s Uncle Walt’s world that’s having the last laugh now.


 


PopMatters Review


Little Miss Sunshine

*
Ever since it hit movie screens more than five months ago, this delightfully deranged comedy/road film has really been racking up the respectability. Even at this late stage in the award season game, the story of a little girl named Olive Hoover and her desire to hold the title…title is ensemble excellence at its most satiric. Sure, our plucky heroine is surrounded by one crazy, dysfunctional family, but thanks to the amazing acting by a terrific cast – included Greg Kinnear, Toni Collettte, Steven Carell and Alan Arkin – and sound direction from the famed team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, we never once view the Hoovers as anything other than your typical post-modern mob. They wear their identifiable idiosyncrasies like brazen badges of honor. Such smart filmmaking has always been the benchmark of the independent effort and Sunshine is no different. It proves that characterization more than anything else can successfully sell any storyline.



My Super Ex-Girlfriend


Most filmmakers will tell you – casting is crucial to the success of any entertainment endeavor. Someone should have reminded director Ivan Reitman of this fact when he was filling out the cast for this feeble, unfunny flop. You’d think the man who produced Animal House and helmed Ghostbusters would know better than to stick Luke Wilson in role seemingly written for a Jack Black style of actor, or to toss Rainn Wilson in as the sidekick when all the genial performer has is a one-note Office-ready routine. Granted, Uma Thurman is a natural as the anxiety-riddled super-heroine who doesn’t take getting dumped all that well, but there is no support around her. Even Brit wit Eddie Izzard, as a criminal mastermind with a personal reason for being displeased, looks more fed up than fiendish during his brief moments on screen. With more of a spotlight on the superhero angle, this could have been good. Instead, it’s desperately dull.



PopMatters Review


A Scanner Darkly*
In blending Philip K. Dick (author of the book upon which this film is based) with the stunning computer generated rotoscoping animation he used in Waking Life, director Richard Linklater has reinvented both serious science fiction and the visual viability of 2D cartooning. Relying on that time honored plot of a super-addictive drug and the people who use and abuse it, Linklater utilizes his unusual cinematic approach to completely blur the lines between fantasy and reality, making the trials and turmoil experience by our hero – undercover cop Bob Arctor – that much more compelling. With Keanu Reeves in the lead, and a supporting company including Robert Downey Jr. Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson, Linklater follows the author’s storyline to a fault, proving that even something written in the 1970s can have cultural resonance today. Along with the trippy pen and ink imagery, Scanner becomes a manipulative mindfuck, a movie adverse to giving away its secrets and requiring an audience to really think to discover its designs.



PopMatters Review


When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts*
While this devastating documentary is considered a TV mini-series (it premiered on HBO), SE&L cannot avoid a mention here, since it guarantees you will not see a better fact-based film this year. Spike Lee, who worked his moviemaking magic on the story of 4 Little Girls (about the bombing of an Alabama church during the Civil Rights movement) and Jim Brown: All America, takes on the Federal Government, George W. Bush and the lack of effective emergency relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and provides a ballsy blueprint for EVERYTHING that’s wrong with America circa 2006. Moving, infuriating and loaded with unconscionable criminality (one critic said it best when they opined that, upon seeing the film, they hoped someone would be arrested), the most shocking thing about this four hour visual essay is how unfinished and open-ended it feels. Indeed, Lee has publicly stated that he intends to continually follow-up on the New Orleans story, similar to how Stephen Spielberg used Schindler’s List for the Shoah Project. This masterful movie is a sensational start.


PopMatters Review


The Wicker Man (2006)
Neil LaBute, best known for his small, ensemble dramas like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors was definitely an unlikely candidate to helm a remake of this well regarded 1973 British occult thriller. And his decision to turn the focus away from the original’s male-dominated domain to a realm overrun by women seemed like a logical revamp move at the time. But somewhere between the idea and the execution, this film got way off base. Nicholas Cage plays a cop who investigates the disappearance of a young girl in a remote island village. He soon discovers that there is more to this place than its unusual atmosphere and pagan ways. Totally lacking in anything similar to suspense and constantly undermined by a script that makes very little sense, even LaBute’s best bet – the matriarchal society – is underdeveloped and unexceptional. Considered by many to be one of the worst movies of the year, the original cult classic needn’t worry over having its cinematic mantle usurped anytime soon.



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 19 December:


The Illustrated Man*
It was one of Ray Bradbury’s most intriguing creative conceits – the story of a man whose tattoos come to life, showing the unsuspecting viewer one of the author’s many inspired and imaginative tales. With Method madman Rod Steiger in the lead, and Claire Bloom as the lady responsible for the enchanted body art, what we really have here is an anthology film wrapped up in some very intriguing linking material. Bradbury’s tales told here include “The Veldt”, “The Long Rains” and “The Last Night of the World” and many find the interpretations charming, if rather routine. Indeed, it’s odd that Bradbury is not used more often in these days of CGI and advanced moviemaking technology. His works are loaded with the kind of inventive intricacy that your average F/X whiz loves to linger over. Perhaps not as powerful as it was upon its initial release, this is still an intriguing look at one man’s meaningful literary influence, and the frequently flat efforts made from it.


 


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Monday, Dec 18, 2006

New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund


The holidays are virtually around the corner now and time is running out for those last minute shoppers among you.  If you love music (which we assume you do as PopMatters readers) and have gifts left to buy for fellow music-lovers (or even yourself), we can think of nothing better than to recommend a donation to the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund.  Yes, more than a year after Katrina, there are still many musicians without instruments and the basics they need to practice their art.  New Orleans is a national treasure.  More original American musical art forms have been birthed inside the levees of the Crescent City than anywhere else in the US.  Today’s musicians work hard to maintain and build upon that tradition and they do, when they have the tools to do so.  As the true culture hounds that you are, please donate on behalf of your loved ones during these holidays or head on over to the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund’s CafePress store to pick up t-shirts and more to show your support. [New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund | CafePress store]


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