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Monday, Sep 11, 2006

I just returned from lunch and witnessed a fashion shoot on Fifth Avenue. The model stiffened herself in the wind, looking like a bodybuilder in the impressive and palpable strain it required for her to hold her pose, her long legs like reeds that refused to bend in the breeze. She was like a strange statue that suddenly had been deposited in front of my office; she had a marble blankness of expression. The photographer was on one knee, pointing his camera up at her, to make her even more monumental. But tourists were staging guerilla shoots of their own, taking any number of snapshots of her from whatever angle was most convenient to them. Most of them wanted to get the photographer in their shot as well, to perhaps prove that they had manage to stumble behind the scenes. I wanted to wait around and see the model deobjectify herself, see her snap out of whatever it was she had done to herself. But it was taking too long, and I had to get back to work.


Yesterday, before seeing a truly dismal slog of a film, Sherrybaby—acting for the sake of acting, squalor and dysfunction as “realism”—we had burgers at a trendy burger joint tucked into the lobby of the Parker Meridien hotel on 57th Street. The line can go slow, and grew even slower when the Austrailian tourist in front of me, in the midst of ordering for her and her six friends, realized that she had forgot to mention some topping for one of the burgers and had to start over again, and again. Thus prompted the cashier to apparently stage an impromptu work slowdown. Some well-dressed media types were in line behind us, and one of them went to save a booth, a few feet away, for their group. Then, after a few moments, I see the woman waving her arms in the air to her friends in line. “Hey,” she says, “I’m calling you.” She was using her cell phone to call someone who was standing five feet away, someone so close that the sound of her voice was louder than phone’s ringtone. They proceeded to have a conversations on the phone, while making eye contact with each other. It was the craziest thing I had ever seen. No wonder so many stadiums are named for telecom companies; they must have money to burn with customers like these. This seemed to prove that at some point gadgets begin to dictate your behavior over and above what may have once seemed like common sense. It’s not exactly path dependence, but something related, whereby one justifies some technology by finding the least useful, most ostentatious ways, and then gets trapped in these usage patterns. This may explain in part an otherwise puzzling (but rather cheering) item in The Economist about cell-phone use on flights. Americans hate the idea:


When America’s telecoms regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, requested public comments on in-flight calling, it received thousands of mostly negative responses. “Please no. No,” read one response. “I object to this in the strongest terms. I can’t believe you are even considering it.” America’s airlines seem to share this lack of enthusiasm for the idea. Both United and Delta say their customers do not want it.



But airlines may introduce it anyway, because people will use the service whether they really want it or not. Part of this apparent inconsistency would stem from egoism: There’s always a perfectly good reason to have to take a call oneself, but other people’s chattering is inexcusable. Part of it is probably an unwillingness to admit in a survey that one has given up on that basic standard of politeness: respecting the existence of the other people one shares space with. But some of it would derive from a compulsion to do something simply because one can. The article suggests that airlines may introduce the cell-phone service simply to have the chance to charge more for tickets in cabins that prohibited it. What a great idea—get a captive audience and subject them to nuisances that they must then pay to avoid. Why not have shrieking noise come standard with your airfare and invite preferred customers to pay more for silence? When cell phone users become nuisances, the best way to beat them seems to be to join them, so one talker would likely beget several dozen more. In that cacophony one will be able to hear the sounds of the social order tearing apart.


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Monday, Sep 11, 2006

A few days ago Tyler Cowen mentioned WSJ critic Terry Teachout’s post on shopping serendipity. Teachout suggests that shopping online doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of browsing serendipity that being in a store amidst the lovely merchandise does. This seemed totally off, as Cowen pointed out—the Internet makes haphazard connections happen all the time, and gives all sorts of tools to allow one to discover new media—Firefox is not called a “broswer” by accident. His eventual WSJ column on the subject suggests perhaps people will stop taking a chance on new things and will use digital shopping tools to acquire only what they already know they want. Teachout’s point would seem to apply to people more than to things—it seems like online dating/social networking geared toward pinpointing someone who already shares your precise interests could lead one to socialize only with people with a narrow range of interests. They permit you to shop for people, with the same fussiness we might apply to choosing window treatments. Luckily most people are either poor judges of themselves or intentionally mislead about of their own interests, so there are probably still plenty of surprising discoveries to be had.


Celebrating online serendipity, some of Cowen’s commenters pointed to Pandora, the service that automatically suggests new music based on the way music you already like sounds; but this seems to support Teachout’s point rather than undermine it—programming what “new” things you’ll expose yourself to doesn’t really count as serendipity. One’s exposure to something has to be nearer to random, or else the meaning of the word will have been stretched to the point where it’s meaningless—serendipity would apply to every form of shopping for novelty. Teachout’s column expounds on the benefits of the deep inventories and automated tools the Internet provides us to mechanize word-of-mouth recommendations and real-world browsing, but claims these are less “elegant” than the old process of stumbling on something we hadn’t planned on looking for. He cites shopping at the Strand, the chaotically organized bookstore in New York City, where you can’t find what you came for but leave with a bunch of stuff you didn’t know you needed. (I’d have the same experience at the library, when I’d be searching for one book—inevitably in someone’s carrel or lost—and would end up with half a dozen other books from the same call number section. This doesn’t make for a highly efficient dissertation research strategy.) So serendipity may be a nice word we use for our own impulsivity; it gives us an alibi for distraction and wastefulness and needless accumulation. Marketers and retailers succeed when we see their attempts to get us to impulse shop as leisurely and innocuous serendipity—rather than seeing ourselves as manipulated, we see ourselves as unduly fortunate.


More often than not there’s nothing accidental about the process of stumbling on something. Shopping serendipity is a state of mind more than a pure accident of circumstances; we shop for serendipity. Usually we are already looking for a reason to be captivated when we slip into browsing/surfing mode; perhaps we are never so vulnerable to making pointless therapeutic purchases as we are when we are in that state of mind. (This is why I would go to thrift stores for no reason and end up with horse head bookends, coffee mugs with and T-shirts with stupid or inscrutable slogans on them, paintings made by amateurs, a bunch of overcoats and raincoats—I was living in Arizona—and a dozen suits that don’t quite fit right.) We want to stifle that pursuit of inspiration without having to live up to the potential it awakes within us to want to make something, change something, do something. Shopping for serendipity lets us view the thing we inevitably “surprise” ourselves with in shopping serve as a substitute for whatever activity that restless energy would have driven us to. Shopping serves as a kind of anti-activity, a way of discharging that “accursed share” of surplus desire we have without bringing undue chaos into our lives.


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Monday, Sep 11, 2006


Today marks the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and even with said time and distance, people are still wondering if it’s too soon to explore the events via the many available entertainment mediums. In the last few weeks alone, cable outlets like The Discovery and The Learning Channel have given us devastating looks inside the Twin Towers that fateful day, and all three major networks are airing specials striving to celebrate and scrutinize the tragedy. ABC has courted the most controversy, airing a miniseries on 10 and 11 September that acts like a denouncement of the Democrats as the narrative traces the Clinton Administrations dealings with Osama Bin Laden on the Path to 9/11. Cinema also responded with its own double dose of regulated reality. Oliver Stone went for the sentimental with his August release of World Trade Center, a survival story of two port authority officers at Ground Zero. Earlier, Paul Greengrass gave the final flight of United 93 the kind of docudrama authenticity that helped amplify its rock solid suspense.


Yet the question still lingers – is it too soon? Before answering, there’s a need for some clear perspective. Such an inquiry assumes a couple of communal attributes: (1) that all individuals in America were equally affected by the events of 9/11, and (2) that all require the same recovery time from their reaction. Now, there is no doubt that citizens were shaken to their very core by the sight of airplanes slamming into the side of a skyscraper. It’s an image not even the most gifted Hollywood effects house could duplicate in its potency and abruptness. It’s epic excess, the unfathomable scope of its symbolic destruction was a crucial reminder of what exists outside our considered zone of comfort. We like to think of America as the land of opportunity and unbridled freedom, a Superpower place that anyone would trade everything to be a part of. The events of 9/11 indicated that, not only was such a sentiment short sighted, but such a belief fueled a perceived arrogant disregard for the rest of the world.


And let’s face it – we’re all ostriches. We’d rather spend our days with our heads buried in the suburban sand than deal with the real world issues constantly crashing against our free and democratic shores. We’ll elect (and re-elect) a President and support his sloppy war as long as it makes us feel secure in our SWVs, and keeps the materialistic flow unencumbered. We will use the mere mantra of “supporting our troops” as a means of avoiding a real confrontation on the politics of preemption, and balk the minute a potential threat is uncovered. Instead of living in the reality of a precarious post-modern world, where technology and ideology have met to create a continuous network of possible terror, we argue over alert levels and airport security as the rest of the planet experiences daily reminders of the tenuous nature of being a citizen within this specific planetary community.


That is why it is almost never “too soon” to address a tragedy cinematically. Unless we place some manner of shared importance on a singular event, the art of motion picture making is the perfect place to explore the deeper meaning inside any calamity. Granted, the potential is always there for exploitation or disrespect, but there are no guarantees in this constantly shifting social stratagem. All of which begs the question – why, pray tell, are the events of 9/11 so off-limits, even today? If it’s a question of time and distance, no one is pitching the kind of jingoistic hissy that critics of United 93 and World Trade Center are guilty of regarding a far more devastating - and recent - event. Last month, Spike Lee delivered his four hour documentary on the rampant destruction – and lack of proper governmental response – in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. HBO’s When the Levee Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts was a mind-boggling masterpiece, far more antagonistic and conspiratorial than anything offered in either pro-patriot 9/11 motion pictures. Amid the images of bodies floating in sewage strewn water and victims piled up like prisoners in horribly inhumane and unsanitary conditions, we heard rumors of explosions (marking the purposeful destruction of the levees), the governments’ avoidance of politically unpopular peoples, ass covering taking the place of assistance. All the while, audiences couldn’t wait to see Lee stick it to the man, while simultaneously wondering aloud how anyone can tackle the tragedy that befell America on that fateful September day five years gone.


Some may say that 9/11 and Katrina are apples and oranges, and in many significant ways, that statement is true. But a hurricane wiping out most of a city, flattening millions of Gulf coast acres and destroying hundreds of thousands of lives stands as far more important, quantitatively, than a single act of terrorism that somehow finally managed to make it to our own isolationist shores. 9/11 may be more socially, and internationally significant, but Katrina will continue to be more substantive. Call it liberal cluelessness or a lack of context, but the collapse of the World Trade Center is more important for what it symbolizes (America’s indirect entry into the cause and effect world of fundamentalism) than for the resulting devastation. Now no loss of life is acceptable, but would we view the events of that day differently if, once the airplanes hit, the city of New York and the Federal Government simply sat around, waiting until the coast was clear and all the facts were in before they decided to act? Would we feel any different if the planes had hit some nameless housing projects instead of the symbols of capitalism and commerce? In Katrina’s case, the answer seems obvious.


The longer we apply the hands off approach to 9/11, the longer we foster the philosophy behind the attacks. No one is saying that radical fundamentalist Islamic extremists can be reasoned with, and no one is suggesting that a movie can make sense of such outrageous, illogical motives. But there are always lessons to be learned, elements within any tragedy that need deciphering and determination. While they were unpleasantly exploitive at times, the Discovery Channel style documentaries began the process of illustrating the horrors of what happened that day. Seeing those indelible images from the inside out – the planes approaching, the stairwells choked with smoke – gave new meaning to the loss of life that occurred. That’s the power of visualizing events. It helps provide perspective, and necessary knowledge. If we mythologize events, and ask our movies to do the same, we rob the reality of its meaning.


Film can convolute and corrupt, but when done right (United 93) and in deference to other elements (World Trade Center) the results can be disarming. We require determinations, not deifications. Arguing that it’s too soon is simply asking to avoid the truth for a little while longer. And the more time that passes, the more fact fades. If we wait too long to address the aspects of 9/11, we run the risk of losing its meaning all together. If that’s the case, the terrorists have really won. Nothing spells victory like getting your victims to forget why they were targets in the first place. Without the illustrative power of film, such absentmindedness is almost assured. So it’s not too soon. In fact, it may be too late


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Sunday, Sep 10, 2006


No, you’re not seeing things. That’s John Travolta in full drag as Edna Turnblad in the musical adaptation of John Waters’ Hairspray, set for release in 2007. Frankly, SE&L isn’t shocked by the casting. Travolta is a true musical comedy actor, and can definitely pull off the role originated by the late, great Divine. Besides, we’re more curious to see how Christopher Walken holds up has “her” husband, Wilbur. Not that’s a concept worth getting worked up over.


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Saturday, Sep 9, 2006


When Tim Burton tackles a cinematic subject, you know the results are going to be artistically anarchic. From his fascinating short films Vincent and Frankenweenie, to his big budget takes on Batman and the Planet of the Apes, this iconic filmmaker finds the idiosyncratic soul in almost all the material he approaches. The results are always visually inspiring, quirky, arcane, and wholly original. So it’s a shame that his 1996 epic Mars Attacks! Never reached a wider audience. In an odd twist of fate, the film had the unfortunate luck of following Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s more serious interstellar invasion film Independence Day to the Cineplex. Indeed, after seeing the world decimated by pissed off extraterrestrials, Burton’s subtle apocalyptic satire just didn’t seem quite as funny, and audiences stayed away in droves. By doing so, they missed a sensationally subversive sci-fi comedy. Based on a controversial Topps trading card set from the ‘50s and ‘60s, Mars Attacks was an EC Comics approach to the mainstream popcorn extravaganza. It combined riffs from the seminal ‘70s disaster films with lifts from the likes of Stanley Kubrick (Jack Nicholson’s Peter Sellers-like dual roles) to the blaxpolitation classics of the era (complete with Pam Grier and Jim Brown in prominent roles).


But it’s the Martians that make the biggest impression here. Utilizing an early version of CGI, and the extensive physical effects his films are known for, Burton gave what could have been your standard alien bad guys a distinct dimension all their own. Aside from looking exactly like their cartoon counterparts, these slapstick spacemen with the corpse-like demeanor were a constant source of sensational sight gags. In fact, instead of purely playing the villainous antagonists that the cards conveyed, Burton’s ridiculous rogues were a gleeful Greek chorus, mocking the Earthlings in all their human faults and foibles. The Martians manage to play on each and every one of mankind’s sinful slights, from the military’s unreasonable arrogance (as expertly exemplified by the late great Rod Steiger) to the shady sexual secrets inside the corridors of power. Indeed, with the latter, Martin Short gets a chance to shine as a Presidential Aide who attempts to bed a decidedly dim hooker who’s actually an alien in disguise. With its irreverent approach and stellar production design, Mars Attacks! is a marvel. It remains one of Burton’s most slick, satisfying efforts.


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