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Friday, Nov 17, 2006

In places like California and Florida they dot the landscape like thousands of artificial lakes. They sparkle with chlorinated cleanness and dapple a billion beams of rainbow light across the trimmed lawns and aluminum sided cells of suburbia. When they thrive, they are bastions of relaxation and exultation, a sign of wealth, privilege, and the endless summer. But when they expire, they become stagnant and brackish. They crack and decay, crumbling into themselves under the burden of a thousand vacations and a million screams of joy. Occasionally, they become garbage reservoirs, refuse piles conveniently located in your own backyard. And just as quickly as they were craved they are forgotten, resigned to a death as a smelly sinkhole in the midst of an overall gentrification of a nation. But every once in a while, they are resurrected. They are given a new charter on being, cleaned and appreciated by a fresh assemblage who still find kinship in their kidney shapes and delirium in their deep ends. For these are the bowl riders, the shredders who grind the coping and defy the deathbox as they maneuver through their own individualized skatepark sunk into the ground. They are men who live on the buzz of the bank. They are people who make it their goal to keep a skateboarding tradition vital and vibrant in these modern times of wooden ramps and video games. They exist for risk and thrive on the fleeting, fading smell of Chlorine.

Chlorine is a companion piece to 2002’s stellar skateboarding documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys. Actually, it’s more like a footnote to a single facet of that film, i.e. pool skating or as those in the know call it, “bowl carving.” Utilizing interview footage, archival material, and a Cops-style follow-along technique, we witness firsthand how a ragtag group of fanatics find ways (and abandoned pools) to get their much-needed gnarlies out. It’s joyful expression of athletic artistry. It’s a beautiful and brutal look at how time and age have ravaged and reinvigorated the first generation of skate legends. There are five featured “stars” in this film, old school riders who still find the sublime in the shred: the physical and mature Steve Alba, the cocky and confident Dave Reul, the rocker in search of a band swagger of Steve Olson, the manic screech preacher Dave Hackett, and the teen trapped in an adult’s body known as Lance Mountain. They, along with various other famous faces from the world of boarding, leave an indelible mark on this movie. They recall the foundation of one of skating’s traditions while reflecting on how, in some ways, the sport has moved on, laughing under its breath at the last remaining riders of the concrete curves.

There is something wistful about a movie like this. Perhaps it’s the lazy, lonely California setting, the abandoned pools and rundown homes baking in the warm sun, in stark contrast to the over-glamorized LaLa Land we’ve come to expect in the media. Maybe it’s the men themselves, seasoned skaters who’ve avoided the Tony Hawk spotlight and corporate sellout ideal for the true rush of riding the cement surf. Or it could be the outright blood brother companionship these people feel for each other, a tribal mentality of being inside an elite cult of crazy, crafty clowns that only want to push their bodies and their experiences to the limit. For this group, every new aquatic discovery is an inverted mountain to climb, a chance to take one more endorphin-pumping pass inside the prototypical symbol of class and luxury. For the riders in Chlorine, there is a quest for the perfect pool and the perfect pool ride. And it’s never ending.

The important part to note here is that most of the men featured in this film (some of whom made appearances in Dogtown) are all now in their late 30s and early 40s, a time when a label of “middle age” is stamped on a human’s head and their daredevil days of shredding and cutting are supposed to be far behind them. Yet what we see is the exact opposite. These are men chasing age away through the timeless nature of their sport, their hobby…their obsession. They are true characters, icons in a closed culture of specialty speak, shared exciting episodes, and, most importantly, depression over the bastardization of their passion by the media and the mainstream. These hardcore warriors are out to fight for the internal ethos of skateboarding, to deliver it from the malls and the parking garages and re-establish it within the empty pools and patios of a decaying suburbia, where it belongs. Chlorine instills this kind of metaphysical reality to the mostly skate-rat ideal of modern step jumping and railing riding.

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Friday, Nov 17, 2006

Economist Milton Friedman, a tireless champion of markets over government intervention, has died. His book Capitalism and Freedom is an accessible and forcefully stated argument for the idea that only markets can guarantee freedom and democracy and, along with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, gives you all the basic philosophical underpinnings of the conservative/libertarian view, which is essentially that the market can arbitrate economic matters better than any council of state experts a society could convene. Yes, there’s a lot in there about floating currencies and monetary policy and the evils of board certifications, but possibly Friedman’s most influential idea outside of the realm of economists is that political and economic freedom are essentially synonymous—this view almost seems like common sense in America, where purchasing power is typically seen as a proxy for individual liberty.

Friedman rose to prominence with his prediction of 1970s stagflation and Reagan’s subsequent adoption of his rhetoric, but beyond changing the terms of the debate on state interventionism, his practical legacy is still debated. Tyler Cowen has links to articles on Friedman here, but this Guardian piece jumps out with its decidedly unbalanced take: it’s called “Milton Friedman: a study in failure”— the kind of uncompromising gesture Friedman himself might have appreciated (The NYT quotes him defending his own extremism thus, “In every generation, there’s got to be somebody who goes the whole way, and that’s why I believe as I do.”)—and argues that Friedman’s only lasting contribution to policy was the withholding tax: “Rest in peace Milton Friedman, big government’s best friend.” That’s harsh; he hasn’t even got a chance to roll over in his grave yet at this jibe.

The NY Times obit provides a more general overview of his life, but also suggests his ideas haven’t had the lasting impact on policy that he’s sometimes credited with.

“Prof. Robert Solow of M.I.T., a Nobel laureate himself, and other liberal economists continued to raise questions about Mr. Friedman’s theories: Did not President Reagan, and by extension Professor Friedman, they asked, revert to Keynesianism once in power? “The boom that lasted from 1982 to 1990 was engineered by the Reagan administration in a straightforward Keynesian way by rising spending and lowered taxes, a classic case of an expansionary budget deficit,” Mr. Solow said. “In fairness to Milton, however, it should be said that one of the reasons for his wanting a tax reduction was to force the spending cuts that he presumed would follow.”

The WSJ‘s lengthy front-page story, which not surprisingly has a more positive assessment of his policy contributions, concludes with Friedman’s explanation of his devotion to academia (not exactly an open market liberated from professional certification and bureacuracy) , which suggests some of the contradictions that lurk behind his seemingly single-minded stance: “For society to be at once humane and to give opportunity for great human achievements, it is necessary that a small minority of people who do not have materialistic objectives have the greatest degree of freedom.” In other words, markets and economic “freedom” (i.e. the guiding rules of scarcity and necessity and ceaseless competition) are good for the little people, the people of bronze. The greatest degree of freedom is reserved for the people of gold who shouldn’t have to waste their energy earning a living and stunting what they need to share with the world by routing it through markets.

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Thursday, Nov 16, 2006

Remember Comic Relief? That superstar telethon-like comedy cavalcade typically hosted by Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Whoopie Goldberg and centering on the charitable desire to help the homeless. Well, these now no longer funny joke tellers are back, and HBO is housing their latest lamentable effort. While the cause this time around is even more important – the still suffering victims of Hurricane Katrina – the concept seems so very, well, Reagan era. And wouldn’t you know it, the event is celebrating its 20th Anniversary. Here’s hoping our aged hosts leave most of the jesting to their far funnier modern contemporaries. Sarah Silverman or Lewis Black can run riffs around these aging icons from humor’s hoary past. Oh yeah, and there’s movies this weekend as well. A couple are really good. The rest are merely defendable. If you can pull yourself away from the random rib-tickling being offered elsewhere, you may actually find something enjoyable to watch on your favorite pay cable channels. And even if you don’t support said washed up comedians, donate anyway. The cause is that important. For the record, the films offered for Saturday, 18 November are:

HBOAssault on Precinct 13

John Carpenter’s take on Night of the Living Dead proved, way back in 1976, that there was more to this potentially great filmmaker than a crazy sci-fi comedy (‘74’s Dark Star). Sadly, this remake once again confirms that Mr. Halloween is one director’s whose oeuvre should not be revisited (2005’s Fog, anyone?). While many enjoyed the standard action film facets of the storyline, helmer Jean-François Richet’s take on the substance is more videogame than viable. What could have been a brash update to the entire b-movie format from decades before ends up another over-stylized homage to the type of tedious thriller that more or less killed the genre in the first place. For those without Cinemax (where this film premiered previously), it’s now your chance to be disappointed.  (Premieres Sunday 19 November, 12:30am EST).

PopMatters Review

CinemaxCharlie and the Chocolate Factory*

Criminally underrated when it hit theaters—mostly because of baby boomers lamenting the very thought of remaking the 1971 Gene Wilder “classic” – and frequently dismissed as an example of both artists’ well known excesses, the immensely talented duo of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp deliver a fractured fairy tale for the glorified geek ages. For SE&L‘s scratch, this is what a Roald Dahl adaptation should be – exciting, mischievous and sitting just slightly over into the dark side. From the film’s incredible look to the emotionally satisfying backstory given to the creepy-cool character of Willy Wonka, this duo created an instant masterpiece. It will soon become the timeless family classic it so richly deserves to be. Take this opportunity to savor the flavor this cinematic confection offers, especially if you missed it the first time around over on HBO. (Saturday 18 November, 10:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

StarzGlory Road

Ah, the inspirational sports movie. Hollywood just can’t seem to get enough of these one-note exercises in cinematic cheerleading. In the case of this docudrama based on the 1966 Texas Western basketball team (the first all black squad in NCAA history to make it to the championship game) and its white coach Don Haskins, the introduction of race practically triples the sentimental stakes. Many have criticized the film for being historically and sociologically inaccurate, but most audiences have overlooked the flaws to find something of value in this otherwise routine effort. First time filmmaker James Gartner does a good job with this maudlin material, but it’s hard to overcome the inherent issues in the narrative. Anytime ethnicity plays a part in the plotting, idealism tends to mar the overall entertainment elements. (Premieres Saturday 18 November, 9:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

ShowTOOMe, You and Everyone We Know

It was heavily tauted as one of 2005’s best films, but like so many independent treasures tossed around at year’s end, the lack of a continual major studio push has placed this miraculous motion picture directly on the cultural back burner. Miranda July, noted performance artist and first time filmmaker has yet to follow-up this critically acclaimed take on contemporary life, and some have started to question if she’s merely a one hit wonder. Even if she never duplicates this sunny, satiric film’s fresh and inventive vibe, she will still be the creator of one of the new millennium’s most winning efforts. If you’ve never seen it, here’s your non-DVD buying chance. If you have, it’s time to take up artistic arms. A film this good doesn’t deserve to be forgotten so quickly.  (Saturday 18 November, 10:25pm EST)

PopMatters Review



For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 17/18 November, only one horrific hit deserves a mention:

Freaks (1931)
It was the movie that destroyed director Tod Browning’s Hollywood career. It was the inspiration for the Ramones’ classic punk rock catchphrase “Gabba-Gabba-Hey”. But all ancillary issues aside, it is one of early motion picture’s most shocking, and sensational, masterpieces. (2:00am EST)


The Cream of the Crop

In honor of IFC’s month-long celebration of Janus Films, SE&L will skip the standard daily overview of what’s on the other movie-based cable outlets and, instead, focus solely on what it and the Sundance Channel have to offer. Beyond that premise, however, we will still only concentrate on the best of the best, the most inspiring of the inspiring, the most meaningful of the…well, you get the idea. For the week of 18, November, here are our royal recommendations:


: Every Tuesday in November is Janus Films night. For the 21st, the selections are:

Beauty and the Beast
Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of the classic fairy tale is perhaps the most visually sumptuous and optically stunning monochrome motion picture ever made. Every frame is a fine masterwork come to life. (9PM EST)

Black Orpheus
This retelling of the “Orpheus and Eurydice” legend, set in Rio de Janeiro, is given a warm and sexy façade thanks to director Marcel Camus and the movie’s crazed Carnaval backdrop. (10:35PM EST)

Alexander Nevsky
Sergei Eisenstein’s pro-Stalin era propaganda piece, shrouded in the amazing music of Prokofiev, stands as a testament to the power of visuals and iconography, especially during wartime. (12:25AM EST)

Sundance Channel

19 November - To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck shines as sly Southern lawyer Atticus Finch in what still stands as the only legitimate adaptation of Harper Lee’s literary masterpiece.

20 November - The Nomi Song
He remains one of the ‘80s most unusual and enigmatic icons. This delightful documentary by Andrew Horn does a great job of capture this musician’s magic – and mania. 
(1:15PM EST)

24 November -Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia
The late, great Warren Oates is electrifying in this fascinating fever dream of a movie director by the legendary iconoclastic auteur, Sam Peckinpah

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Thursday, Nov 16, 2006

Courtesy of the New York Observer: Rock ‘n’ Roll Feminist Superhero.

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Thursday, Nov 16, 2006

In No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart, Tom Slee’s book about the foibles of individual choice, he cites this passage from Grant and Wood’s Blockbusters about the risk involved in putting up cultural goods for sale:

The risk factor in launching new works of popular culture is impossible to overestimate. Simply put, the great majority of cultural products do not succeed: few people by the CD or watch the movie, and the investment in the creation of the intellectual property is not recouped. Adding to the risk is the blunt fact that research and pre-testing are notoriously ineffective in the realm of popular culture. Until audiences actually experience a creative product, it simply cannot be evaluated. In advance of the actual release of the title, nobody knows.

This point is often raised when someone wants to debunk the power mainstream media conglomerates have in shaping taste or to validate the sovereign, spontaneous role of the consumer in creating culture, which, if this is true, is exactly what we want and deserve. But Slee is citing it to make an almost opposite point—the market for cultural product is so polluted with failure that audiences are always becoming that much more risk-averse themselves. The more product that floods the market, the more difficult it is for an audience to choose something, and the more the audience will rely on safe herd choices. According to Slee, it’s an asymmetric information problem—no one knows what makes anything any good (i.e. successful, profitable—the meaningful criterion) so the slightest fortunate accident that creates a focal point (or the concerted ad campaign, or the presence of a known star, or any other aspect that brings a modicum of familiarity and comfort) can drive a herd to something specific, which then becomes something everybody needs to know about in order to have something to talk about with one another (which is the main function of most popular culture)—you need to see Borat because everyone else has and is reliving it in conversation. Economists calls this increasing returns to scale—the bigger something becomes, the bigger it will continue to become, because the incentives for choosing something else diminish. This is why the longer the long tail gets, the bigger the blockbusters become. Adrift in the deep, vast ocean of mediocrity, we need brighter beacons to bring us home.

But what makes the ocean so deep is the ease with which anyone can distribute their creations. This may allow more people to conceive of themselves as creators making culture rather than consumers digesting it, just as cultural-studies Pollyannas were fond of saying all along—consumption is a form of making, of production. Now, consumers have the opportunity to really prove that by distributing their various repurposed versions of the culture they consume—the remixes, the mash-ups, blog posts, etc. With that distibution capability available, it may becomes incumbent to distribute one’s creative work. One no longer has the excuse of being shut out from the technology as a reason for not attempting to share one’s innovations with an audience larger than the person in the mirror. If one takes the possibility of an audience for the innovative ways in which you consume culture seriously, this shift changes the pursuit of entertainment into the pursuit of attention. So perhaps the future of the “superstars” economy is this: a handful of successes in the sense that Grant and Wood mean, and then a legion of reimagined versions of those successes, at varying degrees of separation and revamping.

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