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Tuesday, Jun 27, 2006

By a strange turn of events,  I ended up seeing the film The Lake House the other night—we had bought tickets for Nacho Libre but as I was being led to the theater, I pulled up and could not be haltered. The thought of watching Jack Black prance around in tights while babbling in a Mexican accent was too much to confront. Like a drowning man I reached for anything that might save me—and that was The Lake House playing in an adjacent theater and starting at roughly the same time. If you don’t know (and I hope you don’t) this film reunites Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, in hopes of conjuring again that chemistry that made Speed so magical, this time in a romantic comedy so hackneyed and incoherent, I’m not sure I can adequately summarize it without your assuming I’m kidding. In the film, Reeves, the son of a famous architect (played by Christopher Plummer, who’s forced to intone such cliched “visionary artist” lines like “It’s the light. Always the light!”) moves into an absurdly incovenient house his father built on stilts over a lake—later the house becomes a leaden metaphor when Reeves discusses it with his brother (played by a bugged-eyed actor who looks like a cross between Andrew McCarthy and Miss Jane from The Beverly Hillbillies and who seemed to think he was in a diffferent sort of film—a serial-killer thriller maybe—working on a gonzo, coked-out level of intensity and reading his lines with a loony overwroughtness—think Pacino in Heat). Reeves explains that the house is about “containment and control” and points out how it’s isolated. Really? It stands on stilts in the water in the middle of nowhere, I think we get the isolation. And when you feel the need to explain your visual metaphors to the filmgoing audience, you’ve pretty much telegraphed the fact that you think they are stupid and inattentive and you don’t trust them to get anything. Some viewers probably respond to this with relief—okay, now I can be as relaxingly stupid for the duration of the film as the producers think I am—but others probably decide to stop paying attention altogether. I wanted to walk out at that juncture, but alas, was not at liberty to do so.


Anyway magic is afoot at the house, because he discovers that through the mailbox he can have exchange letters with a woman—Bullock, who has the pasty blandness apparently deemed appropriate for romantic comedies; like Aniston, Zellweger, Meg Ryan and so on, she’s bland enough not to threaten the women who these films are made for with any kind of real attractiveness (I found myself wincing during close-ups)—who will become a future occupant of the house but who thinks he’s the future occupant. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and in the pantheon of lovers separated by time, their two-year gap falls somewhat short of the cheeseball grandeur of Somewhere in Time, which is one of the films wildly misappropriated to make this movie.


Now, confronted with the ability to communicate with the future, Keanu doesn’t immediately request a Wall Street Journal or information about who wins the Super Bowl or anything to make himself a millionaire, instead he does boring things like ask about her dog and draw her a map of his favorite sites in Chicago to look at buildings. We know already that they are supposed to fall in love, and we know that he’s going to be run over by a bus, because this was foregrounded rather overtly in the first reel when Bullock, a doctor, fails to save the life of some victim whose face we are pointedly not shown. Anyway, the magic mailbox’s powers seem to extend in incoherent ways—suddenly the time-crossed lovers sit in Chicago diners having stichomythic exchanges with each other’s ghost despite the fact the are supposed to be writing long letters to each other, not having IM exchanges. Maybe that’s the mystical power of love at work; that all-purpose excuse can explain many a plot inconsistency or failure in continuity. And the sentiments they exchange are rote and lame even by romantic comedy standards, things along the lines of “I remember your gentle eyes” and a contrived scene where they are supposed to be having a lover’s quarrel. Then the plot seems to borrow from any number of previous films—Keanu dies but then doesn’t die after Sandra marries the wrong man, but then doesn’t, and the dog they both own through a wrnikle in time works assiduously to bring them together and make important coincidences occur. And of course, Keanu’s father dies, and their troubled relationship is healed by Sandra’s thoughtful consolations.


The formula must be pretty rigorous for these films—the couple needs some quirky friends/parents to talk about the budding relationship with; they must have a phony fight or two, they have to have some contrived obstacle to surmount after a courtship full of whimsical selfless gestures and epiphanies about how much the lovers have in common. When these things becomes so predicable and so shallow, when the substance of their relationship is reduced to ultra-general signifiers of these formulaic signposts (do you like dogs? Wow, me too! We’re perfect for each other!), the films end up making the whole project of “being in love” seem like an exhausted, outdated product. If love exists, you end up thinking, it is other than this tired routine. Still there are probably enough similar moments in the general course of real love that you can compare your own relationship to the pale imitation on the screen and feel convinced of how much more idiosyncratic and true your own love affair feels. This is probably pretty reassuring, if you are not busy vomiting at the soundtrack’s sappy cues—as when Reeves and Bullock do a little dance in the street while a saccharine song from McCartney’s latest album plays.


To cleanse my mind of the horror, I watched Roman Holiday later on, to remind myself why romantic comedies ever were able to thrive. (The Lake House did itself no favors by showing scenes of the characters watching Notorious or reading aloud from Austen’s Persuasion—why invite comparisons of your horrible product with examples of romance that are far far more convincing? It just reminds the audience of everything thats missing—charming actors, a compelling story, sympathetic characters, emotional investment—I felt like I was suppoed to care about Bullock/Reeves because the formula called for it, and the film did nothing to earn it. I was expected to make the effort to see past the woodenness, to inflate the gestures toward poignancy into something genuine. I ended envying the characters and resenting the filmmmakers,  wishing deeply that I was watching Notorious myself.)  By contrast to Reeves and Bullock, Peck and Audrey Hepburn are extremely easy to watch, and they are appealing enough that their being together seems to matter not as a symbol of relationships in the abstract, but as a specific relationship—it’s pleasant to see these two attractive people interact with each other. The plot of the film, while wildly implasuble, is far less incoherent and cluttered, probably because it’s not trying to absorb every successful romantic-movie plot line of the past 10 years. The conflict is efficiently drawn—Peck is exploiting Hepburn to make some money but then develops real sympathy for her and must find a way to be honest with her so that his real feelings can also be expressed openly. This conflict seems much more compelling because it derives not from some arbitrary circumstance (the lovers are mysteriously living two years apart while falling in love; one of the lovers is unfortunately already dead; etc.) but from human weakness—Peck’s greed, Hepburn’s vulnerability. But the nature of the love was very different—it was clearly modeled on a father/daughter relationship rather than a relationship between putative equals. Part of this was militated by Hepburn’s persona, no doubt—she ended up doing a whole series of films with geriatric leading men (Grant, Astaire, Cooper, Bogart, etc.) But the paternalistic romance was probably much closer to culture’s most pervasive notion of the ideal course of love then; an innocent girl is taken under the wing of a wise and protective man who guides her comfortably through her rite of passage to womanhood—i.e. marriage and motherhood. Now romance movies seem to be about women balancing careers with relationships—about being patient and finding the time to have relationships (even if that means dropping letters into a two-year time warp).


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Tuesday, Jun 27, 2006
by PopMatters Staff


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Monday, Jun 26, 2006

Nothing gets economists excited like a good road privatization. Privatization is usually in theory intended to create a market, and economiss love their markets and their magical efficiency. Most noneconomists probably don’t want to have to shop for roads to drive on (or shop for mail carriers or retirement services or electricity or water or what have you) because we like to think there is no room for competition in these services; they are simply provided or not provided. This is fiction, of course, but a useful one; if there is only one provider, no one can feel like they are getting second-rate service. (I know, that sounds like a justificiation for a Soviet system for universal inadequecy, but there must be nothing worse then to be aware you are getting a second-rate education or drinking second-rate water because you can afford better and your society doesn’t give a damn about you.) The existence of several road companies forces me to make a choice that is likely to based on limited information and likely to induce unnecessary stress. Privatization enhances efficiency (theoretically) at the expense of the peace of mind of most customers, who suddenly have more burdens of choice to deal with in areas where they don’t want it. Drivers don’t want a market in roads, they just want a road to exist and be maintained.


Richard Posner and Gary Becker comment extensively on the recent sale of the Indiana toll-road to Spanish and Australian interests. (Ironic, considering many Interstates were originally built for national-security reasons, in imitation of Nazi autobahns.) Becker in particular is excited because he thinks this will inspire competition in road building and management, which should drive down costs and enhance services and perhaps relieve congestion. But customers are generally used to roads costing nothing and are willing to pay the price of sitting in traffic rather than see the highways become a class-ridden system where auto-aristocrats pay for private roads and the rest of us suffer on broken down public roads that no one has any incentive to fix, once the government washes its hands of the business. Roads will no longer be something we travel down together; they will become infected with connotations of status, like every other kind of positional good.


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Monday, Jun 26, 2006

Surely Alan Freed’s ghost must be chuckling that payola is alive though not-so-well.  Thanks to NY Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (and not the self-appointed moral guardians at the FCC), another major label had to pay up recently for its flagrant misdeeds: EMI settles ‘pay-for-play’ probe.  What’s most amusing and interesting is that some of the payoffs when to support what are their biggest acts: Coldplay, Gorillaz.  Remember one year ago when EMI sadly admitted that its bottom line was hitting the bottom because its cash cows had delayed their albums?  Even Chris Martin was disgusted by his own company’s pathetic state.  Turns out that they were more desperate than he thought, having to line the pockets of some radio programmers just to make sure these bands did strike it big.  How effective it was might be open to some debate but the Coldplay and Gorillaz CD’s did deliver the sales.  And what’s the moral of the story?  Even the biggest sellers of the majors need a push just to make sure they keep selling.  Doesn’t bode well for the industry now, does it…?


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Saturday, Jun 24, 2006

John Updike has just discovered this crazy new thing called “the Internet” and it has him pretty pissed off. Apparently people who haven’t been carefully groomed by the publishing industry can just go and write whatever they want and reach a public there. How dare they? And what’s worse, people can browse the entire expense of textual information without having to set foot in book stores in Harvard Square or on 5th Avenue in New York, where they can be assessed by the gatekeepers of high culture and discouraged from touching the holy tomes with their grubby hands if they are not the right sort. Why, they can just type in what they are looking for into a “search engine”—barabarous thing, engines—and out pours a diarrheal rush of information, which they are obviously too stupid to sift through, which is sure to pollute their fragile eggshell minds with falsity. And readers, uppity with their ability to aggregate a wider supply of information, will become text processors, picking and choosing what parts of books they want to read and ignoring the author’s manorial right to dictate to them the terms of their passivity. It’s pretty horrible isn’t it? Hopefully Congress will step in and put a stop to this “Internet” or at least put grownups like the cable and telecom companies in charge of what can be disseminated across its lines.


Does Updike realize what a reactionary he is? Stupid question—of course he doesn’t. But to romanticize the glories of wandering aimlessly through bookstores for inspiration and use that as evidence that the Internet should be stifled to preserve the magic of the book is just plain silly. It seems the kind of backward-looking conservative argument you make when you feel your own power and livelihood threatened. So you mount your pedestal and impugn the technology that threatens you, dub it “Marxist” in an ad hominem attack, accuse those working to forward the technology of short-sightedness and utopianism, call them the retrograde reactionaries. Yes, Kevin Kelly’s article for the NYT Magazine about the possibility of a universal library was a bit overheated and rife with futuristic glee at what change technology promises. But Updike distorts it entirely to deduce that the only thing techology promises is the destruction of the author’s right to hide himself away. “Has the electronic revolution pushed us so far down the path of celebrity as a summum bonum that an author’s works, be they one volume or 50, serve primarily as his or her ticket to the lecture platform, or, since even that is somewhat hierarchical and aloof, a series of one-on-one orgies of personal access?” Updike pines for the days when simply being selected to be published was enough to assure your significance, and then you could sit back and bask in notoriety via your proxy, the books in the stores. You didn’t need to promote it, because the means of production were onerous enough to eliminate competition. Publishing was essentially an oligopoly. But the Internet democratizes publishing, and makes the marketplace more contentious. It bruises tender Updike’s sensibility, and he resents that he must face competition, that he must sully himself in the world to make his living. “As the author is gradually retired from his old responsibilities of vicarious confrontation and provocation, he has grown in importance as a kind of walking, talking advertisement for the book.” That is, rather than having the aristocratic right of transcending the world of public affairs and commenting on them from some lofty, untouchable position, authors now actually have to be much more accountable. So to answer Updike’s fatuous, pompous question: “In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another — of, in short, accountability and intimacy?”—No. If he can possibly believe that the Internet with its explosion of social networks, journalling, blogging, instant messaging and e-mailing, is undermining communications and removing intimacy from public discourse, then he is more self-deluded than his navel-gazing (or penis-gazing, rather) fiction would lead you to believe. The Intenet brings dead texts like his own back to life by allowing people to work with them much more actively. But since Updike won’t be allowed to control or profit from such manipulations, he’d rather not know about them. They hurt his tender authorial feelings. The very idea of it makes him think about having to go out in public and reassert his authority over his own work and bury it anew, safely in the narrow tomb of his own moribund opinion. The idea that his work could be subject to a community of perspectives is “ominous” to him—he prefers to browbeat readers one at a time, so he can remain always master and the reader always the servant. This is why he fetishizes the lonely one-on-one relation of bookreader and author; it’s the scenario that preserves his mastery and his reader’s enfeeblement: “It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.” Yes, forgiveness is only so much blather; what’s important is being forced to follow in the author’s footsteps and guaranteeing the author be the only recourse to any questions that path inspires. If this is beyond a mere personal encounter, it’s because it’s been elevated in Updike’s mind to something almost religious, the private relationship of a penitent reader confronting his God in the form of Updike. If Updike fears having his work contextualized in the greater sphere of other texts, perhaps its because his work can’t bear the scrutiny. He fears his readers, allowed to communicate with each other as they read his puerile accounts of masculinity, will dismiss him altogether, reject the worn path his mind repeatedly lays out.


Anyway, the whole notion that the Internet reduces the significance of text is ludicrous—what it does is force people to do more with it to earn a living by it while opening up more opportunites for people to earn such livings. It certainly doesn’t threaten individuality, unless individuality can mean only isolation. (Updike’s right when he refers to himself as a “surly hermit”) And it doesn’t dull the edge of ideas; if anything it reveals them in surprising places, sending them often to cut back against the grain the author intended. The seriousness with which a reader approaches a text doesn’t depend on what surface the words are printed on. May as well decry the destruction of “intimacy” when readers stopped reading the handwritten papyri of scribes. Updike would probably concur with that though—an ideal situation, where the limitations of textual reproduction kept the reading public to a size small enough where its every interpretation could be controlled.


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