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Tuesday, Dec 26, 2006

Where does the time go?  It seems that we’re just getting used to signing things with an 06 date and now 07 is creeping up upon us.  I’ve already been fretting over my top 10 lists (even as I still discover treasures from earlier in the year).  I’m trying to draw up a list of resolutions now, but coming up blank.  As I did on my other blog, I’d at least like to thank you for taking the time to read my entries here- I try to make it worth your time.  Also on my other blog, I have a lil tribute to the passing of the Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown


Some time in the next two weeks, I’ll have my listing of best music journalism of ‘06 at the rockcritics.com site as well as a new issue of Perfect Sound Forever at the end of January.  I also hope to start up work again on the New York Music commission early next month as well as the world-wide music journalism project (covering countries outside the US and UK).  Finally, I made the decision to cut out my reissue work, at least for now.  I enjoyed doing the Kleenex/Liliput, Delta 5, Essential Logic, DNA and Oh OK reissues but it takes a lot of time and energy out of you to do these things and I’d rather spend more time on writing and editing (there’s plenty of good labels and producers out there doing the work now anyway and I’ll probably advise other projects).


So bye bye until ‘07.  Hope you have a good holiday and if the yuletime music is still driving you crazy, I have some tips here to keep you (in)sane.


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Tuesday, Dec 26, 2006

Few people in America experience the direct application of power—in other words, they generally don’t have people telling them what to do without some semblance of a voluntary contract being in place. Instead power seems distributed throughout society and tends to work without anyone being responsible; everyone seems to be getting their orders from somewhere else, forming a never-ending chain, or they are operating by instinct or from what seems like common sense. This can seem like freedom and may perhaps be a necessary precondition for what we understand as freedom: being left alone by our neighbors and our government. But it would be wrong to conflate our inability to perceive the ways in which power circumscribes our lives (or to recognize the forces responsible for these limitations) with autonomy. Autonomy, in a culture that fetishizes independence and individuality, is less an ontological condition than an experiential good. Much of our interactions in consumer society involve our attempts to buy the feeling of control; we shop so that we may exercise our freedom of choice, our consumer sovereignty. This compensates for the ways in which our social mobility is, in practice, limited and how class hampers our judgment and dictates the behavior we then assume complete responsibility for.


Foucault’s historical studies are basically about this process—how power comes to reside in social institutions (hospitals, prisons, universities) and concepts (sexuality, gender, mental health) and then exercise itself with no particular agent directing the process. Reading these works tends to leave me heavy with doom, hopelessly trapped in invisible prisons that no one builds and no one can tear down. However, capitalist ideologues usually portray diffused power positively, locating it in the market, which is then virtually deified as a near-flawless system for aggregating and distributing information about what a society wants collectively. Hayek depicts this as spontaneous order, which has the nonpareil benefit of preventing bureaucrats from telling you what you must think and do. And capitalism yields not a iron-clad status system girded with the additional insult of making your class seem like your own fault, but “creative destruction” that allows each generation to remake the social order new, with nothing but merit and efficiency to guide it. If only. Actually the market can be rigged to conserve privilege, to protect class prerogatives that assure that more of what goods and opportunities society produces go to a select few elites, who then retrospectively justify their rewards with specious claims of merit, tradition or divine right. With the market responsible, the beneficiaries can feel as though they have clean hands, while the victims begin to look in the mirror for who to blame for failure in a quasi-meritocracy.


In The Hidden Injuries of Class Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb delineate this process by looking at the aspirations of working-class immigrants in America in the mid 20th century, concluding that workers are both propelled and held back by an ideology of individualism. Being recognized as an individual is a classic positional good; you can only have it and enjoy it if your peers don’t. But by claiming it, by making a case for why one should stand out from the mediocre mass and assuming dignity can come only from being recognized as such (for Sennett and Cobb this is the essense of how class societies function), one alienates himself from his peers, depriving oneself of the solace of community without really securing admission to another receptive community. Instead social climbers find themselves out on the limb, alienated and isolated in their aspirational nuclear family unit, taking consolatory pride in their apparent independence or self-sabatoging as they try to reconcile the contradictions foisted on them by a hereditary status system that pretends to be egalitarian. As Cobb and Sennett argue this self-sabotage—the feelings of guilt or confusion or insecurity or inadequacy—is how class society manages to wound and cripple the lower orders without anyone higher up in the social hierarchy seeming directly responsible. No one intentionally prohibits you from finding success; we end up excluding ourselves, as this proves easier to live with than a rigged system. (Better to feel like you lost the game than to think the refs threw it.)

One way in which this plays out is in the pursuit of meaningful work, glamour jobs that provide status and allow you to indulge your individual talents. Because these jobs often have to do with generating “original” and “creative” product, it’s easy to imagine they are distributed according to merit—the people who do the best work inevitably get the jobs. But this is obviously false; these jobs are scarce and our educational system generates far too many qualified candidates. (Our educational system is perhaps too egalitarian, or from the other perspective, state-supported schools are diploma mills that perpetuate their own existence and funding by lowering standards and processing more and more students.) When I was getting a graduate degree in English, it became all too apparent to me, going to conferences and seeing all the other eager competitors for those ultrarare tenure track jobs at universities, that there were going to be a lot of unhappy and unemployable PhDs, overqualified for anything but the one job they were acutely trained to perform. It also occurred to me that society almost certainly didn’t need this many literature professors, and something had gone horribly wrong in society’s allocation of educational resources to produce so many people like me. I probably should have been discouraged from my course at a much earlier juncture than two years into a dissertation. Perhaps I should have listened to the inner voices of failure sooner.


One way to disqualify candidates is to require them to work for free in unpaid internships or to live on subsistance stipends while accruing the necessary certifications in graduate school. This rules out anyone who doesn’t have another source of income (inherited from parents, say) to fall back on. Another disqualification method is to require social capital—make sure they know someone who can recommend them and vouch for them. This requires having the kind of connections that elites take for granted, knowing someone in admissions at this elite school or in HR at this elite employer. Or you have to have the wherewithal to be in the pipeline for job openings (or elite unpaid internships) that aren’t publicly advertised but instead are announced through established grapevines. Access to these networks stems from class advantage, and keeping these networks exclusive is how a class polices its borders. But when all that fails to discourage applicants for prestige jobs, society falls back on what sometimes is known in self-help books as “the fear of success”—we sabatoge ourselves because we internalize the belief that we don’t deserve to advance.  Cobb and Sennett argue that in a putative democracy with an open social structure, the makeup of the various classes is more or less preserved by baiting lower class people to engage in a zero-sum game for dignity (never seen as secure, a given by virtue of being human), doled out by higher-ups for reasons we can never fully apprehend (Sennett and Cobb write, “What is in you that commands the approval of others? You can’t know this, but someone can…. Power in the organization, like the God of Weber’s early Protestants, knows about you what you do not know about yourself”). This competition, whose rules continually change and render contestants passive and fatalistic, cripples people with self-doubt and encourages them to remove themselves from the running for high-status positions that are technically open to all, positions they end up feeling they somehow inherently don’t deserve. “The psychological motivation instilled by a class society is to heal a doubt about the self rather than create more power over things and other persons in the outer world,” Sennett and Cobb assert. Consequently, the idea of agency beyond the boundaries of one’s own psyche becomes ever more remote. Passivity becomes common sense, which intensifies the pleasures of spectatorship that make advertising and entertainment function, reinforcing their appeal and the passivity itself in a feedback loop. This passivity spills over into self-doubt, which further fuels the fear of success—the unwillingness to assume greater responsibilities, which seem capable of being met by the application of one’s natural talents but are actually a matter of class habitus, having a familiarity with social mores and conventions and access to social networks. Combine that confusion of means and ends with the contempt other competitors from their class—their former friends—will feel for them if they succeed and you can see why workers disqualify themselves and don’t even try for advancement. Instead they try to deflect attention and struggle along independently, while subsisting as spectators of real life, what is going on in celebrity land or in the pages of the newspaper.


It’s not hard to imagine scarce goods other than prestige jobs being preserved in this fashion—consider health care, which is getting scarcer (more expensive) all the time. Society wants to preserve the illusion of universal care it can’t afford to provide, so it can enlist the class system and the injured dignity it produces to convince lower class people that they don’t deserve the same kind of singled-out attention from their doctors that their betters are accustomed to. Instead they will be treated in second-rate clinics staffed with overworked, underpaid health care providers, and processed as though they were faulty machines in for assembly-line repair. And they will be grateful that they didn’t attract unsavory attention from anyone along the way. If I had more time, I could bring this back to Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic and suggest this self-defeating class strategy masquerades as elusive independence, skirting the repressive mechanisms of power by losing oneself in the margins, but you get the idea.


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Monday, Dec 25, 2006


Ouch! Not so loud! SE&L is still nursing a massive holiday hangover, a pain perpetrated from processing all the potential titles one could count on to bolster their gift giving acumen this festive fake-out. Not only that, but we’re also trying to decide what to do with the iridescent blue tie, the Rocky Balboa party mug, and the “World’s Greatest Weblog” statuette we got as part of our Christmas swag. While the thought of returning such fine, thoughtful gifts would never cross our mind, it’s interesting to note how the crack commercial distributors have held back on three big summer releases for just that very reason. Don’t like the matching potholders your aunt insisted would perk up your kitchen? Horrified by the pair of plaid wool socks your spouse thought would make your season bright? Bewildered over how to respond to the ‘Fat, Bald and Sexy’ t-shirt your kids gave you? Easy, trade in said tacky trinkets and head on over to your local brick and mortar for a little digital healing. Nothing says self-satisfaction better than a DVD you picked out for yourself. So wake up early, get in line, and contemplate these 26 December releases. It will help make the lack of legitimate customer service that much more bearable: 


The Black Dahlia

Brian DePalma, once a Hollywood heavyweight with his Hitchcock homage style, has fallen on some substantial hard times as of late. Going back to 1984’s Body Double, his career has been loaded with fine, if flawed, efforts (Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way) and outright cinematic stool samples (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Femme Fatale). Resting somewhere right in the middle is this LA Confidential retread, a routine reading of James Ellroy’s novel about the mysterious murder of a Hollywood starlet. The true story is so riveting, so loaded with ominous ideas of death and dismemberment (the ‘Dahlia’ was found cut in half, face lacerated from ear to ear) that to have it take a backseat to more ‘good cop/bad cop’ showboating seems silly. But that’s exactly what this movie does. The Dahlia murder is more or less an after thought, thrown in randomly and resolved in one of the kookiest, over the top denouement’s ever filmed. Not a total waste of time…nor a return to form.


PopMatters Review


The Descent


Like Borat a while back, SE&L just doesn’t see what the rest of the movie going public perceive about this Neil Marshall mess. The storyline has potential – a group of friends decide to explore a series of mysterious caves – and the set up has some startling notions about friendship and loss. But once our heroines go spelunking, the narrative literarly falls apart, moving through a series of false scares, claustrophobic contrivance, and attacks by creatures that are as unispired as they are hard to see. Marshall obviously believes in the Spielberg theory of shocks – he barely lets us witness any of the terror we’re supposed to experience. Instead, this is a creature feature as shell game, a one dimensional diversion that’s neither as scary as the hype projected, or as inventive as many fright fans have claimed. It’s just a routine thriller disguised as something more daring. About the only truly masterful element of the entire movie is the stunning soundtrack by David Julyan.


   


PopMatters Review


Jackass Number 2

*
It’s more stunt silliness from the incredibly successful MTV madmen. Taking his inspiration from Tom and Jerry cartoons, and the adventures of one Wile E. Coyote, Johnny Knoxville has once again abandoned the Hollywood mainstream to attempt more scatological silliness for the extreme skate rat demographic. While the execution remains the same, some elements originally intended are missing here. Prior to his arrest on pedophilic-like charges during a Colorado appearance, Don Vito, Bam Margera’s etiquette impaired butterball of an uncle, was heavily featured in several set piece skits as part of this financially mandated sequel. Now, his scenes may or may not be part of this DVD release. In addition, so much footage was shot for the redux that a direct-to-digital offering or another big screen presentation is being considered. It just goes to show you that people can’t get enough of guys acting inappropriate and showering their private parts with potentially deadly ideas. Toilet humor was never so entertaining.



PopMatters Review


Last Kiss

The reigning prince of post-modern male ennui, Zach Braff, stars in this tale of a mid-life crisis sped up by twenty years. Facing the fact that this longtime girlfriend is now pregnant (presumably with their child), Braff’s architect decides the best way to face his pending responsibility is via a roll in the hay with a local co-ed. He now must deal with the quandary such a triangle creates – baby or booty, biology or the dirty boogie. In the less than capable hands of actor turned director Tony Goldwyn, what wants to be incisive and deep ends up being intolerable and dreary. It’s not bad enough that Braff is having these growing pains so late/soon in life (it’s a human hissy fit usually reserved for the 15/45 year old demographic); no, he must whine about them incessantly in the kind of Paul Haggis scripted screeds that make you want to slap some sense into the character. Spending two hours with such a wuss is not worth anyone’s time.



PopMatters Review


The Legend of Boggy Creek*
For many a kid growing up in the ‘70s, this was one exploitation creepfest that really sent the spine into massive shivers. Drive-in moviemaker Charles B. Pierce crafted a docu-drama doozy out of an Arkansas style Bigfoot and a lot of bayou atmosphere, telling the tale of the notorious Fouke Monster and his skunk ape spree among the residents of a blinkered backwater burg. Perhaps the most effective element of the movie, the various shots of the Sulfur River swampland where the beast typically treads are accented by a supposed beastie bellow that’s so unsettling, it still makes the hairs stand up straight on the back of one’s neck. Over the years, this movie has fallen out of favor with fear fans, many dismissing it as another example of Pierce’s problematic oeuvre (he’s also responsible for The Town that Dreaded Sundown and The Norseman). But there is something unnerving about the way in which he handles this material, making schlock turn to shock with undeniable effectiveness.



Monarch of the Moon/Destination Mars*
Setting itself up, Lost Skeleton of Cadavra style, as a recently discovered lost remnant of the 1940’s cinematic serial scene, this dandy Dark Horse production has its issues, but actually does a bang up job of recreating the episodic feel of the long lost genre. Sure, some of the jokes are obvious – the Yellow Jacket character appears to be spewing speeches lifted directly from a certain George W.‘s jingoism – and there are moments when the lampoon looses its focus and disintegrates, but like a recent release from Tempe Entertainment – the terrific World War II superhero homage Project: ValkyrieMonarch makes its devotion to the past both sincere and symbolic. Sure, all the “undiscovered artifact” advertising can grow a bit tiresome (some of us are still smarting from all the Blair Witch bullspit), and no one can accurately recapture the look and feel of films made over 70 years ago, but the effort put into this pleasant production more than makes up for the publicity propaganda.


What Alice Found
Borrowing elements of the Dogma ‘95 school of filmmaking with the seedy story of a lost woman forced into a life of truck stop prostitution, A. Dean Bell’s independent effort is all the more impressive for the cinematic standards it fails to embrace. With subject matter this tawdry, one would expect a scatological softcore sleazefest overloaded with crudeness, corruption and carnality. Instead, thanks to lead actress Emily Grace’s braveness, and her title character’s dogged determination, it’s all more dramatic than dirty. Through the use of digital video and a series of found locations, Bell brings a coarse realism to his tale, an authenticity that many movies of this sort more or less miss. While some have complained about the length of scenes and Alice’s inherent naiveté, what remains most effective is the sense of hopelessness and despair among the characters. Even the individuals responsible for Alice’s awful lot in life have issues that make them both disgusting and desperate.



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 26 December:


Scratch*
The cover art says it all – and it has to, since it’s near impossible to find any information on this film either on the Internet Movie Database or the World Wide Web in general. One source confirms that this is a tale about a desperate couple searching for a mad scientist responsible for the creation of some mutant mice. Cool! Indeed, how can you resist a DVD that offers a large, menacing rodent head, a beady evil eye, and the caption “The New Sound of Terror”. In general, most killer animal movies are awful, more campy than creepy and overloaded with amateurish acting and derivative directing. Scratch could be guilty of all these filmic flaws and many, many more. Still, the notion of reprobate rodents getting their gory groove on has a genuine genre jive to it. So lock up the wee ones, break out the popcorn, and cuddle up on the coach – this will either be a horrifying hit, or a hilarious hoot. Here’s betting on the latter.


 


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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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