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Saturday, Sep 23, 2006


Granted, it’s not the smartest sci-fi action film ever made. Indeed, with Equilibrium helmer Kurt Wimmer in charge, Ultraviolet is nothing more than a surreal slice of future shock that is all approach and pure artifice. Attempting a recreate the look and feel of a comic book come to life (there’s an original idea) and utilizing the fanboys favorite faux action queen – Resident Evil‘s Milla Jovovich - Wimmer wanted to exploit the notion of vampirism without having to deal with all that hoary old mythology. Instead, he envisioned this epic as a deconstruction of health-based racism mixed with Big Brother style government malevolence and a healthy dose of swordplay. He almost succeeded. In fact, Ultraviolet may be the most ambitious, over the top and shamelessly guilty pleasure ever created. Filled with stunning and stupid action setpieces, it’s the kind of craven confection that would have Big Jim McBob and Billy Saul Hurock of SCTV‘s Farm Film Report fame stating – “it blowed up good. It blowed up real good!”


But all predominant pyrotechnics aside, a great deal of Ultraviolet‘s delight comes from the film’s flawless hyperstylized design. Wimmer is someone who believes in a new variation on that old adage, ‘less is more’. In his mind, more is never enough, and extreme excess is the only way to create plausible entertainment pleasure. Why have one villain when you can have 50? Why fire off 10 rounds of ammunition when 10,000 are so much more…ballistic? Vistas need to fill the screen, technological advances require massive amounts of CGI candy coating. True, somewhere in the middle of all this optical falderal is a slightly stupid story about a genetically engineered weapon (who turns out to be a boy) and the super-powered heroine trying to protect him. But the narrative is substantively secondary to all the bells, whistles, sleek surfaces and whiz-bang gadgetry. So sit back, turn off your brain, and let your amusement aesthetic cruise on pure pulp adrenaline. You’ll feel sorry afterwards, but as a mindless, misguide movie, Ultraviolet goes down incredibly smooth.


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Saturday, Sep 23, 2006

Amateur stock picking is generally a bad idea, and every staight-talking guide to personal finance will tell you to invest in low-fee mutual funds that track certain indexes—take the guesswork out of it, since changes in stock prices are generally a random walk that no analyst or fund manager could predict. The theory is that whatever information an investor could act on is already priced in to a security by the time you get your order for it in. But this doesn’t stop financial publications and financial service providers from pimping stocks and urging stock tips on readers. In One Market Under God Thomas Frank describes some of the hoopla about personal investing during the 1990s bubble, and what he calls “market populism.” The idea was that anyone could use the stock market to get rich and that purchasing power rendered political power insignificant and made giant gaps between rich and poor immaterial. Part of the hype of the time regarded wise amateurs who could follow their gut and invest in companies whose products they believed in, as though it were as simple as having a good experience in a Home Depot (I know, a far-fetched example) and then phoning your broker the next day for 100 shares of it. Frank notes that one financial guru advised going to the mall and writing down the names of your favorite stores as a way to generate stock-investment ideas. Then you can have a personal stake in the success of the brands you prefer; you can cheer them on like sports teams, but have a legitimate reason for it.


I’m prone to do the opposite. Not that I’m a big-time stock picker, but whenever I read about recommended securities from the retail sector, I’m skeptical, and it has everything to do with my personal bias against brand-name shopping. I rationalize by thinking that it’s foolish to bank on the overtapped American consumer’s propensity to continue on a discretionary spending binge forever, but really it is that I don’t want to believe that American Eagle Outfitters (AEOS) or Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF) are simply going to continue to grow; that duping teens with sexed-up advertisements can constitute a business strategy that Wall Street respects. I don’t even want to take them seriously as businesses; I prefer to think of them as dark cultural forces that will be thrwarted once everyone eventually wakes up and realizes how pointless brand-name clothes are. Investing in a company like Chico’s (CHS) or Coach (COH) would not only be hypocritical, it would be against my utopian vision of the world, against what I want to believe about universal common sense. (Maybe this is precisely why I should be buying retail stocks. Never a bad idea to bet against utopias.) Perhaps the behavioral finance theorists have a term for this kind of bias, but I’m fully aware that it is irrational. But rejecting retail stocks because of a reactionary personal philosophy seems no less coherent than picking them because of the weather. And it turns out the weather is one of the most significant economic factor for retail stocks, perhaps more than fashionability or personal belief in the brand or a good feeling about a marketing strategy. Justin Lahart’s column in Friday’s WSJ noted the tendency for September’s weather to determine a retail stock’s fortunes:


September temperatures tend to vary a lot. And September is a crucial month for retailers. That means the weather plays an outsize role in the month’s sales and can trump other economic factors, says Paul Walsh, a meteorologist at weather-analysis firm Planalytics, which advises retailers. September is when retailers, especially in the apparel business, are stocked with fall fare. Cool temperatures early in the season make it easier to sell sweaters and furry boots at full price. Last year, warm weather lasted across much of the U.S. until October, leading retailers to cut prices deeply in an attempt to clear inventory. The jolt of Hurricane Katrina also hurt many, meaning comparisons to last year are especially easy this month.


Obviously, if we follow the money, retailers must be scheming along these lines. Control the weather, control your portfolio. But it’s amazing to me to think of all the sophisticated mathematical tools and speadsheets and models and algorithms, and the vast sums of money at stake, and the myriad of different brokers and analysts who work everyday to try to harness the market, and in the end the kind of logic that is seen retrospectively to have affected the market can run along the lines of “Retail is thriving because September was sort of cold and more shoppers bought sweaters.”


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Friday, Sep 22, 2006


After a series of highly ambitious, but financially unrewarding efforts – including his gross out revamp of The Thing, an adaptation of Stephen King’s classic killer car novel Christine, Starman‘s stellar sci-fi romanticism and that unique take on the martial arts comedy known as Big Trouble in Little China – John Carpenter wanted to get back to his low budget genre roots. His idea? Make a movie using both a theological and a scientific basis for the existence of evil. Mixing physics with the supernatural and arguing that Satan’s potential return to Earth for Armageddon may just be a provable mathematical theorem, we follow a group of graduate students as they try to unlock the secrets of viscous liquid swirling around in an abandoned church basement. Toss in a little unconscious bi-location, rocker Alice Cooper as the leader of a zombie-like clan of homeless people, and a smart, intelligent script, and you’ve got all the makings for a highbrow horror classic. Naturally, it bombed at the box office.


Yet brains are only part of the reason why Prince of Darkness is so special. Throwing away the typical conventions of your standard dumb monster movie, and dealing with fear and evil in engaging philosophical debates, Carpenter created as much a comment on the nature of wickedness as he does an illustration of same. In fact, the last act of the film could easily be mistaken for a standard scarefest, with the possessed servant of Satan (or his actual disembodied son) looking for minions, as well as a way to bring his dethroned Dad back to prominence. With a stellar cast including Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, Carpenter argued that there were still some major motion picture shivers left in the old shockmeister. Sadly, after the fun social satire of They Live, and the uneven if effective In the Mouth of Madness, this would be the last significant Carpenter creepfest. But it is clearly one of his best. 


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Friday, Sep 22, 2006

Whenever I read an article like this one, from today’s WSJ, about spending real money for objects that only exist in virtual worlds like Second Life, my first thought is usually something along the lines of “How pathetic.” I assume that the online life is a compensation for a circumscribed real life (as though mine was so free and uninhibited)—without autonomous scope in reality, one seeks refuge in a virtual world where one has quasi-divine powers of generation. And that’s not such a terrible thing, I guess, even though it leaves the existing institutions that crush aspirations in the name of “being realistic.” Online, unconstrained by the givens of genetics and circumstances, one can build an entirely new self that conforms more closely to one’s aspirations without having to undergo the struggles and compromises, without having to take the risks or confront the failures that one would while pursuing such ambitions in real life. You start off on a somewhat equal footing, but making the initial decisions yourself about the context that will shape your Second Life destiny. Decisions have consequences on a much more insigificant scale, and aren’t irreversible. So matter what you look like or what your ethical standards are or how poor you are in real life, you can be both a stripper and a fashionista in Second Life:  “The scene—drama and all—keeps Janine Hawkins engaged in fashion in a way that wouldn’t be possible for her offline. ‘It’s totally different to pay $15 to keep up with the fashions in Second Life than’ the $1,500 that would be necessary in real life, she says. Her avatar, Iris Ophelia, originally paid for outfits by dancing at Second Life bars. ‘Every time I had enough money, I’d run there and buy everything I could,’ she says.” One can leverage technology much more directly on the narcissistic project of identity, while shifting this project ouside of oneself to appear to legitimize it, as if it were the same as making art or pursuing an entrepreneurial scheme. So in short, my immediate judgmental reaction is to see involvement with these worlds as the product of stunted, misdirected energy, and the economic transactions that mediate between real and online worlds as enabling the misdirection, as making the pretend world seem more real, like having a toy Fisher-Price gas station for your Matchbox cars.


But economic penetration into these worlds actually renders them less of an escape, because it introduces the very elements one may have been trying to flee from—the competition for limited resources, the positional status games that come along with unequal distributions of income. Suddenly one’s limitless autonomy is constrained not by the desired Pavlovian obstacles and rewards built into the game by programmers but by the very same intractable realities of money and status that it would seem one would use role-playing games to render insignificant. The invasion of real-life economic considerations is all the more likely in a game that doesn’t dictate an objective, like Second Life: “There are no dragons or wizards to slay. Instead, San Francisco-based Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, has provided a platform for players—median age 32 and 57% male, with 40% living outside the U.S.—to do whatever they want, whether it is building a business, tending bar or launching a space shuttle. Residents chat, shop, build homes, travel and hold down jobs, and they are encouraged to create items in Second Life that they can sell to others or use themselves.” It almost sounds like an unbounded space wherein individuals can be left alone to construct their own fantasy lives without the constraints of social pressure or necessity—a utopian space where both egalitarian and individualistic norms can prevail.


But human nature abhors a utopia. Without a specific fictive goal to pursue, the goals we improvise to direct our ambitions in real life will invade, and the anxieties that beset such ambitions will also follow them into cyberspace. And one of the fundamental invented ambitions to keep ourselves preoccupied is keeping up with fashion, or staying ahead of its curve. Sometimes fashionability is a proxy for wealth, another way of demonstrating it conspicuously. But often—think of Lower East Side youth innovators, or spontaneous ghetto street styles—fashion is an alternate means for accruing status, for partcipating in a game with winners and losers in the absence of other clearly delineated goals and in conditions where vast sums of money are inaccessible. Fashion creates a zero-sum game where none otherwise exists, and that no one has an excuse not to play, to sate our need for “meaningful” competition and purpose across any boundary within a society. Hence Second Life becoming overun by the fashion business, which combines two compelling ways to create winners and losers:


Because Second Life creators own their products and can sell them, the game has attracted both professional and amateur designers, says Linden spokeswoman Catherine Smith. That has led to a thriving fashion scene that includes not just dressmaking but also jewelry, hair and even skin design, as people purchase the elements to create a look for their online alter egos. Selling virtual clothes to real people for their avatars can even be lucrative: In August, the 20 best-selling Second Life fashion designers generated a combined $140,466 in sales, Linden says. “We found out pretty quickly that people loved owning things,” Ms. Smith says, and many start by buying items for their avatars. “It’s not surprising that fashion and hairstyles and skins are as attractive and as exciting and as valuable as they are, because it’s part of individualizing” the appearance of a player’s online persona.


Individualization online is not an innocuous project of self-actualization but a competition, a contest, just as we are encouraged to see it in real life. Fashion, in order to thrive, must make sure we never forget it.


 


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Friday, Sep 22, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

“Music historians may not go out of their way to be kind to Death Row Records or its founder, Marion “Suge” Knight. Due to the murders of Tupac Shakur (“2pac”) and Christopher Wallace (“the Notorious B.I.G.”), Knight and his company may go down in history as the record label that went ballistic in the infamous East Coast-West Coast beef. But when you listen to Snoop Dogg’s Tha Doggfather, the Murder Was the Case soundtrack, and a compilation of Dr. Dre’s Death Row gems called Chronicles, one thing is clear: Death Row brought us some of the most compelling music of the 1990s.”
“The Dogg, The Doctor, & Death Row” by Quentin B. Huff [PopMatters feature]


Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog—Nuttin’ But a ‘G’ Thang


2Pac—California Love


2Pac and Snoop Dogg—2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted [live]


Dr. Dre—Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)


Snoop Dogg—Murder Was the Case


2Pac—Changes


Dr. Dre—Let Me Ride


Snoop Dogg—Doggy Dogg World


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