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Monday, Aug 7, 2006

Elizabeth Holmes of The Wall Street Journal apparently had the same idea that I did about the portion of MySpace “friends” that are actually ad pages, but being a real journalist, she actually interviewed some relevant people about the subject, like the executive in charge of generating profits from the phenomenon, and produced laugh-out-loud money quotes like this: ” ‘What we really struck upon is the power of friendship,’ says Michael Barrett, chief revenue officer for News Corp.‘s Fox Interactive Media.” He’s probably not even joking. Perhaps he means that people are so enamored of the idea of friendship that they’ll expand it to embrace all of their preferences. But if anything, the phenomenon is more a testimony to the power of social networking, which reduces friends to advertisements for oneself.

Holmes notes the conundrum of fans creating what are essentially ads for products without the company who owns the brand’s involvement or permission: “A profile for Willy Wonka matches the feel of other fictional characters, listing his hometown (‘the Land of Make Believe’), his occupation (‘amazing chocolatier inventor extraordinaire’) and his nearly 61,000 ‘friends.’ But the Willy Wonka site is created by a fan, not the movie studio.” It seems as though amateurs sense a demand for a brand friend and step into the breach when the company is slow to make one of its own (or doesn’t want to pay News Corporation/MySpace for the privilege—MySpace, incidentally, is beginning to resemble traditional media, with companies buying ad space within its domain). The demand stems from the urgency with which people must establish identity through brands by navigating their way through the coded social space they define. Without the brands, the language we have to speak our identity in a way we can trust people will understand is impoverished.

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Monday, Aug 7, 2006

Today’s New York Times has an item in the Arts and Leisure section about Abby Cadabby, a new female muppet designed to be a lead character on Sesame Street. Reportedly, the character “has her own point of view and ‘is comfortable with the fact that she likes wearing a dress.’” What a breakthrough; finally those women who like wearing dresses will get some attention in our culture, because heaven knows, it’s hard for a girl who wants to conform to traditional expectations about gender. Liz Nealon, the show’s creative director, wanted “a girly girl” to fill an underrepresented niche, since, she explained, “We have our wacky, and we have our gentle.” So women apparently come in three flavors now; wacky, gentle and (the somewhat tautological) girly; this makes them slightly less flexible in terms of personality than a Dungeons & Dragons character, for whom there were nine alignments available (if you count “neutral”).

Abby Cadabby seems like an attempt to mollify family-values critics on the right, who have targeted publicly funded children’s television and who seem to regard any attempt to unshackle women from traditonal roles as an assault on the family and the future of the species. “Political correctness hampers creativity,” Nealon tells the Times, which seems like a dead giveaway. So in order to be “creative” one must be able to work in the tried and true gender stereotypes that have been worked for centuries? Any reference to political correctness, the bogus boogeyman of the right, is a tip-off that pressure is being applied by conservatives, or that a conservative point of view has taken root that promotes conformity as freedom and paints subversion as doctrinaire. Sesame Street seems to have had a long history of not playing this game in the past; it’s sad to see it undermine its reputation as a cultural niche where the Disney rules don’t apply.

It’s nice that the show wants a female lead character; it’s counter-productive though when the reason is to turn that female character into a popular toy. (What else is femaleness good for?) The article sees Abby Cadabby—pink and insectile; a kind of warmed-over feminized Harry Potter imbued with magical skills (a.k.a. feminine wiles) and designed to be able to look “vulnerable” and “beseeching”—as a attempt to make a marketable female muppet that can be a new cash cow for the Sesame franchise and compete with Dora the Explorer. “There are so many cute things out there,” one of Sesame’s product managers explained, “but in order to make them want one doll over another, I think the real deciding factor is how much they’ve connected with the Muppet from the show. And you’ve got to be able to capture that.” The best way to do that? Make a character who conforms to the ideals of many misguided parents who crave a feminine doll-child; then the child too can idolize and “connect” with this creature that obviously wins approval. The little princess in the household can play with her little princesses from the culture. Perhaps it’s an unfair caricature, but this is what seems troubling about third-wave feminism in general (at least the aspect of it that champions the manipulation of femininity as empowerment, anyway); it wants to redeem gender stereotypes by seizing control of the way they are marketed. Gender difference becomes a kind of comparative advantage to maximize and exploit, making irreducible personal qualities into product conforming to customer expectations. Abby Cadabby is femininity for sale in doll form, and it is also an object lesson in how to manufacture the valuable product of femininity for yourself out of the raw material of your own body and sensibility.

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Monday, Aug 7, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Nils Petter Molvaer —"Nebulizer" From An American Compilation on Thirsty Ear
Since Releasing his first landmark album, with ECM in 1997, Nils Petter Molvaer has Been awarded three Norwegian Grammys, a German Record Critics Award, and LA Weekly’s Jazz Album of the Year, securing his place among the truly meaningful jazz musicians of his generation. This album features tracks hand-selected by Molvaer from his previous releases, and is designed to reconnect the American audience with the depths of his musical landscape.

Shearwater—"Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five" From Palo Santo on Misra Records
Shearwater has transformed itself to the point of reinvention on, the band’s fourth album. The first Shearwater release to be made up entirely of songs by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Meiburg, Palo Santo resembles previous Shearwater albums only incidentally. It’s a thrilling, paradoxical record—icily warm, welcoming and sloppy and immaculate.

French Kicks—"So Far We Are Are" From Two Thousand on Vagrant
French Kicks are obsessed with possibility. For this band experimentation and self-discovery are the whole game, and the results of their continued explorations have set them in a category all their own. Two Thousand, offers a rare collection of thrills and intrigues, composed of sounds both foreign and familiar. Each song offers its own logic and its own rewards.

French Kicks—Trial of the Century

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness —"According To Plan" From Fear Is On Our Side on Secretly Canadian
After a lifetime of nightfall and foggy moonlight, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness creeps out of the shadows with their long-awaited full-length debut, Fear Is on Our Side. The Austin, Texas, band follows up their 2003 self-titled, five-song EP - a much poppier affair produced by Spoon’s Britt Daniel - with a dose of thunder and lightning, pain and pleasure.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness—According To Plan

Danielson—"Did I Step On Your Trumpet" From Ships on Secretly Canadian
With Danielson, there’s no hard distinction between the visuals (costumes and graphics) and the music from this group from suburban Clarksboro, New Jersey. “One enters your heart through your eyes, one through your ears,” says Daniel.

Danielson—Did I Step on Your Trumpet? [Live in Cleveland]

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Sunday, Aug 6, 2006

As Colonel Kurtz whispered, “The horror…the horror…”

Just for the record:

Leno gave THUMBS UP to:

Talladega Nights
Little Miss Sunshine
The Night Listener

Leno gave THUMBS DOWN to:

Miami Vice (reason? It wasn’t enough like the ‘80s show.)


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Sunday, Aug 6, 2006

For a little over 10 years, Canada’s Fantasia International Film Festival has been on the cutting edge of up and coming genre greatness. They discovered such macabre masters as Takashi Miike and introduced J-Horror and other world shock cinema to a desperate for something different Western mentality. Offering the unusual, the brazen, and the unique, the festival specializes in both full-length features and an amazing array of short films. At last year’s (2005) celebration alone, over 100 of these truncated talent showcases were presented. Now, in conjunction with Synapse Films, the festival is offering up Small Gauge Trauma, a collection of its most novel and creative contributions. And believe it or not, it’s one of the best film packages of the year.

The 14 titles present on the single DVD presentation vary from minor (Tomoya Sato’s study of suicide, L’ilya) to the masterful (a pair of brave entries from Britain—Robert Morgan’s stop-animation The Separation, Sam Walker’s human abattoir comedy Tea Break). All take the notion of the short form narrative very seriously, and strive to make the most out of the limited time frame. In several cases, the results are astounding. In three particular instances, the movies made are better than most of their long form brethren. Director Salvador Sanz uses a drawing style reminiscent of anime mixed with socialist poster art to tell his tale of a pop band that becomes those mythological snake-haired monsters of Greek lore. Gorgonas is great, not just because of the mixture of martial artistry and the macabre, but because Sanz allows the unlimited palette of pen and ink to fully realize his repugnant aims.

Similarly, Miguel Ángel Vivas breathes new life into a hackneyed horror ideal—the zombie film—with his wickedly perverse I’ll See You In My Dreams. Like a Sam Raimi/Coen Brothers take on Lucio Fulci, this lively living dead thriller is so smartly scripted and masterfully directed that you barely miss the blood and guts. Thankfully, Vivas doesn’t skimp on the sluice. The most interesting entry, however, has nothing to do with monsters and menace. Imagine Trainspotting with show tunes, or Requiem for a Dream with its own melodious narrative breaks and you’ve got some idea of director Diego Abad’s amazingly mischievous music video Ruta Destroy!. The story is rather simple – a group of junkie friends looking for thrills… and pills—but the execution is out of this world, with Abad allowing his mostly tone-deaf actors to sing-speak their songs. The result is as hilarious as it is harrowing.

There are other moments of cinematic brilliance here—Phillip John’s nunnery sick joke Sister Lulu, Dennison Ramalho’s demonic possession tone poem Love from Mother Only, the Dario Argento inspired directorial flair of Chambre Jaune‘s Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Occasionally, a misguided moment like Tenkwaku Naniwa’s Miss Greeny (nothing more than a green blob pouring down a canvas) takes away from the overall presentation. But astounding efforts like Paco Plaza’s Abuelitos—about a surreal nursing home where elderly patients are kept alive via a very gruesome diet—more than make up for the occasional artistic overreaching. For anyone looking for something completely out of the ordinary, DVD distributor Synapse Films has a compilation treat for you. Here’s hoping the efforts of the Fantasia International Film Festival—and the wonderful works they represent—find the audience they so desperately deserve.

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