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by Jason Gross

10 Jan 2008

Boy am I glad that I didn’t go for the yearly payment option with Napster, even if meant a discount…  It seems that Sony’s publishing branch doesn’t want their tunes streamed now or ever again, thanks to a fight about royalties, according to Billboard.  What’s scary isn’t just that this effects other services like Rhapsody and MediaNet but also, as the article notes, “other major publishers are also expected to stop future licensing of the services.”  That means that streaming services are effectively gonna get killed off unless some new agreement is reached.

You gotta hand it to the music industry—even after killing off DRM, they still find ways to screw up their business by placing new walls and barriers up and making music less accessible to people once again.  The end result is that music lovers are driven to other ways to get the music which ultimately ain’t gonna get any money back to the publishing companies who license the songs.  But hey, what’s a little more wrong-headed thinking about an industry that’s in decline?  If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d say that’s why Napster was trying to push consumers to buy their yearly model, knowing that they’d be locked in for 12 months, even after they’d lose some/most of their streaming privileges.  But they wouldn’t cook up a scheme like that, would they…?

by Bill Gibron

9 Jan 2008

They’ve been known to predict the eventual Oscar winner close to 95% of the time. They also seem to have a handle on which films will get nominated, and which movies will be overlooked come the actual Academy Awards. The Director’s Guild of America announced its choices for 2007’s best filmmaking, and it’s an eclectic group at best. Aside from a pair of previous nominees (the Coens caught one for Fargo in 1997), everyone else on this list are first timers. Even more interesting, three aren’t necessarily known for their work behind the camera. We have an artist, an actor, and a writer who made his first foray into the world of direction. Of course, this means that none of the nominees have ever won before, which makes the accomplishment twice as rewarding.

Without actually handicapping the outcome, SE&L will step in and offer its thoughts on the choices, as well as highlighting a few names that could have been substituted for at least one individual on the list. While many feared 2007 would be a slack year, cinematically speaking, the last four months have offered up such astonishing fare that, in the end, it turned out to be one of the best ever for the artform…and the names found below are a big part of the reason why. Without their good, good work, we’d be stuck with an endless outpouring of Michael Bay megabusters. One shudders to think.

The Nominees:

Joel and Ethan Coen No Country for Old Men

It’s hard to say if the brothers really deserve an Oscar for what they do as directors. Certainly, their films are stunning realizations of pragmatic and artistic ambitions, and there are times when their technique seems in sync with the very gods themselves. But how much of this is direction, and how much is pure production acumen. They know how to write (and how!). They cast flawlessly. Their editing is always superb, and they combine music, theme, and subtext in a way few craftsman can. But it seems so, well, SMALL to call them mere ‘directors’. That’s why they probably won’t win. What they did with Cormac McCarthy’s novel was much more than mere behind the lens guidance.

Paul Thomas Anderson There Will Be Blood

Like Barack Obama in the last few weeks, praise and plaudits for this mostly unseen masterwork by the Boogie Nights auteur has been growing by leaps and bounds. Critics groups have been frothing to foist as many accolades on the film as possible, and Anderson has gone from retro-revisionist to a full blown motion picture master. Everything about Blood is a direct reflection of his vision and attention to detail. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis’ striking turn as Daniel Plainview seals the deal, but without the barren old West backdrop to play against, the performance would be nothing but Method mannerism. Thanks to Anderson, it becomes the fodder for a true epic.

Sean Penn Into the Wild

Breaking away from the no nonsense neo-realism pose his last few films have taken, Penn has lightened up as a director, and as a result, discovered a lyrical soul beneath his hardened show biz shell. Instantly recalling the more experimental end of the post-modern movement circa the ‘70s, there are moments of great joy mixed in with the inevitable sadness of Christopher McCandless’ self-imposed exile from society. With solid support from his cast, and an evocative score courtesy of pal Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam), this may be the first time Penn’s skill in front of the lens translates successfully behind it.

Tony Gilroy Michael Clayton

This remains the one odd choice out of the five. SE&L is still trying to figure out what everyone sees in this otherwise routine corrupt corporation thriller. Could be that lingering (man) crush everyone has on Clooney, who is very good in the film. Perhaps it’s Gilroy’s compensation for making Matt Damon into a believable action hero (he’s responsible for the Bourne trilogy scripts). It could be that scene where co-star Tilda Swinton is locked in a bathroom stall, fear and flop sweat staining her power suit. In a year where there were other deserving nominees (see below), this appears like a very odd, very insider choice.

Julian Schnabel The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Here’s the reason why this former painter turned filmmaker is here - he used a gimmicky, borderline obnoxious approach to the first half of his movie (we see everything from the point of view of a paralyzed magazine editor) and it didn’t drive critics crazy. Instead of being overly ambitious and smugly self conscious, it allowed audiences into the mind of a man “locked in” place. Just like an artist, Schnabel understands the value in sketching out his designs before attempting the big picture canvas. In this case, the small moments that open the film lead to some major revelations later on.

Missing, Deserving a Mention

Again, there were several sensational masterworks this year that deserve some manner of recognition. Yet, regrettably, it looks like both the Guilds and the AMPAS will be ignoring in the next two months. As a service to all cinephiles, SE&L then offers the following selection of alternate choices. Any or all deserve a place with the personalities noted before, beginning with:

Tim Burton Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

One guesses that everyone’s favorite Goth guy was left off the list because, when it comes right down to it, this artistic anarchist could direct this film in his sleep. He’s had casual daydreams scarier than the bloody and brooding masterpiece he forged out of Sondheim’s equally magnificent musical. Still, for its Victorian vomitorium vogue, Burton deserved a nod.

Danny Boyle Sunshine

If he had spent the last few years remaking Trainspotting over and over again, delivering film after film of British quirk, Boyle would probably be on the list this year. His amazing bookend to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is the first serious science fiction film not clouded by the shroud of Star Wars. That, in and of itself, deserves recognition.

David Fincher Zodiac

You gotta love the revisionist history on this title. Back in January 2006, critics were more or less lukewarm on this fabulous police procedural throwback. Eleven months later, it’s cropping up on ‘Best of’ lists everywhere, with Fincher equally feeling the love. Perhaps if journalists had owned up to how amazing this movie was beforehand, the mind behind Se7en would be part of the process, not a noted also-ran. 

Ben Affleck Gone Baby Gone

If Tony Gilroy can get a nod for his Verdict homage, why can’t the actor formerly known as ‘Bennifer’ get one for his far superior Mystic River riff. Without a doubt, this was one of the strongest, most centered thrillers of the entire year, and made the hindering histrionics of Clayton seem downright showboaty by comparison. Affleck and his artistry, deserved better.

by Nikki Tranter

9 Jan 2008

Not that you need us to. Funny how everything falls by the wayside when you find yourself trapped in a good book? I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s book last night in preparation for an upcoming viewing of the movie, and so far I’ve bypassed breakfast, lunch, a shower, a dog-walk, and very nearly today’s blog update, just to get the thing finished.

It’s enthralling. I’m jumping, sweating, freaking out ... the tension built is out of this world, and the characters are something else again. These are the kinds of people you long to get to know, to understand, to watch how their choices direct them. Every character in this thing carries a distinct fascination, from the weary Sheriff to the sadistic killer right on down to the recovering night clerks at the local motel.

I’m about a hundred pages from the end, and my current thought is—if this is what I’ve dealt with two-thirds of the way in, I don’t know if I can handle the final third. I realise, too, I’m a little behind on this one. The book was praised up and down upon release two years ago, and the film is all over the place,t opping best-of lists the world over. Still, better late than never, I guess.   

The word on Cormac McCarthy and No Country for Old Men:

From Business Wire: “No Country for Old Men” Writers Take USC Libraries Scripter, New Prize Honors Steven Zaillian

From Time Out London, an interview with the Cohens about the film: The Cohen Brothers Interview

Read a bio of the author that looks at McCarthy’s Roman Catholic upbringing through to his reclusive life today.

New York mag tells here of McCarthy’s ill-fated Oprah appearance discussing his book, The Road.

This Entertainment Weekly interview with Tommy Lee Jones (the star of the film) makes many comparisons between the book and the film. Says Tommy Lee Jones: “I think it comes from the book. I think the book is very funny. You either think it’s funny or you don’t. Ed Tom’s got a pretty good sense of humor. It may be what some people call gallows humor, but it is funny. And he does nothing in the movie that’s not derived directly and faithfully from the book.”

by Jason Gross

9 Jan 2008

Again, I scratch my head at a pair of stories… What’s stranger?  Contestant number one is a combination taser gun and MP3 music player (dig the leopard design one) so you can look stylish and listen to your favorite tunes as you subdue your least favorite attacker.  Contestant number two is former American idol winner Taylor Hicks who got the boot from Sony/BMG because he only reached number 2 on the charts and ONLY sold 699,000 copies of his last album, which should help to explain why the music biz is in such trouble.  Maybe they should invest in the tasers…

by Rob Horning

9 Jan 2008

In a few essays in Choice and Consequence, economist Thomas Schelling investigates problems of self-command, which in his view is central to the vicissitudes of a consumer society:

I propose that people concerned about consumer ignorance, about the inability of consumers to budget, the inability of shoppers, especially poor people, to spend money wisely, and about the consequences of misleading advertising—including the advertising that convinces people they feel bad or smell bad and need something that comes out of a spray can or a medicine bottle—all together add up to no more than the inadequacies of consumer self-management. In other words, if people could reliably do, or abstain from, the things that in their serious mode they resolved to do and to abstain from (or would resolve if they didn’t give it up as hopeless), it would make as much difference in the aggregate as if all those other familiar problems of consumer ignorance and budget management could be dissolved away.

This verges on the tautological: If consumers weren’t tempted by ads, they would be able to not do the irrational things that ads tempt them to do. But I think Schelling’s point is that consumers are not the rational, unitary individuals we for convenience sometimes assume they are; that instead we are made up of multiple selves with competing agendas, and the problem rests there rather than with the evil intentions of those companies seeking to exploit that fact.

And since we are made up of multiple selves—the self that wants to eat at Carl’s Jr. vs. the self that wants miso and wakame; the self that wants to read Hegel vs. the self that wants to play River Raid on an Atari emulator—Schelling laments the fact that we can’t enforce the contracts one of our selves make with another.

The law has grasped the paradox that freedom should include the freedom to enter into enforceable contracts; it seems to overlook the need that people often have, and perhaps the right that they should have, to constrain their own behavior for their own good.

The problem is that no one has an interested in enforcing our contracts with ourselves. As Schelling explains, no one else cares whether he actually gets up and does 20 push ups every morning. There’s only you, and who knows which you will be deciding whether your excuses for not keeping your word to yourself are sufficient. Contacts need to be reciprocal, Schelling notes, and we can’t have reciprocity with ourselves.

One solution is to make your pacts for self-improvement with a wrathful god, whose punishment you expect if you stray and whose church you can enlist for “social and institutional support,” Schelling points out. Perhaps religion is mainly a means of enforcing otherwise unenforceable contracts; it gives a slightly different wrinkle to Pascal’s wager—it’s to our own benefit to believe in God because then we can then use our belief as leverage against our recalcitrant selves. If we choose not to believe in God, not only do we risk God’s wrath and potentially miss out on infinite reward, but we subject ourselves to unlimited responsibility for ourselves.

Other solutions for the self-management problem involve various forms of voluntary paternalism, in which people consent in advance to have restrictions imposed upon them later by some outside force—friends, neighbors, the state. In other words, we would enlist the government to help us make irrevocable decisions. A cursory reading of 18th and 19th century novels quickly reveals how society used to work much more strongly in this regard, perhaps because there were fewer people, less social and geographical mobility, and a more widely shared moral code. People couldn’t as easily evade the reputation that they developed, and society was organized around promulgating the known reputation of others and generating consequences for ethical lapses. English novels are full of women worrying about being lady-like, men being gentlemanly; this upheld a specifically patriarchal system of gender relations, but the sexist system perhaps managed to entrench itself because it fulfilled a necessary social function of constraining behavior to a predictable range. And one thing that’s especially palpable in all the Trollope novels I’ve read recently is that his characters love restrictive mores, as a source of gossip and regimentation and, maybe most important, self-ordering. They have an easy time convincing themselves that the contracts they’ve enacted with themselves are backed by the force of society’s contempt. They seem to enjoy taking dishonor seriously, because it allows them to truly feel honorable.

Schelling also worries about how to determine which of our multiple selves is the authentic one. Which self would have the right to have the upper hand in contract negotiations? (Postmodernist theory seems to suggest either all or none of them.) When external codes of conduct limit what one can feasibly conceive of doing, certain selves become unthinkable, disqualified, inauthentic automatically. From this stems the joys of conformity.

But consumerism relies on the joys of individuality, which ironically calls for giving our multiple selves free play, and subjecting ourselves to continually reversing on ourselves or revising our desires. All the potentially negative traits that derive from a disunified self—impulsivity, indecision, behavioral incoherence, unpredictability, unreliability, inability to plan or follow through, irrationality, inefficiency—seem to be exacerbated intentionally in consumer societies, precisely because these states of mind are conducive to shopping. We express individuality through the freedom to do whatever—to be inconsistent—rather than by having a clearly defined and consistent self.

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