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Sunday, Oct 22, 2006

The linkage of coffee and culture is not new. Coffeehouse was a byword for intellectual foment in 18th century England, and beatniks were widely regarded as skulking in coffee shops in their heyday. So It’s not suprising Starbucks wants to be in the culture-distribution business, streamlining and sanitizing the coffee-culture linkage, debeatnikifying it the way it has de-Europeanized the cappuccino and espresso machine. Today’s NYT has a long article about “The Starbucks aesthetic” in the Arts and Leisure section:

the chain is increasingly positioning itself as a purveyor of premium-blend culture. “We’re very excited, because despite how much we’ve grown, these are the early stages for development,” said Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks. “At our core, we’re a coffee company, but the opportunity we have to extend the brand is beyond coffee; it’s entertainment.”

Much like Coca-Cola has proclaimed it is a media company selling brand impressions (as opposed to a beverage company selling sugar syrup, like many of us have naively believed), Starbucks is positioning itself the same way, selling its brand as a cultural filter, selecting highbrow coffee (latte hasn’t replaced limousine in the epithet for self-centered liberals for nothing) and entertainments, to send the proper signal of gentility to the people who pay attention to such things. The coffee has established itself as the upper-class alternative to plebian coffee, and this presumably has a halo effect that hovers over everything sold in one of their branches. The de facto music supervisor for the store in-house music, a former manager named Timothy Jones, says he looks for music that has “a believable sound that isn’t too harsh.” In practical terms, this means the sort of adult contemporary that you’d hear on a station like Philadelphia’s (truly nauseating) WXPN: Sting, Natalie Merchant, Amos Lee—dull and earnest, unlikely to disrupt a conversation or a nap. This is music that connotes authenticity while having all its edges smoothed by precisely the sort of compromises “authenticity” suggests one would reject. It’s a lot like NPR (which connotes liberalism without espousing anything actually leftist), which is mentioned frequently in the article as the cultural touchstone Starbucks shoots for.

People who buy records and, who in the future will buy books, at Starbucks are likely to be fairly conformist in their outlook on culture, seeking to gain no distinction from discovering anything original. Yet they probably don’t see themselves as part of the unwashed masses. They want to be familiar with the right things, and surround themselves with cultural product that will reaffirm their idea of themselves as an open-minded yet tasteful consumers of entertainment—thus everything at Starbucks must connote sophistication and adventursomeness without actually being so. You can feel hip without any of the unpleasantness that actually comes from associating with hipsters: arrogance, greasiness, contempt, envy, fierce competitiveness over personality nuances, etc. Thus the predominance in their music stock of lite world-beat music and elevator folk. Even if the consumer never flaunts his choices from the Starbucks cultural cornucopia, he may rest comfortably in his private enjoyment that he has placed himself squarely within the genteel matrix of the acceptable—it’s an efficient way to consume one’s own class status as a pleasing and satisfying product. Says one satisfied customer quoted in the article: “It’s who I am—baby boomer, upper middle class, a little hippyish, rockish. ...” Wouldn’t you be proud of that pedigree? Wouldn’t you want to be able to enjoy yourself, consume yourself, if that were you? Starbucks culture permits you to express your self-satisfaction through a shopping gesture—the only gestures that matter in consumer culture—and have a souvenir of the triumphant moment. Look, this Akeelah and the Bee soundtrack. It’s who I am, and I’m wholly comfortable with it. The fastest-growing middlebrow chain endorses me and I endorse it.

What Starbucks gains from all this is a more effective way of shopping for the right sort of customers: “The more cultural products with which Starbucks affiliates itself, the more clearly a Starbucks aesthetic comes into view: the image the chain is trying to cultivate and the way it thinks it’s reflecting its consumer.” These affluent customers reinforce the brand image and police it; for those who don’t fit the demographic, the sonic barrage of Madeleine Peyroux serves as repellant, if the disapproving glances of the sort of people who hang out in Starbucks don’t do the trick.

(See copyranter‘s screed on Gawker for a succinct retelling of the article.)

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Saturday, Oct 21, 2006

While cruising the sun stroked byways of Retirement Territory, U.S.A (a.k.a. Florida) on his mega-machined chopper, wounded Vietnam veteran Herschel runs into Jesus’ personal P.R. representative, Angel. She lives with her dope fiend sister Ann in a house frequented by several prime examples of why American ingenuity and productivity was so poor in the ‘70s. While Angel preaches the psalms to Herschel, Ann tries to get to “know” him in the true Biblical sense. Realizing that the only begetting old Hersch is interested in is of the platonic variety, Ann seeks her revenge by making the beefy buffoon smoke some oregano doobies laced with pure smack. One puff, and Herschel is hooked, painfully craving more spiked smoke to calm his horrible overacting.

But instead he gets a job on a local turkey farm where the inbred cousins of Bartles and James feed him free bird pumped full of Adolph’s meat tenderizer, overly salty chicken broth, and the magic ingredient Polyplotpoint 80. Instead of copping a buzz off the L-tryptophan, however, Herschel turns into a half-man/half bird beast, complete with papier-mâché turkey head and overdubbed gobble. Hungry like the hen, he goes out looking for drug addicts to kill for their rich, chemically enhanced blood. And while Ann feels guilt for getting Herschel hooked, and Angel memorizes the last few Beatitudes, the foul feathered fiend roams the streets of Sun City Center, looking for supermodels, rock stars and grade schoolers to supply him with the opium rich artery juice he so desperately needs.

What do you get when you cross some retread reefer madness, accidental drug addiction, religious fundamentalism, body building and processed turkey loaf? Well, if you’re oddball director Brad Grinter, you end up with Blood Freak, the only film in the entire exploitation canon to be endorsed by The Southern Baptist Convention, the Betty Ford Clinic, and the Butterball Thanksgiving Hotline. There is probably no other movie in the long lineage of monster/maniac/heroin related filmography that centers on a brawny European muscleman getting addicted to Chinese Rock-enhanced wacky weed while working as the subject of some warped experiments at the local subsidiary of the Perdue poultry empire. Only Godmonster of Indian Flats can boast a more bizarre cinematic universe, and yet its Old West weirdness just cannot compare to Freak‘s Vietnam vet in a fowl mood madness.

It’s hard to fathom what Grinter was hoping to achieve with this movie. Was he mad at drugs? Irritated by religion? Longing for the invention of Stovetop Stuffing? The motivation is unclear. But the method used to achieve it is downright demented. Grinter is of the old cinematic school that feels a movie doesn’t have to make a great deal of linear sense as long as it contains frequent shots of the director smoking. That’s right, about every eight minutes or so, our swarthy South Florida celluloid sod appears on camera, eyes blurry from too many Tom Collins, fingers and breath stained yellow from endless Marlboros, hair swirled with a combination of Alberto VO5 and dried vomit, and proceeds to narrate the film by blatantly reading from the script. His Grecian Formula 16 chorus adds an inebriated pseudo-philosophy to the entire pissed off psycho pullet shenanigans.

But these drunken monotonous-logues by Mr. Grinter, with their non-sensical segues and his pre-throat cancerous croak are not the only unhinged things about Blood Freak. The whole religious, Jesus saves subplot is hilariously out of place here. It’s as if some cast member ran across a copy of The Watchtower on the craft services table and wouldn’t let the production finish until there was a little holy hollering added to the sex, drugs, and turkey murders. The cast gives off the aura of being perplexed by their own performances, with the forced child confession emoting of the actress playing Ann as plastic as the elaborate layers of eye paint she wears—Tammy Faye must be spinning in her vanity chair.

But it’s the whole murderous doped up turkey-man idea that shoots this movie into the surreal stratosphere. The scenes of our strung out strongman, big bullem bird head in place, attacking victims and letting blood have an unworldly, downright disturbing quality. You will be laughing, mind you, but some of the gore is fairly nasty. Especially effective is an elongated torture scene near the end of the film. Lets just say it involves our insane roaster, a table saw, and a drug dealer’s leg (Lucio Fulci would be proud). The kinetic, freestyle editing, the endless shots of Grinter babbling like an improvising, smut peddling Criswell, and actors who play dead by wincing and wiggling as all the while effects gore F/X across their face makes Blood Freak a first rate crazed capon caper.

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Friday, Oct 20, 2006

The Frighteners is Peter Jackson’s lost masterpiece, an important cinematic cog linking his genre work of the past with the monumental achievements in fantasy filmmaking he would attain with the Lord of the Rings. Coming right after the personal, praised Heavenly Creatures, Jackson had wanted to make a more mainstream film. Robert Zemeckis stepped in and offered the director a chance to make a full-blown Hollywood hit. With longtime partner Fran Walsh, Jackson had been kicking around the idea of a Ghostbusters-style psychic who conned people out of money by pretending to purge spirits from their home. The only catch was that Frank Bannister could actually see specters, and was using the otherworldly agents as his grifting partners. Agreeing to let the director film in his native New Zealand (which more or less passes for the Pacific Northwest) and also allowing all the post-production work to be done by Kiwi craftsman, The Frighteners suddenly had full U.S. studio support.

Though it failed to become the blockbuster everyone had hoped for, The Frighteners still became a real stepping-stone in its creator’s canon. Beyond its import to his career, Jackson’s film is also important in the ongoing evolution of CGI. Before WETA’s work in The Frighteners (they also helmed a few scenes in Creatures), computer-generated imagery was seen as the exclusive domain of the Americans—and ILM in particular. While Jurassic Park will always be seen as a monumental step forward, The Frighteners was a formidable attempt at the seamless incorporation of motherboard rendered visuals into a narrative. The main monster here, a wonderfully fluid and fierce figure known as The Reaper, may seem a tad dated in light of our post-millennial management of CGI elements, but for its time, the callous cloak with a deadly sickle was quite a quantum leap.

Jackson also pushed the basic boundaries of the new effects format in his film. For him, it wasn’t just eye candy or a visual set piece. The CGI characters in The Frighteners had to live and breath, acting with emotional resonance and believable authenticity. Though he would have much more success in this department with Rings (and now King Kong), the ghosts created for the film really do live up to their spectral specifics. Thanks to the added footage included in the new director’s cut, we get to see Jackson having more fun with his phantoms, putting them through their physics-defying paces to increase the crazy cartoon-like anarchy of the film. Jackson enjoys giving the Judge character a less-than-complete corpse, and has fun fooling with some attempted splatter effects as well. The entire movie feels like a resume reel for a man who would one day create the most consistently artistic and accomplished trilogy in the history of motion pictures.

But it’s the amazing acting that really sells The Frighteners. Michael J. Fox—near the end of his reign as a box-office champ and ready to challenge himself with different, difficult roles—finds a lot of heart and horror in the backstory of his bogus psychic detective. Frank Bannister is supposed to be a scarred man, more figuratively than literally, and Fox wears such wounding across his still cherubic face. But when asked to dig deep and play the depths of despair, he really delivers the goods. Trini Alvardo, Dee Wallace Stone, Jake Busey, and the ghostly trio of John Astin, Jim Fyfe, and Chi McBride are all excellent. But if the movie truly belongs to one individual, it would have to be everyone’s favorite Re-Animator, Jeffrey Combs. As messed-up FBI flatfoot Milton Dammers, Combs creates a character so unique, so unbelievably idiosyncratic and iconic that he truly deserved Oscar recognition for this work. Every line reading is like an adventure, every reaction a study in sensational strangeness. By the time he’s reduced to a near-routine villain, spitting out his threats with varying vileness, we want as much Milton as we can get.

One of the best things about The Frighteners, though, is that Jackson never overstays his cinematic welcome. We receive just enough Dammers to satisfy our sentiments, not so much that we grow weary of his weirdness. The same with the spooks. Had Jackson turned them into the poltergeist version of the Three Stooges, all slapstick and joking jive, we’d want less of their ethereal lunacy. Indeed, everything about The Frighteners is measured and metered out in sly, successful segments. The film has the real feeling of a completed, complementary work, where narrative ends are tied up and tossed together with other cinematic specialness to create a solid, satisfying whole. There are those who believe that the film is still missing a key entertainment element (and they will probably feel the same after viewing the long-dormant director’s cut), but the truth is that, for its time, The Frighteners was one masterful movie. It deserved more credit than it got during its initial release

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Friday, Oct 20, 2006

It’s not a surprise that former Village Voice editor/writer/columnist Robert Christgau (hell, he build up the whole music scribbing community there) would find work after the new Voice owners stupidly fired him.  It was just a matter of where he would wind up.  He’s now found a good home at National Public Radio where he’ll be working as a contributing critic: more details from the NPR press release.  Now the only question is, will he bring his grading system to the airwaves?

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Friday, Oct 20, 2006

Via Mark Thoma comes this essay by economist and frequent NY Times contributor Hal Varian about the effects the ease of video production and distribution will have on entrenched old-media interests. Obviously YouTube makes it easy to distribute videos, made with increasingly cheap DV technology, to anyone who might be interested, and the fact that Google now owns YouTube implies that searching the morass of clips will only become easier. Such clips are at the far, far end of the long tail, sometimes produced and distributed for an audience of friends and family. Those who make these clips of themselves lip synching or of family birthday parties or what have you probably don’t expect to make a living doing it, so the practice wouldn’t seem to have any impact on commercial video producers. But Varian explains the impact in terms of Ricardo’s notion of economic rents: He points out that the salary of such stars as Tom Cruise “depend on the fact that large numbers of people will pay to see his movies. If, in the future, these people spend more time on YouTube and less time going to movies, Mr. Cruise’s compensation will probably fall.” In other words, Cruise’s salary doesn’t determine the cost of producing movies any more than land rent determines the cost of producing agricultural products; its vice versa. And what YouTube does is provide an easily accessed alternative that redirects some of our attention away from Hollywood and toward (for better or worse) videos of our friends’ children and pets, or toward amateur filmmakers doing things so outrageous or clever that our friends forward them to us. Writes Varian: “Economic rent comes from scarcity. It is true that there is only one Tom Cruise, but it is equally true that there are only 24 hours in a day. The more time young people spend watching Lonelygirl15, the less time they will have to watch Mr. Cruise.”

The same seems to apply to music—the easier it is to make music with computer recording and editing software and distribute it via social networking tools like MySpace, the less pressing it is to consume Vivendi Universal’s product. Social networks among youth are often knit by shared tastes in mass-media product, but the technological infrastructure is falling into place to permit them to become self-sustaining communities in terms of culture, to become virtual equivelants of what you used to see with small-town hardcore scenes (the kind of thing Maximum Rock and Roll once chronicled).

That’s not likely to happen, however, since particpation in mass events seems to provide a vicarious satisfaction of the yearning for massive amounts of attention—the same function that network reality TV seems to serve. (We also seem to want to belong to a zeitgeist that transcends our small communities; perhaps this could change.) Varian suggests something similar when he echoes the prediction that the effects long-tail distribution will ultimately squeeze semipopular, middling culture: “Those actors, writers and directors who do not command the big audiences may well find it hard to compete for attention with the video blogs. True, the videos available there are often sophomoric. But there will always be sophomores to watch them.”

What this may indicate is that the middlebrow, not-quite-popular stuff had been serving a placeholder function, it served to replace the community feeling that was decimated with the spread of television and the atomization of suburban America. In other words, semicommercial indie rock, independent film, literary fiction, little magazines and the bookstores and concert halls and coffeeshops which supported and distributed such materials were the product of alienation within a specific sociohistorical formation. The niche such stuff served may be vanishing, as niches themselves become so specific as to dissolve into wholly sui generis idiosyncratic scenes made up of friends connected technologically. The Internet (perhaps only in my Utopian fantasies, and in the face of the reality that in consigns individuals to sit alone facing a screen) is militating against that isolation, offering people sophisticated means to connect and to produce the kind of cultural material with which to facilitate bonds unique to the group they are in the process of creating with one another. Bands, writers, directors who might have broken out to small-time success may now never escape from the small group of personal friends they work to please, unless they manage to convince mass marketers that they can take their productions to that level, and make the sacrifices and compromises of impersonality and ideological conformity that such a leap requires.

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