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Monday, Dec 25, 2006

Today we exchange gifts, and we rush to unwrap what was carefully wrapped to realize all the deadweight loss embodied in them. For some economists the holidays seem to mean an opportunity to trot out favorite rational arguments about what a waste gift exchange is, and the essence of their case is that the process is inefficient: I would get much more utility out of the money you spent on me and with much less time spent shopping if you just gave me cash. Instead, as Joel Waldfogel points out at Slate, “gift-giving effectively discards 20 percent of the gift’s price. So, of the nearly $100 billion spent on holiday gifts each year, one-fifth is effectively flushed down the toilet.” From this point of view, twenty percent of the money we spend for holiday gifts makes no one but retailers happy. (Probably some of that loss actually buys shoppers the thrills and excitement of holiday shopping, participating in the zeitgeist of Xmas fever. Those people must exist.)

The solution, if you don’t have the gumption to give cash, is to buy gift cards, which have become shockingly ubiquitous this year. You can buy them for any number retailers at drug stores, convenience stores, grocery stores, pretty much anywhere. I got my father a Home Depot gift card (his idea) while I was buying a toothbrush at CVS for the holiday sleepover at his house. The problem with cash, presumably, is that by giving it, you haven’t given any (wasteful) thought to what the person might “really” want, demonstrating how quietly attentive you’ve been to their needs – and how you were able to diligently ignore those needs until they could suit your year-end gift-giving requirements. Also, you aren’t going to surprise anyone with your savvy at picking out clever things or your fortitude in pursuing just the right thing (the Internet now discounts this particular approach; who can’t find some specific thing in an instant with eBay and Google at one’s disposal) or your shopping endurance in procuring whatever hot, artificially scarce gift got all the local-news coverage. And moreover, a cash gift confesses that you haven’t gazed into the crystal ball and divined what they might really need or what could extend them beyond their practical self. At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok suggested that gifts should appeal not to our rational side but to our wild side that remains shrouded as a mere potentiality:

We want the gift giver to buy something for us that we would not have bought for ourselves.  Or more precisely one of our selves wants this - the self that is usually restrained, squashed, and limited, the wild self, the passionate self, the romantic self.
Gift giving, therefore, is about reaching out and giving to the wild self in someone else.  Why would we want to do this?  Because we want the wild self in someone else to be wild about us.
The bottom line?  If you want to please the economist in me, send me cash.  If you want to please my wild self (you know who you are!) use your imagination.

Some ambitious givers give gifts to try to encourage people to actually more accurately approximate the sort of person they fantasize they are, the kind of person we can see they want to be with all the clarity that comes with not being saddled with their particular neuroses or inhibitions. Ideally, a gift from someone else who knows you well will give you an opportunity to move beyond yourself in some direction you vaguely yearn for but lack the wherewithal to pursue. Of course, few gifts accomplish this: Instead you get gifts that push you in directions the gift giver would like to see you go, or you get generic gifty gifts equally inappropriate for anyone that encourage you to think of yourself as anonymous.

The gift card, which is essentially branded money, allows you to express the idea that you gave some thought to what the recipient might want but not so much that you are going to impose an inefficient result on them. It’s an intermediate step, a compromise between cold, hard cash and actual thoughtful gift. And retailers love them, because consumers leave a healthy percentage of gift card cash unspent, meaning retailers collects millions of dollars for selling virtually nothing – a piece of plastic and the cost of the computer system to track the unspent funds. The gift card makes sure the holiday deadweight loss accrues to retailers in a clear, calculable way. And with that cash virtually in their back pocket, retailers can afford to aggressively push gift cards in stores not their own, cutting other retailers in on the great gift-card consumer giveaway. They can sell their branded cash at a loss because they know much of it inevitably will never be exchanged for anything in their inventories.

With all the retailers’ incentives pointing in one direction with gift cards, it’s no surprise they use various subtle and not so subtle ways retailers encourage you to leave money unspent on them – expiration dates, restrictions, refusing to cash out remainders, or doing so only after elaborate paperwork is filed. And they are able to work gift-giving guilt to their advantage, encouraging the sense that they have done you a favor by letting you use their gift card service to get you out of difficult gift-giving conundrums, letting you and the recipient circumvent that threat of unwanted gifts. Thus we get the impression that we are already ahead – we didn’t get socks or useless ornaments or momentarily funny gag gifts—and shouldn’t complain too loudly at the other sundry restrictions on how the branded cash can be spent. We pay cents on the dollar to avoid more substantial holiday losses. (All this has convinced me by and large to give cash as gifts on prescribed occasions (my father is an exception, because he gives me cash, and giving him cash back makes the holiday cash-flow accounting a but too self-evident and a little ludicrous) and give real presents on spontaneous occasions when serendipity strikes, which admittedly is not as often as I’d hope for, probably because I’m generally thinking only of myself when I’m out in shopping land.)

But we get something more in the gift card exchange than defense against bad gifts. This occurred to me when I was filling my car with gas and getting coffee at Wawa, the convenience store chain dominant in Bucks County, where I grew up and where I return for the holidays. I was in line waiting to pay, and the woman in front of me was buying a gift card for Wawa itself, and was asking the cashier questions about logistics – could it be used directly at the pumps to pay for gas, was it good at every Wawa, etc. It seemed strange to me at first to give a gift card for something as mundane and quotidian as Wawa. This certainly is not allowing you to unleash your “wild self.” It’s certainly useful; you end up going in to Wawa almost everyday around here as a matter of course. But it’s not especially festive. And in fact these trips are precisely the kind that pocket cash is meant for. Then it hit me what the Wawa gift card is all about – it is about making money not fungible – it’s a way to ensure that as the recipient spends the money you gave him, it doesn’t dissolve into his own cash supply and become forgotten. It imprints your name on every nickel of the gift, so he must think of you each and every time he buys coffee, smokes and hoagies. Actually this brings you to the heart of his everyday life, embeds your gift pretty deep into the fabric of his life where it can’t but be appreciated intimately. But it is pretty egoistic; you are giving the gift of making him continually think of you, sending the message, effectively, that he isn’t already thinking of you enough. A Wawa gift card – or any of the various American Express and Visa gift cards that work like prepaid credit cards—is like giving bills with your face printed on them. Ultimately, that seems to be the ultimate purpose of gift cards, to brand money with your own image as well as the store’s.

This is probably self-evident, but I forgot the cardinal rule of economics – there is no such thing as altruism: I was fooled by the ideological smokescreen that suggests the point of gift-giving is to maximize the recipient’s utility – to make someone else as happy as possible. But gift-giving is actually about making you feel good, comfortable in the thought that you will be recognized and remembered.


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Saturday, Dec 23, 2006

Yes folks, it’s that time of year.  Time to fret about what you’re getting for a present or what presents you’re going to get your friends and family.  Even worse, it’s time for scribes to school you about the best music of the year.  Yes, the top 10 lists that individual writers, publications and polls bombard you with.  It’s a yearly ritual among us music scribes but what purpose does it really serve?

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Friday, Dec 22, 2006

You may be asking, how does the winner of the 1981 Oscar for Best Picture warrant classification as a Forgotten Gem? The answer is quite simple. When you’ve beaten both Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and David Lynch’s Elephant Man for the accolade, you are destined to be diminished in the eyes of many angry film fans. Indeed, along with Dances with Wolves, American Beauty and Shakespeare in Love, Ordinary People regularly gets ridiculed as being one of the worst Academy Award winners of all time. It’s a title not borne out of reality – this fragile family drama is certainly a motion picture masterpiece – it’s just that, when placed up against an American maestro and a mainstream curio from one of our most gifted, idiosyncratic directors, being great is just not enough.

There was minor controversy surrounding the film when it first opened, almost all of it centering on America’s sitcom sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore, being cast as the cold hearted, manipulative matriarch of the Jarrett household, Beth. Not known for playing characters that were distant, angry, bitter and inaccessible, audiences weren’t expecting much from her performance. And indeed, initial reviews were less than supportive of Moore’s attempt to break out of her goody two shoes stereotype. But thanks to the brilliant work of Donald Sutherland (who deserved an Oscar, though his competition – Robert DeNiro and his career defining turn as Jake LaMotta in Bull – made that all but impossible) and impressive debut of Jim Hutton’s son Timothy, Moore easily melded into the ensemble, eventually shining as a parent whose put all her emotion and love into her personal pride and joy – a now dead son named Buck.

For anyone living in the Midwest, especially in the Chicago suburbs where People is set, first time director Robert Redford gets all the white picket fence and wholesome details just right. The characters all live in dollhouse like mansions, rooms furnished in tactful, traditional styles. Dressed in plain sweaters and simple accessories, the dynamic is lifted almost directly from an episode of Leave it to Beaver – albeit, a very special installment of same. Within this backward bastion of wealth and security, Redford explores the chaotic underpinnings of Judith Guest’s amazing novel, showing how even the most seemingly functional clan can come apart over something as simple as death, guilt and forgiveness. Two decades ago, relatives didn’t discuss or disclose their interpersonal problems. People was one of the first films to explore the notion of familial disintegration within the closed context of an isolated, insular tragedy.

In the storyline, which deals with youngest son Conrad’s suicide attempt, hospitalization, and after care therapy, the Jarret’s attempt to reconfigure their life. But the two way street of devotion between Beth and Buck was such a major force in the household that its absence leaves an unavoidable deficiency. Sadly, it’s a chasm that no one can replenish. But instead of trying to make a new approach work, Mother turns on her troubled son, husband feels resentment toward the angry spouse, and all the boy can see is blame. One of the most moving moments in the entire film comes when Conrad, under the care of Judd Hirsch’s genial Dr. Tyrone Berger, confronts his lingering remorse. Burdened with taking both the death of his brother and the fragmenting of his family to heart, it’s a moment of catharsis that few films even attempt to achieve, let alone realize. Hutton’s performance at this point is so powerful, so overloaded with passion and purity that we can’t help but exhale and exalt right along with him.

Yet this revelation does not suture the scar in the Jarret household. Perhaps no other actress could convey the sense of normalcy knocked asunder as Moore does. Her Beth is not a bitch - she’s a cheerleader that’s lost her champion, a doting, devoted parent who didn’t plan on being stripped of the sole focus of her adult joy. Buck, seen in a couple of telling flashbacks, is a shining star, an obvious athletic BMOC who entertains his mother with extracurricular exploits that no normal kid would be allowed to discuss. But since he is the first born, the golden boy, he’s pardoned. Even when the truth of the sailing accident is revealed, and her hero is shown as mortal, more bluster than bravery, Beth cannot except it. During her final scene, Moore manages one of those rare acting moments that rocket right to the heart of her character’s problem. Allowing herself to slip, just momentarily, Beth unleashes a strangled sob so devastating, we’re glad she manages to pull it back in. Otherwise, the fallout could be lethal.

Told in a fashion that keeps all its divergent elements alive and important, Redford routinely discovers facts of the narrative that keep his insights up front and fresh. Conrad’s attempts to connect with friends – from the hospital (a mentally melting Dinah Manoff) and from school (an endearing Elizabeth McGovern) come back to play important parts in his journey, and a holiday visit with family finds Beth and her husband slowly breaking apart. This is not a splashy, stylistic turn behind the camera. Redford even keeps the film’s fatal flashback in a tight, telling two shot. One could easily envision Buck’s death as a major action sequence, especially in our CGI oriented idea of how such a spectacle is realized. But Redford realizes that it’s the individuals, not the event, that’s the most important. He devises a way of capturing the horror, and the humanity, concurrently.

In one of those unlucky happenstances that seem to befall certain films, Raging Bull didn’t get the accolade acknowledgement it deserved, and film fans pretend that People should be passed over for better early ‘80s efforts. Sadly, such thinking is incredibly narrow-minded. Scorcese’s ethical biopic may be the better artistic statement, but there is just as much beauty and grace in Ordinary People. Even a quarter century later, it’s power remains right on the surface, easily tapped into by even the most jaded cinephile. Usually, a domestic drama about dysfunctional relatives looses its edge after years, what with other efforts commenting on and challenging it. But this staggering statement of a nuclear family’s final freefall still holds up in all its painful, irreproachable sadness. Maybe it didn’t deserve the Oscar, but no one should forget what a fine, formidable film this really is. 

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Thursday, Dec 21, 2006

It’s hard to believe that, with all the massive merchandising and commercialization of the holiday season, someone hasn’t found a way to exploit Christmas Eve Eve. Tradition and religion have usurped most of the pre-Santa celebrations, but with all the companies out there looking to turn a Yuletide profit, the night before the night before Xmas would seem like a guaranteed greenback generator. In fact, they could treat it like a parent’s only party, a time when Mom and Dad can disregard the kids for a moment and have a holiday hoedown themselves. Or twist it toward the wee ones and give it a fully fleshed out anti-materialism approach. Allow otherwise ancillary figures like Rudolph, Frosty, and similar timeless characters to have their own hour in the merriment spotlight. Or maybe make the night a day of deserved rest, an oasis inside the non-stop chaos of consumption. Just don’t look to the boob tube for any entertainment relief. The movies being offered for the weekend of 23 December are examples of the absolute dregs, films that reek of recent flop sweat. So unless you want to experience the humor/horror combo of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead sequel, there is nothing to give your glad tidings great joy. To clarify, here are the efforts making an appearance on the premium channels this day before the day before Jesus’s birth:


The filmic fates were just not ready to smile on this sleek Tony Scott style-fest. During the pre-release publicity, it was revealed that some of the storyline here was “enhanced” (read: massively altered) to smooth over some of real life bounty hunter Domino Harvey’s less than genial cinematic traits. Then, near the end of June 2005, Harvey was found dead, the victim of an accidental overdose. Nothing ruins your otherwise routine ‘rock ‘em, sock ‘em’ action pic more than an air of unease and the purposeful avoidance of your subject’s possible personal problems. What was supposed to be a break out turn for actress Keira Knightley – a chance to move away from all the frilly dresses and dainty accents – quickly de-evolved into a contrasting creation seemingly insensitive to Harvey’s plentiful personal demons. Though turns by a newly revitalized Mickey Rourke and Delroy Lindo helped keep this superficial ship afloat, this film is a clear case of fact overpowering the forces of fiction. (Sunday 24 December, 12:30AM EST).

PopMatters Review

CinemaxThe Ringer

When he sticks to his Jackass style stunt work, Johnny Knoxville is a genial, jovial jerk, the kind of stupid smart aleck that gets his point across with a laugh and a lewd gesture. But place him inside a fictional setting, and he turns awkward and affected. Borrowing an idea from South Park (or visa versa), Knoxville plays a patsy who gets talked into competing in the Special Olympics as a way of making some quick money (who knew said events were so fiscally profitable). Once inside the contest, living with the rest of the handi-capable athletes, the character’s ersatz retard skills are put to the test. Naturally, lots of life lessons are learned and the mentally deficient are shown as being just as normal as you or me. But perhaps the worst part of this relatively ordinary film is how it squanders opportunities to be crude and rude. This is a PC pleasant look at a potentially tasteless topic. And nothing kills comedy quicker than tameness and tact. (Premieres Saturday 23 December, 10pm EST).

PopMatters Review

StarzUnderworld: Evolution

It’s one of those post-modern movie industry mandates – an unnecessary sequel to a film most people didn’t like in the first place. But thanks to DVD popularity and that always forgotten facet of the international marketplace, even something this substandard gets the repeat treatment. With lead actress Kate Beckinsdale back, along with director Len Wiseman and a great deal of dopey CGI work, the centuries-old war between the Death Dealers (vampires) and the Lycans (werewolves) rages on. The only thing worse than a lame comic book movie is a similarly lamentable film without a graphic novel to back up its bullstuff. Perhaps if you’re a member of the gloomy Goth set who thinks everything associated with blood drinking and shape shifting is cool and clever, you’ll line up for more of this dross. If, on the other hand, you like your macabre scary, suspenseful and serious, this action figure oriented junk will leave you as cold as a corpse. (Premieres Saturday 23 December, 9pm EST).

PopMatters Review

ShowtimeEvil Dead II: Dead by Dawn

When he released his first film - the fright night classic The Evil Dead - in 1981, many wondered if Sam Raimi was anything more than a geek show loving film freak. A couple of decades and a definitive comic book franchise later, and his mainstream cred is more or less secured. But it was this quasi-sequel to his macabre masterpiece that really showed what Sam the Man was all about. Combining outright terror with terrific bits of black comedy and silly slapstick, Raimi reinvented the genre movie, confirming that it could combine many seemingly antithetical elements and still be a scary, savvy dread delight. Highly influential (a good drinking game can be devised from all the outright rip-offs this film inspired) and featuring the best post-modern b-movie actor ever – a.k.a. Bruce Campbell in his defining role as Ash – what Raimi does here is really astounding. He makes fear funny, and comedy creepy, and the combination a hilarious high water mark in a career filled with same. (Saturday 23 December, 9:00pm EST)



For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 22/23 December, Francis Ford Coppola takes on terror in one of his first feature films:

Dementia 13
While assisting Roger Corman on a film in Ireland, a young Coppola used many of the same sets and actors to craft this creepy, old dark house saga. The eerie results speak for themselves.
(3:15am EST)


The 12 Films of Christmas

Like that lame little ditty we all find ourselves humming around this time of year, SE&L will select three films each week from now until the end of the holiday as our Secret Santa treat for film fans. Granted, the pickings are incredibly slim (how many GOOD X-mas movies are there, really?) and you may find a lump of coal in your cinematic stocking once in a while, but at least it beats endless repeats of Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, right? The three festive treats on tap for the week of 16 December are:

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
(TBS, 22 December, 11:40PM EST)
While it’s hard to determine which holiday this inventive animation classic best serves, there’s no doubting the stop motion magic visible in every fabulous frame.

(Encore, 23 December, 12:15PM EST)
How else would you celebrate a Patrick Swayze Christmas, Mystery Science Theater 3000 style? Watch, or we’ll tear your throat out and kick you in the ear!

Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas
(The Disney Channel, 24 December 8:00PM EST)
Tying together three cartoon shorts – “Donald Duck: Stuck on Christmas”, “A Very Goofy Christmas” and “Mickey and Minnie’s the Gift of the Magi” – it’s a reminder that the House of Mouse can occasionally create something very special, when it wants to.

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Thursday, Dec 21, 2006

Continuing on the theme from the last two posts of class boundaries that prevent people from joining the conversation about what is culturally significant. One of the obvious changes in the shape of public sphere in the past decade is the Internet’s permitting user-generated content to be widely and (virtually) freely distributed. Has that change—opening media up to anyone’s participation—done anything to mitigate the feeling of systemic exclusion that Sennett and Cobb analyze in The Hidden Injuries of Class or has it simply broadened the playing field to make what Sennett and Cobb see as the zero-sum game of social recognition even more inescapable? Their main contention is that the ideology of meritocracy creates a burden of responsibility in individuals for whatever class disadvantages they have inherited from birth. Individuals want to believe that they can merit success and climb the social hierarchy, but this belief also forces them to see their own current inferior position as deserved. The solution seems to lie in the freedom to live one’s life independent of society, to uses one’s talents to transcend social limitations and become autonomous, self-sufficient—this, which is often a matter of Spartan self-sacrifice, becomes a source of personal dignity. However, this solution cuts one off from social recognition and undermines that dignity. No one respects you for your sacrifices; you can see they see your hand was forced. (This reflects Graeber’s point in Harper’s about working-class kids joining the Army for the same reasons upper-middle class kids go to Antioch College.)

The terrible thing about class in our society is that it sets up as a contest for dignity. If you are a working-class person, if you have to spend year after year being treated by people of a higher class as though there probably is little unusual or special about you to catch their attention, if you resent this treatment and yet feel also that it reflects something accurate about your own self-development, then to try to impugn the dignity of persons in a higher class becomes a real, it twisted, affirmation of your own claims for respect…. [Working-class people] too are individualists concerned with their right to be exempted personally from shaming and indignity. In turning people against each other, the class system of authority and judgment-making goes itself into hiding; the system is left unchallenged as people enthralled by the enigmas of its power battle one another for respect.

So is the limitless public space opening up on the Internet just broadening the war zone in this battle for respect? It seems that as the blogosphere has progressed, quasi-democratic social-network-driven forms of filtering have been battling with the more traditional forms, in which the congnoscenti nominate worthy material and consign the rest to anonymity. The class struggle plays out, according to Sennett and Cobb, in the feeling that you need put someone else in your class down to garner the respect you seek—to stand out from the mass (gain respect) you have to highlight how dull those around you are as well as do something extraordinary. But rather than competition, blog culture seems on its face to be about linking, of highlighting connections and promoting the interesting work of others in hopes that it won’t be lost in the proliferating fog of cultural output. However, that egalitarian aspect is tempered by how the Internet makes audiences for your recommendations measurable; personal influence becomes more quantifiable than it has ever been, and the vague notion that your opinion matters can actually be assigned a pretty precise number. (You were one of x Diggs for a story; you drew x hits for your commentary on that NYT editorial; etc.) In the digital world of ones and zeros, you are even more likely to be aggregated into a mass rather than be afforded your individual dignity; in cyberspace, you are literally just another number. The permeability of the Internet as a social medium is just another mask for the class system, another “enigma” to “enthrall” us. It seems wide open, it seems like anew and better meritocracy, but really it’s just a better system of disguises for the networks of power and pre-existing relationships of privilege that are slowly but surely replicating themselves there. A few success stories—the Lonleygirl15s of the world—will continue to be touted as proof of a great new era of people-powered media in which the cream can rise to the top, but in fact advantages in real life will continue to be more efficiently leveraged in the online world to reproduce the power relations and class structures we all know and love and count on for our lives to be comprehensible.

Alas, this cynical rant would be what capitalist ethnographer (i.e. marketer) Grant McCracken would classify as leftist moral panic, as a kind of elitism that refuses to recognize the glorious contributions made by everyday people all the time.

The Left was persuaded that capitalism, like the TV that was its crudest cultural expression, was a waste land.  Nothing could come of this, they assured us.  And along came Silicon Valley, an improved independent film industry, and risk taking television, to name a few.  Another favorite notion of the Left is that innovation and cultural commotion must come from the avant-garde, the margin of society.  It cannot come from the mainstream.  But now of course it comes routinely from the mainstream, which proves ever more inventive. (Scrap booking is a case in point.  Women in the mainstream reinvented the photo album.) This is not the way the world is supposed to look!  And the Left has embraced a moral panic of their own, which now expresses itself in an intellectual rigidity, accusation and name calling, and extra laps on the high horse of indignation.

Yes, thank God for scrapbooking; where would we be without that “reinvention” of the photo album. And thank god for blogging, which has reinvented journalism. But virtuallly no one wants to see your scrapbook anymore than they want to read my blog. The more media attention they attract, the more blogs are made out to be technologically glorified hobbies, but perhaps this is a good thing, reducing them back to the scale on which one can feel recognized by a community. But the limitless ability to scale up is there, teasingly available to the small-time blog and making it seem piddling compared to those which have successfully secured massive readerships with the same WordPress technology. McCracken seems to think “elites” can’t handle the idea that the masses make interesting things. In fact, they handle it just fine; in fact, they exploit it. This is the genius behind reality TV, where you get poorly paid amateurs, desperate for social recognition that will forever remain fleeting—even more so as their 15 minutes testifies to how watered-down and evaporative what is available has become—to provide professional caliber ratings and sell more advertisied goods. Whatever innovations are generated by the mainstream in this arena are there to be harvested by those who can use them to build brands (entertainment brands or otherwise)—that capability remains beyond the power of the individual and that fact is what meritocracy hides. Of course ordinary people drive innovation; it’s just that they don’t get the recognition for it that they perhaps seek, which is more than being another face in the blurry gimmick mirror on the cover of Time. As many have pointed out, If everybody is the “Person of the Year,” than nobody is.

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