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by Bill Gibron

26 Nov 2008

Originally released in black and white, Mystic Nights of the Oingo Boingo member Richard Elfman (Danny’s brother) hoped to capture the spirit of his band’s unusual live show with this surreal fantasy film. The one thing he couldn’t achieve was color—until now. Thanks to a painstaking technological tweak by Legend Films, Elfman’s original vision for this nutty trip into racial slurs, sexual innuendos, Kipper Kid craziness, and outmoded musical styles becomes the motion picture equivalent of a rainbow acid trip. While slightly dated and occasionally dopey, this is avant-garde outsider cinema at its head scratching best.


by Bill Gibron

26 Nov 2008

As part of the typical, pre-Turkey Day tradition, Hollywood is handing out a few heaping helpings of holiday weekend wonder. For the upcoming celebration of gluttony and family fellowship, the following films are in focus:

Australia [rating: 6]

That it’s not confrontational or deconstructionist may seem rebellious on paper, but blown up on the big screen for nearly three hours, Australia sure plays as purely conventional.

He’s been making movies since 1992. Yet in 16 years, he’s completed only four projects - 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, 1996’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 2001’s magnificent Moulin Rogue, and now the old school epic named for his native land, Australia. So why has Baz Luhrmann been so lax in his creative output? Granted, there have been a couple of setbacks (he was fast tracking an Alexander the Great pic with Leonardo DiCaprio when Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell beat him to the punch), and has rejected offers to “go Hollywood” to make standard mainstream fare. And yet his latest is so enamored of Tinsel Town’s Golden Age that MGM and Gone with the Wind should get a restraining order. This doesn’t make Australia bad, just antithetical to what we know about Lurmann’s previous patterns.  read full review…

Four Christmases [rating: 1]

Flailing like a dying fish out of water and eventually smelling just as fetid, Four Christmases is stiflingly unfunny.

So this is what five Oscar winners gets you? This is the result of the combined Academy caliber efforts of Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard), Jon Voight (Coming Home), and Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies)? Certainly this quintet, along with some solid satiric support from Wedding Crashers cad Vince Vaughn, and a dash of supplemental slapstick from Swingers pal Jon Favreau, could create a clever, comic Yuletide gem, right? They’ve even got Seth “The King of Kong” Gordon on their side, steering the material toward some edgier environs. And yet, with all this potential talent on tap, Four Christmases ends up a wasted, worthless excuse for holiday humor.  read full review…

Role Models [rating: 7]

Offering a trio of elements so effective that they literally blot out almost everything that’s bad, director David Wain finds a way to milk the current craze for anything Apatow into a sweet, sarcastic slice of coming of age affection

Ever since a certain Mr. Apatow introduced us to a middle aged man child with limited sexual experience, the motion picture comedy has been flooded with what could best be described as ‘self-aware slackers’. You know the type - hard and cynical on the outside, indulging in whatever vice or vices they can in order to make up for the emptiness inside. Eventually, with the help of an understanding gal pal, a bumbling best friend, or a combination of the two, our hapless hero discovers clarity, and in turn, a far more productive outlook on life. This formula has been followed in several recent laugh riots - Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Superbad. Now there’s another name to add to the genre, and while not as consistently funny as the aforementioned efforts, Role Models provides enough solid snickers to eventually win us over. read full review…

by Rob Horning

26 Nov 2008

One of my hypotheses is that consumer behavior is anchored in the placebo effect, and advertising serves the vital function of supplying the mind with material to work with, just enough to make belief plausible enough to achieve desirable effects. We just have to grant ads the authority we give to actual experts, like doctors. It seems as though we do this readily, without much profound consideration of what should constitute actual expertise. (I’m supposed to buy a certain kind of tea because Dodgers manager Joe Torre drinks it.) We are basically culpable in our being seduced by ads; we’re not somehow tricked into belief against our will. It’s beneficial to believe, because it promises us placebo magic. Skepticism can turn out to be a costly failure of imagination, especially when we just need to imagine we can feel better to actually achieve it.

Consumerism supplies imaginary solutions to problems that marketing has convinced us to reconceptualize as purchasing decisions. Making the choice to buy masks whatever underlying problem spurred the “retail therapy” in the first place. Whether or not the good has any actual demonstrable effect on anything—whether or not we even use it—is beside the point. An example: I downloaded a bunch of Genesis albums the other day, but I can assure you that I will never listen to most of them. But there was still something satisfying about filling a hole in my music collection, even if that hole wasn’t actually a problem. It wasn’t like I was suffering for want of hearing Trespass. But acquiring things is a simple way of making myself feel like I have taken some sort of action. Marketing, I guess, functions by making sure I am always aware of that sweet simplicity.

Anyway, I’ve seen a few articles lately that explore the dark side of the placebo effect, where the benefits of belief turn into liabilities. Last week, the WSJ reported on “nocebos”:

Research has shown that expecting to feel ill can bring illness on in some instances, particularly when stress is involved. The technical term is the “nocebo effect,” and it’s placebo’s evil twin. “It’s not a psychiatric disorder—it’s the way the mind works,” says Arthur Barsky, director of Psychiatric Research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Nocebos can even be fatal. In one classic example, women in the multi-decade Framingham Heart study who thought they were at risk for heart attacks were 3.7 times as likely to die of coronary conditions as women who didn’t have such fears—regardless of whether they smoked or had other risk factors.
Research deliberately causing nocebos has been limited (after all, it’s kind of cruel). But in one 1960s test, when hospital patients were given sugar water and told it would make them vomit, 80% of them did.

This is a scary look at what the socially distributed notion of authority can accomplish. Even internal movements of our consciousness, which seem to be generated from within, are apparently easily shaped, once we commit ourselves to participation and belief. Back up would-be authority figures with institutional heft, and they can basically create your reality, down to the level of nausea you feel.

Doctors may unwittingly foster placebo or nocebo effects by how enthusiastically or warily they discuss medication. “Physician communication with patients is the closest thing to magic. It gets communicated in incredibly subtle ways—a flash in the eye, a smile, a spring in the step,” says Daniel Moerman, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

The authority figure—the social relation—is what counts. Often, apparently, the medicine is just the trace of that.

I’m tempted to get sidetracked into a consideration of whether such induced feelings are “authentic” or not, though I suppose death is about as authentic an effect as can be achieved. But it’s probably irrelevant to the degree that all “symptoms” are in some way “induced” by something. If we attempt to ignore or downplay the “induced” aspects of consciousness, what would be left to be real? The article makes clear how when you ask someone for symptoms, they generally will supply them.

“People’s expectations play a very important role in how they react to all medications,” says Richard Kradin, a physician and psychoanalyst at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and author of “The Placebo Response and the Power of Unconscious Healing.” He notes that about 25% of patients who get completely inert placebos in clinical trials complain of side effects—typically headaches, drowsiness and dizziness.

If the stage is set for us to be self-aware in that way, our minds will make something happen. This has led me to be against biofeedback. The more I know about what is happening with my body, the more I think is wrong with me and the worse I feel. Is there a way to have no expectations at all? Is there a way to achieve total health ignorance? Would preventive care prevent me from feeling good?

The NYT followed with this article on research Microsoft carried out that suggests, to the surprise of absolutely no one, “that self-diagnosis by search engine frequently leads Web searchers to conclude the worst about what ails them.”

Such findings evoke the debate about whether the internet can create and propagate new mental illnesses by making the very concepts behind them more prevalent and accessible. (This Atlantic story, which I am always looking for excuses to link to, explores that question.)


by Dave Heaton

26 Nov 2008


1. Sigur Rós - “Gobbledigook”


2. Erykah Badu - “Honey”


3. Los Campesinos - “Death to Los Campesinos”


4. McCarthy Trenching - “The Most Attractive Disguise”


5. The Smittens - “Gumdrops”

by David Pullar

25 Nov 2008

TV comic John Clarke once mocked an Australian Prime Minister’s claim that Australia’s future was in Asia.  “I told him Malaysia’s future was in Canada,” said Clarke, playing the then Malaysian PM Mahathir bin Mohamad.  I’m not sure Australia’s become any more Asian (or Malaysia any more Canadian) in the intervening decade.

The relationship really consists of a two way flow—Asia sends Australia migrants who enrich our social fabric, Australia sends Asia backpackers who get drunk in Phuket or Bali and return with Australian flags tattooed on their biceps.

Perhaps this explains my curiosity about the $110,000 Australia-Asia Literary Award, initiated by the Western Australian Government and won this year by David Malouf.  There just doesn’t seem to be any reason for it.  You can celebrate excellence in Asian writing or Australian writing.  There are many prizes that will recognise good writing wherever it’s from.  Why this seemingly arbitrary prize?

I can only imagine that it’s to encourage a sense of connectedness between the two continents.  Yet the prize seems to be based on literary merit alone, irrespective of whether the Asian books have any Australian themes or the Australian books any interest in Asia.

In addition, the eligibility criteria seem highly flexible.  The defining feature is that the nominated novels must be written by Australian or Asian residents or set in Australia or Asia.  Ceridwen Dovey’s Blood Kin made the shortlist, despite the author being a South African residing in New York City.

Blood Kin is a remarkable book and I gave it a particularly positive review early this year.  But it’s not an Australian book.  If it’s set anywhere, I’d plump for a South American country—the languorous, tropical feel and the militaristic environment certainly don’t feel Australian.  Dovey attended high school in Australia and has family here, but I doubt that she considers herself an Aussie.

It’s hardly surprising that an Australian prize jury would claim Dovey as one of our own.  2008 Man Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga holds dual Indian-Australian citizenship and the Aussie press wasted no time in adopting him.  His high school education in Sydney is hardly the defining characteristic of a life that has spanned four continents. 

We’ve also latched onto Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born Australian now on his way to take up a writing fellowship in the UK.  Le, the winner of the 2008 Dylan Thomas prize for his story collection The Boat is an exciting young talent and did at least spend a sizeable portion of his life down under.  In fact, he’s probably the best-suited person in the world to take home a prize looking at the complex relationship between Asia and Australia.  And he wasn’t even longlisted.

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