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by Mehan Jayasuriya

3 Dec 2008

After a short walk in the brisk cold, we found ourselves at the Cabaret & Studio Juste Pour Rire (“Just For Laughs”), where the night’s showcase would unfold. Sets alternated between two stages in the complex, separated by interludes of five minutes. Much like South by Southwest, which has often been described as a musical version of speed dating, M For Montréal can feel like an event geared toward the attention span impaired. A band performs a handful of songs, you walk a few feet and five minutes later, another band is set in front of you. As you might imagine, this approach has its upsides as well as its drawbacks. If you’re stuck watching an act that doesn’t particularly move you, you’ve usually only got a few more songs to sit through. However, if you really like a band, you’ve got to deal with the fact that you’ll only get to see them play for a few more minutes at most.

First up was Chinatown, a five-piece from the French-speaking side of town. While it’s said that their music combines the French pop of the ‘60s with the indie pop of today, to my ears, Chinatown just sounded like a sub par, Francophone bar band. If I was forced to tell you two interesting things about this band I would mention that:

1.) That singer kind of looks like Ewan McGregor, doesn’t he?

2.) Their guitarist looks, dresses and acts a bit like Joe Perry from Aerosmith. Can’t say he solos like him, though.

by Sean Murphy

3 Dec 2008

From Roger Cohen’s Op-Ed in The New York Times (A Command of the Law, Nov. 26):

Of the 770 detainees grabbed here and there and flown to Guantánamo, only 23 have ever been charged with a crime. Of the more than 500 so far released, many traumatized by those “enhanced” techniques, not one has received an apology or compensation for their season in hell. What they got on release was a single piece of paper from the American government. A U.S. official met one of the dozens of Afghans now released from Guantánamo and was so appalled by this document that he forwarded me a copy. Dated Oct. 7, 2006, it reads as follows:

“An Administrative Review Board has reviewed the information about you that was talked about at the meeting on 02 December 2005 and the deciding official in the United States has made a decision about what will happen to you. You will be sent to the country of Afghanistan. Your departure will occur as soon as possible.”

That’s it, the one and only record on paper of protracted U.S. incarceration: three sentences for four years of a young Afghan’s life, written in language Orwell would have recognized. We have “the deciding official,” not an officer, general or judge. We have “the information about you,” not allegations, or accusations, let alone charges. We have “a decision about what will happen to you,” not a judgment, ruling or verdict. This is the lexicon of totalitarianism. It is acutely embarrassing to the United States. That is why I am thankful above all that the next U.S. commander in chief is a constitutional lawyer. Nothing has been more damaging to the United States than the violation of the legal principles at the heart of the American idea.

Martin Niemoeller

Martin Niemoeller

Let’s face it, Orwell has become kind of a cliche. (No fault of his own; if the most sincere form of flattery is imitation, the most flattering form of sincerity is to have one’s ideas transmorgified into cliches.) It’s not just that Orwell was, in 1984, writing about a futuristic dystopia; he was describing parts of the world that already existed. The best science fiction, of course, has always anticipated the future by channeling the present. History is obliged to repeat itself because the human beings who make history do so in such a predictable, patterned fashion. And so, Orwell has the curious fate of being over-quoted and under-read: everyone knows what Orwellian means because they’ve already seen what it means (in movies, in the news). More importantly, everyone understands that the horrors Orwell depicted are passe; totalitarianism is so 20th Century. Except for the fact that it isn’t, and never was.

(It’s tempting to point out another immortal text, one that is arguably second only to 1984 in terms of ubiquity and the type of cultural resonance that is so often invoked and so seldom analyzed. Nevertheless, it’s all there in Conrad’s fin-de-siecle classic Heart of Darkness: the dehumanization, for political purposes and/or the expedience of power, of the Other; an “other” who is assigned this designation necessarily from a position of powerlessness (powerless to protect, powerless to define). The naked will of brute force for the ostensible purpose of “exterminating the brutes” invariably involves religion or money, but either way, it always involves a struggle for power. Sadly, few seem to have bothered reading Conrad’s novella, but everyone has seen Apocalypse Now, so it’s a wash.)

But there is an exposed nerve running from Conrad to Orwell that might be best explained by considering the two Russian masters who connected the dots in between them: Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov. The former’s novel We (1921) and the latter’s The Master and Margarita (commenced in 1928, completed in 1941) deal directly with the dehumanizing repercussions of totalitarian rule. Focusing more on the (very human) consequences of identity destruction and the suppression of self–-a paramount objective of those in power, and a necessary condition of remaining in power–-these novels are quite literally notes from the underground, infused with the verisimilitude of an insider’s experience. They lived it and they wrote about it.

Orwell took that torch of truth and continued onward even as the scope of Fascism cast an ever-enlarging shadow over other parts of other continents: again, his work resonates because he is depicting (then, and now) realities that anyone who has lived inside an autocratic regime can easily recognize. And as Americans, we quickly apprehend the causes and effects of totalitarianism because, our history books austerely inform us, we did much to eradicate them. And so we did. But it was well before 9/11 that certain segments of society (usually the dreaded leftist types who work in universities or for newspapers–or even worse, the ones who write fiction or poetry or music) perceived the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which even this most democratic society has at times unintentionally and at other times willfully revealed a dark heart that contradicts its own Constitution.

Notice to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry

Notice to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry

Here’s the thing: people have read Orwell even if they haven’t (because the author of Animal Farm is a de rigeur point of reference for any writer, particularly a politically oriented writer, who hopes to be taken seriously), and they’ve watched Conrad (or at least a sensationalized action-epic that delivers visually even if it severely lacks the scope or coherence of its inspiration), and few people have any interest in reading dead Russian writers not named Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky (and those that do are already ensconced in English graduate programs). Fortunately, for better or worse, we nevertheless have an author (and text) that covers everything already mentioned (the fiction, the non-fiction, and the considerable overlap in between them both, otherwise known as History). The good news: his name is, if possible, even more incessantly invoked than Orwell’s. The bad news: even fewer people have actually read him. If that seems Kafkaesque, it’s because it is. Well, actually it isn’t; but that is the point: as an adjective, Kafkaesque is misused with greater abandon than Orwellian. Or, to put it slightly less pessimistically, it has been bludgeoned into submission. Put slightly more pretentiously, Kafkaesque awoke one morning from uneasy dreams it found itself transformed in its bed into a gigantic Cliche.

Franz Kafka,

Franz Kafka, “The Trial” (Der Process)

Listen: an unassuming citizen is informed, one day, that he is accused of a crime. He has committed no crimes that he is aware of, but that is all but irrelevant, since a description of the crime is not given. He spends the rest of his harried life making the futile attempt to exonerate himself or, short of that, have the specific charges explained to him. Immersed in a Byzantine maze that is at once inherently bureaucratic and at the same time nonsensical, his will slowly dissolves in this irrational paralysis. When, ultimately, he is executed, it comes almost as a relief.

Sound familiar?

Of course, it scarcely suffices to look at what we’ve wrought at Guantánamo and abroad and call it Orwellian or Kafkaesque. It is both of those, in equal measure, but it’s also something quite a bit more appalling. Partly because it’s true–-this has actually happened; partly because we’ve done it before and claimed we would never do it again. Mostly because, while it was happening, there were actually people (quite a lot of them) who raised the alarm and found themselves scoffed at, or threatened. Some were actually disenfranchised; most were simply dismissed. Eventual (inevitable?) progress has been sickeningly slow in coming, but at least there is a miniscule crack in the one-way glass. Once that hole gets bigger (and it will, as it always does) many of us are going to be disgusted at what we see (what we did, who was responsible for organizing it all, what was done in our name by others we paid to do what we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to do). Some will defend it all, naturally: the acts, the people who undertook them; it is, after all, just good business. Others will, obviously, decry the (demonstrably liberal) media that seems to take so much pleasure pulling back the curtain to reveal the cretins scurrying into the cracks. Same as it ever was. And finally, there will be the newly-awakened, who’ll shake their heads and lament that extraordinary times occasionally inspire atrocious activities. But never again, at least. At least we’ll have learned that much.

Sound familiar?

A cliche: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
A tragedy: those who do not read literature are doomed to inspire it.

by Zeth Lundy

2 Dec 2008

As he enters his fourth decade as a professional musician, Elvis Costello has successfully parlayed his experience as a chameleonic rock ‘n’ roller into some sort of self-appointed ambassadorial role. He dabbles in jazz and classical, unpacks his pop-addled brain into articles for Vanity Fair, and caters to both high and low art, all while affecting the genteel air of well-rounded elder statesman of the pop intelligentsia.

This evolution hasn’t gone unnoticed by his audience; even the most forgiving of his devotees, myself included, can’t help but admit that this preoccupation with tastemaking has blunted Costello’s own music, which has moved from innovative to professorial throughout the last decade. And yet, it is for this very reason that the notion to give Costello his own musical talk show at this point in his career makes perfect sense.

by Bill Gibron

2 Dec 2008

While they won’t make a lick of sense to most Westerners (they’re almost exclusively in Japanese), the seven trailers featured here represent the work of maverick moviemaker Minoru Kawasaki to a T. While we compile more material for tomorrow’s blog post, please enjoy these stunningly surreal delights.

Calamari Wrestler

It’s the story of a squid who longs to be a champion. And you thought Mickey Roarke had the inside track on grappling greatness.

Executive Koala

An office drone with the body of an oversized Australian animal is suspected of being a serial killer. Huh?

Kabuto-O Beetle

Another odd creature - a bug - and another wannebe wrestler. Hmmmm…

The World Sinks…Except Japan

When natural disaster causes the rest of the planet to sink into the ocean, Japan becomes the last bastion of dry land for the world’s weirdos…and politicians. 

The Rug Cop

A policeman and his crime-fighting toupee. What more could you want?

Crab Goalkeeper

A giant crustacean conquers the world’s most popular sport.

Cat Noodle Chef

A feline puppet fancies himself a Japanese noodle chef. Yummy!


by Rob Horning

2 Dec 2008

Many someone should ask financial analyst James Quinn what he really thinks of Baby Boomers:

Of course, not all Baby Boomers are shallow, greedy, and corrupt. Mostly Boomers with power and wealth fall into this category. There were 76 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1963. They now make up 28% of the U.S. population. Their impact on America is undeniable. The defining events of their generation have been the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, Kent State, Woodstock, the 1st man on the moon, and now the collapse of our Ponzi scheme financial system. They rebelled against their parents, protested the Vietnam War, and settled down in 2,300 square foot cookie cutter McMansions with perfectly manicured lawns, in mall infested suburbia. They have raised overscheduled spoiled children, moved up the corporate ladder by pushing paper rather than making things, lived above their means in order to keep up with their neighbors, bought whatever they wanted using debt, and never worried about the future. Over optimism, unrealistic assumptions, selfishness and conspicuous consumption have been their defining characteristics.

It’s hard to disagree with any of the analysis, though the tone is occasionally scarily combative. I wonder whether as the recession worsens or drags on, if such sentiment will spread from the disgruntled-analyst sector to the younger generations at large, whether it will shape policy toward the social safety net for the elderly: Will we say, the Boomers blew their chance and lived beyond their means; if they don’t get the Social Security benefits they expected, then tough shit. It’s natural to want to hold irresponsible borrowers responsible for our overleveraged economy, especially since, as Rebecca Wilder points out here, household debt has yet to drop: “lax lending standards on credit cards allowed consumers to become overly indebted to credit card creditors. Interestingly enough, revolving consumer credit was still 43% of overall credit on November 12, 2008. When will it fall?”

But in many ways, the forces that have driven us into debt are systemic, institutional—the interlocking forces of assets replacing savings for many families, of status hinging on consumption levels, of the service economy supplanting heavier industry, of more aggressive omnipresent marketing, etc. But I wonder whether there is cyclical generational component to attitudes toward consumerism. As part of the generational warfare, the practices of frugality have been co-opted by hipsterism as a kind of ironic, oppositional stance to the boomer generation. In the 1960s, boomers allegedly rejected their parents’ prudent austerity for hedonism, reconceived as the essence of freedom. Perhaps those of us born in the 1960s and 1970s will now war against that hedonism (which turned into financial imprudence) out of necessity, but we will feel all righteous about it as if it were our generation-defining choice.

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