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by Rob Horning

5 Jan 2009

In Shifting Involvements Albert Hirschman cites this 1971 paper by philosopher Harry Frankfurt (who has since gone on to mild mainstream notoriety because of his treatise On Bullshit), in which he calls attention to “second-order desires”, or the desires we have about our primary desires. These are what we want to want and, according to Frankfurt, make up the substance of our will, and whether or not we experience it as being free. Frankfurt theorizes that “the conformity of a person’s will to his higher-order volitions may be far more thoughtless and spontaneous” than it is for others, who agonize over being able to act on their preferred desires (e.g.: I want to read Marx; I end up playing 1942 on a video game emulator). “The enjoyment of freedom comes easily to some,” Frankfurt notes somewhat depressingly, “others must struggle to achieve it.”

Hirschman cites Frankfurt’s surprisingly accessible essay merely to highlight the fact that we often have multiple sets of preferences simultaneously, which foils the more simplistic models of neoclassical economics with regard to consumer demand. If we want contradictory things at any given moment, it’s not clear where we will find our marginal utility; if our wants change in the process of satisfying them, then our incentives are in perpetual flux, flummoxing the calculus that is presumed to drive rational decisionmaking. We end up having to commit now to wants we may not possess in the future, or we may reject one desire in favor of another now, only to find they have switched places later. And so on.

But Frankfurt’s essay seems also to have a bearing on the larger question of how the persuasion industry (marketing, advertising, and to some degree, entertainment) scuttles our sense of selfhood, which, Frankfurt argues, hinges on our expression of will. The persuasion industry is seeking always to confuse the communication between our first- and second-order desires; it’s seeking to short circuit the way we negotiate between the many things we can conceive of wanting to come up with a positive will to want certain particular things at certain moments. It seeks to make us more impulsive at the very least; at worst it wants to supplant our innate will with something prefabricated that will orient us toward consumer goods rather than desires that are able to be fulfilled outside the market. This can occur without our having been persuaded directly by the advertising messages, simply by overloading us with information and unleashing the “paradox of choice” and worse, optional paralysis. Frankfurt describes it this way:

People are generally far more complicated than my sketchy account of the structure of a person’s will may suggest. There is as much opportunity for ambivalence, conflict, and self-deception with regard to desires of the second order, for example, as there is with regard to first-order desires. If there is an unresolved conflict among someone’s second-order desires, then he is in danger of having no second-order volition; for unless this conflict is resolved, he has no preference concerning which of his first-order desires is to be his will. This condition, if it is so severe that it prevents him from identifying himself in a sufficiently decisive way with any of his conflicting first-order desires, destroys him as a person. For it either tends to paralyze his will and to keep him from acting at all, or it tends to remove him from his will so that his will operates without his participation. In both cases he becomes, like the unwilling addict though in a different way, a helpless bystander to the forces that move him.

In short, optional paralysis eradicates our identity, especially when we are conceiving of it as being expressed by marketplace decisions. We may argue that it is foolish to found our identity on such stuff, but that doesn’t render this sort of anxiety, this being “destroyed as a person,” any less existentially terrifying. (It’s a good reason, however, to question why identity has become so bound up with consumerism and explore alternatives.) Heavily marketed goods in the competitive marketplace translate into eroded confidence on the part of consumers in what they want and the ultimate meaning of their desires.

Exacerbating the problem, and heightening our ambivalence and akrasia, is that the condition of being a “helpless bystander to the forces” that move us is perpetually in the process of being redefined in marketing discourse as a pleasurable, desirable state; i.e. as a second-order volition worth embracing. Passivity—an instinctual and inevitable response perhaps to being overloaded with information—is entertainment, is convenience, is relaxation, is anything but helplessness and alienation from ourselves.

With passivity toward the operation of our will encouraged and celebrated, it’s no wonder that we experience more and more of life as being governed by “addictions”—by compulsions beyond our ability to control—and that we routinely describe ourselves as becoming addicted to things that are not actually physically addictive (shopping, sex, the internet, World of Warcraft, Facebook, Jamba Juice, etc.). It may be that we want not to be able to control ourselves, as this resolves the contradiction inherent in wanting to will passivity. Our attempts to rationalize our desires fluctuate between pleasurable surrender (we are serenely impulsive, with the speed with which our impulses are gratified serving as an index to our prosperity and to our autonomy) and medicalized despair (we are addicts who are not responsible for our actions, which we stand removed from but which we can’t alter to reconcile with our other better desires as yet only vaguely formulated but having something to do with conquering impulses). Our inability to know what we really want ends up being either the illusion of freedom, of keeping options open, or it ends up feeling like a pathological condition that we vainly await the cure for.

by Jason Gross

5 Jan 2009

Not exactly a humble guy, FCC chairman Kevin Martin is leaving behind a huge pile of sleaze as he prepares to leave his office and in a recent interview, he honestly feels that he’s done everything perfectly there.  Like his boss GW Bush, he wants to rewrite history, avoid admitting mistakes and look professional even though all the facts are against him.  Even in the Broadcasting & Cable interview, the writer doesn’t let him off the hook, noting that he’s been criticized for his heavy-handed, slanted work from within and outside of his own agency but he just brushes it off, certain that he’s right. 

Also like Bush though, he’ll be rightfully seen as a pathetic failure.  It’s not just Martin’s anti-cable stances (also noted in the article) but his failed attempt to let media conglomerates get bigger and fatter (by letting them own more and more companies) in the supposed interest of the public.  Of course, he never proved that and cut down on public comment and reports that went against that as much as he could.  Thankfully he lost that battle.  Now he can gear up for a job at Fox News or a conservative think-thank.

While it’s good that he’ll be out the door soon, we shouldn’t give an automatic pass to the next FCC head.  They’ll still have to deal with the thorny issues of media ownership and the FCC fines for ‘obscenity.’

by Bill Gibron

4 Jan 2009

While you were sitting around celebrating the holidays, SE&L was busy compiling its lists of the year’s best (and worst) releases. Focusing on the unique and the illogical, the routine and the outrageous, each assemblage attempted to address both the standard and the strange, releases everyone had heard of and efforts nobody knows.  Beginning with our look at The Top 10 Films of 2008 You Never Heard Of up and including this weekend’s take at the Best DVDs of the Year, it’s time to play a little collective catch up. Enjoy!

The Top 10 Films of 2008 That You’ve Never Heard Of

The 10 Worst Films of 2008

The 10 Worst DVDs of 2008

The Top 10 Films of 2008

The Top 10 DVDs of 2008

by Mike Schiller

4 Jan 2009

Way back in June, back when “The Week in Games” was still relatively new (because, well, Moving Pixels was still relatively new), it seemed like kind of a big deal that a game was coming out for every single platform in a single week. It’s the sort of event that takes serious coordination on the parts of both developers and publishers, and it usually signals the arrival of a pretty major release.

Hotel for Dogs

Hotel for Dogs

Well, I’m never going to make a big deal about it again, because this week another game is coming out for every platform imaginable, and that game is…Hotel for Dogs. Look, I didn’t even know this thing was based on a Nickelodeon movie starring Emma Roberts and Diego’s voice until I started madly Googling for information on this game…information that is surprisingly hard to find, as it turns out.  There’s barely a whisper of the game on the movie’s official website, the usually comprehensive gametrailers.com yields nothing on the search results, and searching on YouTube reveals but a single trailer for the Wii/DS side of the gaming equation, which looks really terrible.  Chances are, even high-end graphics won’t save this thing.  Of course, it’ll probably still sell more than LittleBigPlanet.

Fishing Master World Tour

Fishing Master World Tour

If you’re going to go after anything, your best bet this week would probably be to give Saints Row 2 a runthrough if you haven’t yet.  The game is the type that seems to divide critics and players, but if you’re into the whole sandbox thing and you don’t mind a hefty dose of highly immoral behavior, it’ll probably entertain you until next week.  Otherwise, Fishing Master World Tour for the Wii is the sequel to the highly underrated Fishing Master, which actually makes fishing fun with a pleasing, cartoony presentation style and a surprisingly fast-paced take on reeling ‘em in.  Honestly, if you’re looking for a family game, you’ll probably have about ten times as much fun with Fishing Master World Tour as you ever will with Hotel for Dogs.

That said,  I’m putting the Hotel for Dogs trailer after the jump anyway, just because there’s a place for “hilariously bad” when nothing quite qualifies as “highly anticipated”.  Enjoy!

by Bill Gibron

2 Jan 2009

At least one of the “D"s in DVD has to stand for “diversity”.  As Blu-ray continues to tread water, earning as many converts as distancing disgruntled fans, the digital medium continues to prosper - artistically, at least. Thanks to advances in technology, Internet avenues of self-distribution, and the ability to put one’s own art out on display for everyone to see, the cornucopia of product one can indulge in is simply mind-boggling. A full time critic, on a simple schedule, could watch close to 325 discs a year (six to seven a week). Even those of us who make time for other medium find ourselves struggling at well over 200 (the official SE&L mark is somewhere around 145). Naturally, this makes a Best of list almost impossible. Even worse, some companies we could count on for classic commerce - Something Weird, Troma - were out of the mix all together (or, in the case of the latter, until the Summer of 2008).

Still, it was an interesting year. The au courant bonus feature du jour is, undoubtedly, the “digital copy” - a version of the film you can download to your laptop or IPod for entertainment portability. Of course, something like The Dark Knight clearly suffers from being shrunk down to less than IMAX size. Even worse, the dirty little secret of the high definition format was finally revealed - just because a disc claims to be HD, doesn’t mean the studio shelled out the cash to make over the image to provide more depth. For many, it’s just too cost prohibitive. Thus many a messageboard argument has started over if a revisit to a classic title is worth the hefty monetary reinvestment. For some, no amount of bells or whistles could bring them to repurchase catalog items merely ported over from the standard DVD edition. Thus the big Blu struggles, and probably will continue to do so.

Still, outside the controversy and web-based clamor, a few titles stood out. SE&L chose the ones closest to our heart, while reminding our readers that the best thing about a DVD is still the film (or films) it contains. We’ve said it before but it bears repeating - a Criterion Collection of Crap is still crap. But a barebones version of a masterpiece is still something special. So without further ado, here are the choices for 2008:

#10 - The Cinematic Titanic Collection
Over the last few years, Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy have been holding down the MST3K fort by creating audio only commentaries for their Rifftrax project. Now, series originator Joe Hodgson has collected the rest of the cast (Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein) to create a whole new in theater satire. Each of the five self-distributed “episodes” created in 2008 reminds you of why, some 20 years after these Midwestern comedians first decided to dump on bad movies, the formula is as funny as ever. There’s nary a bad installment in the bunch.

#9 - Brand Upon the Brain! - The Criterion Collection
One imagines that if you gave Canadian auteur Guy Maddin a mainstream movie script and a cast of well known celebrities, he would still wind up making one unhinged example of avant-garde experimentalism. He’d have Brad Pitt as a half-blind double amputee with a kind of emotional Asperger Syndrome while co-star Cate Blanchett would be a mute muse he only sees while under the influence of a heady homemade elixir. This overview of his childhood, fashioned like a German Expressionistic horror mystery, is supposedly almost 97% psychologically “true”. Of course, what that means to Maddin, and his fans, is anyone’s guess.

#8 - The Three Stooges Collection - Volumes 2 & 3
Fulfilling the wishes of longtime fans, Columbia has finally wised up, dropped the three short per package DVD format, and delivered The Three Stooges in a logistically sound chronological breakdown. Covering 1937 to 42, the 47 mini-masterworks presented all contain the classic line-up that most devotees prefer: mean leader Moe, absent minded minion Larry, and unbelievably brilliant bundle of butter, Curly. There is no Shemp, no Joe Besser, and definitely no Curly Joe DeRita to muck things up. While there is nothing wrong with any of these later stage substitutes, nothing beats the magic of the original Stooges. Looking over the titles offered, there is not a bad apple in the bunch.

#7 - Wanted
As with many post-millennial movies, Wanted is based on a series of graphic novels. Like the best of those adaptations, screenwriters Mark Millar and J. G. Jones use the foundation of the series as a jumping off point. A brilliant and baffling action effort, the movie proposes the latest nerd as closet gladiator, an archetype that seems to never lose cinematic weight. It then pits him against the classic cabal, a secret society that’s been doing the world’s dirty work for so long that we can’t imagine life without it. The results are as outrageous as they are transcendent.

#6 - The Mist: 2 Disc Special Edition
It needs to be repeated, just in case you missed it the first time - Frank Darabont’s The Mist is a masterpiece. It’s the kind of determined fright flick that few in the industry know how to make - or even comprehend. Everything you expect from this kind of story is here, - the otherworldly setup, the recognizable heroes and villains, the coincidental clashes, the big moment attacks, the smaller sequences of suspense. But Darabont is not content to simply let this opportunity go by without messing a little with the mannerisms. The Mist is so purposeful in how it thwarts genre ethos that it’s almost arrogant.

#5 - I’m Not There: 2 Disc Special Edition
Todd Haynes has balls. He took on the most difficult of subjects (the life and shapeshifting times of songwriter extraordinaire Bob Dylan) and found a way to be both factual and fanciful. Reimagining the artistic chameleon as one of six distinct personas, and hiring an equal number of actors to play them, Haynes helped put into perspective an important, influential artist whose vocation seemed stuck in a constant state of flux. Now, thanks to DVD, everything confusing is clear as crystal. On a commentary track that should be mandatory listening for any would-be bonus feature participant, the director goes into excruciating detail, explaining almost every facet of his fascinating film.

#4 - Ken Russell at the BBC
Before he became the “bad boy” of British cinema, middle aged maverick Russell was making amazing musical biographies for UK television. This masterful boxset contains six of his best - Elgar, The Debussy Film, Always on Sunday, Isadora Duncan: The Biggest Dancer in the World, Dante’s Inferno, and Summer of Song. Sadly, his slam on Richard Strauss, The Dance of the Seven Veils, was pulled at the last minute. Still, with famous faces like Oliver Reed and Vivian Pickles along for the ride, this collection is a revelation, and a testament to one of the most criminally underrated directors of all time.

#3 - Hellboy II: The Golden Army - 3 Disc Special Edition
Sometimes, the most outrageous vision is the most personal. As part of the amazing three disc DVD presentation we hear director Guillermo Del Toro, in his own self-deprecating way, explain how the larger than life flights of fancy peppered throughout the underappreciated Summer blockbuster represents an literal illustration of his own fertile imagination. It’s everything he wanted the original film to be and much, much more. Purposefully plotting out certain scenes to thematically represent his view of mankind and its uneasy coexistence with forces outside of reality, Del Toro delivers the kind of wide-eyed entertainment that will only grow in approval in the coming years.

#2 - Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead Tromasterpiece Collection
If Poultrygeist is a certified ‘Tromasterpiece’ - and it most certainly is - then the stunning three disc DVD treatment of the title is its Hearts of Darkness. Like that memorable documentary of Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, there is an accompanying Making-of featurette entitled Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken. In it, we witness nearly ninety minutes of infighting, exasperation, and the well-plucked perfection that comes from such a meeting of fertile, often unhinged minds. All the problems Kaufman and crew face on the film, from reluctant DP divadom to abject naked actress angst, are captured. As with other Troma projects, the onset mayhem sometimes threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. Here, it makes the good great, and the special something spectacular.

#1 - Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom - Criterion Collection
In some ways, it’s better to begin by discussing what Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló is not. It is not the most horrific or grotesque movie ever made. Certainly, the revolting elements used by the filmmaker to fashion his “power = corruption” rants are truly disturbing, but they are often buffered by an aesthetic detachment that’s so remote it leaves their impact suppressed. Similarly, this is not a complicated cinematic screed. From the moment we witness the forced marriage of the libertines’ daughters to the madmen in charge, we realize that Pasolini is offering a very obvious allegory. By moving de Sade into the 20th century, and using Mussolini and his complicit populace as metaphors, the notion of authoritarianism as an ugly aphrodisiac for all manner of debauched behavior is crystal clear.

Finally, it is not child pornography. Granted, the sight of several underage actors posing in various stages of undress (including copious full frontal nudity) will be alarming to our post-millennial PC posturing, but again, this director doesn’t sensationalize sex. Instead, it is handled in such an impartial, almost inert manner that only the most psychologically disturbed pervert would find this film enticing. Upon reflection, Salo is really nothing more than political commentary carried to outrageous, unsettling extremes. The result is repulsive, artistic, and memorable indeed.

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