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Tuesday, Oct 24, 2006

A stalwart article in the Guardian about prizes and the arts: And the Winner Is?. Jason Cowley examines the system of awards in the UK arts, extending not just to music but also literature. And what do the prizes provide the winners? Fame, recognition, money, opportunities- you know, all the crass things that a real artist isn’t supposed to be concerned with. And surprise, surprise- many of the similarities between the arts are that merit doesn’t always drive the decision- there’s a lot of politics involved, even in the ‘fine’ arts. It also provides some comfort for anyone not anointed by this committee or that society. Hey, you can toil away in ongoing obscurity with thousands of others!


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Tuesday, Oct 24, 2006

I wish I could remember where I saw it, but I read somewhere that Borders, the book-store chain, was seeking new growth opportunities in opening smaller stores (”Borders Express”) that sound a lot like the Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers mall storefronts that the big-box retailer originally stole market share from. Originally, in what was the opening fusillade of the long-tail revolution, big-box stores opened to suit the modern customer whose needs—yours, mine—were far too recondite to be served by some puny mainstream mall store with its limited selection and plebian emphasis. At Borders I could expect to buy books by Althusser and Badiou; not so at Waldenbooks, where they were crowded out by the likes of Danielle Steele and John Jakes. The zeitgeist through the late 1990s was in keeping with this; customers needed superstores to accomodate their esoteric, unique-seeming needs in just about everything—books, music, electronics, housewares, hardware, bedsheets, containers, gourmet foods, you name it. And the mother of all superstores, though approaching it from a different ideological angle, is Wal-Mart—Wal-Mart doesn’t cater to our special needs so much as provide one-stop shopping and a sense that the prices are unbeatably low, and these two things compensate for the inconvenience of dealing with the carnivalesque atmosphere, the crowds, the understaffed cashier lines and so on. (It was left to Target to merge the Borders ideology with the Wal-Mart ideology, and provide spruced-up commodities and designy versions of utilitarian goods that invited us to imagine ourselves as curators of our own personal household museum.)


But perhaps the zeitgeist is changing, and consumers don’t want big-box stores anymore. Perhaps there are cyclical movements in shopping environments as there are in fashion, and the particulars are ultimately just as arbitrary. We prefer something different for the sake of its difference after a while, and this plays out in the sudden exhaustion of a huge company’s business model. The WSJ has a front-page article today about Wal-Mart, for the first time in many years, scaling back its expansion plans, as it appears it has saturated the market.


Wal-Mart’s modest shift in strategy suggests the giant discounter, which has been increasingly constrained by its own size, may be heeding Wall Street’s urging to pay less attention to growth and put more emphasis on returns. “This tells me that Wal-Mart is willing to look at their business model from a fresh perspective,” said Deutsche Bank analyst Bill Dreher. “They are not just mindlessly continuing on the same focus that they’ve had for years.” The shift is also an acknowledgment of the pressures that have buffeted Wal-Mart from all sides this year.


So the relentless effort to drum up negative coverage of Wal-Mart is possibly starting to trickle down to average Americans, some of whom are now willing to work a little harder to avoid the Wal-Mart stigma. This is the consequence of the company’s trying to expand into suburban, culturally more-liberal areas: “As it ventures beyond its rural base into urban markets, such as San Francisco’s Bay Area, Boston and Chicago, Wal-Mart also is encountering heavy resistance from community activists and local politicians who object to its low wages and other employment practices and say it poses a threat to local businesses.” The poltical blowback is an externality that perhaps hadn’t anticipated, and suggests why our collective whining isn’t entirely trivial. It may have the larger impression of creating a negative brand impression that makes it way back and erodes the company’s core customer base.


Also, it may be that the company has filled the country with all the Wal-Marts it can handle, and now the tide must recede. “In regions like the South, where it already reigns, its new stores are increasingly siphoning sales away from older ones.” It’s comforting to imagine that there’s a limit to how far the blandification of America can go, that this could mean the transformation of country roads into strips of giant warehouses of retail goods with their attendant parking lots might be coming to an end. But that’s just a fantasy—whether the boxes are big or small, the stores need will need brand names to comfort wary consumers and guarantee their feeling of having participated in something larger. The days when local idiosyncracy was generally tolerated has long since passed.


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Tuesday, Oct 24, 2006
by Jennifer O'Connor

Jennifer O’Connor Tour Diary, Entry #2
Monday, October 23, 2006


Jennifer O'Connor

Jennifer O’Connor


We’re in St. Louis, Missouri and this is our first night with the Mountain Goats. We just finished playing to a packed room of college kiddies here at The Gargoyle at Washington University.


But let me back up. When I left you last, we were in a pumpkin patch. And let me introduce you to Matt Sutton (on guitar) and Arabella Kauffmann (on bass). Here’s a pic of them driving us away from the pumpkin patch which you can see reflected off the driver side window:



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Monday, Oct 23, 2006


Now this is more like it. Instead of your typical week at the local B&M, shelves lined with lots of standard mainstream cinema, the full moon howlings of the Halloween season are finally finding purchase among DVD distributors. This week, in particular, a lot of double dips and sparkling special editions of horror favorites (good and groan inducing) are making a major play for your hard earned weekly pay. Not that there aren’t other more ‘normal’ titles in the offing – you could opt for a documentary about the military industrial complex, a new version of Katheleen Turner’s steamy cinematic debut, or a complete collection of the classics that made Fred Astair and Ginger Rodgers the Hollywood musical’s most mesmerizing partnership ever. Still, with the leaves turning autumnal and the smell of fireplaces filling the air, nothing says ‘seven more days ‘til Halloween’ better than a good old fashioned frightening. The creepshow choices (plus one bit of sunny Summer fluff) available for 24 October include:


Feast

*
For most movie fans, Project: Greenlight has been a failure, especially as an intended purveyor of independent cinema. As a guilty pleasure reality show train wreck however, it’s been nothing short of brilliant. But the movies that have resulted from this experiment in overdriven ego have been nothing short of sad…until now. Fans of gore-loaded lunacy and old fashioned spook show fun will definitely dig on this throwback to a more viscous view of horror. With a narrative revolving around some monsters attacking the customers in a redneck bar, the clothesline plotting is perfect for lots of nasty set-piece bloodletting. Credit director John Gulager (son of Return of the Living Dead‘s Clu) and a saucy script by fellow film first timers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton for getting the grue mostly right. Sure, this is a lame low budget bungle with almost no character development and a shaky sense of cinematic prerequisites, but when was the last time a film found a way to be foul and frivolous at the same time. Something like that takes a specialized scare talent.



PopMatters Review


In the Dark

*
If you can get through the first act of this well meaning mock macabre, you will find yourself thoroughly enjoying this inventive riff on the whole Blair Witch school of ‘you are there’ terror. Indeed, the best part about this otherwise average horror attempt is the way in which writer/director Slater Kane and his collection of feature film amateurs set out to sell us on the reality behind this Halloween visit to the burned out Ridgley Institution. Using a wonderfully evocative real life backdrop, and a nice combination of hand-held and security camera shots, we do get the impression of being along on a holiday party prank gone horribly, horribly wrong. Sure, some of the sequences are slapdash, but we definitely end up with something that succeeds more than it stumbles. Kudos then to a creative ideal that wants to be as realistic as possible, while also understanding that the best horror films have artistic flourishes that keep the fans fixated and on the edge of their scary movie seats.



Monster House

*
Thankfully, this is one computer generated cartoon that doesn’t fall into the typical genre trappings. It doesn’t offer cutesy, cuddly anthropomorphic beings voiced by famous celebrities cracking Borscht Belt level pop culture quips. There’s no major moral about believing in yourself or savoring your friendships. There’s only one major action setpiece, and it grows instinctually out of the storyline, not merely tossed in to show off the computing power. The wee ones won’t be clamoring for Chowder or Zee action figures and only the most seasoned film going youngster will find anything instantly “likeable” about the knotty narrative. It’s a credit then to Executive Producers Stephen Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. They have made the first tween classic, a movie destined to be remembered by audience members a little too old for talking cars and wise cracking woodland creatures, but still unable to enjoy the harsher elements a PG-13 or R film has to offer. For them, this is a Goonies to get lost in, an amiable adventure yarn that has action and atmosphere to burn.



My Dead Girlfriend

*
Like a far less substantive Shaun of the Dead, this quirky little comedy from independent titan Tempe gets by on great big globs of goodwill and a sunny script that’s more slacker silliness than uproarious horror. Canadian outsider auteur Brett Kelly, responsible for The Feral Man and the Bonesetter series, tries something decidedly different here. Instead of pouring on the brooding, atmospheric elements of your standard living dead horror film, Kelly finds the funny center to a scary situation and then cranks up the irony a couple of witty notches. The result is a sometimes clever, sometimes cloying attempt to avoid the standard zombie clichés while making the frightening and the funny pay off in ways that are noticeable, not nominal. Though we never completely connect with the characters onscreen, and have a hard time getting a handle on the “mythology” aspects of this monster movie, the overall effect is one of witty experimentation in the melding of genres.


 


Nacho Libre*
Okay, so it isn’t Napoleon Dynamite. Frankly, what could be? Jared Hess and his uniquely named wife Jerusha delivered a devastatingly original take on human folly with their look at a bunch of Idaho eccentrics, and very few films could match its amiable instant karma. So it’s unfair to grade Nacho Libre by any other standards that it’s own. Sure, Hess shows a great deal of cinematic sameness with his food-oriented opening and random blackout gags (what was with that corncob to the eye, anyway). Still, as a look at the Luchadores of Mexico and the way in which they infiltrate and influence the everyday life of the country’s sun-dried citizenry, this is a clever, cute little movie. And while it doesn’t have Napoleon Dynamite’s wealth of quotable dialogue (it’s a safe bet no spelling bee-er will be giving a shout out to pals with that “stretchy pants” line), it does contain enough clever moments to warrant a real reel recommendation.



PopMatters Review


Saw 2: Unrated Director’s Cut*
The first Saw announced a new kind of horror into the seemingly stagnant genre – a brutal and confrontational style of scares that many have now labeled ‘violence porn’. Sadly, such a title may indeed be appropriate for this less than stunning sequel. Everything that James Wan got right in the initial narrative is all but missing here. Instead, there is a real attempt to turn Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw into a new terror icon while mimicking the “clever kills” from the original tale. A few work, while a couple seem sadly derivative. It’s as if first time filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman forgot what makes movie macabre work, and instead, focused on keeping the cat and mouse guessing game the center of the scares. While there is some worthwhile material here (the acting is uniformly good, and the art direction is downright creepy) we end up wanting more of the complex, clockwork plotting of Saw I and less of the redundant retreading that this effort seems to thrive on.


PopMatters Review


Slither*
Writer (and now director) James Gunn holds a very odd place within current fright filmography. Responsible for the terrific Tromeo and Juliet and the quite decent remake of Dawn of the Dead, he has also foisted the forgettable pair of Scooby-Doo features on film fans’ fragile heads. This makes his first solo effort all the more creatively complicated. In some ways, Gunn is giving us the best of both worlds – a true splatter filled return to the days when he worked closely with indie icon Lloyd Kaufman, as well as a taste of the contemporary scares that have been his box office bread and butter. Overloaded with homages to zombie films, alien invasion flicks and those mindless mutant monster b-movies that used to clog up the bottom shelf at your local Mom and Pop video store, Gunn delivers the kind of sensational, satiric schlock that many post-modern genre films sorely lack. Here’s hoping there’s more of this kind of movie in his future. Fear often needs a shot of silliness to keep it from going completely astray.



PopMatters Review


And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 24 October:


Sweetie: The Criterion Collection*
Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Nothing is ever discussed outright in this amazingly nuanced narrative, and issues that appear to be boiling below the surface are simply allowed to simmer and soak into everything around them. Obviously, as portrayed by Australian auteur Jane Campion in her first feature film, this is a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, sometimes even dopey, demeanor. Whether it’s just a simple case of one child’s uncontrolled Id crashing into the rest of her family’s slighted and submerged egos, or something far more sinister and suspect, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode. As a tale of people picking each other apart for the sake of their own sense of security, Sweetie represents one of the most amazing family dramas every delivered to celluloid. But there is more to the movie than just a sizable sibling spat with parents unable to control their progeny. In the hands of Campion, it is art animated.



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Monday, Oct 23, 2006

Economic determinism at work: My disinclination to start a family has always seemed to me a deeply personal decision based on my gut reactions to things like baby talk and steaming piles of human feces. But it may be that my reactions are colored by economic realities: In posts on the Washington Monthly‘s blog, to the costs of raising children and the fact that households of single people now outnumber those of marrieds.


The family used to be a refuge from risk. Today, it is the epicenter of risk. And, increasingly, families are a source of risk as well. Because it takes more work and more income to maintain a middle-class standard of living, financial shocks are more threatening for families. What happens when a woman leaves the workforce to have children? What happens when a child is chronically ill? What happens when a spouse loses his or her job? And what happens when families fall apart?
We are not used to thinking of children as an economic liability, but the facts are clear. According to 2005 calculations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, raising a child to age 18 will cost almost $237,000 for a middle-income family. And that leaves out the upward-spiraling college tuition that is now a required ticket for admission into the middle class. Fully one-quarter of “poverty spells” — periods in which family income drops below the federal poverty line — begin with the birth of a child.
Spouses, of course, do not equally share the investment of time and money that raising children entails. Women still mostly care for the child — and bear the greatest cost. Their careers are most likely to be disrupted by family events. If they work, their jobs are most likely to be low-paying and with poor benefits. And they are most disadvantaged when families fall apart.


In short, raising a kid is expensive and extremely risky and could result in your spending many sleepless nights wondering how to pay bills and avoid the dire poverty you’ve set a course for. Perhaps if we had a society that truly valued family, we’d have governmental protections like they have in France, where they also have a rising birth rate and are free from hyperbolic worry of demographic disaster.


Of course we are encouraged to embrace the ideology that families are made by love, not money (which even a cursory knowledge of the history of the family disproves), and that it’s callous to think of the expense of a child, to put a price tag on the miracle of life. People who prefer to treat themselves—with free time, hobbies, solid nights of sleep, financial security, the luxuries of dining out or taking in cultural events without the stress of penny-pinching or baby-sitter hunting—instead of make sacrifices for children are regarded suspiciously as selfish monsters (probably liberals and hence hedonistic sybarites) whose lives will ultimately lack meaning. Women are suspected of ignoring their “biological clock” and suppressing their natural maternal instinct, though as Brad Plumer explores here the maternal instinct is something of a recent invention. “In her new book, Laura Kipnis points to a related concept—the idea that mothers and infants “bond” at birth. According to Diane Eyer, the whole notion is actually something of a scientific fiction, first pushed in the 1970s, when a large number of women where entering the labor market for the first time and messing up cultural conceptions of a woman’s place in society. Many people still believe that mother-infant “bonding” exists—articles are still cropping up in the news about how painkillers and the like affect the process—but to a large extent it appears to be invented.” Plumer cites this passage from Kipnis’s book, The Female Thing:


With the industrial revolution, children’s economic value declined: they weren’t necessary additions to the household labor force, and once children started costing more to raise than they contributed economically to the household, there had to be some justification for having them. Ironically, it was only when children lost economic worth that they become the priceless little treasures we know them as today. On the emotional side, it also took a decline in infant-mortality rates for parents to start treating their offspring with much affection—when infant deaths were high (in England prior to 1800 they ran between 15 and 30 percent for a child’s first year), maternal attachment ran low. With smaller family size… the emotional value of each child increased; so did sentimentality about children and the deeply felt emotional need to acquire them.


As children become more expensive, the more acute becomes our need to feel that they are worth it emotionally. The amount we love children, then, may be correlated to how much hardship they give us, how gratuitous they are to our material well-being. To use a totally trivializing comparison, this is like when I blew my allowance money on a copy of the truly awful Frankie Goes to Hollywood double album Welcome to the Pleasure Dome because I swallowed the hype about it. (I learned some hard lessons about the British music press and the costs of juvenile Anglophilia, but that’s another story). I had to pretend I liked it harder and longer because I spent so much ($14 in mid 1980s teenage dollars) on it.


But if Hacker’s right, the ideology of treasuring children and yearning for them only goes so far; for bourgeois folk like me, it may stop when children are no longer merely a personal inconvenience but a threat to our accustomed station, when having a kid means surrendering our class prerogatives. In response to the threat children pose, we may begin to exaggerate the other nuisances they present to solidify our resolve.


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