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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2007

A week ago Joel Kotkin wrote an article for the WSJ about fading American “supercities” (New York, San Francisco) and the B-list cities (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Charlotte) that are gaining population at their expense by providing better value (mainly via cheaper real estate) and catering to a more family-oriented middle-class lifestyle. That is, they are pseudo-urban suburbs. I lived in Las Vegas and Tucson and have been a frequent visitor to Phoenix, and I am always struck by how similar these places are: they all feature walled-in middle-class housing-development fortresses, a logical rectilinear street plan which makes finding shopping zones seem almost instinctive, chain retailers predominate, but small businesses pop up in the interstices if you are looking for them. What makes them most suburban-like is how one’s insulation from the lives of others is upheld pretty well—traveling in cars assures that. More than anything they resemble the interzones between Eastern cities—take away the climate and mountain views, add some trees, and they become indistinguishable from the suburbs of New Jersey and Connecticut. Suburbs often get a bad rap, obviously, which may be unfair (but then again…)


That B-list cities would thrive seems to fly in the face of theories about the so-called creative class who flock to urban centers in pursuit of alternalife and almost incidentally happen to fuel all sorts of innovation that business can seize upon. As much as I am suspicious Richard Florida (though since when is he a leftist?) and his cheerleading for the supposed creative class, I think cities such as Phoenix are geared toward ordinary life and ordinary aspirations; they are no place for the unusually ambitious or curious. According to Andrew Beverege, a sociologist Kotkin cites, New York must find “ways to address the basic issues that affect the middle class — high housing costs, taxes, regulation, schools and lack of support for diverse small businesses, particularly in the outer boroughs. How else can New York hope to create opportunities for a population already overwhelmingly minority and predominately working class?” And that would probably be a good thing (though it will only make the outerboroughs more like suburbs and less like the city), but it has little to do with the larger premise of the article, that Manhattan has become, in the mayor’s words, “a luxury product” and this bodes ill for its future.  The city, it seems, is not necessarily threatened by the loss of a middle-class at its core. Instead it is a magnet for those unsually ambitious people who want to work on a cosmopolitian scale, who aren’t particularly motivated (at least yet) by procuring middle-class security and Wobegonian above-averageness. New York seems necessary not only to siphon off the self-aggrandizing egomaniacs (like me) to prevent them from spoiling the pace of life in B-list America, but also to put the pleasures and benefits of Middletown in proper perspective. That such big-dreaming people will live beyond their means and be surrounded by outsize examples of luxury and wealth may only help to motivate them; such accoutrements provide the backdrop necessary to sustain the whole overachieveing ideology that values global influence or essentially unspendable wealth over the refreshments of a quiet, steady life.


What drives Kotkin’s piece is instead a chance to heap scorn on “trustafarians”:


The high-price trend is further exaggerated by the large concentrations of “trustafarians,” or those with large amounts of inherited capital, in these areas. Many of these people have multiple residences — in some Manhattan buildings as many of half of the owners are non-residents — but can still drive up prices. Together with top-end business types, they can create what Mr. Gyourko describes as “the Vailization” effect: that is, turning part of the city into something akin to a high-amenity resort area, a “scarce luxury good” for a relative few and those who must remain behind to service them.


This has obvious middle-class populist appeal (the poor middle class, always under assault if you listen to American politicians) and seems to suggest that there is something galling about inheritance in general. Which calls to mind this astute remark economist Brad DeLong made on the subject:


The very first thing that any society’s wealthy try to buy with their wealth is a head start for their children. And the wealthier they are, the bigger the head start. Any society that justifies itself on a hope of equality of opportunity cannot help but be undermined by too great a degree of inequality of result.


What we see in New York’s “trustafarians” (and it would be nice to see a figure on their numbers) is a group who are so far ahead, they presumably no longer need to run the race. The waste (Bataille-style expenditure?) is evident and seems to express a kind of contempt on the hard-working burghers who carry more than their share of the economy’s productivity load. It exemplifies the income inequality, much discussed recently, that has supposedly begun to sour the mood of the average bourgeois (the article’s target audience). Presumably the dead hand of inherited capital would work to dissuade those ambitious types who give New York its specific character, and trustafarians also are assumed to drive up the costs of everything in pursuit of their meaningless and inefficient status displays. Still, the trustafarian seems like a straw man; if anything they probably serve to patronize the production of nonmainstream culture, not stifle it as this response at BoingBoing suggests. Kotkin’s article brandishes its antielitism:


This is something of an oddity, where the fashionable “left” defines successful urbanism by its ability to lure the superaffluent, the hypereducated and the avant garde — or what Dr. Florida calls “the greatest number of the most skilled people.” One wonders what true progressives like Harry Truman or Fiorella La Guardia would think of such an approach.
La Guardia or Truman understood that great cities become so, in large part, due to the strivings of the upwardly mobile middle class and families, not the elites of any stripe.


But this smacks more than a little of flat-out anti-intellectualism, stopping just short of championing mediocrity. Middle-class existence is not incompatible with intellectual pursuit; I wonder why commentators like Kotkin imply that it is.


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Monday, Feb 19, 2007
by Harlem Shakes

Harlem Shakes w/ Deerhoof
Diary #4


Hey Internets. As we get into the heart of our journey, it’s time we took care of some of the crew. No account of this tour would be complete without mentioning Peter Venuto’s glorious Electronic Rainbow Machine (ERM). Finally, someone has created the thinking man’s pyrotechnics. Each night we watch Deerhoof perform in front of this five-foot diameter circular rainbow, pulsing in time to the music.


It’s an incredible contraption—a three-pronged windmill with multicolored lights on each tab. When the windmill spins, it creates a sentient wall of color that whooshes, spins, and twitches—a perfect complement to Deerhoof’s cheerful paroxysms. His machine is the way we imagine the inside of Deerhoof’s collective band brain might look like.


And then there’s Peter Venuto himself, the friendly longhaired Canadian who operates the ERM live each night. (He got the idea for the rainbow machine, apparently, from early-computer-style player piano reels, and, not surprisingly, Las Fucking Vegas!) Crouched next to the band, wearing striped velvet pants and a zip-up sweatshirt with a tank-top underneath, Peter runs his fingers over a little pad of buttons that triggers the machine’s many subtle functions.


Deerhoof first befriended Peter after they witnessed his “trashlights”—trashcan lids outfitted 250 tiny LED lights that create an undulating, similarly colorful effect—and now he’s part of our big touring family, showing up at every gig with his magical windmill.


The crowd in Tampa Bay—where neither our new tourmate Busdriver, nor us, nor Deerhoof has ever been—was one of the tour’s absolute best. A fan built a purple rubber dinosaur for Deerhoof and gave it to Satomi who beamed with gratitude.


Last night we slept in a motel in Orlando that had a special rate for serial killers. We wistfully recalled the days when four-on-the-floor meant a dance-punk beat, not a sleeping arrangement. We woke up, and more than half the band (Jose, Todd, Kendrick) went to Disney World to protest Disney’s conservative politics and ride totally fucking awesome roller coasters. Lexy and Brent sought quiet places in which to hear the inside of their heads for the first time in many, many days.


Love for now,


 


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Monday, Feb 19, 2007


Can you sense that Oscar is just around the corner. Last week, The Departed made its bow on home video. This week, another Academy effort and a far better film that should be up for Best Picture consideration, make their way onto the digital domain as well. But there is even more cinematic specialness to be had, including another amazing Criterion release, a wonderful anti-censorship documentary, and a substantial sampling of Christopher Guest’s own unique approach to wit. Add in a decent animated film and a strange bit of fear funny business and you have just a small example of the excellent fare waiting at your local B&M. But by far one singular selection for 20 February marks SE&L’s choice for movie of the year:


The Prestige


The undeniably best film of 2006 arrives on DVD with scarcely enough bonus features to make the shift to the digital medium worth the effort. Everyone knows by now that Christopher Nolan’s amazing motion picture puzzle box was beaten by The Illusionist in the public popularity sweepstakes (romance always seems to trump intelligence), but for sheer cinematic artistry, for the ability to take a complicated multi-layered narrative and make it sing with emotional and aesthetic resonance, this film is flawless. The movie may suffer from lofty ambitions, and more than one unexpected plot twist, but the truth is, no other motion picture in this otherwise interesting year found the proper balance of character and circumstance. With amazing performances and sheer directorial skill, Nolan has delivered a timeless masterpiece, destined to live far beyond this brief, befuddling moment in mainstream moviemaking.

Other Titles of Interest


49th Parallel: Criterion Collection


The brilliant British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were pressured into service for their homeland once the UK fell into World War II. With this film about a Nazi U2 Boat, made in Canada, the duo introduced characters who argued for the United State’s involvement in the still mostly European conflict. Criterion now gives it the necessary preservationist’s polish.

Babel


What is it with the year’s cinematic best arriving on the digital format with nary a contextual feature to be found? Paramount is probably gambling on a Crash like win come Oscar time before fleshing out this feature (in either case, one should except a double dip sometime this summer). This incredibly dense effort definitely deserves better.

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing


The amazing story of how one of country’s commercial darlings became political pariahs forms the center of Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s brave backstage documentary. The “Red State” reaction to singer Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush remarks seems ridiculous, especially in today’s President bashing atmosphere. But we soon learn that censorship and sexism played a bigger role in the controversy than an off the cuff remark.

Flushed Away


It was the great CGI experiment that ended up voiding an entire creative contract. Aardman Animation, famous for their work on Wallace and Gromit, teamed up with Dreamworks (Shrek) to bring their idiosyncratic style to the realm of 3D cartooning. The result was this uneven effort, a film that flopped so badly that the Americans showed the Brits the door only three films into their five picture deal.

For Your Consideration


Christopher Guest pushes the mock documentary comedy style aside for the time being to focus on a fictional look at awards season, and how small independent efforts can get caught up inside the massive media hype. In this case, a tiny production entitled Home for Purim generates a lot of year end buzz, bringing its journeyman cast face to face with celebrity for perhaps the first time. Naturally, unheard of hijinx ensue.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Night of the Living Dorks


Leave it to the Germans to combine the cornball ‘80s sex comedy with the benchmarks of your basic zombie horror film to create a clever, if occasionally uneven, terror treat. The story is your standard nerds vs. jocks smackdown, with the added element of some goofy Goth kids experimenting with voodoo on the side. A ritual goes wrong, and suddenly, the geeks are getting even with the bullies who made their life a living - make that now an ‘undead’ – Hell. With lots of silly CGI slapstick and some incredibly underdone sequences (a huge beer bash goes…nowhere), the movie does tend to lose its approach two thirds of the way through. Indeed, the DVD contains an alternate ending that’s just as ineffective as the actual one offered. If you don’t mind your macabre mixed with a little middling mirth, you’ll really dig this scary satire.

 


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Monday, Feb 19, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists—"The Sons of Cain"
From Living with the Living on Touch and Go


Listen to “The Sons of Cain”

For their fifth full-length release (and first with Touch and Go), Ted Leo and the Pharmacists met up with Brendan Canty (Fugazi) at Long View Farms to iron out a new set of anthems that arrive with a confident and outspoken immediacy. With Living with the Living, Ted & Co. wipe clean the slate that once held names like Weller, Strummer and Bragg and indulge some of their farthest-reaching musical ambitions.—Touch and Go


Liberacion—"Move Your Body"
From Liberacion: The Songs of the New Cuban Underground on Petrol


Listen to “Move Your Body”

After managing the rock band INXS to global superstardom, Petrol’s founder, Chris Murphy, launched the Australian-based record label in 2000 to share his global vision with music fans around the world. Murphy envisioned Petrol as a cultural beacon to shine on the world’s best music, delivered direct to fans to enjoy with no passport required. Since its inception, Petrol has been at the forefront of the digital music business around the world, with a record of consistent international iTunes chart successes and a focused ethos and mission that has evolved into a trusted Petrol brand signature. 2007 promises more cutting-edge, quality releases from Petrol/EMI, beginning with the February 6 release of Liberacion: The Songs of the New Cuban Underground, a DVD that captures the artists leading Cuba’s most cutting-edge music scene.—Petrol


Willard Grant Conspiracy—"Skeleton" and "Flying Low" From Let it Roll on Reincarnate Listen to “Skeleton” Listen to “Flying Low”

Willard Grant Conspiracy is the musical collective that surrounds songwriter Robert Fisher. With their last five records (Regard the End, Everything’s Fine, Mojave, Flying Low, and 3am Sunday at Fortune Otto’s) and their brand new album Let it Roll, the band has quietly gone about putting together one of the most impressive catalogs in the alt.country / post punk-folk rock genres. The records have been met with critical acclaim and have been included in many critical best-of lists.—Reincarnate


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Monday, Feb 19, 2007

This is not the sort of thing I would normally write about, but this story caught my eye yesterday morning while I was getting bagels. Britney Spears seems to be in the middle of a pointedly public breakdown; this is news to no one. But something about this incident seems especially desperate.


Britney’s bizarre night began Friday at around 7 p.m. when the former Mouseketeer left her Malibu mansion in the SUV driven by one of her bodyguards.
She drove around aimlessly for about half an hour, and then pulled into Esther’s Hair Salon in Tarzana, Calif., at about 8:30 p.m.
The Grammy-winning performer sat in her car for about 10 minutes, crying, before jumping out - still bleary-eyed from the tears - and heading into the cut-rate hair salon.
“We have no idea how she found us,” a salon worker told Us Weekly.
Perhaps Spears, a sometime kabbalah devotee who was sporting a Star of David around her neck, was attracted to the name Esther, which is Madonna’s Hebrew moniker.


Tarzana, a L.A. suburb in the San Fernando Valley, is not especially known as a celebrity haven. To be cruising around aimlessly in Tarzana can almost be extrapolated into an especially bleak existential condition, drifting past all the anonymous strip malls and ranch homes that constitute large indistinguishable swaths of America. And here is Spears, one of the least anonymous Americans, someone whose every moment is tracking and photographed. And clearly the attention has destroyed her; she is one of the few people for whom the dreariness of Tarzana might represent a lost dream, an ideal normalcy.


But Spears’s flight from a rehab center in Antigua just before this head-shaving stunt suggests that she’s lost the ability to live without a constant press of attention. The spectacle of someone losing her mind from a superfluity of recognition, something in short supply for the rest of us, is maybe what gives her disintegration its power to fascinate (that is, apart from the way it gives us all a nervous breakdown to participate in vicariously—we can project our stress onto her behavior and aggrandize ourselves).


A photographer asked her why she shaved off her locks, which had alternated in the past few months between blond and brown.
“Because of you,” a dazed-looking Britney answered.


I don’t think to many gossip consumers are disappointed or surprised by the idea that too much fame can push you over the edge. In fact, it serves the supreme ideological function of dignifying our obscurity—we ordinary Tarzanans are much better off, away from the soul-sucking media glare. But we are that media glare; we are doing the soul sucking. To then gloat over the misery we’ve caused her seems impolitic: It’s disturbing, for example, to see the Post invite its readers to post their thoughts on Spears’s “latest act of stupidity.”


When the head-shaving is put in a quasi-Judaic context, which the Us Weekly reporter suggested Spears herself put her actions, we have to consider the practice of some Hassidic women of shaving their heads after marriage. This seems a matter of tzniut, the custom of modesty that dictates one’s head be covered. Women’s hair is considered especially erotic and must always be covered after marriage. Shaving it off makes this expedient, and it apparently makes ritual cleansing after menstruation a bit easier. What does any of this have to do with Spears, the most notoriously immodest celebrity in the firmament? (And does the fact that some rabbis hold that Orthodox men should be forbidden from hearing a woman sing mean anything?) I’m guessing Spears knows very little about any of these traditions; indeed, the tragedy of her situation in part is that she’s caught up in something profound that she seems to lack the intellectual resources to transmute into a personal mythology or some kind of art. She is apparently incapable of giving her actions a private meaning, so accustomed to total attention has she become. The Jewish modesty practices she has essentially parodied here are about preserving that private meaning she’s surrendered at this point. She’s forced to consume her own notoriety just like everyone else to have any chance at understanding herself. But it still seems mysterious what prompts people in her position to embrace how they have been scapegoated, and act in a way which furthers it. She’s trapped herself in a cycle of having to continually top her own outrageousness without seeming to understand no act will ever be outrageous enough to bring it to an end. She needs a Dylanesque motorcycle crash; then maybe she can hole up somewhere and work on her Basement Tapes.


It’s also worth noting that just as women are apparently obliged to assume responsibility for the modesty that wanton male human nature allegedly requires,  only female celebrities are hounded into public breakdowns, a kind of punishment for their youth and unusual reach their sexual attractiveness has. These meltdowns function as warnings to all women about the risk they run if they try to exercise their presumed powers of fascination and bewitchment. Just another little morality play among the multitude of them that remind all of us that lasciviousness is always the fault of the object who provokes it, not the person who experiences it.


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